My golf buddy Jon put the question to me after I fired another long drive so straight it looked like, well, it looked like his ball. I had been beating him on every drive since we’d started to wager over distance off the tee. “Just some goop I rub on my driver,” I told him. “Keeps me from hooking as much.”
It wasn’t losing a dollar a hole that bothered Jon. It was the fact that a 5-foot 6-inch amateur golfer notorious for hitting 200-yard hooks into tree lines was now firing longer drives straight down the fairway. Thanks to a tricked up, smaller-than-regulation golf ball and a special lubricant smeared on a Callaway titanium driver that is also considered illegal on the United States Golf Association circuit, technology had given me the edge. Until, of course, I was caught.
I gave Jon his money back, but I’ll always have his pride.
Sport may idealize the level playing field, but athletes are always looking for an edge, and in technology they often find it. High tech, low tech, strange tech: It rarely matters. Pro bowlers used to soak their balls in acetone and other strong solvents to make them hook better, a technique Don McCune used to become bowler of the year in 1973. And the occasional baseball player has tried to slip a lighter-yet-still-powerful cork-lined bat onto the field, only to face red-handed guilt when a hard pitch broke it in two.
The postwar revolution in materials and design that transformed cars, airplanes, and office chairs had a field day with sports equipment as well. Natural materials such as wood, rubber, and catgut were left in the slow lane by stronger, lighter, stiffer, or more elastic alternatives: high-tech metal alloys, synthetic polymers, and composites. Surfboards evolved from wood to foam polyurethane and fiberglass. The large-head tennis racket, conceived in the 19th century, stormed the market once there were materials strong enough to withstand the string tension needed to make the design work. Carbon-fiber and titanium alloy bicycles weigh pounds less than earlier bikes yet possess remarkable strength. Meanwhile, computer-aided design offers new insight into the behavior of golf balls in air, swimsuits in water, rubber on the road. The resulting machines and equipment are not only performance-enhancing but marvels of form and function, as any Seven bicycle or K2 inline skates owner will attest.
While new tech supercharged athletes, it challenged sport. The signal moment may have been in 1977, when bad-boy-of-tennis Ilie Nastase walked onto a court with a spaghetti-strung tennis racket and broke the 50-match winning streak of Argentinean champ Guillermo Vilas. Designed with three planes of nonintersecting, plastic-coated strings, the racket “held” the ball longer and let even ordinary players apply extraordinary amounts of topspin. Was that exciting or unseemly? For organized sport, that’s the question new technology raises: Does it improve the play, or taint the game?
For athletes, pro or weekend, the question seems almost quaint: If you build it, they will play with it. But for those charged with protecting the character of sport, new tech poses dilemmas. Technology can upset the balance of power-between pitcher and batter, for example-or favor brute strength over finesse. There’s a sort of evolutionary inevitability here (why not play with a racket that holds the ball longer?) but it’s problematic when the balance of power expresses the soul of the game.
The International Tennis Federation was sufficiently alarmed to ban Nastase’s racket from competition in 1978. “Tennis never had a single restriction on rackets for 350 years until this racket allowed barely ranked pros to defeat top 10 players,” notes Nadine Gelberg, executive director of sports and entertainment at Harris Interactive, a Rochester, N.Y., research company that advises sports equipment makers.
But the tech assault on tennis was just beginning, and the ITF may have regulated too little, too late. Kevlar, graphite, and titanium have produced lighter, stiffer rackets that can be swung faster and give balls more rebound, irrevocably altering the game. Gone are the days of long, suspense-filled rallies; most players now win with powerful shots from the baseline, and rarely venture in to the net.
Yet no rules limit how fast a pro racket may propel the ball; some traditionalists think that should change. “We want the game to be exciting, but we don’t want it to be a pure power game in which big, strong, fast serves completely dominate,” says New York University physicist Richard Brandt, director of a testing lab called the Sports Science Institute.
Golf officials have been more aggressive about limiting the influence of technology on the game, in part because engineers have been so aggressive about innovating in a multibillion-dollar industry. But even golf custodians are fighting a rear-guard action. A typical brouhaha erupted last year when, reacting to an influx of big-head golf clubs that a few years ago seemed physically impossible-light yet rigid enough to control, strong enough to withstand impact-the USGA proposed limiting head volume to 385cc. The proposed limit was more than twice the volume of an old-fashioned 150cc driver, but the plan caused a stink because several manufacturers already had 400cc-plus drivers in the works. The USGA quickly upped the proposed standard to 460cc. Still, USGA technical director Dick Rugge insists the limit can’t be raised much more without diminishing the game. Citing a monster 600cc club, he complained, “It’s not a golf club. It’s something else.”
