2005: A futuristic launch

Newfangled golf machines, in the form of measuring devices, suddenly are everywhere. They are called launch monitors, ball flight monitors or golf simulators. They measure how we hit the ball, and they suggest how we might do it better.

Some golfers have warned that these machines are overrunning the sport. If Arnold Schwarzenegger were a golfer, he might attempt to terminate all of them.

“Enough of these metal monsters,” is the cry of the old school, which includes three-time U.S. Open champion Hale Irwin. “We don’t want machines to tell us how to swing. Just give us some old-fashioned instruction.”

And so the battle lines are drawn.

On one side are the Hale Irwins. When they practice, they do it in the dirt. They judge their results on solid hits and proper trajectory. “I know what kind of shot I want to hit,” Irwin said, “and I don’t need some machine or some video to tell me whether it was a good shot or a bad shot.”

On the other side are the new technogeeks of golf. They love to crunch numbers and compare data. They are addicted to machines and video. And their number is growing. Rapidly.

Who is winning this war? Those armed with technology.

There is a very good reason that Swing Dynamics of Carlsbad, Calif., has invented one machine to measure the flight of a golf ball as it bounds off a clubface and another machine to analyze the roll of a ball as it comes off a putter face.

That reason: Satisfying the insatiable hunger for technology that is displayed by today’s computer-fed golfers, both in the United States and abroad. Already the 21st century has become the age of technology in golf. Golfers are the beneficiaries of substantial advances in club fitting and instruction, not to mention the obvious improvements in club design.

As a result, golf will never be the same. This is not your grandfather’s, or your father’s, concept of golf.

In today’s environment, all swings are precisely measured – the driver swing, the putting stroke and everything in between.

All this is so new that Swing Dynamics is the only major company in the field that existed in the late, great 20th century.

The first Swing Dynamics launch monitor was developed in 1998, which must seem like ancient times to those who measure their lives in computer power.

As recently as three years ago, most golfers had never heard of launch monitors. Now, this new phenomenon has changed golf.

How?

It’s simple. Launch monitors scan and analyze golf shots, providing essential information such as clubhead speed, ball speed, launch angle, spin rate, carry distance, angle of attack, face angle and club path through the hitting zone.

“I see teaching and clubfitting coming together as one,” said Marc Solda, the high priest of launch monitors. The effervescent Solda, president of EDH Sport, crisscrosses the golf world with his $15,500 radar-based FlightScope Pro launch monitor.

“If you’re going to spend all this money for golf clubs, and you’re going to spend all this money for golf lessons, then you better do it right,” Solda said. “And that’s where we can help. We go outside with you while you hit balls. We track the ball through the apex of the shot. You can see what it is doing in the air. Our numbers are spot-on.”

The annual PGA Merchandise Show, held each January in Orlando, Fla., has become a technological mecca for golf measuring devices.

M.G. Orender, immediate past president of the PGA of America, paid tribute to these machines. “FlightScope is a great example of how technology can help PGA professionals teach and play the game of golf,” Orender said.

Shaft companies are using this technology to test and prescribe shafts. This is most visible at Fujikura’s shaft lab in Vista, Calif., which is open to the public by appointment.

For individual golfers, the overall benefits of launch monitors can be huge. Golfers can directly compare different drivers. Looking at ball speed, launch angle and spin rate, it is relatively easy to pick the one that fits best.

Players can gap their irons properly. Using a launch monitor in conjunction with a loft and lie machine, it is possible to achieve perfect gapping between irons. Furthermore, golfers will know the precise carry distance for every iron.

Instructors, combining machine measurements with video, can use this technical information to document the improvement of their students.

“It is all about optimizing performance,” said Andrew Tarlow, president of Swing Dynamics, whose ball flight monitor sells for $5,250. “We see ourselves as the best supporting actor, providing precise information for teachers and students.”

Yes, launch monitors make sense.

“When launch monitors first appeared, they provided an explanation of what actually was happening during a player’s swing,” said FlightScope’s Solda. “That void needed to be filled. Players were pretty much running blind.”

Still, there remains another way. Call it the traditional way.

“Confidence is such an important part of golf,” Irwin said. “It’s something you develop on your own. No video or no machine can give you an automatic boost in confidence. I think if you do this on your own, you will end up being a much stronger person.

“In the overall scheme of things, I’ll take more of the human element and less of the technology.”

Irwin has enjoyed so much success with his in-the-dirt theories that it’s hard to argue with him. Increasingly, however, he’s in the minority.

– For information on products mentioned in this story, visit www.swingdynamics.com and www.flightscope.com.

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