The Good Life

High-Tech Golf Clubs

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

T minus five seconds and counting.

OK now. The feet should be shoulder-width apart. The V's made by the thumbs and forefingers should be pointing to the right shoulder. The knees should be slightly flexed.

T minus two seconds and counting.

The eyes should be focused on the back of the ball. Take your last breath. Concentrate. Start the take-away in one piece.

We have ignition.

Get the club to the top of the backswing slowly. Shift your weight slightly to your right side. Make sure to set the club at the top of the backswing. Don't yank the club on the downswing. Start to rotate your hips to the left and shift your weight to the left side as the club head comes into the ball.

We have liftoff.

Follow through with hands high and make sure to hold the pose. Swing away. You never know when you'll hit the shot of a lifetime, even if it wins a $5 Nassau and not the U.S. Open.

These days you are never quite sure whether you are about to launch a golf ball or the space shuttle as you ascend the first tee of the "Big Tree, Little Valley Golf Club." With a bag that could be filled with graphite, titanium, boron and magnesium formed into the latest in computer-designed, computer-manufactured clubs, we are a long way from the days when shepherds beat stones around a field with sticks in search of a hole in the ground.

The age of high-tech golf is here. Whereas once clubs were made of hand-fashioned wood, iron and steel, we have entered the age of woods made of metal or graphite--or ceramics derived from the heat-deflecting tiles developed for the space program. Most irons made today are no longer hand-forged, but are investments cast in a design known as perimeter weighting. Shafts are made of intermodulus graphite, of titanium with boron tips. And thanks to technology, today's golf ball goes straighter and lasts longer.

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.

"I was thinking that a tennis racket had its weight around the perimeter and the hitting area was in the middle," says Solheim. "I thought you could make a golf club with the weight at the toe and heel. So I worked on making a putter that way. I gave it to someone to try out and he said it had a sound like a ping, which is where I got the name."

He got Julius Boros to try the putter and he won the 1967 Phoenix Open using it. The age of high-tech golf had begun. Solheim went on to develop his Ping irons, with the weight distributed around the hitting area and the head offset from the shaft. He went on to develop club heads of beryllium copper and manganese bronze. He also went on to develop a considerable fortune as 30-handicappers, 20-handicappers, 10-handicappers and scratch players filled their bags with Solheim's perimeter-weighted wonders, the most important improvement in golf clubs since the steel shaft took over from hickory.

Toolmaker John Zebellean would develop the concept of metal woods in the 1970s, and entrepreneur Gary Adams would market them through his company Taylor Made Golf. Ely Callaway, the vintner, would sell his winemaking business, found a golf company and ultimately produce Big Bertha, the jumbo-headed metal driver that has virtually taken over the market. Metal woods, too, work on the principal of perimeter weighting, and Big Bertha pushed the weight to an extreme. Callaway introduced an even bigger metal wood this summer: Great Big Bertha. It is designed for high-handicap golfers; the size of the club face assures that if you can get it anywhere near the ball, you can hit it.

The graphite shaft was the brainchild of Frank Thomas, who conceived it when he was working for the Shakespeare Co. In charge of monitoring and approving golf equipment for the United States Golf Association, Thomas' job is to make sure that technology alone does not significantly improve a player's game or render golf courses obsolete.

These days a walk through any large golf-equipment retailer, or even through the local pro shop--can be a boggling trip through the computer age instead of a stroll through the romantic myth of the game. There are clubs manufactured by Cubic Balance that have Computer Made etched into the top of the metal woods. The Powerbilt Co.'s display touts the Ellipsoid of Power, which may either help you hit the ball farther or overthrow the government of Portugal. The Japanese club maker Mitsushiba has announced its Carbon Impact System, with carbon fibers in the cavity which, the company says, gives a softer feeling and focuses the power.

And just what are these Cleveland VAS Irons? Did they fall off a Roto-Rooter truck or what? These dark ovals of steel with the shaft entering at an odd angle and a sherbert-colored logo in the cavity may be high-tech, but they look more like a plumber's tool.

Wayne Cashman is the assistant coach of the Tampa Bay Lightning of the National Hockey League. The former all-star defenseman of the Boston Bruins is a cigar smoker and golfer. And he is passionate about his golf clubs. There is a vacant lot next to the Lightning's practice facility, and, on any given day before practice and sometimes after, you can find Cashman with a club in his hand, hitting a few short shots to work off nervous energy.

Cashman loves his clubs. Recently he took delivery of a brand-new set of Wilson Ultras with Firestick Shafts. The new clubs were still wrapped in plastic, resting against the back of his car on a balmy winter day. Still in the truck were a set of VAS irons, a set of beryllium Ping clubs and a bag of mixed clubs of varying technologies, including good old-fashioned irons with forged-steel heads.

"What else am I going to spend my money on?" asks Cashman between swings and puffs. "There's just something about putting a new club in your hand: it makes you feel better right off the bat. I love looking at new clubs. It's kind of a hobby just to buy them."

Cashman is a decent 14-handicapper who is better in the summer when hockey is on hiatus. He is also proof that putting a new club, almost any club, in someone's hands boosts confidence and lowers the old handicap, at least a trifle.

The USGA's Thomas has been keeping track of player performance for 25 years. Of course the players he keeps track of are touring professionals, the best in the world. What he sees in their performance is an anomaly. Despite the fact that clubs and golf balls are being touted as better than ever, it can't be proved with any certainty in cold, hard statistics.

"All in all, when you look at everything together--accuracy, length--it hasn't improved much at all in 25 years," says Thomas. "The average driving distance [of a tour professional] was 262 yards in 1993. In 1967, it was 258. Greens in regulation haven't improved any."

While it would be next to impossible to accurately track the performance of your average golfer, Thomas looks at the overall average handicap of 17, which hasn't changed in a generation. There are so many factors that play a part in explaining that static figure, like the avalanche of new players in the 1980s, that it might well be meaningless. Nevertheless, high-tech golf's impact from a practical standpoint can only be measured on individual players, and most think that new clubs and new balls help their games.

"The USGA isn't concerned about players who hit the ball 180 yards with their driver," says Thomas. "We look at what elite golfers are doing. We don't want them to make golf courses obsolete and we must make sure that technology isn't helping them to a great extent."

Thomas doesn't discount high-tech golf's effect on the average player. "I think it has helped the older player," says Thomas. "With graphite shafts, you don't have to swing harder to get more distance. And the perimeter-weighted clubs mean that you don't have to hit the ball in the center of the club all the time. It helps to minimize the bad shots more than make good shots better."

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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