Since I wasn't allowed to use my camera at
the Ping facility, almost all the visuals in this article are things I
publicly available sources. I did want at least one photo I provided
myself, so here's the reason for my being in Arizona.
In late June of 2013, I was in Phoenix for my
son Dan's graduation from
pharmacy school (Doctor of Pharmacy from Midwestern University). I took
the occasion to accept Olly Eades' invitation for a tour of Ping Golf's
manufacturing and R&D facilities in Phoenix. (Olly is an
engineering intern at Ping.)
In the days leading up to the tour, I paid particular attention to
anything Ping that caught my eye. Ping clubs in the bag of a player in
my foursome. My co-in-law's new Ping
Anser driver, which he raves
about. The most impressive thing I noticed was an Internet post
somewhere that is apparently true, about Ping's
involvement in the Wounded Warrior Project. I know they don't
publicize it, which is super-classy of them, but I wanted to give it a
On the day of the tour, the first novel thing I encountered was looking
the place up in Google Maps.
In the middle of the aerial photo of a typical Phoenix industrial park
(right) is a large swath of green grass with a couple of awning-looking
things near one end. Of course, it turns out to be a private driving
range, where Ping tests clubs and does VIP fittings.
The factory tour is available to the general public, and I strongly
recommend it. Reservations are advised. You can make them by calling
602-687-5385. The tour is available Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday
at 9:00am. It starts out in the Redwood Building, where walk-in
fittings are also done. (Yes, Ping will fit you for clubs right there,
using state-of-the-art techniques.) Our tour guide was Jack Ulrich, who
is one of the public faces of Ping; in addition to guiding tours, he
also does custom fittings.
The tour begins with a video about the history and philosophy of Ping
clubs. Of course, that is synonymous with Karsten Solheim, the engineer
who founded the company and invented its design principles. The video
we saw is available on the Internet (in two parts), so click below and
Karsten invented perimeter weighting to make clubs more forgiving. This
includes both cavity-back irons and heel-toe-weighted putters. I came
away with two
insights into the classic Ping irons from the 1980s and '90s:
At about 4:20 of the first video, Karsten points out that,
for an iron, heel-toe weighting is not all you should do to "enlarge
the sweet spot"; it is also worth doing top-bottom weighting as well. A
high or low miss would then be forgiven, just as heel-toe weight
forgives a miss toward the heel or toe. The chalk dots Karsten places
on the board tells me exactly how he came up with that unusual design
for the Ping Zing clubhead. It was a way to get extreme weighting high
on the toe.
At about 5:20 of the first video, Karsten does a
demonstration of shaft flex that I believe to be seriously flawed. But
it does clear up a point of curiosity for me. While Karsten himself was
in charge of the company (his son John Solheim runs it today), their
irons always carried very stiff shafts. True, they pioneered custom
fitting, as far as a big OEM clubmaker as concerned. They were the
first OEM -- by a lot
-- to recognize that golfers needed different lie angles (as well as
lengths and swingweights). But they only had one flex of shaft, and
that was super-stiff. There have been many misconceptions over the
years of the role shaft flex plays in a golf club, and I view this as
yet another misconception. Today, they fit for flex as well as the
other important fitting parameters.
what is the flaw in Karsten's
reasoning? In the demonstration, he uses nearly the same tip deflection
for very soft, medium, and
very stiff. The problem is that, for a given load (a given golfer's
swing), the deflection decreases as the shaft gets stiffer. So, to make
the demonstration reflect reality, he would have to use proportionately
less deflection for a stiffer shaft. At that point, it is likely that a
stiffer shaft would not show an improved "fling" of the ball. In fact,
research by TrueTemper in the early 1990s showed that shaft stiffness
and the resulting kick velocity have little or no effect on ball speed.
So what the stiff-shafted Eye-2 irons did was provide a stiff feel
(good for some, not for others) and a smaller shaft bend (different
clubhead position at impact) -- not more clubhead or ball speed.
(Actually, the demo itself may not be a valid metaphor for what a
clubhead does in a golf swing. But, even if it is, I have explained the
reason it does not justify a super-stiff shaft.)
