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Fore! Does it take a rocket scientist to design a better golf club? (P2)

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Thomas secured $2 million in funding from the USGA in 1991 to expand its Research and Test Center to include new lab space, equipment, and personnel. In his large corner office overlooking the bucolic grounds of the USGA headquarters, the otherwise reserved 55-year-old Thomas shifts into high gear when asked about the research program. “I’ve divided the game into five areas,” he says, springing up from his chair and moving to a blackboard, on which he begins sketching crude figures.

The first is a stick figure. “There’s the human factor, we’re looking into biomechanics and trying to define this guy, even consider his emotions. Next is the golf club shaft, and trying to determine the forces on it, the vibrations, the energy involved, and how that energy is transferred,” he says, sketching a shaft. Next, to it, he draws a club head. “What’s its mass? What are the inertial properties at the point of impact with the ball? No one has really been able to explain that.”

Sketching a club as it meets a golf ball, Thomas reaches a fevered pitch in his delivery. “What’s the twist of the club head at impact? What effect does changing the location of the club’s mass have on the moment of inertia? Where is the center of gravity?” Moving on, he draws a sphere with lines behind it to indicate movement a golf ball in flight. “We wanted to measure the ball’s lift, drag, and other properties and their contribution to distance. We wanted to look at all of this and try to explain it.”

But hasn’t this all be explained? Haven’t equipment manufacturers poured billions into the research and development of clubs to hit longer and straighter and balls to fly longer and straighter? Well, yes and no, according to the ever-diplomatic Thomas. “It has not been pure research, as much as product development, and that has not explained the entire process of the swing and all the forces involved.” At least not to Thomas’ satisfaction.

To do that, he assembled a group of accomplished scientists and eager graduate students and commissioned them to explain his favorite pastime. Among them is Stanley Johnson, professor of mechanical engineering and mechanics at Lehigh University, who, along with Lehigh graduate student Alexia Brylawski, investigated the effect of shaft flexibility on club-face positioning at the moment of impact. Johnson joined with longtime USGA consultant Burton Lieberman of Brooklyn Polytechnic University to develop a mathematical model of the moment of impact, and of the ball’s trajectory, or flight path.

Through those models, they were able to describe why a golf ball flies as it does. While a golf swing may seem like a simple movement, it’s actually quite complex, and the smallest variable can send a ball into a sand trap, or worse. As a golfer swings, the club twists and gains speed during the downswing, so the face of the club is angled as it strikes the ball. That angle gives the ball its lift and, along with the ball’s aerodynamic properties, helps determine its trajectory.

The other determining factor is whether the weight-center, or the “sweet spot,” of the club strikes the ball, or if the hit is off-center. Also, because the club shaft is not perfectly perpendicular to the head, the head twists further as it strikes the ball, thus diminishing the probability that the sweet spot will be the point of impact.

Manufacturers have experimented with club design, enlarging the sweet spot and introducing perimeter weighting designed to lessen the twist at impact and give the golfer more opportunity to hit from the center. For the most part, says Thomas, these innovations have been reached through trial and error, using computer-aided design systems. Johnson, however, has developed a model of an inertia ellipsoid – a dimensional diagram of ellipses that describes exactly how the clubhead rotates at impact and where the center of gravity is as the ball and club collide.

While the implications of the biomechanics study are obvious–the PGA and several other golf-instructor organizations have already inquired about using this technology to demonstrate to golfers exactly where in that six- or seven-second motion they’re going wrong, Thomas is quick to point out that correcting golfers’ swings is not his intention, nor that of the USGA. “What business is it of the USGA to teach people how to swing? None!” he says. “This will help those in the field of sports medicine and injuries understand what the body goes through in various activities, what the forces are on the joints. They can then determine what parts of the body need to be exercised to avoid undue strain on the joints, or what should be done differently to prevent injury.”

Great news for sports medicine, but there’s got to be some value to the designers struggling to fulfill the demands of weekend duffers. “What this will lead to is customizing clubs for particular types of people and particular levels of golfers,” says Thomas. In his vision, designers will use the android golfer and mathematical models to design clubs for a specific type of player–incorporating factors such as the player’s body type and movement–and golfers will be able to quickly match themselves to a set of clubs.

But wait a minute. Customized equipment could help a golfer play better, and doesn’t that fly in the face of Thomas’ mandate as a technical director? He responds with a chuckle. “No, nothing is going to increase your distance, your club-head velocity, or anything else–that requires skill and confidence,” he says.

Manufacturers admit that, for all their efforts, they’re really in the business of selling hope. “We sell the promise of performance,” says Wilson veteran designer Carl Scheie. “If something we bring out instills more confidence, then it’s worth the price.”

Nevertheless, in the wake of the World Scientific Congress of Golf, the USGA has been inundated with requests for information from designers, and the new understanding of the club, the ball, and the golfer will eventually make its way onto the fairways. But the work is far from over. Thomas’ research continues, and new projects, such as assistant technical director Bernard Soriano’s study on putting, have begun. However, Thomas warns about becoming too excited about the new role of science in the world of golf. “This game has been played for hundreds of years, and for hundreds of years golfers have sought out the perfect ball and the perfect club,” he says. “Frankly, if we haven’t discovered it yet, I don’t think it’s out there.”

But Thomas also confesses to being a maniacal golfer, and as such, he believes in something most scientists do not give much credence: magic. “What it comes down to is the confidence level. If I get a new club and this has happened to me. I think it’s going to help me hit better [and] then I’m feeling confident. I’m thinking about this great new club, so my brain is not interfering with what my body is doing, and I swing and hit beautifully. It’s magic, absolute magic. Developing this equipment is like searching for the Holy Grail–the right club or the perfect ball is just around the corner, and the anticipation is so exciting.”

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