When talking about the category of wedges, most golfers mean the gap wedge, sand wedge and lob wedge. Although a pitching wedge has "wedge" in its name, it is usually grouped with the other irons. This is because a typical, off-the-shelf set of irons for sale will include a 3-iron through a pitching wedge.
The gap wedge, sand wedge and lob wedge are often sold separately, or as a 3-club subset.
Because the focus with wedges is on accuracy - trying to hit a short shot as close as possible to the flagstick - wedges are often referred to as the "scoring clubs."
As a beginner, you will not need to concern yourself too much with wedges other than the pitching wedge. Gap and lob wedges are common in the bags of better players, and sand wedges are fairly common for all players. But beginners should not feel obligated to pick up a sand wedge right off the bat. These are specialized clubs for specialized uses, remember, and you'll want to learn how to use the more basic clubs first.
Wedges feature the shortest shafts and highest lofts of any golf clubs. In fact, wedges are often identified by their loft rather than their name. A lob wedge might instead be called a "60-degree wedge," for example.
Sand wedges were invented (generally credited to Gene Sarazen) to make shots out of sand bunkers easier (although many amateurs find sand shots to be very diffult, a sand shot is among the easiest shots in golf for accomplished players). The typical sand wedge might have a loft around 56 degrees.
As lofts on irons have decreased over time (e.g., a 5-iron today might be lofted at 26 degrees, whereas 30 years ago a 5-iron would have been lofted at 32 degrees), it has become more popular to carry additional wedges.
A typical lob wedge might have a loft of 60 degrees (some pros also carry "X-wedges" with lofts even greater). As its name implies, a lob wedge allows a player to "lob" the ball high into the air, from where it will drop steeply down onto the green, with little or no roll.
With pitching wedges typically lofted from 45 to 48 degrees, the gap wedge is so-called because it closes the "gap" in loft between the pitching wedge and sand wedge. A typical gap wedge might might be lofted from 50-54 degrees.
All irons, including wedges, feature a design property known as "bounce." Bounce is a concept that even golfers who have been playing for decades may not understand, or may misunderstand. So no beginner should worry too much if he hears other golfers talking about "bounce" and doesn't have a clue what it means. You're not required to at this point. But if you'd like to know what "bounce" is, check the definition in our Glossary.
If you do not purchase a sand wedge right off the bat, you'll want to use your pitching wedge for sand shots around the green.
As for the appropriate time to use other wedges, that will, of course, be determined primarily by the yardage of your shot. On full shots from the fairway, a typical recreational male golfer might hit a sand wedge about 65-75 yards yards; women, 45-60. A lob wedge would be 40-50 yards for men, 25-40 for women. A gap wedge would fall in between your pitching wedge and sand wedge yardages.
And these clubs will, when properly struck, produce a very high, arching shot. So if you need to get over a tree, for example, a wedge comes in handy. Or if you're off the green with a big bunker right between you and the flagstick, a high, arching shot with a wedge is a good choice. Because wedge shots have such a high trajectory, they tend to roll very little once they hit the green. More accomplished players can produce a great deal of backspin with a wedge, causing the ball to back up (or "bite") once it hits the green.
Any wedge can also be used for chipping around the green.
As a beginner, consider the gap wedge and lob wedge specialty clubs to turn to later in your golf career. A sand wedge is optional for beginners, but will likely be one of the first "add-ons" you purchase if you become addicted to golf.
Video: Meet the lob wedge