Golf Technology Forecast - 2008
Dave Tutelman - May
This year Tom Wishon gave the keynote speech at the World Scientific
Congress of Golf V. His topic was "Past, Present, and Future of Golf
Club Technology." (See this
link for a video of his complete speech.) I felt he did a
fine job on the past and present, but I had a somewhat different take
the future. (Of course, all technology forecasters have minor or major
disagreements -- there's that old saw about "difference of opinion is
what makes horse races." It's healthy.) Anyway, I decided to record my
take on it.*
There is one important aspect of Wishon's forecast that I'd like to use
starting point for my own. The major theme of his forecast is that the
big, untapped area in club and ball technology is custom fitting, and
that is where most future advances will take place. I like that! I
don't know whether it's because I believe it or just that I'd like to
believe it. But let's start with that notion, and see where my own
forecast goes with it...
Why fitting -- and why not
First, why is clubfitting technology the next thing that will be called
into importance? (Wishon touched on some of this in his talk.) The
answers are Rules
Limits. Most technology advances in golf clubs have been
applied to making things bigger, lighter, higher-energy-transfer, or
higher-MOI. That's not just the past decade, when tech advances have
been visible, widely advertised, and explicit. If you look at every
advance in the past century, it has been either one of the above, or
the ability to manufacture consistency at a reasonable price (e.g.- the
steel shaft replacing hickory).
We are close to the end of the line for bigger, lighter,
higher-energy-transfer, and higher MOI. Consider:
So advances in fitting equipment to golfers is where we will see
technology applied best, by a process
of elimination. We are past the era of absolute differences in
performance -- technology that improves performances for all golfers.
What is left is technology to match different club and ball specs to
the individual golfer.
- The Rules have been limiting clubhead dimensions and MOI
for the past couple of years, and promise to do so until "progress"
stops. (I put the word "progress" in quotes, because I don't believe it
is necessarily progress to make a prerequisite to playing competitively
the spending of money on the latest equipment. But you already know I
that if you've read my
- Similarly, the Rules are imposing limits on the clubhead
and the ball so the maximum distance can be limited. I'm not sure they
have gotten it right yet, but they appear determined to continue until
they do. In the meantime, advances in the cracks between the Rules may
yield a little "progress", but nothing to write home about.
- With all those Rule limitations, there isn't any reason for
materials innovation in the clubhead, except to improve consistency or
price. (Or to have something that you can advertise as product
differentiation. There are plenty of examples of advertised
technology that in fact do not do anything measurable
for performance. But in this article, I'm going to focus on
- There is room for weight reduction in shafts -- but not a lot. In
two decades, we have seen shaft weight drop from 120 grams to 50, a 60%
drop. There isn't that much left before we get to zero, and zero is not
going to happen anyway. The technology advances in shafts are more
likely to be manufacturability, consistency, and price. Price is likely
to be a big issue, since both carbon fiber and resins are dependent on
|But there's also a "why not?" aspect to this. Or maybe
There is some question that the bulk of technology advances in the
foreseeable future will involve fitting golfers to clubs or balls.
Nevertheless, it is intriguing enough that I am as willing as Wishon to
let it be the theme for this look at future technology. So let's
- You will
hear about the huge technology advances in golf clubs with every new
wave of models introduced. It is possible that some will actually have
technology advances worth talking about. Most will not! Most of those
advances -- like most of the advertised "advances" of the past decade
-- will be puffery, pure and simple. There have been lots of
highly-touted (and widely spent-upon) features of the past 10-20 years
that provided only a minimal improvement or, worse, no real improvement
Consider a case in point: the gain of a full club of
distance in the irons over ten years. There is no doubt that this has
happened -- that today's 7-iron hits the ball as far as yesteryear's
6-iron. But why? Technology? Nope! The table shows the loft specs I
from the TaylorMade web site, for their "average golfer" irons from the
years of 1994 and 2004. The loft changes alone would account for nearly
a club's increase in distance. If you factor in that the "standard"
length of an iron has increased a half inch over that time, you
explain the increase in distance. In fact, today's 7-iron is
yesteryear's 6-iron. Technology
(BTW, TaylorMade was hardly
the only company to be involved in these "loft wars", nor were they the
first, nor were they the worst offenders. They just happened to be
where I found supporting data first.)
