Ready made sets are just plain wrong for all but the very best of golfers. Oh, and the very best golfers don't use them either!
A Short History of Golf Club Sets
Lee Trevino once quipped, about 35 years ago, that "...even God can't hit a 1-iron". In 2008, he'd have said it about a 3-iron.
I'm going to do a little ranting here. The point of all this is that if you take an objective look at what you need in your bag, a modern retail set simply does not work for a golfer with a handicap over 10. The over-length 10.5-degree (or, heaven forbid, 9-degree) driver is way too hard to hit, and robs them of distance and accuracy. The 3-wood is too hard to hit off the fairway, and robs them of distance and accuracy. The 3 and 4 irons are useless. There aren't enough full-swing short clubs, and the wedges have too big a gap in their distances.
In 1970, a 24/38 iron was a 3 iron, and it hit the ball about 170 yards in the hands of the average competent golfer. Most golfers carried 3-irons, and could hit them fairly well. Anything lower-lofted or longer-shafted than 24/38 was for a very good golfer, and was called a 1- or 2-iron. Into the 1970's that's where the loft/length standards stood throughout the industry. It was a standard based on typical human abilities. "Typical" in this case means most male golfers, except the 5% who are exceptionally good and the 10% who just can't do it.
In the mid 70's, the golf club industry got to be big business and highly competitive, so marketing issues began to play into the standards. The companies had to, for marketing reasons, be able to claim that their clubs "hit longer" than their own previous year's models. Problem was, that they couldn't do anything about human abilities, and technological breakthroughs are hard ot come by. Their solution? Make each numbered club a little longer and a little lower-lofted. And certainly it was true ( and still is) that the current year's 6-iron will hit a little longer than the prior year's 6-iron, if its really a 5.9 iron!
Back in the 70's there hadn't been, and there still hasn't been, any technical improvements in club design that justified the lower lofts and longer lengths. The athletic skill of the typical golfer hadn't (and still hasn't) improved any, either. Certainly there have been tremendous technical innovations in club club heads, shafts, and grips, and especially in quality. Certainly, the "good" golfers of today hits the ball further (but not straighter) than their grandfathers. But none of these improvements have changed the basic validity of the 24/38 rule for the longest effective iron of the average golfer.
So, today, the 24/38 Rule is still valid. A 24/38 iron still goes about 170 yards for the average male golfer, and most golfers can still hit it fairly well....but it's no longer a 3 iron.... ITS A 5 IRON!!! The de-facto industry standard for lofts and lengths has changed, creeping lower and longer over the past 35 years.
Well, change itself isn't a bad thing, if it makes sense, but this doesn't! It may help the industry to sell more replacement sets more often, but it has nothing to do with improving your game. A 3-iron is now around 20/39 and most people can't hit the darn thing. any better than most golfers could hit a 20/39 1-iron 40 years ago! The result is that today the typical golfer cannot hit a 3 iron, and can only hit a 4 iron well (from the fairway) with his/her best swings. The longest club a typical male golfer today can hit well is a 5-iron... still the 24/38 club. Its even worse for women, they can usually only hit the 6-iron well.
Unbelievably, every ready-made set in the retail shops still includes a 3 and 4 iron, and many shops won't sell the set to you without the two clubs you can't use.
Of course, the golf industry has a solution for you. After you pay them for the two clubs you can't use, go back and pay even more for a hybrid iron or two, to replace the two useless clubs.
That's aggravating enough, but its just money. The real damage to your score is at the other end of the set, the short-range clubs. The short irons have become longer and lower too. What used to be an 8 iron ( a 46/36 club) is now sold labeled as the "pitching wedge" that comes with a retail set, and it goes about 120 yards and its the highest-lofted shortest fairway club that comes with a standard set.
This leaves the retail shopper with no full-swing clubs for those very common shots under 120 yards. Our grandfathers used to full-swing a 52/35 wedge from 90 yards out, but now the average golfer has to try to finesse a 85% touch shot from 105!
Thankfully, the industry has left the sand wedge specs where they belong, at around 56 degrees loft, but its still an inch too long. Watch the pros swing one on TV... they choke up an inch.
The loft gap between a typical retail-set pitching wedge and a sand wedge in a ready-made set is now a whopping 8-10 degrees, which works out for most golfers to around 25-40 yards in total distance... assuming of course that they can use a fully-swung sand wedge off the fairway without skulling it.
