Sticks and Stones
(or How Technology Saved My Game)
I've never been much of a planner. Under normal circumstances I pack for two-week trips an hour before leaving, buy birthday and holiday gifts the day before the blessed event, and make dinner reservations from my car as I pull into the restaurant parking lot. Not that I have anything against planning ahead. I'm just not very good at it.
But despite my admitted planning deficiencies, I wasn't about to venture into the belly of the golf beast unprepared.
Step one was getting a new set of clubs.
"Please tell me you're kidding," Debbie said when I'd finished my "prepared adventurer" spiel.
"I have to be equipped," I said. "If I were climbing McKinley would you deny me a new set of crampons? If I were diving the Great Barrier Reef--"
"You can stop now."
"A wet suit?"
"If I were trekking the Congo--"
"I have a feeling this free golf thing is going be a lot more expensive than I expected."
A quarter-century ago, purchasing golf clubs was a simple, intimate ritual. Like the best blind dates, friends matched you up with the hottest new clubs --"Harvey, you should see the heads on those Dyna-Powers! Va-va-voom, baby!" or, "Man, did you see that MacGregor Tommy Armour driver in Jimbo's bag? Made my knees weak!"
Even armed with such endorsements, initial contact with new and untested equipment remained tentative: fear of rejection high. Once a player mustered the courage to pick up a new club, the first impression was crucial to the relationship. How it looked, how it "set up," what it felt like as you waggled it in the store all were harbingers of what would either be a fruitful or tempestuous marriage. Again, like finding a suitable date, the only technical elements worth considering were how much it weighed, and how stiff you wanted it.
All irons were "blades" in those days: thin, forged instruments with long, lean furrows connecting the tiniest of heads to tapered steel shafts. The longer ones (including those now-extinct relics, the one-irons) looked like the love children of straight-edged butter knives and custom pool cues. The leading edge (that area of the club where face meets sole) was as harsh and angular as a dull ax blade, and the top line looked like the vertical sight of a rifle scope.
Woods, now called "metals" by the tradition-challenged, were teensy-weensy whittled chunks of persimmon. A serious golfer always checked the grain in a wooden club before venturing too far, cradling the head in the palm of one hand while running the pad of a thumb along the top edge. Good blocks were honey-finished to show off a tight grain that tapered to a point near the toe. After caressing the club for a few minutes, players would invariably place it on the ground near a curb or crack, any straight line, to check the bulge and roll of the face. Loft was not an issue. As Clay Long, the former chief designer for MacGregor, told me, "All our drivers had ten degrees of loft. If you couldn't hit a ten-degree driver, tough, get a two-wood."
Looks and feel mattered most. Irons had to be "square," and woods had to look solid. Other than that, a fruitful engagement consisted of caressing a club in the presence of a pro and taking a few long, slow, deliberate swings in the shop.
Alas, those clubs and the ancient sacraments that went with buying them have disappeared like last year's money. Today, just as the youthful rituals of courtship have given way to "hooking up," buying a golf club is like online dating: You fill out personal date forms, lying to both the respondents and yourself about your abilities. No more ginger touches, no more romance: Shopping for a golf club today requires charts, graphs, high-speed Internet access, and more than a tenth-grade knowledge of aerodynamics and metallurgy.
Do you need classic 17-4 stainless 1020 carbon steel grain flow forged arc technology? Or would a blended modified U-groove milled 460cc tunite alloy cradle do? What sort of gram weight, kick point, and tapering should you choose for your shafts? And what head-weight configuration produces the optimum shot pattern while reducing drag and maximizing energy transfer at the moment of inertia? Oh yeah, and what about COR, the haughty acronym for "coefficient of restitution," the percentage of energy transferred from club to ball at the moment of impact?
I had none of those answers, and understood very few of the questions. So I traveled twenty feet to my laptop. A quick browser search of "new golf clubs" yielded an astonishing 182 million hits, 170 million more than "Bush sucks," and a cool 140 million more than "Viagra online."
Hacking away at the list, I started with the clubs I knew to be "hot," not because I retain an insider's knowledge of such things, but because Golf Digest told me so. Once a year, the game's most prestigious magazine rates new equipment, adding a few gems to what it calls its "Hot List." One of my best friends is a fellow named John Strege, who now covers equipment for Golf Digest, in part because he loves it, but also because he lives in Carlsbad, California, a ten-minute car ride from the manufacturing facilities for Titleist, TaylorMade, and Callaway.