- Real custom clubfitting may not happen on a large
scale, in which case
the technology to enable it will not be needed. Tom Wishon is
optimistic that the industry -- and particularly customers -- will
embrace clubfitting. I see little evidence to support that yet. The big
name brands continue to sell by advertising and endorsement, and pay
only lip service to custom fitting. They have the motivation not to
allow a foothold for the independent clubfitting expert. So it is far
from certain that effective custom fitting will
become the norm in the future.
Science is not technology
Before we start forecasting, let's draw a distinction between science
A quick and glib distinction would be, "Science is knowledge,
technology is know-how." But I think we would be better served with an
For a long time, science has told us that we
could get straighter drives if we increased the moment of inertia of
driver head. Science also told us how to do that: make the
clubhead bigger at the same weight. The weight has to stay the same
because other studies (more science) tells us that 7 ounces (200 grams)
is about the right mass for a driver head; more or less mass would lose
distance. So we can't add weight to the clubhead in order to increase
of inertia; we have to find a way to move the weight that's there
farther away from the middle of the head.
So we had the science -- the raw knowledge. But,
until the 1990s, we did not have the technology to actually build
clubheads much larger at the same weight. Stainless steel heads had a
somewhat higher MOI than did
wooden heads. But the strength-to-weight ratio of stainless steel was
limited. It was hard to build a driver head at a size of
more than 250cc.
In the 1990s, aerospace technology was suddenly
available to the golf industry for a variety of reasons, both
technological and political. That meant that titanium clubheads became
practical possibility. Titanium has the strength of steel at half the
weight. Bingo! It was suddenly possible to apply technology to the
problem. The science had been around for a long time, but finally the
technology caught up. Today most driver heads are high-MOI with a
volume of 460cc (the legal limit under the Rules of Golf).
We are going to do some technology
forecasting here. But we are also going to point out a few science
problems that need to be solved. In many ways, the limits of technology
and limits imposed by the rules require our turning to science -- to
better understand the problem -- rather than just applying the
technology at hand.
The combinatorics problem
|The ground rules I've agreed to are that the main area
will be in clubfitting. And one of the biggest problems faced by
clubfitters is "combinatorics". A
significant part of the clubfitter's job is to have the golfer try out
a club of the
specifications suggested by measurement of the golfer and his/her
swing. In order to be able to try things out, the clubfitter must have
in inventory a club that meets those specs. And coming up with such an
inventory is an exercise in combinatorics.
following -- oversimplified -- problem. Suppose the clubfitter has six
different driver heads that might be needed as test clubs. These heads
span the specifications of weight, loft, size, etc. (Six is clearly an
unrealistically small number. But let's use it just for the sake of
keeping the arithmetic easy.) Also, there are six shafts that "span the
fitting space" for drivers -- again, not nearly enough for realism. How
many test clubs would the clubfitter need to stock, in order to be able
to test any combination on a customer being fitted?
answer is multiplicative; that is, you have to multiply the head
choices by the shaft choices. For each of the six heads, there are six
shaft choices that you might need. So this very oversimplified model
still requires six times six equals thirty-six
test drivers to do the fitting.
Now, what would be a more realistic number? Let's look at all the specs
for the head that we might want to play with:
are probably more, but let's stop here. Since the choices are
multiplicative, we need not six heads, but 5x6x6=180 heads. That's 180 different
- Loft: maybe 5 different lofts.
- Weight: maybe 6 weights.
- Weight distribution: maybe 6 CG placements.
that the problem is also unrealistic for six shafts. How about five
different flexes (probably very optimistic), times three different flex
profiles (definitely too optimistic), times four weights, times six
lengths. That's 360 different shafts.
When we look at combining 180
different heads and 360 different shafts, we have 64,800 test drivers.
Even if we can eliminate 3/4 of them as silly combinations (because,
for instance, you probably would never encounter a golfer whose ideal
driver is an 8° loft with an L-flex
shaft), we are still left with over 10,000 test drivers. And we haven't
started to talk about test irons, wedges, putters, hybrids...
