No doubt the technological revolution that has swept the golf industry over the past several decades has produced numerous benefits for the average golfer. When I started playing golf in the late 1960s, my bag contained state-of-the art weapons like persimmon woods and forged blades. Then came metal “woods” (I object to the term “fairway metal” – they’re still “woods” in my mind), oversized titanium drivers, cavity-back/perimeter weighted irons (an enormous aid to medium to high handicappers), hybrids (initially called “rescue clubs”), hybrid irons, and of course all sorts of crazy putters that look like they were engineered at NASA.
Not to mention changes in the golf ball. In my early days, the biggest hazard to my balls was not losing them (I didn’t hit them far enough for that) but cutting the soft, balata cover with frequent bladed shots. The ugly curved gash, revealing the wound rubber core of the ball, was the tell-tale sign of a bad swing. I haven’t inflicted such damage on a ball in well over 30 years, but it’s not because my game has improved. The modern ball is simply uncuttable, except by mowers that occasionally bisect balls abandoned in the rough. The worst I can do is scuff them up on cart paths, which is worth it if the path adds another 50 yards to my tee shot.
The latest technology craze is the adjustable driver. The first phase of this phenomenon allowed you to rearrange weights to achieve a draw or fade. I bought a TaylorMade R-7 a number of years ago that supposedly was adjusted to produce a draw. I continued to fade the ball. It’s possible that the club was improperly adjusted, but more likely I needed a swing adjustment.
Now you can make all sorts of adjustments to drivers: weighting, clubface alignment (maybe that would have cured my problem), and launch angle. Not sure whether a 9.5 degree or 10.5 degree is right for you? The TaylorMade R1 can be adjusted to any loft. Maybe one day we’ll all carry only one club that can be adjusted to hit every shot in golf, and walk the course without a bag and just a few balls and tees in our pocket. But this would sharply curtail the profits of the equipment industry.
Technology – in the form of computerized monitors — can also tell us more than we might want to know about the physics of our golf swing. I bought a driver last summer after the technician at Golf Town watched me hit dozens of shots with different clubs and analyzed the data from the monitor. This job must require a lot of diplomacy. After evaluating my data (club head speed, spin, launch angle, distance, blood pressure at impact) a brutally honest technician might have said “have you thought about tennis or bowling?” But his job is to sell clubs, so he put a positive spin on things and convinced me that the Rocketballz driver was the ticket to the improvement of my game. It wasn’t. But I’m sure the new R1 would take me to new heights.
Now you can monitor yourself. Some company is advertising a device that attaches to your shaft and gauges your swing speed. This sounds helpful on the surface, but as I pondered this I questioned whether I really want to know my swing speed. I know it’s slow, and I’d really prefer not to know if my swing speed puts me in the bottom ten percentile of golfers my age who do not suffer from a severe physical disability.
The more I think about it, I have about as much desire to know my swing speed as my blood pressure, my cholesterol count, and my glucose level. In fact, my swing speed would be even more depressing than poor health indices, since that latter might be susceptible of improvement with a better diet and exercise. I’m fairly certain there is little I could do to improve my swing speed, at least if I still wanted to make contact with the ball. However, given that slow play is a huge problem in golf, I try to do other things on the course faster to compensate for my slow swing. I have an efficient pre-shot routine, spend minimal time looking for errant shots, and can drive a golf cart with the best of them.
So, while golf technology has produced many benefits, there are limits. Until the day comes – as is happening with self-driving automobiles — when we will simply program robots to play for us, our human frailties – mental and physical – continue to be the biggest factor in success or failure on the links. You can adjust that R1 driver to the max, but the ball is only going to go so far with my anemic swing speed. I’m at peace with this, for now, but bowling is always an option.