Out of the Lab and Onto the Links

May 3, 2001
New high-tech clubs and balls are designed to hit golfers' sweet spots

Tight Lies ST drivers and fairway woods from Adams Golf feature shafts made of steel and graphite.

Spalding's multilayer Strata Tour Ultimate consists of a concentrated tungsten core, high-acid ionomer mantle, and Zythane II cover.

The iWound from Wilson Sporting Goods features a Hytrel injection-wound inner structure around a solid core to provide high spin and distance.

More than 200 stainless-steel pixels provide solid contact across the clubface on forged wedges from Pixl Golf. A gold pixel in the upper right corner of the insert indicates genuine pixel technology. A standard pixel is easily removed to add the gold one, which demonstrates the technology's independent architecture.

Callaway Golf's Steelhead X-14 Pro Series irons offer shot forgiveness and a bladelike shape.

Duffers to scratch players are constantly searching for that holy grail, the one ball or club that will give their game a Tiger-esque edge. Sure, some golfers are probably better off avoiding the pricey toys and spending their money on lessons. But what fun is that? Especially when, every year, manufacturers come out with the latest and greatest in high-tech golf equipment.

Here's a look at what well-heeled golfers are carrying around in their golf bags.

Be the ball
The golf ball is at the center of a big debate circulating on golf courses. The question is which is better: wound or solid core? For spin and feel, golfers turn to wound balls, but who can resist the distance solid-core balls deliver? It seems golfers have to sacrifice one to get the other.

Wilson Sporting Goods Co., Chicago, claims to have solved the problem with the iWound. Instead of rubberband threads, an injection-molded structure made of Hytrel surrounds the polybutadiene core. The large, solid core provides distance, while the solid-lattice structure consistently delivers shot-stopping spin. The spin is said to come without the problems associated with traditional wound balls, including loss of shape and distance.

So is it wound or solid core? It's neither according to Luke Reese, vice president and general manager of Wilson Golf Worldwide, "Our engineers have created a whole new golf-ball category — solid wound." A set of 12 costs about $35.

Avid golfers looking for a ball with more distance and spin — and who isn't? — may want to check out the Strata Tour Ultimate golf ball from Spalding Sports Worldwide Inc., Chicopee, Mass. The multi-layer ball features a soft rubber-enriched core with a tungsten nucleus. The tungsten core concentrates the ball's weight in its center, so 6% of the ball's mass is concentrated in less than 1% of the ball's volume.

With Strata Tour Ultimates, good golfers will notice higher launch angles and greater distance off woods and long irons according to Spalding. Off mid and short-iron shots, the tungsten core, in combination with the soft Zynthane II cover, is said to make it easier to start the ball spinning for better control. Suggested retail price for a dozen is $54.

Don't get shafted on drivers and woods
When it comes to clubs, one of golfers' big choices is shaft material. Compared with steel, graphite shafts are longer and weigh less, letting golfers swing faster and hit balls farther. On the downside, they tend to have more shaft torque, which causes the clubhead to inconsistently square at impact and reduces shot accuracy. Steel shafts lack the torque trouble, but their heavy weight slows swings and knocks off distance.

For years, golfers have had to decide between steel and graphite. BiMatrx shaft technology from True Temper Sports Inc., Memphis, changes that by bonding a steel tip to a graphite upper shaft, thus combining the benefits of both materials. The high-modulus graphite upper shaft provides the optimal weight for distance and feel, while the tapered steel tip reduces shaft torque for better head stability and straighter shots.

The shaft underwent extensive player and robot testing to make sure it could handle the loads and stresses produced during a golf swing. According to the company, tests showed more than 80% of the golfers improved accuracy and increased distance.

Adams Golf, Plano, Tex., uses BiMatrx shafts in their Tight Lies ST drivers and fairway woods. The tapered steel tip is said to produce 55% less shaft torque than a graphite shaft tip.