So what can technology -- or science, for that matter -- do about the
recent development attacks this problem head-on: the quick-connect
devices that attach shafts to heads. This has been most heavily
publicized by Club-Conex' new product, the Faz-Fit
(photo). You can purchase a shaft tip connector (which looks like a
ferrule; you epoxy the shaft into it) or a head hosel connector (it
epoxies into the hosel bore as a shaft would). Then you use a wrench to
connect them together with a screw thread. A hex keyway allows six
positions, and prevents the shaft from rotating in the hosel.
does this deal with the combinatoric problem? If we look back at the
brute-force solution to the problem of 180 different heads and 360
different shafts, we need to stock over 10,000 test clubs. But if we
buy one of each of the 180 heads and one of each of the 360 shafts, we
equip each head and shaft with a connector -- and we have all the
combinations ready to be tried out, one at a time. That's still too
-- but we have made a major
inroad in the problem.
Faz-Fit is the connector that is currently most under discussion, but
there are several other developments that attack shaft-head
combinatorics in the same way:
- Nakashima has been making its
heads with a connector for a few years now. They supply their dealers
with the shaft-tip connectors, so that only one Nakashima test head of
each spec need be stocked.
- My good friend Charlie Badami has
been using a quick-setting non-epoxy adhesive for all his clubmaking,
but especially for fitting. The 3M
acrylic adhesive DP-810
is more expensive than epoxy, but it cures strong enough to hit with in
a half hour. This may not be fast enough for trial-and-error fitting,
but it is plenty good for measurement-to-specs fitting; that is, if you
can deduce the right components from measurements of the golfer's
swing, you can build up a test club while the customer waits.
- Some OEMs are introducing head-shaft connectors as
part of driver "packages" of a head and several shafts. I really don't consider this
part of the custom fitting trend I'm discussing here for a couple of
- The OEM connectors are not compatible with other
independent connectors, like the Faz-Fit.
they are being made available not to the dealer (to facilitate custom
fitting) but to the customer (who is now "allowed" to spend more for
the driver because he is buying a few shafts).
not talking about the hokey "traveling iron" whose loft can be locked
with a wrench. Rather, I'm hoping that some other important specs can
be made tool-adjustable by the clubfitter.
consider head weight and the placement of the center of gravity. It
should be possible to produce a head (or a series of heads with
different lofts) where a weight slug can be positioned inside the head
to control the total head weight and the CG position. If it is
sufficiently adjustable, then it can be used to greatly decrease the
number of driver heads needed for fitting.
But that sort of thing would also depend on science...
Science: needed studies
order to take advantage of adjustable components, we need some
assurance that certain properties of the club have predictable effects
that are at least somewhat independent of other properties. For
instance, it is reasonable to believe that the best loft for one head
weight is the same as the best loft for another head weight. But we
don't have the controlled studies to support that this reasonable
belief is actually true. And we need to know it is true if we are to
get by with a single test head with adjustable weight, draw a
conclusion about weight, and move on to other specs.
Here are some studies that need to be
done in order to be able to trust the results of fitting using the sort
of adjustable components described above.
effect of CG placement on launch parameters.
In particular, we not only need to know the effect, but whether the
effect is consistent from golfer to golfer, and independent of other
specifications. (Actually, it doesn't have to be completely
independent, but we need to know the relationship very predictably.)
effect of shaft flex profile on trajectory and feel. Tom
Wishon has done
to relate flex profile to the golfer being fitted. But a more
fundamental piece of information is how a change in flex profile
affects the launch parameters, or affects what the golfer feels.
sure there are other important studies that are worth doing. But some
will be very difficult to do, and to find definitive answers in the
data. Note that the studies I suggest above relate a physical
parameter to a physical result. They do not try to relate a golfer's characteristics
to a golf club specification. Yes, that would be an extremely valuable
result for a clubfitter to have. However:
is subjective experimentation. Professionals in experiment design
know that human tests require a lot more data to get reliable results,
those results are much harder to distinguish, and the
the data limit its assured applicability to any specific golfer. That's
why clubfitting is as much art as science, and it is likely to remain
- I have tried to focus on determining how golf club
specifications interact with results,
not with golfers.
