Frank Thomas has a way of teeing off the world of golf. As the technical director of the United States Golf Association, Thomas helps set the standards for golf clubs and balls. His work has earned him more than one instance of character assassination, and he has been named in multimillion-dollar lawsuits by manufacturers enraged at his rejection of new club designs.
Undaunted, Thomas once again raised the ire of manufacturers when he told the attendees of the Second World Scientific Congress of Golf at St. Andrews, Scotland, last summer that the billions spent each year on research and development are all for naught: Golfers have improved very little over the past 25 years. In fact, Thomas told the throng of academics and golf industry representatives, the driving distances of the best professional players have increased only 12 yards since 1968, and the average winning score has fallen one stroke per round per 21 years. Apparently, the marketing hype about improved swings and lower scores has little basis in fact.
But, as the soft-spoken South African native is won’t do, Thomas followed this embarrassing proclamation with an olive branch of sorts. During the course of the Congress, a team of researchers from the USGA presented six technical papers, the results of the first phase of an ongoing research project to explain in scientific terms what happens from the moment the golfer picks up the club until the ball drops into the cup, hopefully in par or less. Any anger at Thomas’ keynote address faded as equipment designers seized upon the mathematical models and biomechanics research presented by the USGA team. For within these initial findings lies the future of a 400-year-old game played by millions yet understood by few.
“There’s been a tremendous amount of trial and error in product development, but science has not really entered the game yet,” says Thomas. “Yes, golf ball design has become highly sophisticated and scientific principles have been applied, but not so much to the golf club,” he adds.
Thomas was among the coordinators of the First World Scientific Congress of Golf, held four years ago to examine the applications of science and technology to the game. “There’s been a lot of educated guesses based on historical performance data,” explains Thomas, “but no one really knew what was happening when a club struck a ball. At the USGA, we had been fidgeting on the edge of real scientific research for years, and we finally applied everything we could to understand the game.”
For the past two years, the USGA’s scientists have worked furiously at the organization’s headquarters in sleepy Far Hills, N.J., using state-of-the-art technology to understand the forces involved when a golf club collides with a golf ball, an event that takes 500 millionths of a second and is the definitive point of the entire game. The USGA team’s findings may serve to alleviate at least some of the frustration of the more than 26 million duffers who spend hours on golf courses each weekend, whacking dimpled spheroids, all in the name of fun and relaxation.
The research program is Thomas’ pet project, and it satisfies his scientific curiosity about the game he has devoted his life to playing and preserving. A mechanical engineer specializing in composites and structures, Thomas joined the USGA in 1974, having already revolutionized the game during his tenure as chief design engineer for Shakespeare Sporting Goods Co. Thomas’ bold stroke was the introduction of golf clubs with shafts that took advantage of the lightweight, durable graphite that the aerospace industry was also putting to extensive use.
As technical director of the USGA, Thomas runs thousands of golf balls through a series of exhaustive tests and examines as many new club designs each year to determine if they conform to the USGA’s standards. Thomas is charged, as he puts it, “with preserving the challenge of the game by preventing manufacturers from introducing clubs and balls that reduce the skill required to play.”
While he has certainly succeeded in that endeavor, to the chagrin of some manufacturers, he has also transformed the USGA into the leading golf research facility.