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High-Tech Golf Clubs

Can New Golf-Club Technology and Design Improve Your Game? Maybe Yes. Maybe No.
Jeff Williams
From the Print Edition:
George Burns, Winter 94/95

(continued from page 1)

He subscribes to a theory called the Placebo Effect, which he defines thusly: "You look at the new clubs with a positive view; your mind doesn't get in the way of your swing and you hit the ball well. It's confidence--pure and simple."

Confidence, as well as high-tech, could be the reason why the Odyssey putter has become such a hit on the Senior Tour this season, with players like Jim Albus using it to win tournaments. In Odyssey's Dual Force putter, the face has a cavity into which Stronomic, a thermoplastic, is inserted. Stronomic is supposed to create a softer feeling on impact, as if the ball were staying on the club face longer.

"I don't know why it works," says Albus, "but it does."

The balls coming off all these high-tech putter faces, perimeter-weighted irons and metal woods are clearly better than they were a generation ago. In fact most research and development conducted by golf companies went into ball technology, to make it fly farther and straighter and, for the average golfer, last longer. "I've said all along it's the ball," says Jack Nicklaus, himself the owner of a club- making company under his name. "The new clubs allow some poor players to get the ball airborne more often, but the balls just fly straighter now than they did back then, even off bad hits."

And now the Wilson Golf Co. has given us the 500-dimple golf-ball. Three different sizes of dimples are used in 60 repeating triangular faces on the ball. It is a design, according to Wilson, that allows initial velocity to be maintained longer while also maintaining ball stability for a more accurate flight. The same aerodynamic principles and designs featured in NASA rockets and Indy 500 cars, reads the promotional material.

All golf balls have distance capability. The key for golf-ball makers is to produce a ball with the correct aerodynamics and that difficult-to-define quality of "feel." Ralph Petersen manages the research and development of golf balls for Wilson. He has aerospace technology experience, as does co-worker Bob Thurman, who is the principal designer of the 500-dimple ball. "We are constantly working on producing a ball with the optimum lift and drag coefficients," says Peterson. "We are always trying for a more accurate flight."

Aren't we all?

In the modern two-piece ball, feel comes from a combination of the core and the covering. Core can be made of many different materials, but is essentially made of hard synthetic-rubber balls. The coverings of mass-produced balls are made from ionomers, or thermoplastics, and ball scientists struggle mightily to find the right combination of ionomers that have the right feel--firm coming off the driver, soft coming off a wedge or a putter.

Thomas has read promotional material and tested clubs and golf balls for more than two decades. "The average golfer should see some benefit to high-tech golf clubs. We mustn't believe too much of the advertising claims, but at the same time we don't want to get rid of the mystique of the golf club," says Thomas. "We are all trying to find clubs that help us play better. We like to fall in love with golf clubs."

Jeff Williams is a senior sportswriter for New York Newsday.


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