'Not just any set of irons'
As the U.S. Open returns to Shinnecock Hills, a look at the strange set of irons that Corey Pavin used to win in 1995
June 11, 2018
By Jonathan Wall, PGATOUR.COM
- Pavin began the season with consecutive top-5 finishes before defending his title at Riviera. (Jamie Squire/ALLSPORT)
Even their creator compared them to tools you’d find in a backyard vegetable garden. Most pros refused to play them. Corey Pavin immediately put them back in the box.
Good thing he gave them a second chance, because Pavin used that strange set of irons to win the 1995 U.S. Open at Shinnecock Hills.
The U.S. Open returns this week to the site of Pavin’s only major victory. It’s an appropriate time to look back at the Cleveland VAS irons, arguably the oddest clubs ever to win a major championship.
"They were a radical design for the time and … made people say, 'Oh, that's kind of different,’" Pavin said. "To me, they were just a set that fit my game and worked on the course. But I also realize they weren't just any set of irons."
Roger Cleveland is one of the leading names in the equipment industry – he now works as Callaway’s chief club designer – but people still approach him several times a year to talk about the VAS irons. He is amused that there’s still interest in the short-lived line of irons that didn’t sell particularly well.
Many golfers are sentimental about a unique set of clubs that stood out from the rest, though. There weren’t such warm feelings when he first unveiled the clubs to the star-studded Tour staff of Cleveland Golf, the company he founded in 1979, though.
“They looked at me like I had three eyes, like, ‘What in the world are you thinking?’” Cleveland said.
The VAS (Vibration Absorbing System) irons had a teardrop-shaped head that was a half-inch larger than conventional irons and a wide sole that allowed the club to rest squarely at address. Then there was a large purple badge in the cavity and rounded inset hosel that gave the heel a pronounced point and helped the head turn over at impact.
Cleveland wanted the clubs to have a more traditional shape, but the company that owned Cleveland Golf, French manufacturer Skis Rossignol S.A., wanted to build something that would elicit a reaction from the equipment industry and beyond.
That was never going to be a problem.
"I came out with something that was way more traditional as far as top-line orientation with iron sets," Cleveland said, "but they wanted it more curved all the way through, the top line radius, heel‑toe radius, and so they went out with that. I pushed back a lot, and then I pushed back more, but we eventually went with the non-traditional shape."
Cleveland not only had to press ahead with the non-traditional shape on a game-improvement iron but come up with a way to talk the best players in the world into playing the iron on TOUR.
Most players refused, but Cleveland somehow convinced one of his company’s star endorsers to use the clubs.
Pavin was a top-10 player in the world despite being one of the TOUR’s shortest hitters. Anything that had an ill impact on his iron play could have a disastrous effect on his game, though. He didn’t have the same luxuries as the long hitters.
"I still remember Roger sent me a set and I pulled one of them out and looked at it and put it right back in the box," Pavin said with a laugh. "It took Roger walking me through the design before I took them out of the box.
"I set them down on the ground, and I went, 'Wow, these look pretty good actually.' I had never gotten that far before."
He was worried about how other players would react to the club’s teardrop shape and inset hosel. He knew to expect some friendly banter when he first brought the new clubs on TOUR to start the 1994 season, but it would quickly turn to criticism from the players and press if he didn’t produce strong results.
A number of players gave him grief, especially good friend Tom Kite, but it didn’t last long. Winning has a way of silencing the doubters.
Pavin started the season with consecutive top-5 finishes before winning at Riviera in his third start.
Even his success couldn’t convince the rest of Cleveland Golf’s Tour staff -- which also included Tom Lehman, Ben Crenshaw, John Cook, Bob Estes and Bruce Fleisher -- to make the switch. Pavin and David Edwards were the only Cleveland staff players to use the VAS irons.Pavin would go on to win seven times with the unique set of irons. (J.D. Cuban/ALLSPORT)
"For me, I really liked how easy it was to hit the ball a lot higher and execute a draw, which back then for me was a good thing," Pavin said. "If I can get up there with a 5‑iron and draw it, that was pretty cool for me, and I can still always cut it. That was a nice thing about those clubs was being able to draw it with them. Especially with the longer irons."
Even Pavin’s early success couldn’t convince more players to use them. The aggressive design and shaping didn't appeal to a majority of the players, but Pavin warmed to the clubs after having the heads tweaked slightly for a more traditional look.
“We would take his clubs and square the toes so they weren’t as round, because they had kind of a round egg shape to them,” said Brent Newsome, Cleveland/Srixon's manager of Tour operation. "Then we would straighten the leading edges, kind of square the bottom, so he had a little bit easier time setting up to the golf ball, a little bit squarer frame on the golf club."
Pavin is not a player who changes irons often -- he’s currently using an 8-year-old set on PGA TOUR Champions – so he continued to play the same set through the 1995 season as he tried to shed the label of 'Best Player Never to Win A Major'.
He defended his title at Riviera earlier in the year and lost a playoff at the Kemper Open to Lee Janzen the week before arriving at Shinnecock Hills.
Pavin made just one equipment adjustment at the U.S. Open, adding a Cleveland Classic blade putter. He went on to beat Greg Norman by two shots, clinching the title with his famous 4-wood shot into the final green.
It was Pavin’s putter, inspired by Wilson’s iconic 8802 model, that received a post-victory sales bump. Cleveland sold some 5,000 copies of the putter after his win. The VAS technology was more than a year old when Pavin won the U.S. Open and the company was already working on a VAS+ line.
He would go on to win seven times with the cast irons, further validating the design Cleveland created and Pavin put on the map.
While the shape was never replicated by another manufacturer, the shock-absorbing badge in the back cavity was licensed by Rossignol and used by Callaway in the cavity of the Big Bertha irons.
Prior to finding its way into the design of VAS, Rossignol used the Viscoelastic material and metal-constraining layer to reduce vibration in skis. The multi-material badge had the same effect in oversized irons, improving the overall sound while mitigating the vibration going up the shaft into the hands.
"The badge helped us reduce the face weight and distribute it around the corners, but the key was really improving the sound," Cleveland said. "The thing sounded like a bell. It was the only way to keep it from having a harsh sound. Now those badges are common in the industry."
The set of U.S. Open-winning irons is mostly intact at Pavin’s house, except for the 7-iron. Roger Cleveland also has a few sets laying around his California home. When asked the last time he used one on the course, Cleveland couldn't recall.
"It's been a while," he said. "But I think in honor of Corey, I've got to bring the set out and have a whack at it."
With the U.S. Open returning to Shinnecock Hills, there’s no better time than now.