The Cutting Edge Golf Robot Created to Improve Your Swing
“Hit another one,” says Blake Isakson, the director of golf at Boccieri Golf in Arizona. I oblige by rolling a ball onto a turf mat and thwacking another 7-iron into the screen in front of me. A red line traces the continuing arc of the shot as calculated by sensors in the mat and the screen, and I watch as the animated ball drifts right and winds up in a sand trap some 10 yards from the electronic green.
Isakson approaches with an iPad and shows me on video where my hands and arms were during the swing. Then he uses a finger to plot an arc where my hands and arms should have been. He explains that with a flatter swing plane I could get more distance. Armed with this knowledge, we step into an adjacent hitting booth and I get my first good look at the RoboGolfPro swing trainer, one of two at Boccieri Golf ’s North Scottsdale headquarters.
The contraption in front of me is like a 9-foot-tall robot, with two screens and four long metal arms holding a golf club. I take my stance and grip the club as Isakson moves the arms into position and programs the robot based on the data recorded about my swing in the other hitting bay.
Once everything is ready, the RoboGolfPro swings the club for me, forcing my hands to move back on a flatter plane for the backswing and then dropping my right elbow more steeply into the hitting zone as I swing down. It’s an odd sensation having my arms moved for me, but I have to admit it’s a swing that would indeed add distance to my shots, if I would take the time to learn it.
This swing-teaching robot might seem a little over the top to nongolfers, but to golfers looking for any way they can find to shave strokes, the RoboGolfPro is part of the never-ending war for lower scores. Technology rules in golf, and as a spring trip to Scottsdale—with visits to Boccieri Golf and a couple of other cutting-edge companies— shows, robot golf instructors are far from the industry’s only high-tech weapon.
A Fit to be Tried
Not far from Boccieri Golf, in another part of North Scottsdale, the global headquarters of Cool Clubs is like nothing I’ve ever seen; it’s equal parts tech startup, driving range and Lego factory. Founded in 2007, and now one of the world leaders in the burgeoning field of custom club fitting, Cool Clubs has hitting bays outfitted with an array of computers, monitors and video gear, and bins filled with thousands of interchangeable pieces, including clubheads, shafts and grips from all the top manufacturers in golf. It’s a tinkerer’s dream come true.
A walk around the place reveals cubbyholes labeled with some of the biggest names on the PGA, LPGA and Champions tours. I’m told over 100 of them have their specifications on file at Cool Clubs. This plays into the reputation custom clubs have as being a luxury used only by tour pros and low-handicappers, but bespoke clubs are growing in popularity for average golfers. “The reality,” according to Cool Clubs founder and CEO Mark Timms, “is that the higher the handicap, the bigger the change. Give me a 25 handicap and we can probably drop him five shots immediately. It’s very easy to do.”
The reasons for getting custom clubs are fairly self-evident— certainly, a golfer who is 5-foot-4 and one who’s 6-foot-3 should use different sets—but, even after you focus in on clubs for your height, the array of choices and the brainpower that goes into finding the right ones for each golfer are astounding.
During fittings, Cool Clubs’ proprietary software and TrackMan—a radar tracking system that gathers data about things like clubhead speed, ball speed, launch angle and spin rate—analyze swings. Using this information, Cool Clubs pinpoints the best combinations of clubheads and shafts at a variety of price points. Decide on clubs and then they’re assembled right there in Scottsdale. For an additional fee, they can be picked up or shipped later that same day.
Vito Berlingeri, a former Bell Labs engineer who retired and is now Cool Clubs’ marketing director, shows me around the facility. In the back of the building, where the clubs are tested and built, I’m introduced to Simon Grondin, a young man who Berlingeri says was one of Canada’s top engineering students before coming to Scottsdale to head Cool Clubs’ research and development.
At the moment, Grondin is working on a machine he designed and built with Timms. It tests the flex of club shafts down to the nth degree. Each shaft test is recorded and analyzed by software that Grondin wrote himself. Behind him, a 3D printer spits out a new part he designed. It will be added to the machine.
It’s clear these people operate on a much higher intellectual level than I’m used to, and it’s enough to make me wonder why they’re not curing cancer or helping send someone to Mars. They love the game of golf so much they’ve devoted their professional lives to helping people play better. And the fitting process—which can start off feeling like a doctor’s visit, with a look at existing equipment and questions about hitting history—is a big part of this.
“We’ll first measure all the clubs they’ve got and see what they all are,” Timms says. “That gives us a lot of insight into what’s going on. Where are the big problems in their swing? What’s the big miss, and which club is it?”
If it turns out a player’s swing is the problem, Timms might recommend lessons instead of trying to sell them something they don’t need. But if the clubs’ fit is off, and Timms thinks a player would benefit from custom clubs, the fitting begins in earnest, inside one of Cool Clubs’ hitting bays. (It can also be done outside at nearby Grayhawk Golf Club or at one of Cool Clubs’ 20 fitting centers in the U.S., Canada, Mexico, Australia, England, Korea and Japan.)
