Benoit Vincent is speed-walking through the research and development department at TaylorMade-Adidas Golf headquarters in Carlsbad, Calif. The equipment manufacturer’s chief technology officer has been talking nonstop for two hours about recent breakthroughs in the perpetual race to increase the distance a human can hit a little white ball. Now he’s offering a tour of the facilities where the company molds prototypes and continues to test the hottest golf club on the market, the RocketBallz 3-wood. For a weekend duffer, it’s the equivalent of getting a peek at the secretive creative process that begat the iPhone.
We zoom by rows of product engineers, their cubicles littered with mangled equipment, careen past lawyers awash in patent applications, and finally approach a lab secured by a combination lock. Vincent, a 52-year-old expat who received his Ph.D. in mechanical engineering from the French university INSA, presses a series of buttons and turns the handle. No luck. He thinks for a moment and tries again. Same result. “The code changes all the time, so the chances of me getting it right are … There are millions of dollars worth of products,” he says sheepishly in a lilting accent. “It’ll be easier just to knock.”
After a few seconds the door swings open and so begins our run through a maze of rooms full of bustling engineers. Rapid-prototyping machines the size of small walk-in closets carve mock-ups of club heads out of steel and wax. We see the latest irons, typically used for approach shots (fingers crossed) to the green, plus several “woods.” That category of clubs—nowadays almost universally made of titanium, steel, and other metals—includes the driver, which is used with a tee, and fairway woods and hybrids, both used primarily off grass.
“There are 10,000 parts coming through here every year,” says Vincent. “We’re testing shapes, geometries, weights, and durability. Because they break. A lot.” Behind another door a pneumatic air cannon repeatedly launches 110-mile-per-hour projectiles at a sleek-looking 3-wood with a white head. Thwooop. Bang! Thwooop. Bang! Thwooop. Bang! “And here’s the RocketBallz product!” Vincent declares proudly. Never has a man appeared so excited to see the fruit of his labors receive such a thorough drubbing.
Tests have shown this new 3-wood to be capable of increasing distance of a shot by 30 yards or more over its predecessor. In its first month of release, it’s flying off retail shelves and out of pro shops. It’s already being played by more than 100 Professional Golfers’ Association Tour players, two dozen of whom have qualified for this year’s first major, The Masters. So Vincent’s pride is understandable, especially because there was a time when he wondered if such a club would ever exist.
All golf balls spin when struck. The greater a club’s loft, the higher it sends the ball and the more spin it causes. The more a ball spins, the slower it travels. As a rule of thumb, a 9-iron, which is generally used for short approach shots, generates 9,000 revolutions per minute when hit correctly. An 8-iron has less loft and so generates fewer RPMs while causing the ball to fly further, and so on. A driver typically generates about 2,500 to 3,000 RPM and a 3-wood roughly 4,000 to 4,500 RPM. Combine the increased spin with a 15-mile-per-hour reduction in ball speed due to the shorter club length, and the net result is that a 3-wood hits a ball about 45 yards less than a driver.
In a sport where drivers rule—Let the big dog eat! Grip it and rip it!—nobody talks about the 3-wood. That’s partly because golfers tend not to take it out of the bag as often as a driver. Also, the club hasn’t changed much in decades. Drivers had their revolution a dozen years ago, when manufacturers started making the club’s face separately from the rest of the head. That enabled the club face to be purer, thinner, and more flexible, all of which increased the transference of energy—creating the so-called trampoline effect—and sent the golf ball flying further.
Unfortunately, these advancements didn’t translate to the fairway woods. The driver is the longest club in the bag, has a larger face, and is the only one designed to be used with a tee. The club generates greater head speed, enjoys an optimal launch position high on the face, and causes the least amount of ball spin. And so the other woods have remained largely an afterthought for most golfers; there’s just never been a great reason to upgrade.