Bless their hearts, the golf industry also has a solution for the short range club problem that they have created... Go back to the store and buy a "gap" wedge from them. Not really a good solution, because many "gap" wedges are really trouble" wedges, not good fairway clubs because they have too much bounce. To give the industry a break here, it is fair to admit that many retail sets now offer a "gap" or "attack" wedge as a part of the fairway set, designed as a fairway club, usually lofted around 52 degrees. But even this extra club doesn't completely solve the problem... it is one club replacing two, and in most cases it is still too long for the average golfer.
The same thing has happened with drivers and fairway woods... they've become longer and lower-lofted. Drivers used to be 11/43.5. Now they are typically 9/45.5 and 3-woods are 13/44.
If you prefer to believe that technical improvements justify this (which they do NOT!), then I challenge you to prove it to yourself.... Take your expensive modern driver and your 3-wood to the driving range and hit a bucket of balls off a tee, at a specific target, alternating between the clubs. NO fair hitting half a bucket with one and then half a bucket with the other... you have to alternate. Write down the results in terms of total distance and yards off line. If your handicap is more than 10, your 3-wood will go further and straighter most of the time, dramatically so if your handicap is over 20!. Only about 1 shot out of 4 with your driver will be better than your average 3-wood. For most people, even fairly long hitters, their 3-wood is straighter off the tee, on average, than their driver, AND LONGER TOO!
Unbelievable? Maybe, but its still true. You can thank the marketing department of your favorite retail golf club company for this disservice to the golfing public.
Most people drive better and score better if they drive with their 3-wood, even though a 3-wood is not designed for hitting off a tee. Your modern retail 3-wood is about 13/44, very close to the 500-year old standard for drivers. At the same time, a modern 5-wood has become what used to be a 3-wood, and most golfers (handicaps over 10) hit it better (longer and straighter) off the fairway than they do their 3-wood.
WHAT THE PROS USE
Even though ready-made sets are closer to being configured for Tour-quality golfers than for the average golfer, even the Tour pros don't use them, except when their sponsorship contracts require them to. Very few of them carry 3-irons, and many of them carry four wedges. They use drivers that are shorter and higher lofted than retail drivers.
Let me say that again.... Despite their obvious athleticism, incredible ball-striking repeatability, and awesome clubhead speeds, most Tour pros use driver lofts higher and driver lengths shorter than what the premium brand name manufacturers make for, and the retail shops sell to, the average golfer. On Tour, the average driver is 44.5 inches long, compared to 45 or 46 inches in the retail shots.
Tiger Woods, for instance, is one of the longest hitters on Tour, and he's 6'2". He uses a 43.5 inch driver, an inch, or even 2 inches, shorter than what his sponsor apparently thinks the average 5'10 20-handicap male golfer should be swinging. If Woods could score better with a 45 inch driver, he's be using one, but he can't, so he doesn't.
Woods has used various driver face lofts over the years, between 7.5 and 10 degrees, well below the 12 degrees loft most golfers should be using. But that's okay for his 120+ mph swing speed. That's an enviable option his skill-level gives him. But consider the 10 degree loft he used at the Player's Championship in 2010. Its a full degree higher than what the retail shops sell to "big" hitters whose swing speed is 25 mph slower!!!
Wood's 3-wood is 42.5/15, and has been for most of his professional career. That's 2 degrees higher than what his sponsors sell to his fans, and an inch and a half inch shorter. Also, his irons are about 2-degrees higher-lofted and a half-inch shorter than most retails sets. Most of your underpaid and minimally-trained 25-year-old retail golfshop clerks will tell you that means "it doesn't hit very far", but I think they are wrong.
Back then, I took a lot of pride in being able to out-drive good golfers with my 3-wood, but it turns out it wasn't really me. My 13/43 3-wood was actually a better driver than their 10.5/45 drivers.
Eventually I figured it out, and got an 11 degree head, which I put on a shorter shaft. Using the same shaft and grip as my previous driver, I hit it longer and straighter than any of the previous 7 drivers ... 30-40 yards longer and usually in the fairway. And on my good days, I can fade or draw it reliably. Most important, my bad shots are better with it. It even out-drives my 3-wood.
So you go ahead and buy that 10.5 degree 45-inch $499 titanium driver from one of those rocket-science marketing companies if you want to.... but I am sticking with my "old-fashioned" $28 stainless steel Golfsmith with its "ladies" loft. If Golfsmith still made it, I would buy three of them.