Modern technology has killed persimmon woods and by the turn of the century will probably have done the same to balata-covered balls. Yet forged irons remain unchanged, supported by a small but faithful group of players: the game's best. Seventeen of the top 20 players on the Sony World Ranking use forged irons.
Better players prefer forged irons because the heads are softer than those made by pouring molten metal into a cast and therefore provide better feel. Because forged club heads are generally smaller, they offer more accurate feedback on off-center hits. However, controlling a small head requires a high degree of skill, and generating club-head speed with the forgings, which are heavier, takes extra strength, so most amateurs are better off using cast irons.
"The iron is a feel-and accuracy-oriented club," says Wally Uihlein, the president of Titleist. "For those qualities nothing works better than a forging."
Yet nothing is worse for an equipment manufacturer's bottom line than forged irons, which is why so few companies still make them. Titleist sells only 200 forged sets a year. At Ram, Hogan and MacGregor—all holdovers from the era when forged irons were all that were available—forgings are now a small percentage of their business.
Mizuno is the largest producer of forged irons, and its blades are the most popular on the Tour. Even with that distinction, Mizuno barely makes a profit on its forged business.
Why does anyone still make forged irons? Prestige, mainly. Top players require equipment makers to provide them with clubs that they will actually use before they sign endorsement deals. Without being allowed to play forged irons, for example, Tiger Woods would not have signed with Titleist nor Nick Faldo with Mizuno. "You keep the better players happy because that's who everybody else looks up to," says Jackie Tyson, Mizuno's marketing manager. "People look in better players' bags and want to know brand names. So as long as people like Faldo want forged irons, we'll be making them."