Getting the Shaft
Given all the clubheads at a place like Cool Clubs—drivers, hybrids, cavity-backs, musclebacks, blades and wedges—I assumed clubheads were the key element of clubs, but no. “We are firm believers in finding the shaft first,” says Hot Stix general manager Chris Marsh. “We may have a golfer try seven or eight shafts from different manufacturers, both steel and graphite. Once we find that shaft, we’re able to try it with multiple heads until we find the right combination.”
Headquartered a few miles away in another part of Scottsdale, Hot Stix shares a philosophy and parentage with Cool Clubs. Timms started his first golf company, Custom Golf of Connecticut, in 1990. A decade later, Timms moved to Arizona to escape the cold and launch a new company: Hot Stix. Rapid expansion prompted Timms to bring on partners, but later, when they didn’t see eye to eye, Timms left. He took a year off and then opened Cool Clubs.
In Timms’ absence, Hot Stix soldiered on and now has four fitting centers across the country. The Scottsdale facility is indoors, but Hot Stix has a fully wired fitting center at SunRidge Canyon Golf Club in nearby Fountain Hills and hopes to move all its Arizona operations there in April 2016.
At SunRidge Canyon, golfers hit off the driving range while Hot Stix software analyzes everything about their swing. Marsh says there are numerous shafts that can fit a client’s swing, but, after neutrally testing these, one will emerge with the greatest consistency and feel. To that end, Hot Stix fittings often allow golfers to keep their expensive clubheads but recommend replacing shafts. This will still lead to an improvement in a player’s game. “We’re crazy passionate about golf,” Marsh says. “Our fitters are, in my mind, the best in the world.”
Cool Clubs may dispute that last point, but Hot Stix’s passion and approach have caught the notice of Golf magazine, which named Hot Stix as its official research partner for its annual ClubTest in Florida. About 40 testers are charged with evaluating the new equipment coming out. Hot Stix is there “as an independent testing company to provide data to the testers and Golf magazine,” Marsh says.
Heavy on the Innovation
Back at Boccieri Golf, a young woman who is there for a lesson has stepped into a bay, donned a training device called a K-VEST and is having her arms swung by RoboGolfPro. My session over, I putt around the putting-green floor with Stephen Boccieri, inventor of the Heavy Putter and the Secret Grip.
A structural engineer and 1-handicap, Boccieri transitioned into the golf business after starting a company called Engineered Golf in upstate New York in 1994. The company provided research and design services to the industry. “What I was doing was like forensic analysis on golfing equipment,” Boccieri says. “I was buying golf clubs and tearing them apart and trying to understand what kind of engineering was going into these things.”
Crunching all that data led Boccieri to start tinkering with putters on his own. He found that adding weight to the head of a putter helped him make more short putts but didn’t work very well for long putts. Looking for a solution, he added a weight to the grip end of the shaft as a counterbalance and was astonished at the results. “That was the ‘a-ha’ moment,” says Boccieri, who was on the phone when he first tested this idea. “I told my friend, ‘You’re not gonna believe this. I’m putting one-handed, and I’m sinking 10 putts in a row from 14 feet into the little cup in my office.’” That was 2003. Soon after, Boccieri refined the design into the Heavy Putter and launched Boccieri Golf. The putter received rave reviews and sold like crazy, prompting him to apply the same counterbalancing principles to other clubs. The Heavy Wedge and Heavy Driver followed shortly. Next, seeking to help golfers with their existing clubs, Boccieri came up with the Secret Grip, a weighted golf grip. It made waves when Jack Nicklaus endorsed it. In 2011, Boccieri Golf relocated from the East Coast to the more golf-conducive climate of Scottsdale.
I try out several Heavy Putters of various head shapes and shaft lengths while Boccieri shows me “the Stork.” This is a method of putting he invented. I split my hands wide on the shaft and place one foot in front of the other. “I have converts who cannot believe how well they’re putting with it,” Boccieri says.
The Heavy Putter and the other heavy clubs put Boccieri Golf on the map, but what has the engineer really excited is the potential teaching abilities of the RoboGolfPro. It can model an ideal swing to teach golfers’ muscles the right mechanics. “People get on it, they feel it, then they hit balls,” he says. “We do a before-and-after comparison, and they just are dumbfounded with the results.” Lessons on the RoboGolfPro are so popular that the company added a second one last October, making it one of only three facilities in the country with two of the machines, Boccieri says. “The RoboGolfPro is a whole new possibility,” he says. “It’s hope. It’s a possibility that this new technology is going to provide them with a feeling of what a golf swing is supposed to be.”