So, faced with all the choices, I called him to ask what makes a club "hot." John said, "It's completely subjective, but we (the magazine editors) look at everything. We have testers at every skill level. They hit every new club and tell us what they think. Then we bring in mechanical engineers and physicists to go through the technology and separate innovation from bull. Talk about guys who speak a different language: They might as well be speaking Farsi."
"Did you learn anything?" I asked.
"Yeah, what little I understood. Like the USGA has a limit of point-eight-three on the COR: that means a driver can only transfer eighty-three percent of its energy to the ball at impact. In one of the sessions, I found out that transferring a hundred percent is a physical impossibility. Can't be done, but if you could somehow breach the laws of physics and get to a hundred percent there would be no sound. The ball would just shoot off the club: no click, no pop, nothing; silent. Those guys explained why, but I have no idea what they said."
I put that one in my trivial-knowledge-for-cocktail-party-conversation file, thanked John for the insight, and went back to the computer to try to narrow my search. The first "hottie" to catch my eye was the TaylorMade r7 460cc Ti driver, a top pick among the Golf Digest editors, and, according to TaylorMade, "the most played driver on the PGA Tour."
I noticed this one first because the clubhead was the size of my foot. It was hard to miss something that big, especially after the company added a bunch of sleek high-tech writing to the heel and sole plate. The designers also plunked three large gunmetal screws in the back.
The little-r big-7 460cc Ti was a meaty, manly club, the kind of instrument that makes you feel longer and stronger the moment you hold it in your hands. It's like straddling a Heritage Softail Harley for the first time: Performance is secondary; the Alpha-dog adrenaline surge is all that matters.
The club also came from TaylorMade, a company that is one of the most important historical institutions in the history of golf, a company that forever changed the way the game is played.
It all started in the winter of 1962 when a young dark-eyed Yugoslavian named John Zebelean cupped a communist cigarette in the fingers of his weathered hand and pondered his future. John had grown right sick of dung-smelling cigs from such Soviet wonderlands at Turkmenistan and Tbilisi, along with the crappy food, dirty snow, and bleak views of industrial filth. So John and his wife, Elizabeth, packed two duffel bags and slipped through the Iron Curtain with soldiers and border guards hot on their trail.
With a lot of help, John and Elizabeth made it to Italy, and later to the rolling hills of San Francisco Bay. Unlike many of their less fortunate comrades, John had a professional advantage: He was a nuclear physicist, a trade that not only made him incredibly marketable, but was one that President Kennedy would have paid him handsomely never to practice again in his home country.
John took a well-paying job developing nukes at the Lawrence Livermore Laboratories just north of San Jose where he and Elizabeth bought a ranch-style home and a Chevy. Nine years later John had adapted well to the American dream. So, on Sunday, January 17, 1971, it was no surprise when he stretched out in front of the RCA color set with a bowl of chips and a beverage and watched the Baltimore Colts beat the Dallas Cowboys, 16 to 13, in Super Bowl V. Afterward, Zebelean followed the lead of the rest of America, which was collectively too lazy to change the channel. That made the following show, The Bing Crosby National Pro-Am at Pebble Beach, the most watched golf tournament in television history at that time.
Another beverage into the final round of the tournament, Zebelean, who had never played golf and knew as much about the game as the tournament winner, a journeyman named Tom Shaw, knew about building a nuclear bomb, had an epiphany. "I couldn't believe they were actually hitting clubs made of wood," Zebelean said.
John didn't know golf, but he knew engineering. He knew that wood absorbed kinetic energy like a sponge drew water. A metal--steel, cast iron, aluminum, or titanium--would transfer more energy from the clubhead to the ball when struck with the same velocity. In short, metal woods would go farther.
This would become a seminal moment, one of those watershed events like the morning Bill Gates said to IBM execs, "Nah, I think we'll own the software and license it to you." The significance would not be realized until years later, but that afternoon, sitting in front of the television on a lazy Sunday, John Zebelean first conceived a hollow, metal-headed golf club, a "metal wood" for lack of a better description, one that would be more forgiving, more adaptable, more durable, and easier to hit.
