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Testing new gear… put it in hands
Whether testing clubs or balls, a golf manufacturer wants to know one very important thing. Do they perform well? Not just work, but really perform for the intended golfer for whom the product was designed.
Let’s take a look at the development of a driver. After all the wonderful ideas have been engineered into the prototype club and it has been computer analyzed to within an inch of its life, it is now time to test it in real conditions and with real people.
Once a manufacturer has an actual hittable prototype club in his hands the first stop might be the robotic swing machine. For many years this device has been referred to as “Iron Byron” — named for the solid and repeatable swing of golf great Byron Nelson.
For decades, this was the only way to hit thousands of similarly repeated shots that allowed technicians to gather data on clubs and balls. Used by nearly every major golf company and the United States Golf Association, this machine was indispensable. The shots would be struck by Iron Byron and then land on a grid laid out on a field to simulate a fairway on a golf course.
This was no cheap or easy endeavor. The USGA had a special field graded with a few degrees tilt toward the machine’s fixed location; and other manufacturers would replicate this set up so that ball and club testing would coincide with USGA data gathering.
Before the development of modern day launch monitors, the technicians would use special strobe photography, high-speed cameras and a set of ballistic light traps to attempt to gather the impact and launch parameters of a golf shot. This was not always successful due to the angle of the sunlight, wind conditions, field moisture. A manufacturer could drop a million dollars to put together a first-rate set-up, and if it was windy or rainy, the data was of little use.
Thankfully, the modern launch monitor came along and solved many of these problems at a much cheaper price. Now testing may be done indoors or outdoors, with greater accuracy and tighter tolerances. You don’t need a grid to land the balls onto or wait for that perfect day of temperature, sunshine and low wind.
A modern-day launch monitor system will gather information like:
• Ball launch angle
• Carry distance, roll (calculated)
• Ball speed
• Backspin and side spin
• Clubhead speed
• Angle of attack
• Club swing path
• Dynamic loft and lie angles
• Face angle and impact location on clubface
• Smash factor
I will talk about only a few of these since many are self-explanatory.
The glamorous “smash factor” is one that everyone seems to want to learn about. This is the ball speed divided by the clubhead speed.
Let’s say that a prototype club test yielded a ball speed of 175 mph when it was swung at 115 mph. The resulting smash factor would be 1.52. This would be a big hitting Tour player. Most Tour pros average around the 1.5 mark. We mortals would be somewhat lower (perhaps in the 1.4 area).
An impressive smash factor depends greatly on the impact location on the clubface. Hit the sweet spot (center of gravity), and watch the smash factor number rise.
For many years, we golf club developers knew that if you could launch a ball a little higher with less backspin the shot would fly farther and land hot for additional roll. Long-drive golfers during the persimmon wood era would purposely hit the ball higher on the clubface to take advantage of the face radius (or roll) to launch the ball higher and win the prize money.
With so many different ways to internally weight a metal wood, designers are always looking to help golfers hit their optimum launch angle in order to increase distance.
Dynamic loft is something that occurs when a club is swung and the rear portion of the clubhead is pulled downward, thus increasing the face loft when it meets the ball at impact. Dynamic lie is the actual lie angle that occurs when a club is swung and the shaft bows downward, thus flattening out the lie from its static measurement point.
All this machine testing is well and good, but as a wise man once told me many years ago, “the proof is in the pudding.”
No golf club should ever go to market before it is thoroughly tested with live golfers. Whether they be top Tour players, low-handicap amateurs or your average golfer just trying to break 100, the testing must be done with the players for whom the product is targeted.
There is nothing like toiling for months on a golf club concept and then putting a prototype in a golfer’s hands. The soaring shot trajectory, extra distance, excited comments and delighted smiles makes it all worthwhile.