In all of the sports that don’t require a motor, nowhere has the effect of technology been more apparent than in golf. The challenge of increasing performance through technology rather than technique while remaining within the bounds of the rules of the game has actually resulted in those rules having to adapt to the achievements of the techno geeks.
Much of the concentration of golfing’s tech revolution has been directed toward the driver. The “big stick” is the go-to club to start a hole as many as 14 times a round, and as such no club has as much potential to influence a rounds success. An extra twenty yards off the tee can effectively cut a respectable 7200-yard course to a very moderate 6900, carving precious strokes off the scorecard and ultimately the handicap.
Rather than years of lessons, practice and the honing of one’s technique, all this can be yours by performing simple forearm curls with your MasterCard or Visa.
Where the sound of persimmon striking precisely on the back of a dimpled golf ball was once the sweetest in sports, it now has the ring of failure. A tour pro could no more compete with wood on the end of his shaft than a NASCAR racer could succeed in a Model T, and the average weekender would lose a prodigious amount of side bet money keeping old faithful in his bag as well.
Just as in the evolution of tennis racquets, steel made a brief appearance at the end of the driver. But like Jimmy Connor’s round headed Wilson, it was soon overtaken by more sophisticated materials that had more refined characteristics.
Today, that material of choice is titanium. The advantages of titanium include both high strength, providing a durable tool, and light weight. While the strength makes it practical, it’s the light weight that makes it indispensable. Titanium club heads can be fully one-third larger than their predecessors of comparable weight, making the “sweet spot” of the clubface where a strike will produce a positive result considerably bigger. This larger sweet spot creates a club that is far more forgiving of a swing technique which results in less predictable club head-to-ball contact, giving a big leg up to the average golfer.
But here is where the physics nerds really got in high gear and impacted the rules of golf as they apply to equipment. Titanium also had another advantage over its predecessors. The light weight of the material allowed for more creativity in the shape of the golf head, and the combination of these new shapes with the incredible strength of titanium was able to be tweaked to provide unprecedented transference of energy from the swing to the ball. This “pop” to the ball strike could be quantified, and introduced a new element to the clubface that in the end was limited by the rules of golf. Designated COR (Coefficient of Restitution), this factor reaches a theoretical perfection at 1.00, and designers were rapidly approaching this, making a mockery of course yardage norms. The USGA put a limit on COR of 0.83 for tour professionals. This efficiency has still made the new technology so dominant that the 600-plus yard par 5 is no longer quite the aberration it once was on the PGA tour.
There is a price to pay for these advancements. Titanium is a difficult element to mine, and the construction of useful products from it must take place in a vacuum, resulting in very high production costs. Coupled with the usual high dollars spent in the advertising trenches, these clubs can sport price tags in the mid-to-upper hundreds.
Another innovation to the golf head has been the introduction of ways to influence the swing by shifting the weight balance of the head to adjust to the individual golfer. Callaway Drivers are known for this. This has been achieved by allowing plugs of varying weights to be screwed into the club head in strategic locations, changing the location of the sweet spot of the club’s face. Now the golfer can dial in a club to help correct for tendencies that she can not seem to correct for herself. Both the slice and hook of the swing can be affected, as well as ball trajectory by shifting the club head’s weight forward or back. Once again designers have influenced the rules of the game, as these weights are not allowed to be changed during the course of a round, but may be adjusted between rounds.
Graphite and multi-material shafts now dominate driver technology. Graphite shafts can be manufactured to create a variety of flex characteristics, and their lighter weight over their steel predecessors has made them the overwhelming choice on the tee box. Multi-material shafts are somewhat new, blending different materials with the intent of getting a “best of both worlds” result. Typically matching a longer steel section for control with a shorter graphite “whip” for club head velocity, these hybrid shafts are still being evaluated by the weekend warriors.
Today’s golfer has amazing new technology available, but these innovations are not cheap. Though they represent great strides in performance, they are endangering a trend of turning golf into a game for everyman back to a sport of the elite. If being competitive in the sport is going to require an equity loan, it may translate into a reversal of its explosive growth. As in all things technological, however, time will surely find these advancements more affordable, delivering that incomparable feeling of drilling one down the middle with the big stick to the masses of Walter Mittys among us.