Head size isn’t the only issue: The USGA also judges clubs by a standard known as the “coefficient of restitution” (COR), which denotes the amount of spring the club face produces. COR is a ratio of the speed of a ball before and after it hits a club, and is expressed as a percentage. If the initial ball speed is 100 mph, for example, and it rebounds at 82 mph, then the COR is 82 percent. Callaway’s ERC II titanium driver exceeded the USGA limit of 83 percent and was banned; weekend players looking for an edge buy it despite a sticker saying-perhaps boasting-that it’s a nonconforming club.
Balls may be a bigger issue than clubs. In January, Jack Nicklaus blamed “the ego of the ball manufacturer” for rendering many great golf courses obsolete for tournament play. The problem: Longer-flying balls, with optimized dimple patterns for aerodynamic performance and multilayer construction for better bounce off the club, let strong players fly over hazards. Nicklaus echoed a joke he’d made last year, after the Masters Tournament in Augusta, Georgia: “If you are going to continue to let the golf ball do what it is doing, you’ve got to keep lengthening the golf course. Pretty soon, we’ll be teeing off downtown somewhere.”
The USGA is about to begin official use of a computerized, precisely calibrated indoor ball-testing system that will measure not only how far the ball travels but also its velocity, angle, aerodynamic properties, and backspin at blastoff. Its predecessor, a 20-year-old outdoor robot known as Iron Byron (after champ Byron Nelson), measured only distance.
It’s hard to picture Sergio Garcia or Phil Mickelson swinging a club with a head the size of grapefruit, even if it were allowed; sport technology at the fringes is motivated by companies promising to improve the play of prosperous weekend amateurs. DeMarini Sports is a perfect example of a company that finds its sweet spot exploiting this market. In 1993, the now legendary Ray DeMarini introduced his Doublewall softball bat. Two layers of aluminum alloy stretched the sweet spot along the length of the barrel, creating a trampoline-like effect. The Doublewall was an equalizer: It turned average hitters into spectacular ones. The Amateur Softball Association was not amused, and banned the bat. “Balls were flying out of parks nationwide,” says Kelly McKeown, the ASA’s group director of marketing, “setting records that said more about athletes’ use of technology than their athletic skills.” No matter: DeMarini’s company continued to thrive by marketing aggressively to amateurs, and was acquired by Wilson in January 2000. Recent DeMarini innovations include the F1 “concept bat,” la Detroit concept car-carbon fiber, honeycomb aluminum, double-wall design.
How a sport reacts to technology often depends on its age. Younger sports such as snowboarding and mountain biking are all about pushing the boundaries, and tend to eat up whatever scientists and engineers have to offer. The National Off-Road Bicycle Association, for instance, imposes no restrictions of any kind on materials or designs. “Mountain biking in general is very eager for new technologies,” says David Earle, a designer and engineer at Santa Cruz Bicycles in Santa Cruz, California. “Anything that makes you faster is very easily accepted.” Santa Cruz recently introduced its V10 model, with a suspension system that enables the rear wheel to absorb 10-inch bumps. This gives riders a real edge in “downhill,” an extreme sport that involves careening down mountains at up to 60 mph, over rocks, logs-and 50-foot drops.
The technology issue becomes trickier at world competitions, such as the Olympics, where well-trained athletes can show up and be blown away by technology they had no knowledge of or, worse, access to. The most famous example: Brit cyclist Chris Boardman came to Barcelona in 1992 with a Lotus-designed superbike whose carbon-fiber monocoque frame helped him win gold and break the world 4,000-meter mark. Four years later, he’d shattered the world hour record twice on a superbike, most dramatically in 1996 with a distance of 35.031 miles. Boardman was one of several athletes who in the 1980s and ’90s revolutionized cycling with new racing positions and expensive new bikes.
In 2000, Union Cycliste Internacionale, cycling’s governing body, disturbed that these bikes cost up to $30,000 and so were inaccessible to athletes from poorer countries, took radical action. Not only did the UCI ban superbikes from competition, it renamed Boardman’s time the “Best Hour Performance” instead of the “UCI Hour Record” and reinstated the record set by Belgian Eddy Merckx in 1972 on a traditional bike. The move effectively erased Boardman’s achievement from history.
Not all fellow athletes were happy. “It’s upsetting to see the possible achievements of our sport be held back by limiting what we can use now,” says cyclist Mari Holden, an Olympic silver medalist. “But what’s much worse is to expect us to forget what we’ve already accomplished with newer gear.”
To avoid a similar flap, USA Swimming withheld approval of Speedo’s pricey Fastskin bodysuits for the 2000 Sydney Olympics-as well as similar products from TYR, Arena, and Adidas-until all 1,300 swimmers at the U.S. Olympic trials had access to them. Fifteen world and 38 Olympic swimming records were broken in those Games.
