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Changing Faces: An Oral History of Callaway Apex Irons

AJ Voelpel

Look up the term “apex” in the dictionary. Actually wait, we’ll save you time; “The tip, point, or vertex; summit,” it says. “Climax; peak.” In golf, it’s a term that represents excellence and unrivaled performance. It has an extensive history that resonates with passionate golfers around the world and is why that name “Apex” is taken very seriously at Callaway Golf.

Though the original Apex irons debuted in the early ‘70s, it wasn’t until 2013 that Callaway brought them back to life with ambitions to change the “Players Iron” category forever. We asked the people closest to Apex how it all went down…

I. “What kind of product do we wish existed?”

With a new direction in leadership and massive investment into R&D, Callaway was making a move to reestablish itself as an innovator in world-class equipment. Producing flagship irons was at the top of the list.

Chip Brewer (President & CEO, Callaway Golf): Prior to 2013, we had been clear leaders in iron innovation, which had also led to having far and away the largest global market share. We had lost some of that market share leadership, and perhaps some of the innovation leadership too, but we felt strongly that we had an R&D engine that could regain it.

Tim Reed (Senior VP, Product Strategy & Management): For the few years leading into 2013, a lot of companies had come out with interesting technologies that were being touted as this or that, and that had kind of fragmented the market, especially as it pertained to irons.

Dr. Alan Hocknell (Senior VP, R&D): We wanted to create an iron that would defy what people thought was possible. It seemed like there were a lot of things people wanted in an iron but those things generally weren’t believed realistic in the same product.

Harry Arnett (Senior VP, Marketing): The best consumer products are always ones that break compromises; tastes great and low in calories; fast and cheap; hi-tech and easy to install. That’s exactly what we wanted to do with irons.

Alan: We wanted to combine everything we knew about irons, mainly forgiveness and distance, and create new technologies that would enhance ball speed across the face. The problem was we wanted to do it in a forged product that very much looked like an iron preferred by the most discerning players.

Scott Manwaring (Dir. of R&D – Irons, Hybrids & Wedges): We proposed the idea to Chip and were confident that we had a chance to make a forged iron that was long and forgiving. Did we have the time to accomplish the design? I knew we had the expertise but the focus and flexibility were unknown. The last two attributes required cultural changes at Callaway.

Harry: A lot of times the best products start from the question of, “What’s the kind of product WE wish existed…”

Scott: So clearly you couldn’t get ball speeds, forgiveness across the face, and amazing feel in a typical forged iron construction. It would have to be a multi-material, multi-piece construction of some sort.

Alan: The challenge to make a face that thin to fit on the frame of the iron was a significant technical hurdle.

Harry: We also had to do it in such a way that people could actually afford it. We couldn’t make a product that only two people on earth could buy.

II. “I expected some issues but this was bad.”

With the ideas in place, it was time to execute. Similar to most projects, the first iterations would go through major overhauls. We had the Advil ready.

Scott: The original prototypes sounded horrible, not slightly bad but awful to the point you thought they were broken. It nearly killed the entire program. I expected some issues but this was bad. We needed the forged sound, we needed the forgiveness and we still needed the distance. All the boxes needed to be checked.

Roger Cleveland (Chief Designer): I’m always concerned with aesthetics, particularly when you’re talking about a product that’s meant for better players or players who care as much about the way a product looks. For this one particularly, there was so much technology going into it that keeping a sleek and classic design was another monumental task.

Scott: The simplified models and early prototypes didn’t include enough of the industrial design details. Those features combined with the difference in material strengths between the face and body created a situation where more stress gathered at the topline than we expected. As a team, we quickly centered on different ideas to weaken the bottom of the medallion pocket thereby reducing the stress on the topline. Oddly, given that we already presented the industrial design, the best solution would be invisible to the consumer. Several iterations of CAD and FEA models were updated and we knew what to do. The new prototypes looked the same but sounded different…we had plenty of skeptics when we requested the testers hit again.

Alan: When we finally had the multi-material forged chassis that delivered groundbreaking forgiveness, distance, and sound, there was electricity in the R&D department. That’s probably a major understatement.

Scott: I received a tweet that Chip made a hole-in-one with the pre-production version. Can you say relief!

Harry: I was beyond excited because it was obvious this would change the trajectory of the category and frankly, our company. We had a product that was clearly the performance standard and one every golfer would want to try.

Glenn Hickey (Senior VP, America Sales): It was sort of like the company’s baby and we were all very proud, but nervous parents. The team wanted everything to be perfect: the grip, the transitions, the shaft selections, everything. Perfection. But we still didn’t even have a name for it.

III. Code Name: Alpine.

Innovation? Check. Technology? Check. Product Name? ¯\_(ツ)_/¯

Alan: Our code name for the iron was “Alpine.” We were going through a ski mountain phase for our code names. We had a lot of names we were kicking around to actually call the product when we launched it. One name kept coming up.

Chip: We owned the “Apex” name but I was firm on not using that name at all unless we had a product that clearly set a standard for the category. I felt that standard wouldn’t be so one-dimensional as a traditional forged product. I believed it should be in some leapfrog innovation. And this product was definitely going to be a standard bearer for Callaway and the industry.

Alan: Calling it “Apex” was extremely gratifying and humbling to everyone involved. With the reverence we had for that name and its historical significance in the game, we absolutely felt a stewardship and extreme sense of responsibility with it. Ultimately, it had to live up to the name.