My goal is to reduce the number of test club combinations that need to
be inventoried. For instance, if we can separate the effect of CG
vertical placement from the effect of total clubhead weight, then we
can test for each effect separately when fitting a golfer. Then we
could do a test for total weight and another test for CG placement;
after those tests, we might choose the ideal head for the golfer from a
model we don't even have in stock -- with some confidence it will be
Instruments and standards
Two major areas where improvements can encourage custom clubfitting are:
A few examples:
that allow the clubfitter to measure things about the golfer, or about
the golf club or its components.
that allow common interpretation of measurements, or allow the
interchangeability of components.
This is an obvious one. In the past few years, the reliability of
launch monitor readings has increased to the point that they are useful
-- nearly essential -- tools for clubfitting. Now the prices have to
come down, without hurting reliability. I believe there is room for
this to happen, riding
coattails of some much larger-scale
digital electronics trends.
Launch monitors today are based on two different kinds of measurements:
doppler radar and cameras. The doppler radar is less expensive today,
but camera-based launch monitors are potentially more
versatile. We can expect to see meaningful price decreases in
top-of-the-line camera-based launch monitors in the next few years.
Some of the progress that will enable this will be due to:
- Improvements in image
processing. There have been considerable strides recently in computer
interpretation of images. That means that the digital processing
underlying the camera-based launch monitor is more capable. One
manifestation of this is how the ball must be marked for a camera-based
launch monitor to understand things like spin. Until very recently, the
ball had to have a prominent stripe that must be aligned with the
camera before it is struck. AboutGolf,
a manufacturer of launch monitors, is in the process of introducing a
new model called "3trak" that allows a much more free-form marking of
the ball. The thing that makes it possible is the enhanced ability to
distinguish which mark is which from the image of the ball. The
advantage is not just easier ball placement. It also
allows the measurement of sidespin as well as backspin, which AboutGolf
advertises as "3D tracking". We can expect to see more of this in the
- Anybody who has watched the digital camera market
over the past decade has observed a figurative avalanche of increased
resolution, burgeoning feature sets, and dropping prices. And, as the
digital camera moves down the learning curve propelled by mass consumer
markets, camera-based launch monitors can and will reap the benefits.
Improvements (and falling prices) in lenses and in sensor arrays can be
adopted almost verbatim in launch monitors. Clubfitting tools like
launch monitors represent much too
small a market to ever accomplish that on their own, but should be able
to piggyback on the digital camera's learning curve.
New swing-measuring instruments
The same things that drive the progress in launch monitors --
expensive digital camera components and more capable image processing
-- will make possible new computer-based instruments to measure your
swing. This is likely to start as competition for advanced features in
camera/computer based golf instruction systems, exemplified by the cSwing
display on the right. Today many higher-tech golf schools have
systems that video-record your swing on a
computer and allow you -- or, more often, your instructor -- to step
through the swing. This is generally a slo-mo or stop-action swing
analysis, often side-by-side with an ideal or a pro's swing for
But the techology progress will allow differences from today's systems,
not just in degree but in kind. A few things we might expect to see:
cameras. More angles from which to view.
- Combined with enhanced
image processing, multiple cameras might allow viewing
from almost any angle.
It would deduce the 3-dimensional object's boundaries from images on
three or more cameras, and synthesize a virtual camera view
from any observer's
swing analysis. Current systems require manual selection
of critical points in the swing. But enhanced image processing might be
able to identify the same critical points automatically. I'm talking
about points like:
By identifying these points in the swing, the system could match the
subject's swing against an ideal swing of any speed, and critique the
- Beginning of the backswing.
- Beginning of wrist cock.
- Beginning of release.
- Left elbow begins to bend.
Note that it may be necessary in early systems to identify key points
like shoulders, elbows, hands, clubhead, etc. Jorgensen
did this with reflective tape in his pioneering work modeling the golf
swing, and these systems will probably start that way. But they should
outgrow it fairly quickly as image processing continues to improve.
(Some advanced digital cameras already have face recognition software.
That does not appear much harder than identifying body parts
picture known to contain a single golfer swinging a club.)
of swing characteristics.
If it is feasible to do automatic recognition of those critical points
of the swing, then it isn't a big jump to an instrument that can
measure swing characteristics that are useful
to a clubfitter.
