Monday, June 23, 2008

Striking While the Iron's Hot

The goal: a woman's golf club that wasn't like anything else out there. The result: the i-brid.
n the past couple of decades, most everything about golf clubs has grown: size, cost, and certainly the technological know-how that goes into building them.

A set of golf clubs is meant to give the golfer the right club for every situation, and big advances have been made in almost every type of club.

New materials let golfers tee off with drivers that can send balls far beyond where they could go before. Researchers have dedicated endless hours to reshaping putters to make golfers more effective on the green.
For the in-between shots, many golfers now carry four wedges, each designed for a different trajectory and whatever spin on the ball the situation calls for. Irons for long shots have been replaced by hybrids -- part wood, part iron -- that allow golfers to hit the ball more solidly and give it a higher flight and a softer, more controlled landing.

But there is a group of clubs meant for intermediate-range shots -- mainly the four, five and six irons -- where the improvements have been less radical. And that's where Callaway Golf Co. saw an opportunity.

The result is its new line of Big Bertha irons for women, using a design it calls the i-brid. To come up with the design, the company sent people out to talk to a range of women golfers and watch them play the game before it built a single prototype, then kept them involved throughout the design process.

Beyond Pink

Callaway has long been the leading seller of women's golf equipment, but it wanted to expand its lead in this growing sector of the golf market, says Jeff Colton, the company's senior vice president of research and development. To do that, he says, the company figured it couldn't settle for an attitude of "OK, let's paint it pink, cut the shaft down by an inch and a half, put a woman's grip on it, and we have a woman's club."

While the technical people at Callaway's Carlsbad, Calif., headquarters knew what could be done with the design of a golf club, they didn't know exactly what women needed and wanted in their clubs. Women golfers, meanwhile, didn't know the technical aspects, but they certainly knew what was lacking in their clubs. Cece O'Connor, a Callaway product-development official, says a woman golfer asked her at one point, "Do they know our irons don't work for us?"

What was needed was a way to bring the technicians and the golfers together. So about three years ago, Callaway used its contacts at golf courses around the country to find 40 women golfers of various abilities in 10 locations from California to Florida to Nantucket, Mass. Then it dispatched a team of researchers, designers and golf pros to visit them.

The women's ages ranged from 17 to 76, and they played on country-club, semi-private and municipal courses. Callaway focused on women from each end of the playing spectrum -- more-recreational players who had recently taken up the game and might be playing with their husband's old clubs, and experienced golfers who played to win and wanted the latest in equipment. Callaway officials figured that these two ends of the spectrum had been largely ignored as equipment makers focused on the middle-of-the-road golfers who make up the largest segment of the market. By focusing on the underserved extremes, Callaway thought it could expand its market reach and learn enough to serve the middle of the market as well.
BULKING UP The i-brid's clubhead is fat with a wide sole, so the golfer is much more likely to hit the ball cleanly

Ms. O'Connor, one of the leaders of the nine-member team that visited the women golfers, says they started out without any prototype clubs for the women to try. They just observed the women playing and listened to their comments and complaints.

The women had input to offer on every aspect of a golf club -- the feel of the grip, the length of the shaft, the size of the clubhead, the weight of the club and more. Several sets of prototypes were made based on the team's observations and conversations with the women. The prototypes were then tried, more conversations followed, more prototypes and so on.

The process of testing and retesting the prototype clubs led to the sole of the clubhead getting fatter. This lowered the clubhead's center of gravity and widened the area that interacts with the grass while striking the ball, which proved to be more forgiving of errant strokes. The women were given traditional shaft lengths to start, but because the industry was using 1950s Census data and women are taller and more athletic now, a trial-and-error process found that a longer shaft length was optimal.

Faster Process

The final word had to come from the women themselves; when they said the irons worked, Ms. O'Connor says, the research was over. The entire design process, from prototypes to tweaked prototypes to the final product, took less than a year, she says.

Mr. Colton, the head of research and development, says computerized design has had a big impact on the speed of product development. One advantage, he says, is that instead of designing each club in a set of irons individually, Callaway was able to get the design of the six iron right and then leave it to the computer to design the rest of the midrange irons, based on about 150 specifications programmed into the computer for how the irons should differ from each other. Designers then take a "bunch of numbers for the club, and a bunch of numbers for the ball" -- data like the mass and center of gravity for each club and the ball's weight and aerodynamic properties -- "virtually collide them, and we can predict how the ball will fly," Mr. Colton says.

Each type of iron still has to be tested to make sure it performs as expected, he says, "but we're talking about a factor of 200% to 300% faster" for the design process.

Up in the Air

The biggest issue for the women Callaway studied was that there wasn't enough of a difference in the shots they were hitting with their various midrange irons. A six iron, for instance, should produce a higher and shorter, but more controlled, shot than a five iron. Bur amateur golfers, especially women, generally lack the swing speed necessary to loft the ball up into the air, Mr. Colton says. So the shot with the six iron flattens out and goes farther, behaving more like a shot with a five iron.

Also, he says, because a five iron has a longer shaft than a six iron, golfers tend to make less-solid contact with the five iron. That decreases the distance of the shot, making the five iron behave more like a six iron should. Indeed, Mr. Colton says, amateurs will often hit the ball farther with a six iron than they do with a five iron, which is frustrating because that's the opposite of what they're trying to achieve.

Callaway addressed those problems in several ways with its i-brid design. The clubs' center of gravity has been shifted lower, which can help give the ball the appropriate loft, restoring some differentiation among the irons. They're also lighter, making for faster swing speeds, which also helps loft. And the club faces are designed to produce greater differences in loft from one iron to the next.

In addition, the clubhead isn't a skinny iron blade, it's fat with a wide sole, so the golfer is much more likely to hit the ball cleanly. The bigger clubhead also allows weight to be distributed farther back from the club face and away from the center of the club face. That puts more force behind balls that are hit off-center, making for a more consistent strike. In theory, golf is fun again.

Of course, part of the problem in getting the right clubs into women's hands has little to do with the clubs' design. Ms. O'Connor says her team found that husbands, boyfriends and other "helpful" people "were telling the women things that weren't true" about what clubs would be good for them -- things these people "truly believed and thought they were saying in the best interest [of the women], but they weren't right."

No comments: