Golf Goes High Tech
Forbes- Wednesday, March 25, 2009
Golf Goes High Tech
By Taylor Buley
BURLINGAME, Calif.--There's not much of a downside to high-tech golf gear--if you can afford it. Not only can the stuff eventually make you a better golfer, but in the short run it will also make you look good.
High-tech equipment makers are eager to make special equipment for every part of the golfing experience--from gear that helps you analyze the world around you, to outerwear that protects you, down to the very soles of your golfing shoes. Choose the right technology, and you can indeed lower your score, lengthen your career and simply have more fun.
Start with your clubs and stick with science. Over the years, club makers have gone back to the books to study a physics concept called "moment of inertia" to improve the performance--and now the looks--of clubs from putters to drivers.
Moment of inertia, or "MOI," measures an object's resistance to a change in rotational direction. The clubs are designed to have a high MOI so that you can connect even if your swing is a bit out of whack. A high MOI makes a club more stable and forgiving when a golfer hits a ball off-center.
In the past, golf club designers have calibrated high MOI into drivers, generally by increasing their size until they reach almost grapefruit-like proportions. The U.S. Professional Golf Association finally put a limit on the volume of driver heads. Now, designers are molding that paradigm into shapes that compliment more traditional golf sensibilities.
But manufacturers are still pushing the physical limits of MOI limits for drivers, says Golf Digest equipment editor Mike Stachura. Callaway's new FTiQ driver, for example, is designed to push weight so far back that from behind it looks like the tail end of a Corvette.
Golf equipment makers are now also now using MOI to make putters tap the ball better. The trend toward weighted putters comes several decades after Ping founder Karsten Solheim first floated the idea.
Club designers are shifting the weight of the putter head to the corners and the back of the club, says Tom Wisham, a custom club maker based in Durango, Colo. Although the wildest shapes are getting toned down, he notes, for now, the trend favors odd-looking putters that perform better when hit off-center.
Golf technology innovation just gets started with the clubs, though. Gone are the days of persimmon woods and blade irons--and also wool sweaters and granite stones disguised as golf balls. Today, manufacturers are preoccupied with even the most nuanced characteristics of golf balls.
These days, the best golf balls are multi-layered engineering wonders: a soft core, covered with a firm medium layer and shelled in a soft plastic casing. The layered structure makes the ball feel soft when hit with a slower swing and hard when belted at higher velocities. "Today's golf balls are the best of both worlds," says Stachura.
The latest in golf ball engineering, says Stachura, involves figuring out how to optimize golf balls for specific golfer types. The Bridgestone B330RX, for instance, is a good pick for average golfers with swing speeds less than 105 miles per hour. A pro, whose swing likely averages around 110 mph, would get better results from something like a Titleist Pro V1. Tiger Woods hits the ball at around 125 mph--and so can use whatever he wants.
For golfing mortals, understanding one's golf swing is an important step. Long gone are the days of hauling around bulky video cameras for training and analysis, says Joseph Hallett, the Professional Golf Association's lead instructor. Instead, today's amateurs can get customized analytics with just a few swings at a computerized launch monitor.
At the PGA Center for Learning and Performance, Hallett uses the TaylorMade MAT-T System to gather swing information and statistics via multiple high-speed cameras. The service takes place indoors, costs around $350 and takes a half hour or so.
"We've been able to utilize physics and the technology of fitting to help the player realize he can get more distance without doing the proverbial swing harder, swing longer, swing faster," says Hallet.
The result? Golfers learn to swing more efficiently, and predictably. Thanks to a combination of technology and technique, vibrations are dampened and people are able to play longer. Consequentially, almost every major golf manufacturer is developing its own home brew of launch monitor technology.
One system, developed by Trackman, works outdoors and uses Dopplar radar to track the distance and trajectory of soaring golf balls. The Trackman displays the ball's flight path in real-time 3-D images and spits out precise data, literally on the fly, about how the golfer attacked the ball and what that means for her golf game.
Another popular technology, the SkyCaddie SG4 GPS ranger finder, plots location information on a course map and gives advice on things like distance and angle of approach. The device gives such a competitive advantage that some traditional golf courses, like the Myopia Hunt Club in South Hamilton, Mass., prohibit its use for club tournaments.
And then there's the garb that golfers wear. Knickerbockers and tasseled white shoes have been resigned to the back closet.
Zappos.com athletic-shoe buyer Paul Piwowarczyk says that innovation in golf shoes is happening in two different directions, in two different places: upper shoe designs are getting more casual even as sole designs are getting more technical.
Up top, the many forward-thinking designs are trending toward a casual sneaker look. In that area, says Piwowarczyk, Puma excels: "It's given them their niche, and it's helped them gain some market share," he says.
Piwowarczyk says he couldn't resist buying a pair of Pumas for himself, the C-Hopper cleat, saying he liked the casual style. "I'm not good enough to actually look like I'm a high-tech guy," he jokes.
By contrast, the bottom of golf shoes are getting more high tech. "A lot of it has to do with the spikes," says Piwowarczyk. Though the days of metal spikes are long gone, he says, companies are still tinkering with spike placement and composition to increase performance and stability.
One popular shoe, the Adidas Tour 360 3.0, adds a rubber chassis to its 10-spike configuration for what the company says is a more sure-footed platform that distributes pressure better. Pursuing another direction, Italian shoemaker Geox has rubber and leather patents that make their golf shoes waterproof but still permeable to foot sweat and water vapor.
Smart shoes are always more eye catching when paired with the latest golfing duds. And what could a golfer-guy want more than a rain suit with networking technology built in? Don't tell mom, but Ralph Lauren has one tricked-out with Bluetooth technology so you don't have to spend 18 rain-drenched holes feeling all alone.
"Men are more accepting of technology within golf wear then they are just about anywhere else," says Annmarie Dodd, fashion editor for the Association of Golf Manufacturers. "Once men understand the components, it's like shopping for stereos and cars--they kind of get hooked into it."
The latest golf-apparel technology is drawing influence from other high-exposure sports like skiing and endurance training. The latest Nike Dri-Fit polos are dipped in a treatment that provides UV protection to SPF 30. Dunning Sportswear's Tour Stretch jacket is tailored to mirror muscle movement and eliminate excess fabric.
Meanwhile, moisture-wicking fabric is becoming increasingly refined. "When it first came out, the fabrics were really spongy and obvious," says Dodd. "The biggest trend for the summer is that golf polos will have all the technical bells and whistles, but not look like it."
The result is that lots of technologies that started in golf wear are now moving their way into mainstream apparel. Traditional-looking shirts like Nike's Tiger Woods collection now come standard in moisture-wicking Dri-Fit fabric.
The only downside to all this great gear for the amateur golfer? Your only answer to the classic "what's your handicap?" might have to be "my wallet."