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Tug-of-war over golf technology fought to a draw

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Golf clubs have improved in size, distance and accuracy since the first metal wood was introduced in 1979.

As a touring professional, David Mathis gets all the clubs he wants now, but he still remembers the last time he had that kid-on-Christmas-morning feeling about a new club.

“When that TaylorMade Raylor came out, with the grooves on the bottom? I thought, ‘Man, I gotta have me one of those,’ ” Mathis, who grew up in the Winston-Salem area and now lives in North Raleigh, said. “Since then, I probably hadn’t thought that in a while.”

That was around 1988. Mathis still has one at his house, one he played with at Campbell. By today’s standards, the small-headed metal wood is outdated. And yet even with all the new technology available to pros like Mathis, that’s the one that stands out in his mind – in part because there’s only so far technology can go these days.

In many areas, club manufacturers have pushed the envelope to the brink of what the U.S. Golf Association allows within the rules. That includes, most notably, driver distance. Since 2011, the USGA has limited the springiness of both the clubface and the golf ball, which puts a physical limit on how much energy can be transferred from swing to ball.

“You can change the shape and trajectory, but as far as hitting it farther, it’s pretty close,” Mathis said. “This is about as far as I’m going to hit it probably, unless I get in the gym.”

And yet the tug-of-war between the USGA and manufacturers goes on. While distance is limited, there are other areas for potential improvement which require considerable innovation by manufacturers and examination by the USGA. It’s a process conducted cordially but elaborately, with the USGA maintaining a massive testing lab in New Jersey to oversee the process.

“We have about 80 people in research and development trying to innovate, within the rules,” said Eric Soderstrom, a spokesman for Acushnet, which includes Titleist and other brands. “The USGA makes the rules and our job is to make great products within the rules.”

The leap forward

It wasn’t always like this. The golf equipment of the ’70s wasn’t dramatically different than it had been for decades. Balls had wound cores covered in balata. Irons were forged blades. Woods were made out of persimmon. That all changed in the 1980s and 1990s, when golf technology took an exponential leap forward.

Solid-core balls with plastic covers flew farther and spun faster while increasing durability, especially after Titleist introduced the Pro V1 in 2000. The introduction of cast, cavity-back irons made the game far more forgiving for the average player, and square grooves imparted more spin on the ball.

TaylorMade’s first metal woods resembled their persimmon counterparts, but the clubheads soon ballooned in size with the use of aerospace metals like titanium while adding added movable weights allowing players to customize shot shapes. Bigger heads had bigger sweet spots; lighter heads allowed players to use longer shafts.

As drives flew farther and iron shots straighter, the USGA and its counterpart overseas, the Royal & Ancient Golf Club of St. Andrews, scrambled to keep up before the majority of golf courses became obsolete.

Since the introduction of the first metal wood in 1979, manufacturers discovered that by expanding the size of the clubhead and using advanced materials like titanium and composites, they could increase the trampoline effect of the club face. Average driving distance on the PGA Tour has jumped almost 40 yards in 30 years, from 255 yards in 1980 to more than 290 in 2012 – attributable not only to longer drivers but better balls, improved conditions and stronger, more athletic players.

“It’s kept me out there for 30 years,” 14-time PGA Tour winner Kenny Perry said. “As I’ve watched the evolution, as I moved along with the changes in clubs and balls, it didn’t hurt me at all. It actually helped me.”

Worried about the impact on a game necessarily limited by real estate, in 1998, the USGA limited what is called the “coefficient of restitution,” or COR. Simply put, this is the percentage of the swing’s energy transferred from the clubhead to the ball. The USGA limited COR to .830, which meant that no more than 83 percent of the energy of the swing could be transferred to the ball. (The R&A adopted the standard in 2002.)

Manufacturers quickly hit that limit and found ways to continue to push the envelope. The USGA and R&A have since limited driver head size, shaft length and other technical specifications.

“Every time we think about an idea, we know the boundaries we have to operate within,” said Benoit Vincent, the chief technical officer for TaylorMade-adidas Golf. “When we have a great idea, we have to make sure that the way we develop it, we push the idea within the boundaries of the legal realm.”

In 2010, after USGA research showed players were getting unusual amounts of spin out of the rough, new rules restricting the depth and spacing of grooves were adopted. But the USGA isn’t always holding back: It considered and approved the use of movable weights in drivers long before manufacturers realized their appeal to players.

Manufacturer’s dilemma

At the USGA’s testing facility, which stretches over 20,000 square feet in addition to an outdoor range, John Spitzer leads a team of engineers, technicians, lawyers and machines that test all kinds of equipment from clubs to hats, for legality. Last year, the USGA tested more than 2,500 pieces of equipment as well as 25,000 balls representing more than 1,200 individual ball types, Spitzer said.

Sometimes it’s as simple as a matter of interpretation, as was the case with a padded glove that held a golfer’s hand in proper position. (Illegal). Most of the time, it gets a little more complicated, because the rules are extremely technical – and the specific details closely guarded.

“We dedicate a lot of time and energy to R&D and innovation,” Acushnet’s Soderstrom said. “Unfortunately we can’t discuss the details or give anything away.”

Very rarely is the USGA surprised by a new club. Because of the enormous costs of development, tooling and production, clubmakers seek USGA approval very early in the process, typically meeting with Spitzer and the USGA armed with drawings, data and prototypes.

“They won’t just have one prototype from a 3-D printer,” said Spitzer, the USGA’s managing director for equipment standards. “They’ll have five of them, and say, ‘What about this one?’ That might be the most aggressive one, and somewhere between sample 1 and sample 5, we’ll be able to tell them which one might be the most likely to conform.”

Spitzer and his team usually need only a couple of weeks to deliver an assessment, but some unusual products can take longer. TaylorMade developed a driver for the Japanese market that melded a polymer covering to a composite face on a titanium body in a previously unused combination of materials. The USGA needed two months to assess that particular club.

“It was a very new material and they were wondering if it was generating unusual launch characteristics,” Vincent said. “The composite face is covered with a polymer material on top of it and there are grooves in the polymer, so the construction was very novel. It’s a departure from the conventional titanium face so it was a hard and a soft material. It took them time to make sure there was nothing that was very strange for them that this dual material construction and the launch characteristics.”

Manufacturers continue to chafe at the restrictions, understandably. From their perspective, more distance would mean more clubs to sell to more golfers. Vincent said his engineers could easily get the COR of a driver up to .860 now and theoretically up to .930 over a period of years, which would equate to an additional 25 yards off the tee for even the average player.

“Either you can play the black tees or score better from the white tees, which I prefer,” Vincent said. “It wouldn’t be very complicated for the industry to do that.”

DeCock: ldecock@newsobserver.com, @LukeDeCock, 919-829-8947
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