The introduction of cavity back or game-improvement irons in the 80s changed the landscape of golf forever. It finally gave the average player a club that was easier to hit and offered more forgiveness than the traditional blade irons – but do the pros use them?
Many professional golfers use cavity back or muscle-back irons, as they are known. The forgiveness offered, especially with the longer irons, provides greater confidence, consistency, and accuracy at the highest level, just as it does for amateur players.
We’ll tee it up with a look at the traditional blades, the advent of the cavity backs, why they are so appealing to pros, which pros use them, and which pros stick with their standard blades.
The Blade Iron
Up until 40 years ago, around the mid-80s, if you wanted to play golf, you only had a single choice of irons, and those were blades. They were thin and blade-like (hence their name) and were notoriously difficult to hit well.
Any contact error would result in errant shots and even the best in the world at the time were not immune to the unforgiving nature of the blade irons. What did appeal to the pros ( and still does) is the depth of feedback that the blade iron offer.
Striking a blade iron flush is one of the greatest feelings in golf. To do so consistently requires high levels of skill and mechanical consistency, which many amateur players do not have and which the pros have spent countless hours perfecting.
The Creation Of Game Improvement Irons
As early as the 1960s, Karsten Solheim, the golf wizard at Ping, experimented with a different iron design that would offer average players a club that was easier to hit and achieve distance and accuracy consistently.
His first ‘game-improvement’ club was a putter, and he found that by shifting the weight to the toe and heel, he could make a club that twisted less and created better and more consistent contact.
Applying this to irons, he removed a piece of steel from the back of the iron and added weight to the toe and heel, which became known as perimeter weighting. The K1 irons were first introduced in the late 1960s, and Ping stepped on the gas.
In 1978, the Ping EYE Irons made their appearance and soon became the game’s best-selling irons. Other manufacturers followed suit, and today all manufacturers produce perimeter-weighted clubs from cavity backs to muscle backs for all levels of golfer.
Modern Blades or Cavity Backs
By modern standards, there aren’t any traditional blade irons being made anymore, and even those purported to be, have minor cavity back characteristics inherent in their design.
Modern blade irons are not quite the same shape and design as their earlier counterparts and are often referred to as muscle backs, and they resemble the blades of old far more than the cavity back irons do.
They have some weighting around the perimeter like the cavity back iron do but retain much of the blade’s shape, weight, and profile. They are a little thicker than the blade and have a more prominent sweet spot that delivers a little more distance and height on the shot.
Most muscle backs are still forged to provide the feel of the blade iron, while cavity backs are generally molded irons for mass production.
Cavity back irons have perimeter weighting and have a chunk of steel removed from the back of the club to allow for the repositioning of the CG and MOI, which in turn offers greater forgiveness to the average golfer.
The Cavity back iron isthicker and chunkier than the muscle backs, which can be seen when comparing them side-by-side. Those that use Cavity back irons find they are far easier to hit straight than muscle backs, and this is one of the main reasons, so many pros use them.
Blade irons offer greater control for pros, significantly when shaping shots, and the feedback they provide in terms of swing quality is unparalleled, hence the use of blade irons by pro golfers for so long.
The muscle back iron is more of a hybrid between blade and cavity back as they are still forged irons and offers the best of both worlds from control and consistency to have some forgiveness.
However, the muscle backs don’t have the same level of forgiveness as the swing cavity back irons do, but then as a pro, how much forgiveness do you need?
The Appeal Of Cavity Backs For Pros
The introduction of game improvement irons by Ping in the 80s saw little traction from the pro golfers, but into the 90s, interest in these golf clubs from the professional side was growing.
After all, if you as a pro could find an iron (especially a long iron) that could deliver more consistent results in terms of accuracy and distance, why would you not use them?
There was an unspoken tradition that pro golfers should only be using blade irons as these were the reserve and almost a rite of passage reserved for pro golfers only. Still, the benefits of cavity back irons were fast becoming evident and too loud to ignore.
The cavity back irons offer a more prominent sweet spot and provide more height on the shot than the blades do.
In the past 5-7 years, a trend with PGA tour players has been to have a cavity back or muscle-back irons for the long clubs like the 3 or 4 iron, as the added forgiveness and the additional height make them easier to hit than the blades.
Because the Center of Gravity (CG) is positioned lower in these irons, it is easier to get the higher trajectory shots that will come down that bit steeper and stop and hold the green instead of the lower trajectory shots that may run through on landing.
These irons still offer a good level of control for the pros so that shaping shots with the longer irons are still viable and consistent; they simply have a little more forgiveness on offer.