Before we left the Redwood Building to tour the factory, we were shown
the various stages of casting clubheads in stainless steel. Like all
other iron head foundries, Ping uses the lost-wax investment cast
method. Unlike every other club manufacturer I know, Ping does some of
its foundry work in the USA. They have a foundry just south of Phoenix
that makes their all-stainless iron heads. Multi-metal heads (e.g.-
those with tungsten weights) and metalwood heads are fabricated in
China, just as the other manufacturers do.
There is an excellent video on the Web that covers most of the
points of the factory tour. So I won't try to cover everything here,
just the points that stand out in my memory as being different from
what I may have expected.
iron the factory turns out is made to a ticket order.
Most are in fact custom orders. Others are orders from off-the-rack
retailers, reflecting their specific inventory needs. They are all made
to specifications on an order ticket that travels through the assembly
line with the components as the "kit" for a set of irons. This is very
different from what I saw at Callaway and TaylorMade 15 years ago; they
had assembly lines that made the same club over and over -- then
switched to a different club when they had enough.
There are a number of lines (Ping calls them
"cells") for making irons. (Don't remember whether it is 8 or 10 cells,
but that is about the right number.) A kit
travels over one of those
assembly lines as a unit. The workers are all cross-trained in all
facets of iron assembly. They typically work a half-day at one station
(say, gluing heads to shafts), break for lunch, and spend the rest of
the day at another station (say, bending loft and lie). I think that is
great for employer-employee relations; it prevents getting bored (or
repetitive-movement injuries) from doing the same job over and over.
And Ping's record confirms this; they have a surprisingly large number
of 20- and 30-year employees, both in the factory and the engineering
The loft-lie station was of special interest to me, having
tried to bend older Ping irons. Several points here:
Orders for Ping clubs include lie angle by color dot.
That is, a "black dot" is normal or standard lie, a "red dot" is 0.75º
flat, a "blue dot" is 0.75º upright, and so on for twelve dot colors
and a range of almost ±4º. The clubheads are cast to nominal loft and
black dot lie, and are bent to the proper lie (indicated by the order
ticket) after the clubs have been mostly assembled.
They have to adjust both loft and lie, even though the
clubheads are nominally made to the eventual loft. If you have ever
bent a club to spec, you know that, try as you might, you are likely to
change the loft while you bend the lie or vice versa. A skilled
clubmaker may be able to minimize the number of bend-measure-bend
iterations, but you still have to measure both every time.
The bending itself is done by hand, but Ping has an
impressive machine to measure
loft and lie in the bending vise. The machine takes the order ticket
spec, and matches the club to that spec. The display shows two colored
blobs on a computer monitor; the spec is green and the actual club red.
The horizontal axis is lie and the vertical is loft.
Looking at the relative positions of the circular blobs, the worker can
see what direction to bend, and by how much. That information minimizes
the iterations, and being driven by the ticket specs precludes errors
in the order.
Ping makes their iron heads out of 17-4 stainless steel.
They claim that is "the best". I do know that
it is the hardest, the most durable, and the least bendable, of
golf-iron steels. Having
tried to bend a few myself, I am most impressed with the effectiveness
of the process they use. Is 17-4 the best? It probably is for the
business model of Ping clubs. It might not be in general. Consider:
Every set of Ping irons is custom ordered to
specification -- and presumably custom fit for the order. They have the
factory set up with the equipment to bend 17-4, including a special
heat treatment. Having been bent to spec, it will stay that way because it's 17-4.
Hence Ping's assertion that it is the best.
If an independent fitter needs to bend the clubs after
manufacture -- for instance, if you take lessons and your swing changes
a bit -- the composition of the steel will make bending rather
difficult. This also makes selling/buying used Ping irons somewhat
because they are not amenable to adjustment for the new owner. And 17-4
is certainly not the best for
clubs that were just bought off the rack rather than fit from the
beginning. You want off-the-rack clubs to be at least as bendable as
431 stainless, so they can be properly fit after the fact.
Finally, most of Ping's iron models are game
improvement designs. But it is an article of faith that "player's
clubs" should be forged steel, because the softer steel gives a better
feel. (I would take issue with this, but it's an attitude that can't be
fought in the marketplace.) In fact, Ping's "player's club" (the Anser)
is not 17-4 stainless but rather the more ductile 8620 steel.
is done by adding weights in the cavity backs. (Picture at right.) The
weights are manufactured by a molding machine in the same building.