"When you deal with the larger clubheads of drivers and fairway woods, the center of gravity is farther from the shaft, causing more instability or head oscillation at impact," says Barney Adams, chairman and CEO of Adams Golf. "The extra stability of the steel tip in bimaterial shafts reduces these oscillations, making it easier to hit the ball with a square face, producing straighter shots."

Tight Lies ST drivers and fairway woods feature an upside-down head, which provides a large hitting area and is more forgiving on off-center hits. The oversized driver heads are titanium, and the fairway-wood heads are stainless steel. Driver clubfaces are ultra-thin, high-strength forged titanium for springlike effect. Both clubs have a heel-weighted sole plate that puts the center of gravity low, deep, and toward the heel to help square the clubface at impact for a high launch angle and low backspin.

Tight Lies ST drivers are available in lofts of 10, 9, 8, and 7° and carry a $399.95 price tag.

Tight Lies ST fairway woods range from 13 to 22° lofts and cost $299.95.

Iron it out
Callaway Golf Co., Carlsbad, Calif., offers bladelike irons targeted at the skilled golfer. The Steelhead X-14 Pro Series irons, which complement the Big Bertha Steelhead X-14 Series, have a smoke-polished finish, higher toe, thinner top-line, and shorter blade length.

A reduced offset configuration for the hosel, the socket in the head that holds the shaft, reportedly gives golfers more control over shot trajectory. Variable-thickness technology, in which the clubface tapers from thickest near the center to thinnest around the perimeter, shifts the center of gravity toward the heel of the iron to make energy transfer between ball and club more efficient. A 360° variable undercut channel also helps move the weight toward the perimeter of the clubhead for more forgiveness and a solid feel. The Series, featuring 1 through 9 irons, costs $125/club and includes six wedges.

No more putting around
The nerve-wracking experience of trying to sink a putt often leads to golfers developing special relationships with their putters. Gary Player once said, "It's a marriage. If I had to choose between my wife and my putter, I'd miss her."

Fortunately, there's no shortage of putter designs to choose from. In the beginning, there were only six basic putters. In the 1960s, Karsten Solheim stirred things up when he introduced the Ping putter. Its weight was evenly distributed from heel to toe, so if a shot wasn't hit in the proverbial sweet spot, it could still turn out relatively straight. Jack Nicklaus used a heel-toe weighted putter to win the 1986 Masters Tournament. Afterward, Nicklaus returned to a standard putter because he thought perimeter-weighted putters were too forgiving. They didn't help players become better golfers. This may be true, but mere golfing mortals quickly saw the benefits and weren't going to bag the weighted putter any time soon.

Isopur 2 Series putters from Ping Golf, Phoenix, use tungsten weights in the heel and toe and are said to deliver a soft, responsive feel and a high moment of inertia. Tungsten increases the head's perimeter weighting and lowers the center of gravity for better roll off the putter face. The Isopur face is milled for consistent flatness, and its stainless-steel head carries a satin finish. Nine models are available. The putters go for $135, except for the long-shafted version, which is $160.

Pixel-perfect wedges
The clubface, the part of the club that contacts the ball, has been largely ignored in terms of design. But in 1997, it received a major facelift with the introduction of a clubface insert made of individual pieces called pixels. The benefit? The hexagonal insert reduces the distance lost on mishits.

The inventors claim that because each pixel is discrete, vibrational energy doesn't travel out-side of the impact zone. Instead, it remains within each pixel that made contact with the ball. Energy is transmitted back to the ball during impact, instead of traveling through the clubhead and up the shaft. The result? Bad hits fly farther and feel more solid.

Once popular only on the putting green, pixels have found their way to wedges, thanks to Pixl Forged Wedges from Pixl Golf, Palo Alto, Calif. "No matter where on the face players strike the wedge, their shot will have a more uniform distance dispersion," says Tylar Lunke, manager of sales and marketing. "No matter where the ball makes contact with the face, the response will be very similar to that of a center hit."

A nest of factors play roles in pixel technology, but most important is architecture, which prevents energy from transferring through the head. Pixel size also makes a difference. The smaller the pixel, the better each extra pixel can further isolate the impact location. Materials also help control the way a shot feels.

