It's not quite 40 degrees but days before golf's annual rite of spring, the Masters, there isn't an empty stall at an outdoor driving range in Detroit.
Are the golfers here, as they are no doubt at ranges across the US, emerging from winter hibernation in search of their inner Tiger? Or are they here for the US$12 (RM46)-per-102-balls special?
Yes, and no. This particular range has a feature that is changing the way golfers play. And most likely it will provide them with the best and fastest way to get better, no small feat given that handicaps are about what they were decades ago despite improvements in clubs, balls and courses.
A device called TrackMan – developed by three Danish golfers who in 2003 decided to use missile-tracking technology to track the launch and trajectory of a golf ball – has changed the way golfers swing.
Rather than relying on the eyes and know-how of a teacher, golfers now can easily access their TrackMan “numbers”, which will tell them what they're doing wrong and the changes to make to fix their swings.
High-fidelity ball-tracking data isn't cheap: Top-end TrackMan models sell for US$25,000 (RM96,720). A full-monty studio system like you'd find in a golf pro shop, with video-simulations of the world's most magnificent courses, starts at US$50,000 (RM193,440). If spending your child's college tuition on a golf tracker isn't going to fly, there are less expensive devices that might do the trick.
“But you've got to be careful. Anything less than US$1,000 (RM3,868) isn't quality enough,” says Aaron Friedman, an avid golfer waiting to hit at the Detroit driving range during a trip home to catch the Tigers season opener.
He bought a diagnostic tool called SkyTrak for about US$2,000 (RM7,737) that includes a net he can hit into and simulates his shot on iconic courses like Pebble Beach on his laptop. “Being able to play real courses is something I needed to justify the cost,” he says.
But the critical measurements he seeks to hit the ball straighter are all there: swing speed, rate and direction of spin, and launch angles. “On a practical level, if you think you hit a nine iron 150 yards, but it goes more like 143 yards and then bounces and rolls out to 150, that's the difference between being pin high (on the green) or missing short in the bunker,” he says.
“Who wouldn't want to know that?”
TrackMan now offers dual radars in its new units and says its distances are accurate to within one foot per 100 yards up to 400 yards. One of its upgraded features allows golfers to measure their numbers against other players or an excellent shot hit with a range ball.
That kind of info comes in handy for PGA Tour players' coaches such as Tiger Woods' ex-coach Sean Foley, who will often diagnose problems instantly just by looking at Trackman numbers sent to their phones. “(World no. 1) Dustin Johnson uses TrackMan to dial in the carry distances of his wedges, so science is taking the guesswork out of his decisions,” says Travis Fulton, a Florida teaching professional who appears on the Golf Channel.
Scott Gardiner, an ex-Tour player who now teaches in Arkansas, says TrackMan allows players to understand what launch conditions they need to hit the ball as far as possible. “Golf's a distance game now, and the best way to find distance is optimising launch angle and spin rates,” he says.
Players can become a little too dependent on TrackMan data. Peruse the range at any Tour event, and there will be no shortage of players hitting shots and then looking straight down at their device to see if it was a good one or not. Whatever happened to trusting your eyes?
A big challenge for data-dependent hitters is adapting their natural swing to the ideal TrackMan numbers. The mathematically perfect swing may be alien to them. “Sometimes people get into trouble trying to hit it too straight,” says Gardiner.
Many were critical of the TrackMan-influenced swing Woods adopted while being coached by Foley because it was considered too “geometric”, or lacking the smooth aesthetics of his previous swings. In moving to the new form – one that swings more to the left and more steeply than he had been in the past – Woods saw some success (five wins in 2013), but the swing did let him down at critical times, especially at the majors.
“I think once Tiger learned what TrackMan considers optimal, he's become obsessed with maxing it out,” says long-time pro Steve Flesch, who also works as an analyst for Fox Sports. “He's trying to swing like Rory (McIlroy, one of the longest, straightest drivers in the game) but that's not his swing. Never has been and that's why the woods are killing him.
“He's an iron swing type of player. Downward approach angle, like Sergio (Garcia). Needs to embrace that and use a heavier driver shaft, more loft, and tee it lower. Rory, like (Jack) Nicklaus, is a sweeper. Shallow divots and a great driver. Entirely different swings.”
Since coming back to golf late last year, Woods has for the first time eschewed a coach, but he still has TrackMan. He's just using it differently, adapting it to his more natural swing. “I think it's fair to say Tiger got caught up in (the science) at one point ... although he won five times (in 2013) it was clear he was not the genius he once was,” says Fulton. “(Relying on TrackMan) can be a slippery slope. Players run the risk of losing their DNA and damaging the genius that lies within.”
Golf technology follows the same rule as all tech: If you're good enough to be a pro without it, then changing your ways to adapt to the technology might not be so easy or wise. — Tribune Interactive/Tribune News Service