2004: Launch monitors: Dissecting devices
By Andy Brumer
If driving a golf ball used to be something of an art form, it now might be described as an act of engineering. Why? The launch monitor.
A launch monitor is, generally, a suitcase-sized, computerized device connected to a high-speed camera or laser. It records and analyzes a host of data gathered at the precise moment a club strikes a golf ball and a millisecond after.
This is the scientific approach to golf. When a ball is hit, most commonly by a driver, the properties of ball and club are measured as carefully and thoroughly as components of an atom bomb. Trained launch monitor operators sit at their machines, scrutinizing and gauging with the attention of a nuclear scientist.
Among the data recorded by most launch monitors: clubhead speed, ball speed, initial launch angle, backspin, side spin, barrel spin and line of shot (i.e., straight, pushed or pulled). From this information, the monitor instantly can calculate the distance, direction, curvature and trajectory of the test shot.
Golf equipment companies such as Titleist and TaylorMade have designed their own launch monitors. Other brands such as Vector, Swing Dynamics and The GolfAchiever are sold commercially to club manufacturers, on- and off-course golf shops, golf instructors and schools. Basic portable models often sell in the $4,000 to $5,000 range. Fancier models retail for considerably more.
Most launch monitors today can interface or operate simultaneously with video swing analyzers. Such combo units run simultaneously, offering visual images of the swing plus launch condition data. This can be a powerful tool for teachers and clubfitters.
Swing Dynamics became the first launch monitor to make waves when it hit the market in 1996, when drivers were in the initial stages of what would evolve into the hot-faced, oversized titanium products of today.
The scientific revolution included more than drivers. Solid golf balls introduced hybrid technology that combined harder covers, softer cores and new mantle layers in between the cover and core.
Together, the modern driver and ball began to produce today’s coveted low-spin, high-flying drives.
Graphite shafts, too, were becoming better and better. As they got longer, lighter and stronger, they allowed golfers to swing from their heels and bomb drives like never before.
But even this wasn’t enough for golfers, who seem to have an inherent desire to mark and measure their achievements.
Enter the era of the launch monitor and other machines that have grown in complexity and
accuracy. For example, TaylorMade’s Benoit Vincent-led team of engineers has created MATT (Motion Analysis Technology by TaylorMade), which not only works as a launch monitor but also, after a golfer dons a special body suit fitted with sensors, produces a virtual image of the golfer’s swing. MATT measures virtually every angle of the body and club as they change during the swing.
David Rankin, CEO of AccuSport Inc., maker of the Vector launch monitor, sees a trend: Golf club manufacturers asking launch monitor makers for software that will evaluate results with specific golf clubs. Rankin says his company is putting the finishing touches on a personalized Vector system for Mizuno Golf.
Michael Beal, director of global operations for Fujikura shafts, says his company uses launch monitors “as quick tests to see if a shaft we are developing is doing what we designed it to do.” Grafalloy has
introduced a shaft model called the Pro Launch, calling attention to the fact that a launch monitor was used in developing the product, and TaylorMade’s new r7 driver has interchangeable weight screws that allow for a variety of launch and spin combinations, which the company verified with its launch monitor during various stages of the club’s creation.
A new launch monitor called FlightScope, from EDH Sport, doesn’t use cameras or lasers, nor does it calculate the flight characteristics of a shot from impact data. Rather, outdoors on a practice range or an actual hole, it casts an electromagnetic net downrange to accurately record the ball in flight and read the shot’s spin characteristics.
According to company president Marc Solda, the product employs defense industry technology used to lock onto incoming missiles. The company offers three versions of the FlightScope – the Tour, Pro and Extreme, which cost $8,000, $15,000 and $100,000, respectively. The most expensive model follows the ball through its entire flight, while the cheapest one tracks it for approximately 50 percent of its air time, then calculates the spin data for the rest of the shot.