For instance, characterization of the release (early? late?
aggressive?) is an important issue in shaft flex fitting. It would not
be hard to add that to a program that was already capable of picking
the swing apart as described above. Other fitting-related parameters
that might be measured by an image-processing system include:
- Swing plane and posture (related to one another and
to proper club length).
bend during the swing (it would take considerable resolution, and
possibly a "virtual camera" pointed perpendicular to the swing plane).
- Both angle of attack and wrist cock at impact.
bend during the swing
Consider the demise
whether something else might replace it in the near term. ShaftLab
filled an important need in both clubfitting and research, but has been
withdrawn by the manufacturer. The most likely reasons for its
assume for a moment that an instrument with ShaftLab's capabilities but
not its drawbacks would be a success. How could we use current or
near-future technology to
build such a machine, at substantially lower cost than ShaftLab? There
are several issues that need to be dealt with, and at low cost:
- Cost: until its final year or so, ShaftLab carried a
price in excess of $10,000.
- Convenience: the club was tethered by an electrical
cable to the computer.
- Interchangeability: only the four clubs supplied with
- ShaftLab did this with strain gauges,
which measure the actual bend directly. Unfortunately, strain gauges
require a lot of work to attach to the club, so interchangeability
becomes a big issue.
Acceleration is not bend. In order to get a good estimate of bend from
acceleration, we probably need at least two accelerometers at very
different positions along the shaft. For a 2-dimensional measurement
(both lead-lag and heel-toe bend), you probably need four
detectors. Several companies (e.g., Wixey)
make a device that detects the angle at which it is positioned. Let us
assume for the moment that (a) the sensor itself (minus the display)
can be made very small, and (b) its response time is in the
sub-millisecond range, so it can measure angle dynamically enough for a
swing. (I have no idea whether these assumptions are true; if not,
about using angle detectors for dynamic shaft bend.) A shaft bend of 1"
creates an angle difference of about 2° between shaft and tip. The
Wixey can measure angle to 0.1°, which corresponds to a tip deflection
of 1/20", which is certainly good enough for most purposes. Of course,
bend is an angle difference;
you would need a device near the butt and another near the tip to
convert angle to bend. As with accelerometers, you would need four
sensors for a 2-dimensional bend measurement.
A very small camera might attack the problem by sighting down the shaft
and recording bend based on the view. This solution, if feasible, could
learning curve for digital cameras and image processing.
OK, so strain gauges need to be permanently applied, eliminating
interchangeability. But maybe some kind of linkage extending down inside the shaft
can measure the bend mechanically. I have in mind something like a
10"-12" wand, embedded in a strain gauge or load cell at its
(or base), and wedged into the shaft wall at its bottom (or tip). Any
bending of the shaft over the length of the wand would move the tip of
the wand, which could be detected by the load cell at the wand's base.
from the club to the computer. A few ways this might be
- A wireless
LAN, probably based on Bluetooth
is also a possibility, but probably requires too much
power and space -- and its extra range isn't really needed.
readings in the club, and upload them to the computer via USB connector when
not swinging. This is probably too inconvenient.
Any of the above strategies allows the use of any club, except for
strain gauges. But there is a challenging calibration issue as the
sensors are moved from club to club. Any such instrument would have to
be mounted or installed in a carefully controlled position, both
rotationally and along the shaft.
Note that a few products
have been around for a while that purport to do something like this,
and neither has gained even the acceptance that ShaftLab did. SmartSwing's
is no longer offered; it was an expensive training aid, and was never
really sold as a clubfitting instrument. (It didn't claim to measure
shaft bend, either.) The FitChip
suffers from the misconception that a single accelerometer can measure
bend. It can't.
Shaft flex instruments
So far, we have been talking about
instruments to measure the golfer's swing, probably the most important
part of clubfitting. But custom clubs also involve club making,
which calls for different kinds of instruments. These are instruments
to measure the components and the club itself. Examples include:
Let's look at the latter. For
over a decade, shaft flex has been measured by frequency. This is a
very practical method, and clubmakers have a lot of experience with it.
One reason it is so popular is the availability of the instrumentation
at a reasonable price: $300-600. Other
ways to measure flex are either inconvenient (a manual flex board) or
cost well over $1000 (digital flex boards like the FlexMaster). But
they definitely have their devotees, and deservedly so. Recently,
several instruments have been introduced in a price range that is
competitive with frequency meters, and I expect the trend to continue.