Nick Raffaele (VP, Global Sports Marketing): Ben Hogan once said, “Your name is the most important thing you own. Don’t ever do anything to disgrace or cheapen it.” Well, our Tour players loved the Apex irons. And it was universal on every Tour across the globe. I hadn’t seen anything like it before.

Matt Every (2-Time PGA TOUR Winner) – When I first signed with Callaway, Pat Perez and I were coming in at the same time. I was taking a break from golf and so when it was time to try the new product I asked Pat if he hit any of it and he said, “Yeah, the Apex Pro irons are insane. Not sure what you’re playing but I’d definitely give them a look.” I did and they immediately went in my bag. I ended up winning the Arnold Palmer Invitational a couple months later. [Editor’s note: Matt would go on to defend at the API in 2015.]

Glenn: From the moment the first sets hit golf shops around the world, the buzz around the iron was off the charts. We were hearing stories of people walking in, hitting two or three shots, and buying them immediately. I’ve never heard of anything like that before.

Chip: We placed a lot of importance on these irons and challenged our group to do the impossible. They delivered.

Phil Mickelson: I’ve always played all kinds of irons. Blades and cavity backs alike. So the Apex were really intriguing because they had everything I like in both, really. The mid irons and long irons were so easy to hit but were also really easy to control. I was impressed. That’s not always the case for me because I like to really work with a product and tweak stuff.

Harry: The 2013 Apex did exactly what we wanted. They brought a different performance paradigm to the game and really uplifted an entire category. Historically speaking, it was one of the best irons ever made. I know I’m prone to hyperbole so some people may do a double take hearing that. I say it matter-of-factly. The results prove it.

Alan: I’ve been at this a long time and been a part of a lot of great products. Apex irons are right at the top of the list.


IV. “It was fairly obvious what the next technology upgrade we wanted for the new Apex…”

The 2013 Apex and Apex Pro irons helped propel Callaway to a No. 1 market share rating in irons (currently) as a whole. But like any ambitious group, it was only a matter of time before someone asked, “Okay, now how can we improve them?”

Scott: I hate replacing a great product. I knew we had to start quickly but I also knew what the answer was. Chip is going to ask for Face Cup technology…this isn’t going to be easy.

Alan: One of the best parts – but also hardest parts – about being a part of this company and the R&D team is that we are always looking at what’s next. It’s just the way it is. We’re always trying to push the envelope on performance. So in this case, when we looked at ball speed across the face, forgiveness, feel, shaping and aesthetics, we tried to look at it with fresh eyes and put together a list of the things we wanted to do to improve upon it.

Roger: I definitely thought there were subtle things we could do to improve the shaping even more. Right off the top of my head is the transitions from short to long irons. The offset in the short irons was another. These might seem like minor adjustments but we really didn’t want to change things just to change them. We really wanted to make meaningful improvements.

Nick: We had specific feedback from Tour players, as we always do. Things like blade length, offset, etc.

Alan: It was fairly obvious what the next technology upgrade was that we wanted for the new Apex, but it was something I thought might be impossible to do.

Chip: Our greatest technology in irons and fairway woods has been our Face Cup. It’s unrivaled in performance. We needed that technology in our flagship iron.

Scott: I enjoy challenges and knew this was going to be complex. I wanted to avoid the stress of the original Apex design, so we designed it with three different face materials. In the spring we reviewed all of the testing results to see which design created better sound, forgiveness and distance. It was more work but less stress.

Alan:  There were a lot of techniques we tried to put the Face Cup in the iron. I mean, you’re talking about putting an extremely thin Face Cup onto a forged iron and not affecting sound, feel, or the overall look of the club. Most of them ended up not working very well for one reason or another.

Harry: I didn’t care how they did it. I just wanted Face Cup technology in my Apex irons. Haha!

Alan:  We were finally able to get it right by coming up with a completely different design for the frame of the head. Once we did that, we were basically home free.

Scott: I watched Chip hit different golf balls (from junk range balls to Chrome Soft) with pre-production parts of a few different designs. We reviewed the sound, forgiveness, and ball speed data and selected the best product to carry the Apex name forward.

Chip: I was impressed. I knew the team was up to the challenge, but I didn’t know if they could put the technology into the iron and still be able to improve the look and feel. But they did it. The first time I hit the final prototype, I immediately called Alan and congratulated him and the team.

Alan: I was sitting in a team meeting and saw Chip’s name pop up on my cell phone. I knew he was down at the [Ely Callaway] Performance Center hitting the new iron. I was a little concerned because he hadn’t been there long and I was praying the iron head hadn’t come flying off or something. So when I picked up, I was kind of cringing. He just said, “You guys did it. This is it.” That was a cool feeling.

Tim: Face Cup technology in a forged, multi-material iron… I never thought we’d see that. I really think we are in a golden age of iron design and technology and I’m so glad to be a part of the group leading it with our new Apex iron.

Scott: The team is jubilant. We can’t wait for people to try this iron.

Alan: This represents the best of what we can do. There’s no question about that. And it’s especially fun to be a part of the process too, since we are continuing to push forward even after we’ve become the global market share leaders again.

Chip: I can’t tell you how excited we are to see and hear the reactions when golfers they try the new Apex irons. There are going to be a lot of ecstatic people out there.

Alan: We’ll enjoy this for a little while before we start thinking about how to improve upon these. I’m sure Chip will soon be asking us what’s next.

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