- The Washington Times - Thursday, July 25, 2002

Once upon a time, golf clubs as their names indicate were made of iron and wood. Now, with the help of manufacturers' technological advances and golf players' deep pockets, materials such as graphite and titanium often are used to create clubs with a big "sweet spot" and "good energy transfer."

"You see a lot of titanium in drivers. It's a hard but light metal," says Andrew Courtright, a manager at Golfdom, a golf equipment store in Tysons Corner.

Then again, not all people like a lighter driver, Mr. Courtright says. They may want to go with a driver made of steel, a heavier metal than titanium, he says.

You certainly don't want an iron made out of titanium because the metal is so light that you can barely feel the club head as you swing the club, says Mike Byrd, general manager and instructor at East Potomac Park Golf Course and Driving Range.

Players, manufacturers and instructors may never agree on what constitutes the "perfect club," but they all say that new club technologies have made a difference.

For example, lighter clubs have made it easier for women and junior players to drive the ball farther.

The game of golf is hundreds of years old although the exact origin is disputed but the technology that goes into creating clubs didn't go into high gear until the 20th century, which saw the introduction of steel, and later graphite and titanium, in clubs.

The major manufacturers come out with new high-tech clubs almost every year, on which players are willing to spend a lot of money. In 1999, players spent $2.5 billion on clubs alone, according to the National Golf Foundation in Jupiter, Fla.

New technology is not just about finding lighter and stronger materials. The size and look of the club heads also have changed, with driver heads becoming larger and iron heads being created with a larger sweet spot, the point of contact between club head and ball that creates the optimal accuracy and distance.

The club head's sweet spot refers to the center of gravity. In an old-timey club, the center of gravity, and highest mass, was in the middle of the club.

However, by distributing the mass, or weight, of the club head from the center toward the rim, or outside edges, of the club, manufacturers have created a bigger sweet spot. This means that if a player hits the ball a little bit off-center it still will go the desired distance (or close to it). In golf language, the club is "forgiving."

The club heads also have grooves in them that create back spin on the ball. Back spin is helpful in making the ball stop fast preventing it from rolling very far once it hits the green.

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With all the technological advances in equipment, you might wonder why everyone is not a Tiger Woods. The answer is that skill is still the most important factor in someone's game, and the United States Golf Association, USGA, which tests equipment and sets the rules for golf, aims to keep it that way.

Each year, the USGA, based in Far Hills, N.J., tests about 1,000 clubs and 1,000 balls that are new to the marketplace. Test personnel make sure the new advances in technology don't outplay skill as a major factor in success.

"Without rules there is chaos," says Dick Rugge, senior technical director at the USGA. "We don't want anyone to be able to buy a game."

The USGA does not have any rules against certain materials, but it does crack down on certain technologies.

For example, the width and depth of the grooves on the club head are regulated by the USGA because a certain type of groove may give too much of a back spin, which would create an unfair advantage to the player with that particular type of club.

Other rules say the shafts have to be straight, the club can have only one face to strike the ball, and the club face should not have any degree of concavity.

The USGA also has ruled against clubs with a "springlike" effect in the club head. A springlike effect means that the club head is constructed in a way that allows the ball to bounce off too fast and hard, allowing it to travel too far.

The USGA tests the springlike effect, or coefficient of restitution (COR) as it's also called, by firing a ball at the club head and then measuring the velocity of the ball as it bounces off the club head. If the ball comes off the club head at more than 83 percent of the velocity it had when it was fired at the club head, it is considered "too fast."

Clubs that have a COR of more than 83 percent are not allowed in professional competition.

Most of the clubs with the springlike effect are made out of titanium, which, because it's light and hard, allows the club head to be larger and thinner. Also, it is a more flexible material than steel. All of these qualities create the springlike effect.

When it comes to the club's shaft, graphite has become popular because it's a light, flexible material, enabling many players to drive the ball farther. These clubs can be especially beneficial for women or junior players who don't have a lot of physical strength in their arms.

If the player is very strong and has a fast swing (or fast club-head speed), however, he or she may want a stiff shaft, such as one made of steel. Or the player may have to compensate for the torque created by the flexibility of the graphite shaft by slightly changing his or her swing.

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Though technology does make a difference, nothing replaces skill, Mr. Byrd says. If he were to have the "best" clubs on the market and Tiger Woods the "worst," Woods would still win, he says.

"The technology is going to lessen the severity of the bad shot I hit," Mr. Byrd says, but "a player of Tiger's ability is going to find a way to hit the ball on the sweet spot [even with the worse equipment]."

He agrees that there should be rules for equipment used by professionals but says he thinks the average golfer would do well with some of the technological advances that have been blocked by the USGA.

"If there are technological advances that allow the average player to enjoy the game more, then I am for it," Mr. Byrd says.

Some golf players and manufacturers predict that technology in the future will focus more on the shape and style of clubs and less on material. It seems titanium, steel and graphite are here to stay. Others say they think custom-made clubs and club-fitting will become more common.

The debate about club and other equipment technology likely will go on among golf lovers forever, but most agree that the game is ultimately about ability.

"Golf tests skill and mental fortitude. It's a broad and deep test of a person," Mr. Rugge says. "We want this game to be great for the next 500 years and beyond."


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