They are a composite of tungsten (for mass) and elastomers (for
adhesion and vibration damping). They are epoxied to the heads by hand,
to the order of a digital swingweight scale that has been programmed
with the order ticket for the set. The worker has bins of sorted
weights, and chooses the one the swingweight scales says to.
Swingweighting metalwoods is another story. I had mentioned
the process I saw at Callaway
years ago for swingweighting metalwoods; it used epoxy injected into a
hole in the metalwood shell, under control of an automated swingweight
scale. Jack said Ping uses a material he called "Gi-Loo" to add weight,
and also to add some stickyness to the inside of the shell so any
floating chunks of epoxy or metal would stick to it rather than rattle.
This sort of material has been around the industry since the advent of
metalwoods. Most clubmakers I know call it "mouse glue" because its
stickyness is similar to the glue used in commercial mouse traps. It
is used on the inside of almost all metalwoods to prevent rattle. But I
have seen it used -- and often used it myself -- to add head weight to
a metalwood. So the application is not novel, though probably unusual
for an OEM factory.
a word about putter shafts. We did visit the putter factory on the
tour. Realize that Ping's business started with putters, and the
company even got its name
from their first putter. Their big photo-op at the facility is the Gold
Putter Vault (more on that later). So of course they would include the
putter factory on the tour.
of putter require a shaft with one, two, or even three bends in it. The
most common is two bends: one for lie angle and one for offset. How a
two-bend putter works is shown at the right.
When I build a putter requiring a double-bend shaft (including my
current favorite putter), I have to buy a pre-bent shaft. I have to go
through catalogs until I find one with the correct bends. Then I have
to play with tip length until the bend is exactly right with respect to
the center of gravity of the clubhead; otherwise the putter will not be
Ping does it the right way. They have an absolute artist at shaft
bending, and he has the proper tool to bend a steel golf shaft. (I
don't know how he does it without cracking the chrome plating; must be
a pretty special shaft to begin with.) The club arrives at his station
the shaft already epoxied to the head. He bends the shaft itself to lie
and offset -- per the order ticket, as usual around here. During the
bending, he also continually checks face balance; when the putter
leaves his hands, it is perfectly balanced. I was very
impressed. I asked, and Jack admitted that this guy was seldom assigned
to anything but bending putter shafts.
I said earlier that we were there at the invitation of Olly Eades. When
the factory tour was over, Olly met us at the Redwood building and
walked us over to Engineering. The highlights of that part of the tour
was some of the super test equipment they have there. Pardon
me if this description sounds like an engineer talking, but remember:
(a) we are in the engineering
department and (b) I am an
The absolute best part of the visit was the opportunity to watch
PingMan (their test robot) hit a few balls with a hybrid club they were
testing. Calvin Wang had a few test hits scheduled, and graciously
agreed to let us watch. Here's a video that Calvin himself posted on
YouTube a while back. Many of the salient points about PingMan can be
seen here. They include:
The "wrist joint", where the arm holds the club's
grip, is completely unpowered. It just hinges freely, with a stop at
the maximum wrist cock angle. This is what the best golf swings do,
though almost everybody I play with tries to use the hands and wrists
to add power. If you want to see why a free-hinging wrist is the right
way, read almost any of the articles on my "Swing" page.
The maximum wrist cock angle is well beyond 90º. Calvin
tells me that is because the robot is designed for clubhead speeds up
to 150mph. Trying to attain that speed with a wrist cock of only 90º
would place too much strain on a graphite shaft less than XX flex; it
shatter. This is consistent with the long drive competitors, the only
golfers who can even approach a 150mph clubhead speed. (They are
typically in the 130s.) For instance, look at any video of Jamie Sadlowsky's
swing; you'll see a huge wrist cock, which he holds almost to
impact. This is the sort of swing that PingMan imitates.
Staying with the
wrist joint, it is geared to rotate the club's shaft about its axis.
The club rotates through 180º in a normal good swing, from the face
in-plane at the top of the backswing, to the face square to the target
at impact (90º so far) to the face again in-plane the other way at the
end of the follow-through (the other 90º).