The wedges, which use more than 200 independent stainless-steel pixels, are forged from carbon steel in a classic shape and chrome plated. They're available for $159 and come in lofts of 52 (gap), 56 (sand), and 60° (lob).

Pixl Golf's wedges are said to be the first production club, other than putters, to include pixels in the clubface. But pixels probably won't stop there. "The future of this technology is virtually endless when considering that pixels can be used in all golf clubs. This will let players of all skill levels benefit from the technology," says Lunke.

Back in time on the front and back nine
Today, golf balls are a million-dollar R&D industry. To understand where golf-ball design is heading, it pays to take a look at where it began.

Before the 17th century, golf balls were wooden. Great for durability, bad for distance. They sunk like, well, a wooden ball. Then along came the feathery consisting of a leather casing soaked in alum and stuffed with boiled feathers. It was shaped into a sphere and painted white to make it more visible. As the ball dried and the feathers expanded, it became tighter and firmer. The feathery doubled the distance of wooden balls, although they didn't hold up well in wet weather and were much more expensive. The feather-stuffing process (craftsmen could only make about four balls a day) probably attributed to the high cost. But whatever the reason, the feathery turned golf into a game for the rich, a stereotype that still lingers on the links.

Golf's popularity among the less wealthy grew in 1848 when balls made of gutta percha, a rubberlike substance tapped from tropical trees, were introduced. Gutta percha is malleable when boiled and hardens upon cooling. The guttie traveled farther than the feathery, but its real charm was its inexpensive price. Early on, it was known to break up in midair, which prompted rules that let golfers play a new ball from the point where the largest fragment fell. Over the rest of the 19th century, the guttie was modified to make it more durable. Its outer shell was indented after it was noted the ball flew better when it had been marked or cut.

Guttie love didn't last long. In the early 20th century, it fell to the wayside when Coburn Haskell, an employee of Goodrich Tyre and Rubber Co. in Ohio, invented the rubber-core ball. Elastic thread wound around a rubber core under extreme tension was encased in a patterned outer cover of gutta percha. Its biggest advantage over the guttie was its ability to travel a considerable distance when mishit. At first the Haskell ball faced skepticism, but people came around when golfer Sandy Herd played four rounds with one on the Royal Liverpool course. He was the only player using a Haskell ball, and he beat golf legends Harry Vardon and James Braid by one shot.

Since then, the Haskell ball has undergone a myriad of changes. The gutta-percha shell has been replaced by refined compounds — balata on balls for professionals and surlyn on balls for novices. A variety of dimple formations have been tried, and winding is tighter. Today, three-piece wound balls compete with two-piece solid-core balls.

Golf balls have come a long way from the balls of yesteryear. And the ride isn't over yet. As long as recreational golfers want to hit like big-time players, ball design will remain big-time business.

Did you know . . .
Birdie. Bogey. Divot. The game of golf definitely has its fair share of peculiar expressions. Here's how some of them found a home in the golfing lexicon.
Birdie. Dates back to 1903 when someone reportedly said "That's a bird of a shot" when holing out. The terms eagle and double eagle grew out of the avian theme.
Bogey. In 19th century England, when a Major Charles Wellman didn't achieve par at the Great Yarmouth Club, he called it "getting caught by the bogey man."
Thought to be derived from a French word meaning young man. Its golfing lineage can be traced to Mary Queen of Scots, who had the young men of her court carry her clubs around the golf course.
Divot. Simply enough, this term comes from the Scottish word for a piece of turf.
Fore. Presumably, the British military is to thank for this one. When firing a volley, artillery forces would yell "Beware before!" to warn the infantry to get out of the way.
Links. From the Old English term for "rising ground." It originally referred to a golf course along a seashore, but it's now a euphemism for all courses.
Round. The circular design of early golf courses — players started at the clubhouse and circumnavigated their way back by the final hole — gave birth to this term.

Information provided from Why Do They Call It a Birdie? 1,001 Fascinating Facts About Golf by Frank Coffey.

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