Vincent and the executives at TaylorMade knew that if they could bring driver-like advances to the long-neglected fairway wood, they’d open a new growth opportunity for the company and perhaps even add some sizzle to a sport that, depending on your level of optimism, has either stalled or entered full crisis mode. Doing so, however, would prove tricky. Vincent and his team needed to devise a way to duplicate the driver’s perfect formula for distance in a club that had few of the big dog’s advantages. It took more than 10 years.
There was an obvious commercial incentive to build a better fairway wood. Irons are typically sold in sets for roughly $100 per club for the newest technology. Woods are more technologically sophisticated and command higher prices. The RocketBallz 3-wood retails for $229. Vincent’s team repeatedly tried new materials to make the club’s face more flexible in hopes of generating more ball speed. But unlike a driver, fairway woods have shorter faces and higher loft to allow a golfer to elevate a golf ball off of grass. The shorter face makes it more rigid, and the ball is typically struck at the bottom, the least flexible part of the club face. Creating a longer face wasn’t the answer; without the benefit of a tee, the ball would never elevate. “Every year our engineers said, ‘We need to accelerate the fairway woods,’ and every year, it doesn’t work,” Vincent says. “Finally, we said there’s no way, we cannot solve this problem.”
Then, as is often the case with technological breakthroughs, years of frustration ignited into a flash of inspiration while engineers were toiling away on a seemingly unrelated product. Vincent’s team developed a new line of adjustable drivers in 2004 that made it possible to easily transfer weight around the head according to swing type. The team began noticing how various arrangements affected launch angles, trajectories, ball speed, and spin. It took another few years, but the engineers devised a new approach for the 3-wood based on that knowledge. They lowered the center of gravity and moved it forward, which increased the launch angle and decreased the spin. There was still the riddle of how to add flexibility for that desired trampoline effect. For this, the crew tried something truly novel. They carved a channel behind the face, giving it room to recoil upon impact. The rest of the head then pushes the face forward in a spring-like action. “When you lift a heavy object, you don’t just use your arms. You use your arms and legs,” says Vincent. “It’s the same thing. We’re using the face and the body to create the trampoline. It’s the combination that gives you the power.”
Rarely will a prototype outperform an existing club by more than four or five yards. But in the first day of testing, the 3-wood reduced spin by more than 1,000 RPM, increased ball speed 4 to 6 miles per hour and boosted distance by an average of 25 yards. “It was like, ‘Oh my gosh, what have we done?’” says Vincent. For a day, the crew hid the results in fear that it was a fluke. The next day, and in subsequent tests with professional golfers, the results were even better. “The best we’ve seen is 38 yards of gain.”
You don’t rise to the top of an organization without the ability to illustrate your business model as a pyramid on a white board, and Mark King, the 52-year-old president and CEO of TaylorMade, is no exception. The company, a subsidiary of Adidas, has a reputation for serving the high end of the market, PGA Tour golfers and zero to four handicappers—effectively club pros and top amateurs. A proficient minority. King, standing in a conference room outside his office, lays waste to that notion. “These guys don’t buy anything,” he barks while circling the tip of the pyramid on the white board. “We focus on the 5 to 25 handicap because that’s where the dollars are. We have to grow. And how do we grow? By leading change. That could be the next hot driver, the next new form of distribution, or the next way to market. We have to do it faster than everyone else.”
King speaks with a combination of bravado and resentment toward his industry. Golf is languishing, and he knows it. The number of U.S. golfers has dropped 15 percent since 2003, according to the National Golf Foundation. A million fewer people played at least one round of golf in 2010 than the year prior, and courses are being shuttered at twice the rate that new ones are opening. Part of the problem is the economy: Golf isn’t cheap. But the great fear is that the downturn is systemic rather than cyclical. It’s a baby boomer sport viewed with skepticism by the Facebook generation. And King suggests that the church of golf is riding its ideals into obsolescence. “The industry is conservative, slow, anti-progression—our competitors, the governing bodies, the PGA, the USGA, they want to hang onto the purity of the game,” he says.