So the use of the cavity back irons with the pros is usually limited to the longer irons, as the blades/ muscle backs are preferred for the mid and short irons as they offer more control on approach.
The Validation Of Cavity Backs By Pros
The gradual proliferation of cavity back irons into the top echelons of the game has validated Karsten Ping’s vision. So many pros have them in their bags these days, indicating how far these irons have come over the last 50 years.
The fact that pro golfers see value in the concept and benefit of cavity back irons, even though the ones they use are not the same as those found in bags of weekend golfers, means that when it comes to blades/muscle backs vs. cavity backs, one is not better than the other.
They have different applications in the game, and where pros are looking for that little extra height, ball speed, or forgiveness that the longer blade style iron don’t offer, the opportunity to utilize cavity back irons is a validation of their benefits for the game at any level.
What Percentage Of Pros Use Cavity Back Irons
According to Titleist, around 70% of pros have used cavity back irons, with only 30% still maintaining their traditional ‘blades only’ bag. This proliferation of the cavity back into the professional realm is a testament to its effectiveness in improving flight, shape, and consistency.
Remember that pro golfers don’t use the oversize cavity backs like the amateur and high handicap players use; their irons are less oversized and closer to the blades of old with sharper edges and thinner profile, rather than the thicker shape of the modern cavity back.
Some pros don’t use cavity backs at all, and since there are fewer of them, they can be listed here:
· Collin Morikawa
· Phil Mickelson
· Adam Scott
· Rory McIlroy
· Sergio Garcia
· Dustin Johnson
· Ricky Fowler
· Ernie Els
Justin Thomas uses a four-iron cavity back, but the rest of his set are blades.
Why Don’t All-Pros Use Cavity Backs
If the cavity backs are easier to hit and offer more forgiveness, distance, and height, why don’t all the pros use them? The answer lies in the degree of control that pro golfers like to have.
For the average player lonely looking to get the ball straight and hit more greens from the fairway, the cavity backs provide all of that with the more prominent sweet spot and weighted perimeter, so off-center hits don’t go wildly offline.
But for the pros, look for greater levels of control in trajectory, height, shaping and shot feedback, and this is why many only have the cavity back irons as long irons while preferring blades in the mid and short irons.
Cavity Backs Are More Difficult To Control In The Wind
Cavity back irons are designed to get the ball higher into the air, and when you are playing tournaments in windy conditions, as we saw on the third day at the Masters recently, you need to be able to control the ball flight in the wind.
Cavity backs do not offer that level of control, and trying to keep shots down off a cavity back iron in high winds is next to impossible. With blades or muscle backs, pro golfers retain control of the ball flight under challenging conditions.
Blade Irons Offer Better Shaping & Shot Feedback
Not only that, but pros rely on their shaping skills to maneuver the ball into scoring positions on the golf course, and cavity back irons don’t offer that level of control.
Another reason that we touched on earlier is that of feedback. When pros hit golf shots, they learn a lot from the impact of the ball on the clubface and the feel of it off the clubface.
This feedback tells them about their swing quality and execution, which is an intrinsic part of their training and the development of their skills in the game. Without it, they would lose a vast chunk of their ability to improve their swing, and this is one of the significant reasons professional golfers don’t use entire cavity back sets.
Appearance – Blades Are Sexier!
Anyone that has a passion for golf will admit that there is something special about a set of blade irons, and that is their appearance. They look incredible! And aside from their ball striking, blade irons are simply sexier than their cavity back counterparts.
The thin edges and sleek profile are almost a badge of honor or rite of passage for players who have developed the skill level necessary to master them.
Also, many pros will find the chunky profile and oversized heads unnecessary as they don’t need the levels of forgiveness and more prominent sweet spots for their game as the weekend players would.
Will We See More Pros Using Cavity Backs In Future
As the technology and production methods for cavity and muscle back iron head improve and more pro players look for alternative golf club options that give them advantages in the field, it would be natural to assume that we will see more cavity back type irons in the pro game.
This doesn’t mean that the modern blade iron will disappear. As the game evolves, the professional golfer will look to take advantage wherever they can, and club design and function innovation will play a significant role there.
It is conceivable that the boundaries between the blade, muscle back, and cavity back irons for the top levels of the game will become less distinct over the next ten years. In time, the percentage of pros using cavity backs will increase.
Currently, some 70% of pro golfers have cavity backs in their bags. While these are mainly confined to the long irons, this percentage will gradually increase as more players see the benefits of consistency, accuracy, and maximum distance benefits.
Whether we will ever see a pro golfer with an entire bag of cavity backs is unlikely, but innovations in design could well introduce a new type of iron that offers the best of both worlds.