Clubfitting has evolved substantially in recent years. And a young Australian biomechanical engineer at equipment manufacturer Ping says it’s all the more reason to be professionally fitted for your next set of sticks.
Bubba Watson isn’t your typical professional golfer. An artist would be a more appropriate description. Watson likes shaping the ball and creating different trajectories. He’s renowned for being self-taught and never having had a formal lesson in his life.
This became apparent to Australian biomechanical engineer Jonathan Shepherd during a driver fitting session for Watson on ‘The Launch Pad’ at Ping’s headquarters in Phoenix, Arizona. Using the ENZO System, an old motion-capture technology system, Watson was testing the Ping G425 driver a few years ago. However, the two-time Masters champion appeared to be more interested in playing games.
“Bubba’s one of those guys if you work with him, he doesn’t really want to know about the data. He’s a feel player and he wants to see shots and shapes. But he really gets excited by trying things out,” Shepherd recalls.
At one stage during the session, Watson said: “Jono, tell me what shot to hit halfway through my backswing and I’ll hit it.”
“Just call it out.”
So halfway through Watson’s backswing, Shepherd nominated: “Low draw”… And Bubba proceeded to hit a bullet-low draw. The pantomime continued for the rest of the session as – on cue – Watson hit shots with a one-degree launch angle, a high cut or whatever was thrown at him.
“I’ve seen that in athletes before where they’re just very inquisitive. I guess how they’re mentally wired drives the performance outcome they’re looking for,” Shepherd says.
“The joy that he got from that session came from having fun and wanting to be creative. In a fitting environment, hitting into a range might not always be creative. It might be like trying to hit stock shots. But for him it’s like: ‘I want to know how this golf club performs when I try to do weird and wonderful things’.”
The Watson anecdote illustrates how Ping adapts equipment to different people. Bubba visualises certain shot shapes as he’s trying to maximise his equipment potential. He wants his equipment to do very different things to what other people want their equipment to do.
That fitting session is one of Shepherd’s favourite highlights since joining Ping where he heads up the manufacturer’s new research laboratory in England. The takeaway for Shepherd was the importance of getting fitted in the right frame of mind. Also, try to replicate the shots you want to hit – and see hit – on a golf course.
PING OPENS NEW R&D CENTRE IN ENGLAND
Historically, Ping’s engineering – research and development – had all been undertaken in Arizona. But as a result of COVID, the Solheim family became comfortable with video conferencing and realised the engineering team didn’t need to be based solely in Phoenix.
In July 2022, Ping officially opened its new ‘laboratory’ – the Ping Performance Research Centre at Loughborough University in England. Located in Leicestershire in the East Midlands, Loughborough is 75 minutes north of London by train and a 65-minute drive south of Gainsborough where Ping employs 400 people at its main ‘build’ site and distribution centre for the whole of Europe.
Loughborough is a sports-centric university and English cricket has based its high-performance centre there on campus. In fact, the first-ever computer model of a golf club was conducted at Loughborough. In 2001, Ping formed a partnership and rented space from the university to build a ‘golf lab’. More recently Ping had been building a new motion-capture system in conjunction with the university. Ping also has a lengthy relationship of sponsoring PhD students and placing university undergraduates as year-long ‘interns’ into Phoenix as part of their engineering degree. Subsequently, several students have become Ping staff members.
AT THE FRONTIER OF GOLF’S EQUIPMENT EVOLUTION
Jonathan Shepherd relocated to Loughborough in 2021 to undertake Ping’s first R&D outside Phoenix. So he’s at the cutting edge of Ping’s equipment innovation. It’s a far cry from the Queensland Academy of Sport where Shepherd would analyse movement patterns of swimmers and boxers. It begs the question as to how a young Australian becomes a leading engineer for a revered equipment manufacturer such as Ping.
Shepherd began his journey as an undergraduate in biomechanical engineering at Griffith University’s Gold Coast campus. At Griffith he became exposed to research into underwater swimming, specifically biomechanics using inertial sensors. He did an internship there working on sensor technology and wearable tech, such as hand-held wristwatch devices for tracking athlete movement. Then in the UK he worked at the Centre For Sports Engineering Research while on a visiting internship placement.
Shepherd returned home to pursue a PhD in conjunction with the Queensland Academy Of Sport in Brisbane at Griffith University’s Nathan campus where he monitored swimmers, boxers, netballers and wheelchair basketballers: “Using technology to measure and understand performance… Essentially trying to make Australia win more gold medals than the Brits.”
In 2018 Shepherd hosted a conference for an international sports engineering association board. He must have impressed because it led to job offers, including one he accepted from Ping. “Probably the most exciting sport that I could work on would be golf. I’ve always loved golf,” says Shepherd who grew up playing at Moss Vale Golf Club in the New South Wales Southern Highlands and has attained a 7-handicap since joining Ping.
“The challenge of designing golf clubs is a super-interesting engineering challenge. You have the collision that happens really fast – a golf club gets accelerated – and it becomes a high-performance sport.”
HOW BIOMECHANICS HAS CHANGED CLUB DESIGN
Major champions Gary Player and Greg Norman were two of the first professionals to push the notion of golfers as athletes. Golf-specific fitness has come a long way since the South African advocated 1,000 sit-ups to begin the day. As a result, the manufacturing of golf equipment has evolved to account for differences in anatomy, physical strength and conditioning.
“Biomechanics is a huge part of understanding golf performance. If golf was played by robots, it would be easy to design a good golf club. But people load and unload clubs differently,” Shepherd says.
