Cui Lin-Shan Hu Guan Golf Club
I guess if you are good enough to make Golf Digest's "Hot List,” you must be doing something right… correct? On January 25, golf equipment manufacturer PowerBilt let the world know their nitrogen-charged Air Force One irons made the magazine’s “Hot List” two of the past three years. Their new model, the AF2, is on the short list of “Super Game Improvement Irons” honored in Golf Digest’s upcoming March 2013 issue where they won in the Silver category. It is the same category, which its predecessor, the Air Force One Hybrid Iron N7 won accolades in 2011 (http://www.golfdigest.com/golf-equipment/hot-list/2011-02/hot-list-sgi-irons). That year it shared honors with major manufacturers like Adams, Callaway, Cobra, Ping and TaylorMade. It looks like Adams and Cobra are making strong showings again in the 2013 game improvement category. While the announcement sounded like the “blah, blah” ones all the golf manufacturers make, this one made me pause because of the words “nitrogen-charged.” What the heck is that? After I did some “Googling” around, I found out that I am definitely late to the party on that front. Apparently PowerBilt has been touting the benefits of nitrogen charging for years (starting in 2008 with significant pushes in 2009 and 2010). In brief, PowerBilt figured out that by filling the club head with nitrogen gas, they are able to “thin” the face of the club and create a much bigger sweet spot. This results in longer shots with more consistent spin rates no matter where you hit the ball on the face. More distance plus better accuracy equals “super game improvement.” Makes sense to me. But nitrogen, really? What is N7? Let’s start with the basics. Many people may recall from their high school chemistry studies that nitrogen is a chemical element with symbol N and atomic number 7. Others may be familiar with nitrogen in the context of race car tires, as it is a dry, inert gas that’s used to for improved performance, more tire mileage and better fuel economy. Not limited to race cars, it can also be found in use for airplane tires, off-road truck tires, and military vehicle tires. Race car teams favor nitrogen instead of air in their tires because it has a much more consistent rate of expansion. PowerBilt’s technologists feel N7 is stable and reliable. They like how it maximizes the trampoline effect and the smash factor of their clubs. So what is Nitrogen-Charged Technology? It is a patented process that involves filling the clubhead with nitrogen gas to provide weightless support of the face. This allows PowerBilt to build drivers, fairway woods, hybrids and irons with the thinnest faces in golf without internal bracing. The benefit, company officials said, is greater distance plus improved accuracy due to an enlarged sweet spot. Facing the Difference: A typical high-end driver, regardless of brand, has a face thickness of 3 mm or more. The Air Force One driver, where this technology made its debut, was offered in two face thicknesses – 2.8 mm and 2.6 mm. Fairway woods and hybrids also have thinner faces than comparable clubs and are offered in multiple thicknesses. Each Air Force One clubhead is coated on the inside with a leak-proof resin and then charged with nitrogen gas to pressures as high as 150 psi. The air pressure provides the appropriate face support so that each driver performs within USGA regulations. The USGA tests a driver’s performance by using a swing speed of 110 mph. The vast majority of golfers swing much slower than 110 mph, meaning they are not compressing the face of the club, and therefore not getting maximum distance. The Air Force One driver’s thinnest face – 2.6 mm – benefits golfers with moderate and controlled swing speeds. Combining the ultra-thin face with the appropriate air pressure helps optimize "trampoline" effect as well as ball spin rate so that the ball stays airborne longer to maximize distance. The Air Force One driver with a 2.8 mm face promotes a lower spin rate to prevent the ball from ballooning, which can hurt distance for golfers with fast swing speeds. In addition, PowerBilt found that by removing mechanical bracing, more of the face is able to flex at impact – so the club has a ginormous sweet spot (from heel-to-toe). Testing has shown that with the PowerBilt Air Force clubs golfers benefit from straighter shots than with a conventional driver. Plus, it is much more forgiving for heel shots. Coupled with Special Shafts: PowerBilt also found that using the right shaft can make a huge difference. For their Air Force One drivers, they went with one of the most popular shafts on the PGA Tour – Fujikura, which has a flex point that also helps optimize spin rate. For the new AF2 irons, a lightweight steel shaft made exclusively for PowerBilt by Apollo is being used. The shaft, at 85 grams, is 20 grams lighter than a standard steel shaft and features VKP technology (Variable Kick Points). In the longer clubs, the kick point is lower to promote easy lift. The kick point graduates to higher spots on the shorter irons to promote accuracy and back spin on approach shots. Another option, Apollo's proprietary graphite shaft, has the same characteristics, but is only 75 grams, which promotes greater clubhead speed. What’s Available Today: Ross Kvinge, the president of PowerBilt, calls the AF2 “the ultimate game-improvement iron.” He claims there's not a thinner face on an iron anywhere, and this has huge benefits. “First, it has an enormous sweet spot with no hot or dead spots. The technology creates incredibly consistent ball flights from club to club. And while it's labeled 'game improvement', it's a club many better golfers should try because it just might push their handicap lower." The Air Force One AF2 clubs are available in 3-4 hybrid with nitrogen, 4-8 hollow with nitrogen, 7-PW cavity back, plus GW and SW. A set can be configured using any combination of these clubs. Golf Digest said, “The nitrogen gas idea might be marketing hype, but there's no denying these clubs pack punch. Our testers consistently cited the middle irons as being some of the easiest to hit in this category.” Depending on the set makeup, the street price ranges from $499.99 to $699.99. PowerBilt has quite a few videos up on YouTube that talk about the benefits of being nitrogen-charged (http://www.youtube.com/user/PowerbiltGolf). A few tout a 5-year leak proof warranty. Can’t find that on the web, so if you decide to buy yourself a set, you might want to get confirmation. Wrap it all up: At first, I thought, how can a non-mainstream golf equipment manufacturer continue to make a go of it year after year? The odds of success aren’t good. But look at their pedigree. PowerBilt is a division of the Hillerich & Bradsby Co., a family-owned company in Louisville, Kentucky, which also happens to make… the world-famous Louisville Slugger baseball bat. Now just think what a N7-infused bat might do to the game of baseball. Talk about performance enhancing! But seriously, it you are looking for bragging rights on the golf course and don’t have a need to closely emulate what the Tour Pros are using (Tiger & Rory: Nike, Phil: Callaway, Rickie: Cobra, etc.), yet still want to feel pro-like relatively speaking in terms of accuracy and distance, the Air Force One’s AF2 may be a good investment.