To properly test a club, the robot must mimic the human in the rotation
of the club. In a proper golf swing, this rotation tracks the uncocking
of the wrists
reasonably well, so Ping just geared the rotation to the uncocking of
the free-hinging wrist joint.
The PingMan robot has an offset "shoulder". That is, the
not extend from the center of rotation, but rather from the edge of the
shoulder "plane". This is claimed to add a level of realism other
robots don't achieve. I will agree if the shoulder joint moves with
respect to the driving shoulder disc during the downswing. If not, then
the actual performance is the same as a rigid arm from the center of
Now we get to one of my favorite features: the tee. I'm
sure you noticed that the tee retracted before the swing, acquired a
golf ball, and returned to the address position. I'm sure you were
thinking, "I'd like a caddy to do that for me at the driving range."
But that isn't the reason it's my favorite feature.
Ten years ago, I
put together a test to be run at the GolfLab robot facility in San
Diego. One of the problems in conducting a robot test is controlling
where on the clubface impact occurs. At GolfLabs, impact was controlled
the grip of the club in robot's "hand". When you do that, you change
face angle, lie angle, and length simultaneously; you can't change one
independently of the others.
PingMan, it is much easier to deal
with. The tee is positioned by a servo drive. To change impact
position, you simply program the servos to place the tee in a different
position; you never have to ungrip-regrip the club in the robot's hand.
Set it up; hit one ball; measure where on the face it was hit. Now
you're ready to program the servos for any impact position you want.
novel is the PingMan as golf testing robots go? Calvin pointed out
three things that he felt were unique in the field. Let me compare it
with my understanding of the other historical swing robot, the Iron
Byron. Iron Byron was commissioned by TrueTemper to be designed and
built by the Battelle Institute in 1963. That almost certainly
pre-dated the PingMan, since Karsten at that point was focused only on
putters. So let's assume that any feature in an early Iron Byron was at
least contemporary with the PingMan, and probably pre-dated it.
This was definitely a
feature of the original Iron Byron, and has been ever since. It is not
novel to PingMan.
was in Karsten's 1977 patent, so it was probably in the PingMan about
that time. It may or may not have been in the original Iron Byron. I
know that there have been swing robots that do not rotate the club. I also know that
Iron Byron and the GolfLab robots were rotating the club by the end of
the 1990s. So this may well have been a PingMan innovation -- or possibly not -- but
it is not unique today.
I don't think any of the
other major swing robots do this. As noted above, it is not a
substantive difference unless the shoulder joint rotates from the
driving disc before impact. One of the PingMan videos I have seen
appears to have such movement, so it is a substantive difference. Is it
a significant difference? (That is, does it give results sufficiently
different to affect a club's design?) I don't know.
Other Range Instrumentation
The PingMan is located inside the engineering building, where one wall
its room rolls away to expose an opening at the south edge of the test
range. (See picture above.) The room is rather thoroughly instrumented
with computers and a Trackman doppler radar tracking system.
Originally, the range had a grid of buried sensors (think of it as a
seismograph network) that could triangulate the location where a ball
landed. The Trackman does a better job of determining distance, as well
as giving trajectory information -- and not requiring excavation to
make repairs. It should be noted this is a dual-Trackman system; there
is a second radar unit at the far end of the range, which picks up the
ball with more accuracy toward the end of its flight.
may have noticed the "Sling Man" at the right side of the picture,
mirroring the PingMan robot at the left edge of the picture. SlingMan
is a golf ball cannon, firing golf balls at a programmed speed, launch
angle, and spin. Ping uses it to hone their trajectory algorithm. Of
course I found that fascinating, as the co-developer of the TrajectoWare Drive software. Calvin was very
tight-lipped about their results -- as I'm sure was appropriate.
The SlingMan works like a baseball pitching machine (see diagram of
pitching machine at left). A ball is fed into the space between the two
wheels, each of which is spinning in such a direction as to kick the
ball downrange. The ball is squeezed and thrown by the wheels. The
launch parameters can be controlled by the speeds and positions of the
wheels. The ball speed is the average of the speed of the two wheels.
The ball spin velocity is the difference of the speeds of the two
And the direction of the slot between the wheels determines the
launch angle. You could even create sidespin by tilting the whole
assembly around the ball feed axis. (I don't know if SlingMan actually
does this, but it would not be hard.)
