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FOCUS ON GOLF | GOLF TECHNOLOGY / CLUB INNOVATIONS

Magic Wands

Club designers compete to make an extremely difficult game just a bit easier

August 14, 2003|ANDY BRUMER | Special to The Times

Today's equipment makers live in an intensely competitive world, one in which small changes in club design can have an enormous effect. They not only can make one of the world's most difficult games just a little easier, they also can ensure that some new clubs will quickly find their way into thousands of golf bags rather than discount shop recycle bins around the country.

Here's a look at what some of the industry's top club designers have to say about changes that have been made and what we might expect in the near future:

Drivers

Because of the fascination with hitting the ball long and straight, the game's most popular club remains the driver. Dick Helmstetter invented Callaway's Big Bertha stainless steel driver in 1991, though his latest design, the Great Big Bertha II, bears only a passing resemblance. The new clubhead is almost twice the size of the original, which in turn was probably a third larger than the old persimmon woods that are now a part of golf's history.

The new driver has a 385-cubic-centimeter thin-faced titanium clubhead and 45-inch graphite shaft, in that way similar to the modern crop of drivers from such major manufacturers as TaylorMade, Cobra, MAC by Burrows Golf, Titleist, LJC Golf, Ping, Adams, MacGregor, Mizuno, Wilson, Nike and others. All rev right up to the USGA's legal limits for trampoline effect, or bounce of the ball off the clubface; that measurement, the COR, or coefficient of restitution, cannot exceed .830. When a ball is struck with a driver at what has been the test speed of 109 mph, the driver's clubface compresses slightly, which means it stores and transfers more energy to the ball for distance.

Looking ahead, Helmstetter, senior executive vice president and chief of new products at Callaway, says, "The next breakthrough in drivers will be clubheads that are made out of materials that are just as strong as, or stronger than, titanium, but weigh a lot less. This will give designers greater options to strategically and more effectively move the center of gravity around to different positions depending on the driver's loft, so everyone will have the chance of achieving the kind of high launch/low-spin conditions that we know make for the longest and straightest drives."

TaylorMade offers three versions of its R500 driver, which allows golfers to choose a club that best complements their swings.

Most major equipment makers use suitcase-sized computerized devices called launch monitors to fit their tour pros for drivers, and that technology is becoming more available to the public. A launch monitor is connected to a high-speed camera or laser. During a club-fitting session, it records and analyzes data gathered at impact. From this information, operators extrapolate the distance, direction and trajectory of the shot, and this allows club fitters to help pick the best performing drivers for each golfer's swing.

Titleist has two vans equipped with launch monitors that travel to courses and driving ranges around the country, and Callaway offers fitting on launch monitors, either at its headquarters in Carlsbad or at licensed Callaway fitting centers in different cities.

Wedges, Irons

Todd Harman, director of product marketing for Cleveland Golf, says, 65% to 70% of all shots hit during a round are from 130 yards and in. That's why Cleveland offers 75 wedges, with different loft and bounce combinations in a range of metals and finishes. That every major equipment company not only makes wedges but devotes a good deal of research and development to their improvement is a good indication of the importance of these clubs. Wilson has even brought back a modernized version of its classic "Dyna-Powered" wedge line, originally issued in 1958.

"In the future, amateur golfers will copy today's trend on tour by adding more wedges in their bags," Harman says, "and will own several wedges with varying bounce and lofts to use on courses with different turf conditions."

A wonderful new concept has recently arrived on the iron scene.

Called "combo," "hybrid" or "blended" sets, they integrate various degrees of cavity-back and muscle-back irons into a set of clubs. Nike's new forged Pro Combo irons, for example, feature full cavity-backed long irons that help get the ball well up in the air; half-cavity-backed mid-irons, which blend forgiveness and control, and classic blade short irons for maximum shotmaking and accuracy. MacGregor offers a similar hybrid set as do TaylorMade and Adams Golf.

Classic muscle-back blades, traditionally much harder to hit than the forgiving cavity-backed clubs, also are making a comeback. Several manufacturers now offer blades with slightly larger clubheads to make these classically challenging-to-hit clubs more forgiving at impact.

Mike Ferris, vice president of marketing for Ben Hogan Golf, says golfers can create their own mixed, matched or split sets by selecting the combination of clubs they want from Hogan's blade, perimeter-weighted or oversized models.

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