Golf isn’t the only sport whose equipment has gone (or is going) through a trend of making it more forgiving. When applying for Lag’s class, I mentioned that I quickly gravitated toward traditional blade irons, even though I’m fairly new to the game. He asked me to post here my insights as why I did so.
For many years I’ve been playing a game called three-cushion billiards. For those who may not be familiar with the game, it’s played on a pocketless table which is slightly bigger than a pool table, and with three balls which are slightly bigger and heavier than pool balls. The object is to have your cue ball carom off of one of the other two balls and into the third. But before you complete the “carom,” or “billiard” as it’s also called, your cue ball must also hit at least three cushions, hence the name. As a side note, in the Foreword the Ben Hogan’s “Five Lessons,” Sidney L. James writes, “…a veritable Willie Hoppe for accuracy on the greens.” Willie Hoppe was a billiard player, not a pool player, and held the World Three-Cushion Billiard Title for many years. He retired still as a champion in 1952.
Billiard players, much more than pool players–due to the much greater skill required to play the game–focus on equipment which yields as much feel as possible. For example, billiard shafts are conical from tip to joint, whereas pool shafts are cylindrical for the first 8 to 12 inches from the tip. The conical shape, while a little harder to slip through the fingers, provides for a much more solid contact. Joints on billiard cues are designed to lose as little feel as possible between the shaft and butt, whereas on pool cues they’re designed to look pretty and to be fast to screw and unscrew. You get the point.
The latest fad in pool–but not billiard–cue design is to make the shaft more forgiving. The motivation has to do with something called deflection. When a cue ball is struck left or right of center, two things happen. First side spin, called english, is put on the cue ball. Secondly, the cue ball takes off on a line slightly deflected from the target line. To experienced players, this deflection is intuitively accounted for through years of playing. You don’t think about it; you aren’t even aware that you’re accounting for it. Of course this is only true when you intentionally hit the ball off center to impart english. But what happens when you want to hit the cue ball on its vertical axis and accidently hit it slightly left or right of center? Well, the cue ball doesn’t go where you intended it to go. It deflects right or left.
A company called Predator has come along to create a shaft which produces low deflection for off center hits. To do this, they drill a hole from the tip of their shafts about four inches down. This hollow space towards the tip end of the shaft makes the shaft “tip light.” Now, when a cue ball is struck off center, the shaft deflects instead of the ball. Younger pool players (especially 9-ball players) love this. They can be less precise where they hit, and the cue ball still goes straight. However, there are at least two things that are paid for to gain this forgiveness. One is control and the other is feel. Using these shafts, it’s impossible to tell how much english is imparted on the cue ball when you want to hit it off center. Now most 9-ball pool players rarely hit with much english, and when they do, they don’t care about being too precise. However for a billiard player, knowing exactly how much english is imparted is absolutely vital.
As to feel, when using these hollow tip shafts, you lose the connection of feeling the tip hit the ball. Most pool players don’t care. They only know one stroke anyway, the short punch stroke, where you just kind of jab at the cue ball. Billiards players talk more about messaging the ball, stroking through the ball, and they need to learn dozens of different strokes. Feeling the tip on the ball is their life blood. Feeling this, and being able to really control the cue ball, is to me a great deal of what makes billiards fun and worth playing. This is also why I just knew I had to get blades.