- Swingweight scales.
- Moment-of-inertia meters (pendulums
and the new SpeedMatch)
to allow MOI matching.
- Measurement of shaft flex.
One reason for the trend is the same reason as the upcoming
cost reductions for launch monitor; the underlying technology is "moving down the
with a high-volume product. The expensive component of a digital shaft
flex meter is the load cell and related electronics (including the
digital display). By itself, this costs as much or more than a complete
frequency meter. But the same components are part of digital scales,
which are selling by the millions and thus dropping in price
The picture shows the essential electronics for a shaft flex meter,
which I have incorporated into my own NeuFinder 4
that I use for profiling and matching shafts. I "scavenged" the entire
assembly from a $35 digital shipping scale. They work just fine. I
think we are going to see more digital flex measurement in the future,
as such components become less expensive to the instrument designer.
In his keynote address, Wishon said that
standards for clubmaking are unlikely to be adopted. He correctly
identified the existing entrenched manufacturers as the culprits, but I
don't think he quite got the reasoning. He said that each manufacturer
would only accept the standard if it were the "standard" the
manufacturer already uses; since these differ from manufacturer to
there was no hope of a majority agreeing.
I believe it is more
insidious than that. They are opposed to a standard -- period! They
don't have to come out and say so; they can stick to the argument,
"It's not my way, so it will cost me to change," and appear reasonable.
But they really don't want an industry standard to be adopted, even if
all about "account control". (That's an IBM term, and I'll get back to
IBM shortly.) The last thing the OEMs want is for the golfer (their
customer) to have an independent, impartial advisor on golf club
fitting or purchases. If the customer can go to an independent
clubfitter for a reshaft (and, while he's there, hear an unbiased
evaluation of those expensive OEM clubs), then the OEM has lost control
of that customer account. So OEMs are becoming more skilled at building
clubs that must be repaired (e.g.- reshafted) at the factory. Special
bushings, nonstandard tip diameters -- this all adds to the difficulty
of independent reshafting, and tightens the OEM's account control
associated with each club sold.
I promised I'd
get back to IBM. That's how I recognized this attitude towards
standards. In the mid-1970s, I was on several national and
international standards groups on the subject of computer communication
standards. At the time, IBM just about owned the computer market; they
sold more computers (in dollars) than the next six computer
manufacturers combined. And they had SNA, a set of software and
protocols that allowed IBM computers to talk to other IBM computers,
but not to other manufacturers' computers. If the standards effort were
successful, there would be an international standard that any computer
manufacturer could implement, and it would allow connectivity with any other computer
that met the standard. Such a standard would threaten IBM's market
monopoly on computer-to-computer communication, and that monopoly was
an important part of their account control strategy. They attended all
standards meetings -- as did the other manufacturers. But IBM's role,
if you watched them closely, was to try to throw monkey
into the standards process -- to block the adoption of any standard.
I believe the OEMs are doing the same thing with club measurement
The rest of it
OK, so what about the rest of it? Are there going to be technology
advances in the next five years that have nothing to do with custom
fitting? Maybe so, but they won't be as dramatic as we saw in the
1990s. Here's my cut at what is going to happen with clubheads, shafts,
I don't think we'll see all that much improvement in
irons. Much of the reason I say that is there is no trend of
improvement to extrapolate. Iron technology hasn't improved much since
1990. As the table above
showed, all the distance gained over that time
has not been due to technology, but to marketing: the "loft wars".
let's look to drivers for improvement. Yes, I know that the USGA is
working hard to limit improvements in drivers. But here are a few
things that could still be attacked.
The first two are somewhat
fitting-related, in that not all golfers will benefit -- just those
with certain swing characteristics.
The first is dependent for improvement on high clubhead speed, and the
other on low clubhead speed.
Lowering the center
of the clubhead could pay dividends for the golfer with more clubhead
speed. That's because the more above the CG is impact with the ball,
the lower the backspin. (That's because of vertical gear effect.)
Golfers with high clubhead speed get more distance from less spin that
the nominal optimum loft would give, and the way to reduce spin without
losing launch angle is for impact to be higher above the CG. And the
thing you can do with the club to make this happen is to lower the CG
without reducing the face height. (In other words, it won't work to
lower the CG by making a shallow-face driver -- the easiest way.) What
sort of technology can lower the CG?