“Unlike the other launch monitors that calculate the shot from impact data, ours take into account the environment’s effects on shots, such as humidity, wind, rain and altitude,” says Solda.
To many, the lure of using launch monitors to find the right trio of clubhead, ball and shaft has become
irresistible. “Longer and straighter” may still work as the sales pitch for clubs and balls, but the new tagline associated with launch monitors confidently states that “the numbers don’t lie.”
Bob Gunn, a clubfitting expert at Roger Dunn’s mega-store in west Los Angeles, says that in the three months that his shop has used the Vector Launch monitor, “We must have done 90 fittings, and no one has returned a driver yet.” He adds that “this is significant, because we have a policy that allows golfers to trade their new drivers for another one within 30 days of purchase.” He says those customers report gaining anywhere from 10 to 40 yards with their new launch monitor-fit drivers.
Of course, the pro game always has been a kind of laboratory for equipment makers. As launch
monitors have become more portable, tour reps and trained operators have begun taking them to the range and working with staff pros. As a result, last-minute changes in shaft or loft are now commonplace on the PGA Tour.
Jeff Colton Sr., Callaway Golf’s director of R&D and program development, recalls one launch monitor session with Charles Howell III: “A couple of years back, Charles came to our fitting headquarters in Carlsbad and saw that his launch angle was very low with the rather lofted driver he was using, because he was swinging down on the ball and delofting the club. He actually switched to a less-lofted driver, then worked with his teacher David Leadbetter on swinging on a more level or slightly ascending path through impact. As a result, he raised his launch angle, which produced more carry and longer drives.”
Even if Howell doesn’t always use the less-lofted driver in tournaments, he often uses it as a practice club to help him swing on a more level path through the ball.
Callaway offers fitting sessions to members of the public at fitting centers in Carlsbad and Indian Wells, Calif., Las Vegas and Philadelphia. In addition, Titleist, Ping and a growing number of other manufacturers offer fitting sessions with launch monitors at demo days around the country. Golfers can check company Web sites for demo day locations and dates.
Launch monitors, not surprisingly, have crept into the teaching arena as well, though not without a degree of ambivalence. A monitor can help a teacher measure the progress of his students, and can increase the confidence of students as they see improved launch monitor readings.
However, Randy Henry, a founder of pioneer clubfitting company Henry-Griffitts and an instructor who has worked with many Tour players, says that while the monitor’s numbers may not “lie,” they certainly can distort the truth.
“A launch monitor works best when used by a teacher who is familiar with your swing,” Henry says. “Otherwise, it can work against the student.” As an example, he describes how a golfer swinging a driver with insufficient loft and too stiff of a shaft may nevertheless produce Tour-quality launch numbers on the monitor. He or she would do so by using an excessively weak grip, hanging back on the rear foot and swinging up on the ball to increase the launch angle of the shot. Such excessive effort cannot lead to a consistent swing, Henry says, which no doubt is why Henry-Griffitts has come out with a 400cc driver with 16 degrees of loft. The club allows slower swingers to make a better weight transfer to their forward foot and has enough loft to launch the ball at today’s preferred higher angles.
Well-known instructor Jim Hardy offers this caveat about launch monitors: “The launch monitor is a wonderful tool, but it is only relevant for people with single-digit handicaps, because with higher handicappers, the side spin, initial path and trajectory problems are so obvious to the eye of the teacher.”
Launch monitors clearly have proven their worth to clubmakers, clubfitters and teachers alike. As improved technology has allowed prices to come down, monitors steadily are becoming a cornerstone of the golf retail industry. But will that day arrive, as predicted, when no one buys a new driver or selects a brand of ball without going on a launch monitor?
Perhaps, but clubmakers, clubfitters and teachers continue to lament the fact that most golfers play with overly stiff shafts, insufficient lofts and balls not suited to their swings. This suggests that the day of the omnipresent launch monitor remains somewhere off in an idealized, perfectly fit future.