As athletes push new speed and distance boundaries, safety becomes an issue. “The golf industry may enjoy creating powerful drivers that send balls into orbit, but golf doesn’t have a pitcher standing 50 feet in front of the ball,” says the ASA’s McKeown. Hence the limit put on the firepower of high-tech bats. To meet National Collegiate Athletic Association standards, softball bats undergo rigorous laboratory testing. Lasers and radar measure the speed of a ball as it approaches the bat, then the speed at which the bat recoils. Those two numbers are combined to produce the “bat performance factor,” or BPF. Good old wooden bats, which typically have a BPF rating of 1.0, serve as the benchmark. An aluminum bat that returns 10 percent more energy to a ball than a wooden bat receives a BPF of 1.1; bats that exceed 1.2 BPF are considered illegal.
What’s next? Critical to new-generation sports equipment will be supertough resins and fibers, as well as metal-composite combinations-materials that won’t delaminate or crack at critical moments of high stress, such as when bats and clubs hit balls, or when bikes crash to earth. (When composites fail, whether in sports equipment or commercial jetliners, they tend to fail spectacularly: Think of early carbon-fiber bicycle wheels, which shattered catastrophically, sending riders flying, and the Airbus that came apart over Queens, New York, last year.) George Manning, the engineer who designed Iron Byron as well as Louisville Slugger baseball bats, predicts that composites may enable engineers to design bats that stay clear of BPF violations while delivering new power or control. “One of the advantages of composites is that you can get different properties in different directions,” he says. “Composites can be very stiff in one direction and very flexible in another.”
Combine new materials with another growing trend-customization of equipment through computer-aided analysis of a player’s strength, stance, swing, and the like-and you have a vision of the high-tech sports gear of the future: ultrastrong and light, optimized to the limit of each athlete’s capacity to play with it, and pay for it.
Stepping up to the tee on the 14th hole, I ignore the illegal Callaway in my bag for Wilson’s Deep Red 365cc, an oversize driver with extra weight built farther back. Wilson’s design creates a lower center of gravity that lofts a ball higher with less spin so it flies straighter. “It’s an offshoot of what Padraig Harrington used to win the Volvo Masters last year,” I inform Jon as I point to the USGA-approved label. Thanks to that label, my golf partner doesn’t say a word. Thanks to the technology, I hit another long ball.
GUILTY AS SUPERCHARGED
This gear-with aerodynamically optimized dimples, longer-than-normal strings, bouncy club faces, and the like-promises performance but breaks the rules.
1. Acute Dimples Polara ball Its edge: Introduced in the late 1970s, this asymmetrical golf ball had shallower dimples on its ends than on its circumference, reducing the odds of slicing or hooking off the tee. Who banned it?: The United States Golf Association The crime: Complaining that the ball “reduced the skill required to play golf,” the USGA implemented a new rule: Sanctioned balls must have equal aerodynamic properties and equal moments of inertia about any axis through their center. Did it really work?: Legend says yes, and if you want to try a round, you can sometimes find these “too old to play with” golf balls on eBay, where a trio typically sells for $40 to $60.
2. Ball and Chapstick Fireball & Straight Stick Its edge: Claims are it travels 10 percent farther than an average golf ball; in addition, a lubricant you rub on your club face reduces slices and hooks, adding an extra 12 to 20 yards off the tee. Who banned it?: The USGA The crime: A heavier and smaller ball than the USGA allows, it also exceeds velocity standards. Does it really work?: “Using the lube looks like you’re applying lipstick to your clubs,” said our tester, but the balls did fly an average of 23 yards farther.
3. Longer Is Sweeter Head ti.s7 Its edge: Its strings run down to the top of the grip, creating a larger sweet spot and generating more power and spin with less effort. Who banned it?: The International Tennis Federation The crime: Its elongated strings (17.75 inches) exceeded the ITF’s 15.5-inch limit. Does it really work?: It took a seasoned tester about 30 minutes to adjust to its extra power, but it kept roughly 11 percent more of her shots in bounds than did her tournament-legal Prince racket.
4. Springtime for Bertha Callaway ERC II Its edge: This $625 club’s titanium head propels balls 20 to 30 yards farther. Who banned it?:
The USGA The crime: It exceeds the limit on the
amount of spring
a club face can
produce. Though banned from competition in the U.S., Canada, and Mexico, it’s allowed everywhere else. Does it really work?: Yes, but this cannon only benefits an experienced golfer who can hit straight. Our tester just found himself walking farther into the woods to reclaim every slice.