Raising the loft,
on the other hand, is a boon to golfers with lower clubhead speeds. If
your clubhead speed is low enough (Tom Wishon feels this is around
100mph), then spin is your friend not your enemy. But you probably do
need more launch angle than your current driver may provide. This can
be accomplished by increasing the loft.
- Cleveland's Hi-Bore
does it with head shape. The crown is concave rather than the usual
convex, so all the mass
associated with the crown is lower in the club.
- Callaway (and
occasionally others) do it with materials. In particular, they make the
crown a lighter material, a carbon-fiber composite.
things we may eventually see: making the crown lighter with
bracing, perhaps even lighter materials for the crown, and -- the
ultimate step -- elimination of the crown altogether. (I have seen an
off-brand club like this; it looks funny but it might work.)
The biggest negative to high-loft drivers is a sales issue. Real men
don't want to admit -- not even to themselves -- that they need a high
loft. There doesn't seem to be any problem selling 14° drivers in
ladies' clubs. But lots of men need that much loft and more, and refuse
to get it. While there is no technological challenge to make this
happen, entrenched attitudes will greatly slow down its adoption.
A bigger sweet spot.
Before you decide I'm out of my mind to suggest this, yes I have
are rather few clubheads today that are pushing MOI limits in the new
rules. So there is room for improvement.
sweet spot is a point; how can it get bigger?"
A lot of people hold to this semantic nonsense, which is not
productive. The sweet spot is the place[s] on the face that give
maximum distance when you hit it there. Engineers know that you are
always limited by tolerances, and that includes tolerance in how you
measure the maximum distance. Assuming you can reliably measure it to,
say, one yard, the sweet spot is not a single point, but a locus
of points that give within one yard of the maximum distance you
measured. So it is perfectly correct to say that a more forgiving head
has a bigger sweet spot. A bigger area of the face can be used to hit
within one yard of the maximum distance.
USGA has restricted the maximum MOI of the clubhead. True
But wait! The sweet spot is no longer just an MOI issue. With the USGA
allowing a limited spring effect, COR (coefficient of restitution) is
also an issue. The maximum COR of 0.83 is taken at the center of the
clubface. In general, COR (and thus distance) falls off as impact moves
from the center of the face. Keeping the COR high
over more of the clubface is now just as much a sweet spot issue as MOI
is. And we should see engineering effort addressing that problem over
the next few years.
Shafts may or may not see advances in the near
future. The "may not" is because the basic materials for advanced
shafts, carbon fibers and resins, are in short supply and therefore
high in price. And the trends in these raw materials do not suggest any
easing of costs in the next few years. So I expect much of the effort
will go into advertising (to justify the higher prices that will be
necessitated by higher costs) and perhaps some success at alternative
The materials search may be a double-edged sword. The
thing that is visible in the short term is better performance in
carbon fibers. This is technological progress, but will only
prices -- we are still talking about carbon (which is increasing in
cost), plus manufacturing processes that will be even higher than
current graphite fibers at least for a while.
materials has been taking place at the molecular structure level for
carbon structures. The most prominent of these is nanotubes,
microscopic (molecular level) long-chain fibers that are much stronger
than ordinary carbon fibers. They are already incorporated in a few
high-end shafts. But that isn't very significant; so far they are more
advertising value than structural value. In order to achieve
their potential, the structural element of the shaft must be the
nanotubes. After all, shafts are
already strong enough; the point of improved fibers (e.g.- nanotubes)
is that you can use less fiber to achieve the same strength. Less
material means lower weight, so the payoff would be even lighter weight
shafts, with the same strength we make today. In order to make a
composite, the use of nanotubes would have to enable a significant
reduction of conventional fibers -- and perhaps even less resin (since
the smaller nanofibers are bearing the load, and there's less of them
for the resin to bind together).
Here are a few issues that will be worked in the next few years -- but
I don't know whether they will be worked successfully:
An alternative to carbon nanotubes is graphene
-- nano-level carbon sheets. These nano-particles are almost as strong
nanotubes, considerably cheaper, and less likely to cause health
problems. Current investigation and development of graphene-resin
composites does not include
golf shafts -- yet. But, if nanotubes continue to unearth new problems
as fast as old ones are solved, we may very well see research on
- Economical production of nanotubes. The problems here
are both raw materials and manufacturing processes.