In the face of the downturn, TaylorMade has continued to grow via acquisition—last month it bought Adams Golf to increase its presence with seniors and women—and in-house R&D. “Ten years ago, we said let’s take this fast-paced innovation model from technology and bring it to golf,” King says. It wasn’t long ago that manufacturers would unveil new clubs every few years. Some of the big brands, like Ping, still roll out new lines roughly every other year. But TaylorMade has opted for a state of perpetual innovation with the idea that, just as with computers and cell phones, consumers will buy more if they’re convinced there’s better technology available. This strategy has caused some grousing in the industry. “We’ve made everybody change their behavior,” King says. “And that’s why they don’t like the way we operate.”
It’s not difficult to affirm King’s assertion. Explore any golf-oriented website and you’ll find plenty of commenters in awe of the fairway woods, but at least as many who seem vitriolic toward TaylorMade’s tendency to repeatedly hype revolutionary clubs. You can imagine how the competitors feel. “I don’t want to take anything away from their product, but distance-gain claims in golf equipment advertising have reached a level that we feel is disrespectful to golfers,” says Tim Buckman, vice president of global communications for Callaway Golf. “What I find most amusing are the claims stating double-digit increases year after year. At this rate, by the time we reach 2015 some of their players may be hitting the ball 500 yards.”
King’s style doesn’t exactly soften TaylorMade’s image. He’s as brash as his role models: Vince Lombardi, George W. Bush, and Donald Trump. And the company’s marketing is in-your-face. Choosing the name RocketBallz was either risqué or just goofy, depending on your perspective. Either way, it stands out. The 3-wood’s technological breakthrough has since been applied to other fairway woods as well as the hybrids. They’re all painted white, which makes them flashy in a sea of dark-colored woods.
Then there’s the publicity campaign. There’s no way the average golfer will see the 25- to 30-plus yard gains that Vincent’s team saw in early tests. The pros have far greater swing speeds and so realize greater trampoline effects. So, after consulting lawyers, the marketing team decided rather unscientifically that it would be safe to advertise a typical gain of 17 yards. They plastered the number everywhere, including on the shirts of several PGA pros at a recent tournament, much to the chagrin of Tour officials. “We wanted to do something more extreme. The Tour was a little surprised by the boldness, so we called down the dogs a bit. But the point was out there,” says chief marketing officer Bob Maggiore, adding that 17 will continue to drive the marketing agenda. “It’s interesting for us to have an entire franchise drafting off a fairway wood. Everything we’ve always done has always drafted off of driver success.”
According to Golf Datatech, RocketBallz is leading all categories of woods after just one month on the market. More than 20 percent of the 261,600 woods sold in pro shops and golf specialty stores during the month of February were RocketBallz, with the 3-wood leading the way. At Golfsmith, the nation’s largest golf specialty retailer, sales of RocketBallz fairway woods are up 275 percent over TaylorMade’s previous line during the same time last year. And Sven Kessler, vice president of retail operations for the Edwin Watts Golf chain, is seeing new life in a long-dormant category. “Our fairway wood numbers are up considerably this year, while driver sales are pretty flat,” he says. “TaylorMade has done a phenomenal job on the marketing end, and having a product that works is very important. It’s incredible the numbers we’re seeing on our launch monitors. That 17-yard claim they’re making? That’s not BS.”
All of which makes Vincent glow. Reflecting on his journey, he says there’s a lot to be learned from the way these fairway woods came to be. He feels RocketBallz represents the type of game-changing invention that used to come along only once a decade or two. Now the pace of product development has fundamentally changed. “We made the shift from an industry of know-how in the ’90s, where toolmakers were hand-shaping products,” Vincent says. “Now a new generation of engineers have displaced the artist’s approach with the scientific approach.” In other words, the next RocketBallz, whatever it may be, won’t be far behind.