Metals had been tried before. The British patent office granted a patent to the Currie Metalwood in 1891, the same year Old Tom Morris drew his first routing for a new course in Gullane called Muirfield. Steel shafts made their first appearance in 1891 as well. Unfortunately, metal craftsmanship was still stuck in the steam locomotive age. The Currie Metalwood, for all its good intentions, was a thick hunk of iron on a rebar shaft, so heavy it was all but impossible to swing. After a few dislocated shoulders and blown rotator cuffs, the Currie Metalwood joined the rake-toothed wedge in golf's curiosities cabinet where it stayed until John Zebelean took another look.
Zebelean tinkered for years. His initial lack of knowledge of golf was an advantage; he approached the process from a pure engineering perspective, a first in the more-art-than-science world of club design. But knowing even less about marketing meant that his designs didn't sell very well. A few driving ranges bought the metal-headed woods as rentals--let's face it, no matter how badly you swing, it's hard to scratch a stainless steel head--but that was about it.
Enter a gregarious young club salesman named Gary Adams, the son of a club pro, and the kind of polyester-wearing backslapper who could sell anything, including Zebelean's dull gray cast metal wood, a club that looked awful and sounded worse. Adams called the new venture TaylorMade, and he beat a trail to every retail shop he could find trying to convince golfers to give Zebelean's driver a whirl.
In 1979, Adams convinced a tour pro named Jim Simon to hit the TaylorMade driver on the range at La Costa Golf and Country Club. Simon, who was hitting three-woods to his caddie standing at the 240-yard marker, looked at the club, grunted, pounded a mound of turf into a makeshift tee, threw down a ball, and hit the driver off the dirt.
The caddie's head went up and then back as he watched the ball fly thirty yards farther than any shot Simon had hit all day.
The following day, Simon put the TaylorMade metal wood into play at the Tournament of Champions, an event that would have gone largely unnoticed had Simon not been paired with Jack Nicklaus in the first round. After Simon hit his new metal contraption past Nicklaus on the first two par fives, Jack was heard grumbling that "it sounds like he's hitting a beer can."
Three months later, Simon had pros lined up on the range at Atlanta Country Club during the Atlanta Classic to hit his loud new driver. "Jeez, the whole thing's a sweet spot," one pro said. "Goddamn, that's loud," said another. Some liked it, some didn't, but everybody wanted to give it a try.
A year later, a hundred tour pros had metal woods in their bags. By 1984, TaylorMade was the number one driver on the PGA Tour. Four years later, wooden golf clubs, the handcrafted Samurai swords of the game for almost 400 years, were obsolete. And the master craftsmen who had spent a lifetime carving them joined buggy-whip makers and blacksmiths as casualties of what economists dryly call "a paradigm shift." Louisville Golf, a leading producer of persimmon heads and supplier for Wilson, Spalding, and Hogan among others, went from a hundred-person payroll to a staff of seventeen virtually overnight.
"The bottom fell out," former MacGregor chief designer Clay Long said. "We had sixty-five highly skilled craftsmen (at MacGregor) making persimmon clubs, and just like that there was nothing for them to do."
Replacing these artists was a cadre of aerodynamic engineers, metallurgists, physicists, and rocket scientists. With no more Pershing II missiles to build after the end of communism, hordes of defense contractors found themselves retooling their resumes. And in a move anticipated by absolutely no one, many of them followed the example of John Zebelean and began making golf clubs.
In five years, venerable golf companies like MacGregor, Wilson, and Dunlop went from being industry dynamos to shrug-of-the-shoulders afterthoughts. In their places came start-ups like Callaway Golf, founded by a septuagenarian textile executive and winemaker; Bridgestone, a Japanese tire and rubber company; and TaylorMade.
By the turn of the millennium Callaway was pumping $40 million into research, a sum larger than former industry leader Hogan had generated in total sales just twenty years before.
Clubs weren't the only thing that changed overnight. Because metal woods imparted less spin, players started hitting harder balls. Within a few short years wound rubber balls with soft balata covers joined persimmon heads on the ash heap.From the Hardcover edition.
Excerpted from Golf Freek by Steve Eubanks. Copyright © 2007 by Steve Eubanks. Excerpted by permission of Crown, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.