- Economical production of shafts whose major
load-bearing material is nanotubes.
- Health issues associated with nanotubes. In the last
couple of weeks, there have been several
articles reporting studies showing that carbon
nanotubes may have
health-related problems akin to those of asbestos. Injected nanotubes
have induced the same diseases in mice that asbestos does. No studies
yet to determine if inhaled nanotubes have the same effect as asbestos.
But, if so, then professional clubmakers would definitely face a
hazard when trimming shafts made of nanotubes.
One thing that I do not
expect to change in a big way over the next five years is shaft spine.
The last five years have seen a number of companies get religion on the
need for low spines. Other companies have declined to, on the grounds
that it is more costly, and customers are not willing to spend the
money on spine-free quality. Both attitudes are correct; some customers
will spend the extra money, and others will not. So, unless the Rules
bodies (USGA and R&A) decide to legislate tolerances on shaft
asymmetry, I think the market is relatively stable in that regard. (And
I don't see any enthusiasm in the Rules bodies to change this.)
Golf balls have evolved enormously over the past two
decades. Performance is way up, especially if you measure
performance as driving distance. And most of the world's golfers
that way. And so does the USGA when enforcing its Rules. Let's look
briefly at what the USGA controls in its ball testing.
So let's see what technology
might be able to improve, that would not be flagged by the conformance
testing. Remember, if it doesn't get through conformance testing, it is
not a technological advance in golf -- nobody will ever use it for
legal, competitive golf.
limit the ball velocity as the ball comes off the clubface. This is a
"standard" clubface, presumably with the maximum 0.83 COR.
limit the total distance. But, reading between the lines, this distance
is computed from limited measurement. They measure the ball's
trajectory for 70 feet of flight to get a handle on the aerodynamics,
then they compute the distance.
Enough is now known about aerodynamics
to be able to
optimize the lift and drag on a golf ball to give maximum distance for
any given set of launch conditions. We also know how to build balls to
turn a given set of impact conditions (e.g.- clubhead speed, angle of
attack, loft, other clubhead parameters) into good launch conditions.
How can we use this techology in ways that don't fail conformance tests?
So far, I've been talking about club fitting. But, once you've
club for the golfer, you still don't know if you have the best ball for
the golfer. Given a swing and a club, there is still an optimum spin,
lift, and drag and they vary from golfer to golfer. Fitting a ball to a
driver (golfer) and a driver (club) is mostly unexplored, and we can
expect to see the exploration start in earnest. This may conceivably
the conformance tests if the golfer being fitted does not swing
the USGA robot. As the impact conditions depart from those of the
robot, different ball designs will give optimum flight. And some (many?
don't know) of those ball designs will be conforming.
Suppose we know the best recipe for a golf ball to maximize driving
distance for a golfer. Will the golfer necessarily be
performance? For instance, suppose some Sunday golfer
will get the most out of his drive from a "distance rock".
Most such balls
on the market give no bite coming into greens and no putter feel on the
greens. In other words, the best driving ball may be a lousy short-game
Titleist's biggest contribution with the ProV-1 line is the
ability to engineer the driver distance and the wedge spin somewhat
independently. I think we will see this continue. Yes, it is good
fitting practice. But it may also be an economical imperative for the
ball companies, who want to sell premium balls to everybody they can.
As the majority of golfers learn that the current "premium balls" will
not give the best distance for
the ball companies will have to come up with new, better-engineered
balls (read that as "higher-priced") that give them better performance
around the greens.
I thought about writing a section on scientific
studies I would like to see done -- things we still need to know
about golf equipment. But I decided to punt for now. There's enough
involved so that's best done as a separate article. I hope I get to it
in the near future.
This is hardly the first try I've taken at technology forecasting. From
the late 1970s through the early 1990s, one of my responsibilities at
Bell Labs was to do 5-year forecasts for various technologies
associated with computers and telecommunications. I have written a companion article on
techniques and principles used by techonology forecasters, several of
which were applied for this forecast.
Last modified -- July