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I'm a pretty simple-minded golfer," Adam Scott said last week. "I'm a feel player, not a mechanical player. I don't play by the numbers." � "You're so low-maintenance, it's unbelievable," agreed Steve Mata, the Titleist Tour rep. "You hardly change your equipment at all." � Ironically, this low-tech exchange took place on the rooftop patio of the Titleist Performance Institute (TPI) in Oceanside, Calif. The institute is the stick-and-ball equivalent of the Los Alamos labs, a think-tank-cum-R&D facility where secretive engineers and software specialists throw themselves into the essential task of defending the world from Tiger Woods. Researchers there do what Scott, the world's eighth-ranked golfer, would rather not do--play by the numbers.
The truth is, today's Tour pros--even so-called "feel players" such as Scott--are almost umbilically connected to their equipment companies. Last week during the Accenture Match Play Championship, TaylorMade's newest endorsement signee, John Daly, paid his first visit to that company's Carlsbad test center. Not far away, Callaway clubfitters crunched numbers at the Richard Helmstetter Test Center for Phil Mickelson and Michael Campbell . Titleist, meanwhile, kept a light on for regulars such as Ben Crane and 41-year-old Davis Love III, who wowed his handlers by winning five matches in four days before losing to Geoff Ogilvy in Sunday's 36-hole final.
You ask: Is this new? After all, in the old days a Wilson staff pro like Sam Snead would swing by Chicago to see if club designer Bob Mendralla had a prototype blade on his workbench. But the old pros were simply shopping for hardware. Today's Tour stars look to their equipment companies for everything from swing tips to dietary guidance.
The paradigm shifted around 1990 with the invention of the launch monitor, a camera-and-strobe device that measures a host of variables connected with ball striking, such as clubhead speed, attack angle, launch angle, swing path and spin. "Now we can look at how efficiently a player swings a club versus how much he looks like Tiger Woods," says TPI cofounder Greg Rose. "There is an ideal swing for every physical capability."
The implications for equipment R&D were just as stunning. With dependable data on ball and club performance suddenly available, manufacturers and players became partners in a kind of arms race. Scott, for instance, tried out a prototype Pro Trajectory 960-F2 three-wood two weeks ago at the Nissan Open and cashed a second-place check for his trouble. In January the 25-year-old from Australia had switched to Titleist's new Pro Titanium 905R driver, a 460cc behemoth. Last summer, at the Barclays Scottish Open, he ditched his irons of 4 1/2 years for a set of Titleist's soon-to-be-released 695MBs. Every change, Scott concedes, was made with the understanding that most other Tour players are wishing on the same lamp and talking to the same genie.
Titleist's technicians are among the most reclusive in the business, so industry observers were surprised two years ago when the Titleist Performance Institute began a fantasy-camp-style program that allows a few (no more than 300 a year) ordinary Joes to spend two days at the Oceanside facility getting the full Ernie Els treatment. The company has also launched a subscription website, MyTPI.com, which offers a customized, interactive physical-training program based on the research of Rose, a chiropractor with an undergraduate engineering degree from Maryland.
Visitors to the terrestrial TPI expect a high-tech environment, and they get just that in the ground-floor 3-D room. The most surprising revelation, however, is that the TPI devotes more floor space to physical training than it does to high-tech high jinks. The workout room is big enough to train a Special Ops platoon--assuming that the troops can make sense of proprietary fitness machines geared to the golf swing. Rose, looking at it from a biomechanical perspective, describes the TPI approach as an "efficiency model," as opposed to the traditional "copy the pro" method. "If you take 100 golfers and ask them if they'd like to swing like Tiger Woods, 100 golfers will say yes." He smiles. "But then you'll need 100 reconstructive back surgeries."
TPI, on the other hand, can give each of your 100 golfers a detailed physical evaluation. From that data TPI can prescribe a training program to correct deficiencies; provide a teaching pro with a realistic physical profile so he won't try to teach Craig Stadler's swing to someone with a Vijay Singh body type; and fit the player with the proper clubs.
If it sounds as if TPI has squeezed all the mystery out of golf, Scott is quick to correct that impression. He had issues with his ball flight toward the end of 2005. "Basically, the ball went out a little flatter and hotter than I would like," he said during last week's visit to the TPI. "I couldn't hit that nice draw that starts down the right side and comes back to the middle."
Did his driver have the wrong shaft? Did he need to tweak the loft of his three-wood? Was his hair too short? He laughed. "I wanted it to be the equipment," he said. "That's easier to change." Alas, it was the golfer. Scott was a little laid off at the top of his backswing, which altered his swing plane and caused the ball to launch low and left. This season, with his swing flaw corrected, Scott finished 18th at the Sony Open and shot a final-round 64 for the runner-up spot in L.A.