Do I Have to Play a 3-Wood? Properly Spacing Woods, Hybrids, and IronsPublished on 03/14/2023 · 7 min readGolf Expert Adam Ditcher details the reasoning behind the shift away from 3-woods and some other options that can replace this club in your bag!
Photo by Cristina Anne Costello
The Classic Setup
For many years, there was a lot of consistency between golf club sets. Manufacturers made some different setups, but this author can remember playing golf even just a decade ago and having most people maintain a pretty standard configuration:
Driver, 3-wood, 5-wood, 3-iron through pitching wedge (PW), two additional wedges, and a putter.
This was the only way for a long time. Some players would swap in hybrids for longer irons but the sets that players brought with them to the course were largely cookie cutter—maybe only changing a club or two.
Within the last decade, there has been so much technological advancement in the sport. No longer is it assumed that everyone carries a 5-wood. Even a 3-wood isn’t found as often on a Sunday morning at your local municipal course.
A New Approach
So what changed? Well, technology got a lot better. Players began to understand that the labels on the clubs were less important than the specifications of the club itself. Not every 3-wood is made equally.
It will surprise many people to know that there is not a standard description of a 3-wood. The USGA does not have any type of naming requirements in the rules, so equipment manufacturers are free to deem their own clubs with the title they find most appropriate.
It is because of this that you find such variety in loft angles between clubs, especially across manufacturers. Players can use a wood that is anywhere from 13–15 degrees and consider it a 3-wood. Ranges are pretty standard, and some manufacturers do still make a 4-wood that is around 16.5 degrees. However, others have deemed this club the 3-wood high-loft—or, 3WHL, for those of us shopping for clubs who find ourselves having to learn more and more acronyms.
The insider scoop is that regardless of the label on the club saying 3HL or 4, both clubs can be 16.5 degrees. The loft of the club directly impacts the launch angle of the club, which is huge in determining how far the ball will carry in the air after impact. For this reason, it is often better to think of how you space out the clubs in your golf bag by loft angle instead of club label.
Here’s an example: all else equal, a player who carries a 10.5-degree driver and a 13-degree 3-wood will have a smaller gap in distance at the top of their bag than someone carrying the same driver and a 15-degree 3-wood. There is some natural variation from this generality. Some players need more loft to hit the optimum launch angle and others need less loft, but that is very specific to an individual swing and can be handled by a Golf Expert here on Curated.
So, with all of this in mind, what are the options for the top of your bag between your driver and your irons? And what makes each club worth considering? Let’s get into it.
The first and still most common club to carry after the driver is a 3-wood. The 3-wood can come in a typical 15-degree face or a “3+ wood / strong 3-wood” face that is generally 13 degrees. There now are also 3HL woods that are up to around 16.5 degrees and mimic the typical loft of what would’ve historically been considered a 4-wood.
Some companies still do make a 4-wood that is labeled as a 4-wood, and that has become a more popular option at the top of the bag instead of a 3-wood in recent years. The reasoning behind the popularity of the 4-wood is the development of swing science and the new understanding of how the launch angle of the ball off of the face of the club has such a high correlation with the distance the ball travels.
Players with shallower swings who typically swing up or flat with the clubface at impact can sometimes benefit from using a higher-lofted club because the additional loft can actually help the ball reach higher heights. This is typically more difficult for players with a penetrating ball flight that doesn’t naturally have a higher launch angle of the golf ball after impact.
This launch angle difference can not only help the player’s accuracy and distance but will also help them find the sweet spot of the club more often due to the more proper impact angle.
Where Do Hybrids Fit in?
Now, we turn our attention to the wood vs. hybrid vs. iron debate. Hybrids are another common club selection at the top of the bag. Many players will opt for a 2-hybrid, for example, over a 5-wood. Because the 5-wood delivers such a high ball flight, often players who hit down on the ball may generate too much spin off the face of the club and actually lose distance compared to a hybrid—which has a more penetrating ball flight off the club at the same club-face angle.
As a general recommendation, players with a slower swing speed can benefit from the 5-wood in this bag slot, whereas players with a faster swing speed may tend to prefer a 2-hybrid.
However, it really comes down mostly to personal preference. Even different course conditions can cause a player to use one club over another in the same slot and degree angle measurement in the bag. A couple of years ago, 7-woods were making a comeback on the PGA Tour because players were playing on faster, harder greens more often and wanted to have a better chance of holding second shots into par 5s; compared to watching a hybrid roll over the green over and over again.
Some very skilled players, or players who just are not a fan of a larger, wood clubheads, may prefer a utility iron, also known as an iron hybrid, as their 2-hybrid. Wood hybrids have a larger clubhead, whereas an iron hybrid is made to look more like the classic 2-iron of yesteryear with some more forgiveness than the butter knives players used to carry at the top of their bags.
Utility irons can often be used as a backup option off the tee, as the club maintains a low, penetrating ball flight and often is able to roll for extended distances compared to higher-launching woods.
Many players will opt to have this type of option in the bag before the Open Championship in Ireland or the United Kingdom. The link layout allows for so much roll and wind that players can often choose their club in real time off of a tee—choosing to be more aggressive with a driver or to use a utility iron that has a higher probability of accuracy and keeping the ball in play.
Players with high handicaps may benefit from a driving iron occasionally due to accuracy issues off the tee, but it is not a club that is going to be forgiving for brand-new golfers who are high handicappers and aren’t concerned with strategy so much as just getting the ball off the tee successfully.
At higher lofts, players can choose between these options for a 3-hybrid or 7-wood, since both are generally lofted around 21 degrees. However, players also may opt for a regular 3-iron. Not every set of clubs is manufacturing a matching 3-iron in the same build as the 4-PW and additional wedges. But some do, and you can always mix and match to add a 3-iron you decide is right for you instead of a hybrid or wood.
Similar to a utility iron, beginners and other players who have a rough time with their long irons should look to hybrid clubs or woods to try to help their accuracy from the ground and off the tee. Such low-lofted clubs can be difficult to hit off of tight lies for players who aren’t as strong in ball striking and struggle to consistently deliver the club to the ball.
Low handicappers would be more of the target audience to typically keep using a standard long iron and having a lower trajectory off the face of the club. Unlike utility irons, most 3-irons don’t have a lot of offset and are very thin and unforgiving, especially on difficult long shots that aren’t from the middle of your own fairway.
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The decision on what clubs should or should not be played at the top of your bag can be a very complicated decision and can also vary from day to day, depending on course conditions. Luckily, my fellow Curated Experts and I are here to help walk you through the process and make recommendations that properly fit the needs of your game. Come talk to us about what clubs might be the right fit for you and make your long game feel less difficult than it has in years!