Club and Swing Measurement
next stop on Olly's R&D tour was a room that had instruments for
measuring everything about golf clubs and golf components. That
includes several shaft instruments, one measuring deflection and
another measuring torque. (That's another topic near and dear to me, as
I have designed and built a deflection
instrument, an EI machine,
and a frequency meter.)
Almost all the instruments look home-grown, designed and built by
Ping's engineers to measure exactly what they felt they need to
measure. I noticed that a lot of the instruments have structural and
protective frameworks made of aluminum extrusions that look like they
were bought from 80/20.
That is a favorite supplier of mine when I am in instrument-design
mode; they advertise themselves as "the industrial erector set", and
IMHO live up to the name.
Calvin showed us a room where they do motion capture of swings, and
especially of club behavior. The setup was built around an array of
high-speed video cameras from Vicon, a company that also worked with Fujikura on
motion capture system. Fujikura uses Enso mostly for fitting, while
Ping uses their system mostly for research. But, reading between the
lines, both companies use their systems for both purposes. (For
instance, Calvin showed us motion-capture traces from Hunter Mahan's
swing. The most likely reason they would have that is that they were
using the system to fit one of their PGA Tour endorsers.)
Olly took us to the putter testing area, where they had indoor putting
greens which had been specially prepared to be absolutely flat, as flat
as the available technology could make it. Of course, adding a putting
surface introduced some variation from total flatness. I remembered
that Dave Pelz had reported something like that on real greens in his
book, "Putt Like The Pros".
Even with Pelz' robot putting the ball exactly the same every time,
was a variation of more than an inch on an 8-foot putt. Pelz concluded
it was due to unavoidable irregularities in the green and even the ball
One of the machined greens was being used for a putter fitting
while we were there. Like the outdoor range, the super-flat green is
both club testing and VIP fitting. Olly mentioned that they use an
iPhone for the fitting, clipped to the club just below the grip. The
sensors (gyros and accelerometers) in the iPhone work with an app
called the iPing that they designed, to determine the movement of the putter and its exact position at impact.
That got me to thinking. At the beginning of the tour, Jack had let us
handle a 1-A putter, Ping's first product ever. When it reached my
wife, she tried to balance it on her finger. (She obviously remembered
a demo I gave her a few years ago, showing how important balance point
is in providing a putter's feel.) I asked for a ruler, and measured the
balance point she had found. It was 8½ inches, fairly typical for a
When Olly told me about the iPing,
it occurred to me that an iPhone near the grip might be enough weight
to affect the balance point. When I got home, I looked up the iPhone's
weight; it is 110-140 grams, depending on the model. Then I did the
math, and found that this could move the club's balance point 3-4
inches, definitely enough to change the feel. So the putter you feel
while you are being measured is not the putter you feel when you use it
on the course.
That raises the question of whether the fitting procedure is flawed. To
answer the question, I was put in touch with Paul Wood, the Ping
engineer responsible for the R&D for their putter fitting
technology, including the iPing.
Ping did indeed recognize that an iPhone's weight would change the feel
of the putter, so they did the studies to assure that the fitting
process was still effective. What they found was:
The things that iPing
measures, like loft at impact and arc of the stroke, are part of the
DNA of the golfer's putting stroke (Paul's term, but I like it). It
does not change much at all when the balance point changes. So most of
the putter fitting can be done using iPing. But...
The correct heft and balance for the putter needs to be separately fit without the iPing, after the iPing fitting determines the other putter specs.
Note that, without verifying that the iPing-measured
parameters are almost independent of weight and balance point, it would
not be a valid fitting procedure. They did the homework to assure that
it is valid.
The last stop was the most famous photo-op on the Ping campus: the gold
putter vault. (And me without my camera! The above picture is from
somebody else's photo-op, that I got from the Web.) Whenever a player
wins a Tour event using a Ping putter, Ping makes two gold-plated
replicas of the putter they used. One is a gift to the player, and the
other goes into the vault. There are over two thousand there today.
This is not part of the public tour, and Olly had to get one of the
"curators" to let us into the locked room.
All in all, it was a wonderful, exciting morning. Thanks for arranging
it for us, Olly.
Last modified 2/6/2015
Copyright Dave Tutelman
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