Golf and technology hit a slight bump in the road

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Golf and technology may not really sound like a compatible couple, after all, chasing a dimpled ball into a hole in the fewest amount of hits doesn’t necessarily sound like rocket science.

However, as with any sport, equipment is getting more and more sophisticated and the stakes grow continually higher.

Golfing technology has manifested itself in all aspects of the game. The club head, ball, and shaft have all undergone high-tech changes since the days of Sam Snead and Ben Hogan. “Metal” woods are designed using aerospace technologies and made from compression-cured carbon composites. Shafts are now made from flexible titanium that bends according to the rate at which the golfer swings. And the little dimpled balls that we continually lose are encased in a high performance, soft, 0.030 inch thin Urethane elastomer cover.

Many manufacturers also offer custom fitting, which allows a golfer to become a test subject whose swing stance and grip are scrutinized. Each individual golfer is then paired with clubs that cater to their strengths and downplay shortcomings.

Companies test their R & D concepts with computer-aided design, advanced computer modeling, durability trials, and finally robot and player testing.

Increases in technology for any sport are money-motivated. In the case of golf, equipment advances are geared towards increasing the enjoyment for participants and spectators alike. The more people involved with a sport, the better the bottom line for the companies that do business within that sport.

This revolution in the technology that drives golf has, however, come to a crossroads that represents one of the core questions involved with a sport whose technology is coming of age. The courting of golf by technology is becoming an issue of how much is too much.

One of the most recent examples of golf’s uneasy marriage to technology is a little detail called the Coefficient of Restitution (COR); the speed at which a ball will rebound off the club face relative to the speed at which the ball is traveling when it hits the club face.

More basically, if you own a driver with a COR of .83, for every 100 miles of club speed you generated, the ball will rebound off the club at 83 miles per hour. Translation, the higher the COR of a club, the farther the ball travels.

Here’s where the golf and technology marriage gets a little interesting.

The two worldwide governing bodies of golf, the United States Golf Association (USGA) and the Royal and Ancient Golf Club (R & A), agreed on a proposal last May that would allow recreational golfers to use clubs with up to a .86 COR, while holding touring professionals at the .83 COR level.

Many golf equipment manufacturers were elated at the fact that all the R & D money spent on developing these clubs would not go to waste. Others took it one step further and believed the proposal was a crystal clear sign to begin aggressive marketing efforts to sell the club that will be legal on January 1, 2003.

Three months later, the USGA and the R & A decided to abandon the proposal, outlawing clubs with a COR above .83 in the U. S. for club tournament and handicap play. Now, only the most recreational of golfers can use the $500-$700 drivers on a regular basis.

The R & A and the USGA went a step further and warned that they would guard against excessive technological advances in the game of golf.

This was a short honeymoon to say the least.

At least 15 U.S. companies had high-COR drivers in the works, many of which had already sold or were planning to introduce their brand to retailers and the public at just about the same time the proposal was scrapped.

This reversal of fortune and the ensuing technology warning puts the business of golf in a rather precarious position, at least from an equipment manufacturer’s perspective.

Companies like Callaway Golf, who spends over $25 million a year on research and development, are now wondering what they can and cannot develop.

The number one objective for any sports equipment manufacturer is to design a product that will give it’s consumers an advantage over the competition. This is Sports Marketing 101.

The quest for more distance, by way of a high COR driver, is a 101 lesson that is made possible by most companies in the form of thin-faced driver technology.

This technology, as used by Callaway on their ERC II drivers, separates the “thin face” from the rest of the club head, allowing the high COR material of the sweet spot to contact the golf ball more directly. This can translate into an increase in distance by as much as 12 yards for the experienced golfer.

Seems harmless enough, right?

The problem is, equipment design should never be a major factor in deciding the outcome of a sporting event. With the USGA and R & A’s decision to regulate equipment advances, professional golf has joined a long list of sports that keep a watchful eye on the role technology plays within the game.

Whether equipment manufacturers or participants are aware, the two governing bodies of golf have set a healthy precedent to keep the game as pure and competitive as possible. With all due respect to corporate use of Sports Marketing 101, this decision does more to cement the long-term success of professional golf than a 12 extra yard driver ever could.

Imagine what would happen if equipment company A, with spokesperson/player B, developed a driver with a COR of .95. Player B goes out with his superior club and wins three straight tournaments. Who is going to watch tournament number four? No one.

Golf and technology will continue to have these growing pains as they learn to live together, but after all, isn’t the true test of a prosperous marriage longevity for both sides?