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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)

These clubs are not made for players like Jack Nicklaus or Greg Norman or Nick Faldo, though their names can be found on plenty of high-tech golf equipment. Occasionally you can even find them playing these clubs. High-tech clubs are made for high-handicap players with money to burn and a burning desire to get that handicap below 30 for the first time.

"When I was working for MacGregor," says Clay Long, a club-design consultant in Albany, Georgia, "we often talked about the fact that we were making clubs that 30-handicappers used, but we had to get a Jack Nicklaus or a Greg Norman to play them or endorse them so the 30-handicapper would buy them. And a guy who's a 30 handicapper doesn't know the difference between a good club and a bad club because he can't hit it on the face more than one out of 10 swings."

Pro golfers make their livelihood from the way they swing what they swing. They are usually the first to use high-tech products; metal woods and perimeter-weighted (cavity-backed) irons are in prolific use on the pro tours. Players often think that steel shafts give them the best feel for their iron shots, thus they often use graphite shafts in their metal-headed drivers. You can find some titanium shafts in use on the tour; other players use graphite shafts with a boron tip for added strength.

Golf-club manufacturers make their money selling clubs to amateur golfers, and the fact is that high-tech golf clubs are generally perceived by the everyday player as improving their games. That's why they will spend $1,100 for a set of Ping Zing 2 irons with graphite shafts, $300 for a Callaway metal wood or $150 for a new Callaway Big Bertha iron. And that's why Long and hundreds of other golf-club designers devote their days to finding the right combination of material and design that will lower your handicap to 29 without altering that 15-piece swing you can't take out of town because no one has parts.

The high-tech golf club is generationally different from its predecessors in three important areas. New materials like graphite allow it to be lighter. New designs allow the "sweet spot," the area of the club where solid contact is made, to be bigger. And new manufacturing techniques allow greater consistency club to club, set to set.

Graphite is the material that has had the single greatest impact on the game and it has come a long way from the introduction of the whippy graphite shafts of 20 years ago. Graphite consists of carbon fibers embedded in varying materials. Because its strength-to-weight ratio is better than steel, more of the weight of the club can be shifted to the club head. "We're using military-grade graphite materials that are very light and very strong," says Dan Callicott, vice president of Mitsushiba International. "We have much more flexibility in design with graphite. We can mold it into many different shapes that allow us to make shafts with varying flex and flex points."

Other materials, like titanium, Kevlar (a Dupont product used in bulletproof clothing), boron and ceramics are used in shafts. At a recent golf-equipment show, manufacturers unveiled titanium metal woods. But as a material, graphite remains kind of high-tech.

Callicott's company, like all club makers, takes advantage of computer manufacturing that allows new designs to be developed and produced quickly. Computers connected to milling machines can cut a master club head, which can then be used to create the molds in which thousands of identical clubs will be cast. This is a vast departure from the days when clubs were produced by artisans, with irons made on a blacksmith's anvil and woods created with the skill of a cabinetmaker.

"The average golf club is far better than it was 15 years ago," says Long. "Even guys buying them at Kmart can get good clubs these days."

You won't find Karsten Solheim at Kmart, however. Solheim invented Ping golf clubs and in so doing he became the father of high-tech golf. His clubs are among the most popular and expensive in the world market. His ideas fostered a revolution in club-making that rolls on unabated today. And to think it all started when Solheim, an engineer with General Electric in Syracuse, New York, in the early 1960s, thought about how he could apply the physics of a tennis racket to a putter. It was the beginning of the concept of perimeter weighting, and Solheim first applied it to putters.

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