For instance, a golfer with an abrupt swing such as Cameron Champ is better served by a super-stiff shaft. Whereas a player like Jim Furyk, who pulls the club along the fibre axis, can handle a flexible shaft.
Pushing the barriers of engineering performance is the essence of modern-day equipment manufacturing. Top golfers are intrinsically patterned and know their equipment really well. They may realise small gains from getting fitted with respect to clubs, shafts and balls.
“But if you go to an average golfer, we’re going to see huge performance leaps,” Shepherd says. “And it’s not just a distance story. Ping’s always been about trying to build in forgiveness to a golf club and we really try to push the barrier of what forgiveness means. With terms like MOI – Moment Of Inertia – trying to stop the clubface from twisting at impact is a big thing the company has been founded on.”
A POINT OF DIFFERENCE: INVESTMENT IN ENGINEERING
Founded by Karsten Solheim six decades ago, Ping is still at the forefront of golf-club innovation. The brand is synonymous with the Anser putter, which revolutionised club design after its release in 1966. The Anser putter featured an offset hosel (allowing a clean view of the clubhead), a cavity back, low centre of gravity and alignment lines that made it easier to square the putterface at impact.
“I think we’re an engineering company first and maybe a golf club company second,” Shepherd says. “We really take huge amounts of detail to try to understand the product and be the most knowledgeable company in the game. And I think you see that reflected in our product landscape.”
Wedge performance is a source of pride with Ping outperforming rivals over the past six years at independent testing trials (undertaken by MyGolfSpy and TXG). When ‘spritzing’ a ball with water, Ping wedges displayed better spin consistency by comparison with rival club manufacturers.
“That’s because we’ve optimised for where our friction profile is. We’ve really deep-dived into the engineering to understand how we optimise our groove-geometry depths,” Shepherd says.
Golf is played on a golf course and every blade of grass has moisture, Shepherd explains. Ultimately, the aim is to create consistent spin and vertical launch angle regardless of the friction condition, such as early-morning dew on the fairway. When you strike a golf ball, moisture shoots up onto the clubface and affects how much grip and slip that ball is going to experience. To create the most stable wedge package, Ping used different technologies to achieve that goal.
A major factor in Ping’s wedge success story has been attributed to one of its industry-leading technologies – the ‘hydropearl’ chrome finish on irons. In science, hydrophobicity is how much water is repelled from a surface. Applying this hydropearl coating on irons – especially wedges – pushes moisture away from the clubface. And that helps create more consistent friction parameters.
On Ping’s latest wedge, the Glide 4.0, the hydropearl finish is a coating in the steel. The intention is for the club to “glide through the turf, push all the moisture away and give us the best chance of creating optimal friction between the ball and the clubhead”.
The technology is physics and chemistry driven, such as an activated elastomer to improve feel and softness of the wedge. The shaping of a clubhead is important in wedges, too – from how they sit for a player to how the lead-edge radius interacts with the turf. For instance, if a club digs too much into the turf there tends to be a ‘fat’ shot. Whereas if the club bounces and catches the bottom of the lead edge it will lead to thin shots. So optimising the radius is important.
Bounce angle can change the playability of a club. The wide-sole wedge is a trait of Ping irons for most golfers whereas a thin-sole wedge lends itself to a tour-calibre player. An I-Wedge could be for someone struggling out of bunkers. It’s all part of the manufacturing and custom-fitting story.
GET FITTED FOR YOUR NEXT SET
Golf-club manufacturing has literally morphed into rocket science. At the turn of the 21st century, equipment makers were using titanium exclusively for the manufacture of driver clubheads. That has since graduated into the multi-material composite landscape where carbon fibre reigns due to its strength-to-weight ratio.
Drivers have become extremely complex in the assembly process. Clubheads used to be produced in relatively simple shapes whereas now they have adjustable weighting systems and adjustable hosel sleeves. A relatively dense metal such as tungsten is helpful in moving discretionary mass around a clubhead. Advances in metallurgy have changed the way a face plate is formed and connected to the body of the clubhead. These type of manufacturing innovations have then unlocked other technology aspects to improve performance.
Shepherd is most excited about the increasing number of new people being introduced to golf. That brings new challenges that will lead to even more innovation. For example, adaptive golf (for the disabled) is growing and is a source of evolution in manufacturing, such as designing robot seats for wheelchair-bound golfers.
Of course, this provides dozens of options when it comes to clubfitting. So while you mightn’t be able to hit a shot on command like Bubba Watson, these recent technological advances make it a ‘no-brainer’ to be professionally fitted for your next set of sticks.
Fortunately, it’s easier than ever to find an accomplished clubfitter. Good on-course golf shops (green grass account) and off-course retailers (big box stores like Drummond Golf and PureForm Golf) provide a variety of equipment brands and the latest clubfitting software.
After booking a clubfitting, Shepherd recommends arriving for the session with your own set of clubs. In a typical A/B Testing scenario using a launch monitor with motion-capture technology (TrackMan or GCQuad), the clubfitter can find the optimal solution for that individual customer. Force plates in the ground and a bank of reflective motion-capture cameras provide launch-monitor data that enable a clubfitter to determine how and why a golfer swings the club a particular way.
For a driver fitting, the golfer should hit their own driver first. After getting comfortable with their own particular numbers, the clubfitter can introduce new product to what they think will best match that individual golfer. Then it’s refining the process from there.
“So it’s bit of a process of elimination to ensure this product works for you,” Shepherd says. “Because it might work for one customer but may not work for another. So trying to find the ultimate head, weight settings, hosel settings and loft/lie. Then we dive into shaft and grip, ultimately to create the best feeling and best performing product for that customer.”