The world of golf club design has dramatically expanded and progressed over the past 20 years. High expectations for design skills coupled with the increasing influence of modern technology within club design and the sport as a whole make this an industry of continual flux and revolution.
Tom Wishon, who has designed more than 220 original clubhead models, told My Golf Spy that when he began working in the industry back in 1986, “designing a new golf club was chiefly a matter of changing the shape of the clubhead, the color of the woodhead stain, the color and shape of the face insert and sometimes, changing the shape of the soleplate to chiefly appeal to golfers from an aesthetic and cosmetic standpoint.”
He added that designing in today’s golf market requires, “a complete and detailed understanding of the physics and engineering principles of golf club performance.”
You need to be up to speed on the materials and manufacturing processes used in the production of the components that make up a golf club – namely the clubhead, the shaft, the grip, and how they are assembled to a final, finished series of specifications.
I recently sat down with James Lua, senior industrial designer at Priority Designs who gave me full access to the world of golf club design. James worked as part of the team that helped to develop the vapor prototypes with which Rory McIlroy won the 2014 Open Championship.
A Unique Design Challenge
“Golf clubs present a unique design challenge in that the aesthetic form is so closely tied to product performance,” explained Lua. “In other product categories, moving a detail a tenth of an inch may not impact on how well the product functions. In golf clubs, that modification can add 1000rpms of ball spin or 5 to 10 yards of distance.”
Therefore designers and engineers need to be working hand-in-hand to balance optimal product performance with innovative product features and relevant aesthetics he added.
Design Process – Inspiration
“Everything starts with an idea, a sketch, something to rally behind. Understanding the marketplace and taking that first step of breathing life into the next generation product is where the process begins,” said Lua. “Due to the strong relationship between aesthetics and performance, understanding the impact of your design decisions early in development will allow for greater success of your design. Designers and engineers don’t see just a sketch, they see the movement of mass, the change of center-of-gravity, the balance of the club. From the sketch, they get an idea of how the club might perform and how it will impact the ball.”
Design Process – Into the Details
From here, the nuance begins of perfecting performance numbers and going out to the range itself, Lua explained.
What happens to the launch angle if this surface shifts by 5mm? Could the club be more forgiving if 5g of weight were added in the toe? These are the types of questions that are continually asked.
“This process gets into the nitty gritty of millimeters, wall thicknesses, and face performance, culminating with a physical prototype,” Lua said. “Over a series of months and years, the process is: design, engineer, prototype, test, refine, test again, iterate, iterate, iterate, until it’s finally ready to be in the hands of consumers and professionals. That process may seem rigorous, but can have big payoffs in the end.”
How Do You Become a Golf Club Designer?
Most golf club designers have an industrial or automotive design degree, explained Lua.
“This is because that is where you learn the foundation of the design process in addition to technical skills. The importance of rapid visualization (sketching and rendering) is important in every design field, but is especially applicable in golf.
“The designer has to have a strong sense of composition with form, execute A-Class surfacing, and understand advanced texturing and painting techniques. From there, strong knowledge of 3D modeling, manufacturing processes, and pathways to production help with bringing the product to the finish line," said Lua.“Once you build up your knowledge about the design discipline and technical skills, your individual passions will take you where you want to be. The industry is filled with people who live and breathe golf 24/7 and it can fulfill the dream of, ‘love what you do and you’ll never work a day in your life.'”
Similarly, Wishon told My Golf Spy that “it would be extremely helpful for the aspiring club designer to be a low, single digit handicap golfer with a discerning eye to be able to visually identify differences in the shape and style features of golf clubheads. While it’s not impossible for a golfer of less skill to become a competent club designer, being a very good player will serve the designer well."
What’s Going On in the Industry Right Now?
Lua explained that the gold club industry is at “an interesting point” because so many manufacturers are operating at a high level with their equipment.
“Some have introduced smart technology to their clubs, while others are pushing the boundaries of material performance. Some have remained very traditional to the history of the game and have kept their aesthetics simple, while others have pushed outside of the community’s comfort zone. Right now, there’s something for everyone out there," Lua said. "Personally, I’m a fan of Taylormade’s dedication to understanding the science behind delivering on performance metrics and the associated rigorous engineering of their equipment. Their results on tour speak volumes about their process and the devotion to improvement and innovation.”
Golf as a sport has a strong history in incorporating current and future technologies. Motion capture cameras have been collecting swing analysis data for decades and we’ve seen that translated to the retail floor.
“There are more and more manufacturers bringing the technology for data capture and analysis to different aspects of the game and we’re seeing more and more clients request features in this realm,” explained Lua. “From products like the K-Vest that provide greater accuracy in swing analysis, to using Big Data to determine golf course traffic flow and layout, it’s only a matter of time until these worlds find a balance between keeping within the spirit of tradition while providing the benefits of modern technology.”
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