The Science of Distance
Taken from Golf Illustrated.
A group of academics and engineers with no experience in the golf industry have a dream – to create a driver that propels the ball further than it’s ever gone before.
There is something brewing in Sheffield. And it is not Yorkshire tea or resentment. It is excitement. After years in the doldrums, this is a city on the up. The universities are flying. The government is investing. And the big companies are moving in. Manufacturing is back, and subsequently, so is excitement, innovation and research.
Fleetcroft’s office wall highlights his previous work in Formula 1
Nowhere is this more evident than the University of Sheffield Advanced Manufacturing Research Centre, a modern building in a modern business park where technological advances involving composite materials are made on an almost daily basis.
It is a place of action, discovery, 3D printers and one-armed robots, a place where apprentices share lab coats with worldleading experts, a place where the word ‘impossible’ does not exist. It is also the place a merry band of British scientists, mathematicians, entrepreneurs and engineers have chosen to create the longest driver in the history of the world.
“This is not a read through or a PR stunt,” states Nick Middleton, founder of equipment company Zen Golf. “We are here to do something that will change and improve golf. We are going to engineer opportunities. We are going to play with chance. We are going to create chaos.”
All of which sounds a little Monster Raving Loony Party, but make no mistake – these men are both serious and qualified. Known as the ‘Zen Bloodhound Golf team’, because their project is a collaboration between Zen Golf and supersonic car manufacturer Bloodhound, the group includes the aforementioned Middleton, who holds numerous patents and designs in golf equipment and coaching; engineering design director Dan Fleetcroft, who worked in Formula 1 for 15 years before taking his knowledge to industries including aerospace, defence and elite sports equipment; research & development Director Dr Derek Marriott, who has spent over five years investigating the mechanics of a perfect collision between clubface and ball; Project engineering director Mike Maddock, who is a retired skeleton bobsleigh athlete turned international elite sports research & development expert; and long-hitting consultant Karl Woodward, an engineer turned pro golfer and current Guinness World long drive record holder.
“The first time I set the record I did it by accident,” recalls Woodward. “It was back in 1991 when I didn’t even realise there was such a thing as a longest drive world record. I just hammered one in an event and was told that it had gone 395 yards, which broke the previous record of 392 yards that had been set in 1973. Since then I’ve improved the record seven times, though the record itself has changed slightly. When I first broke the record the distance included roll. Nowadays, it is all about carry, because too many people were teeing off hotels or mountains. One guy even hit it seven miles across a frozen lake. Ridiculous.”
Woodward’s current carry record stands at 408 yards and 10 inches. It was set in tenerife in 1999 using a Makser driver and Pinnacle Gold golf ball. The Zen Bloodhound team expects to improve this distance significantly, partly because they believe in each other’s abilities and partly because they are not handicapped by regulations or history.
‘We don’t have to conform to the rules or a marketing model that says we need to build a yellow driver with green spots that can be sold for £250’
‘I still have no reflex in my right arm so I can swing as fast as I like without my brain telling me to stop’
“We don’t intend to sell this driver and we don’t work for a traditional golf manufacturer,” says Middleton. “so therefore we do not have to conform to the rules of golf or a marketing model that says we need to build a yellow driver with green spots that can be sold at the £250 price point.”
“We also don’t have any pre-conceived ideas of what makes a good golf driver, so we are looking for knowledge,” adds fleetcroft. “this allows us to begin with a blank paper and ask all the questions you might not ask if you were confronted by a list of rules and regulations. Questions like, what materials could we use? What are the dynamics? What are the biomechanics? Could we change any of those? Would teeing off into the wind actually be beneficial?
“Competition archery bows propel arrows a long way using a pulley system to store a massive amount of energy, so what can we do with energy storage? Can we use compressed gas? Rather than say that sounds like a silly question or isn’t financially feasible, we will investigate this. our sole purpose is to make one driver that hits a ball as far as possible.”
The assembled team members continue this conversation at this pace and in this vein for 20 minutes or so. It is inspiring, up and at ’em, ‘together we can rule the world’ stuff. But while Golf Illustrated can’t help but be excited by the product these men eventually produce and the spectacle it will create, one three letter question keeps popping into our head. Why? Why build a driver that no-one can use in competition? Why spend so much on something that can’t possibly be mass produced or sold?
There are a number of answers. These men hope to inspire young Britons to think about pursuing careers in the world of science, mathematics and engineering. They hope to shed golf’s grey image, opening the game up to a new audience. And by pushing the envelope they hope to discover some technological breakthroughs that can be legally used in the golf driver market.
“We will definitely discover some legally conforming technology,” says Middleton. “this is one of the reasons why this project is so attractive to a traditional short game company like Zen, which doesn’t have the finances to create a driver and then take on the big boys in a marketing contest. We need to come up with a different route to market and the Zen Bloodhound Golf team is just that. It is a platform for us to produce something technically amazing that will capture the public’s imagination. Once we’ve done that, we will stack up all the information and work out how we can release a legal version into the market.”
You have to admire Middleton’s thought process. for while Zen making a significant impression on the driver market is still a long shot based purely on a long shot, the brainpower of the people and the scale of resources available to them makes it hard to believe that they won’t come up with something marketable.
Nick Middleton, Dan Fleetcroft and Dr Derek Marriott form the core of the Zen Bloodhound Golf team.
Robots, wind tunnels, a water jet so powerful it can cut through metal, super-computers, confrontational fluid dynamic monitors, more composite materials than you could possibly imagine, Britain’s only giant, metal-cooking microwave, you name it, this project can call on it. But perhaps the most exciting gizmo at their fingertips is a 3D printer, from which the team intends to print the composite clubhead that will be used in the record attempt. To repeat: the head of the driver used in this record attempt with be printed by a machine in Sheffield, rather than cast or forged in a factory in the far east. Oh, and don’t expect it to look like your current model, either.
“The size and shape of modern drivers is purely down to the fact that at some stage someone who can’t play golf has got to pick up a stick and make the ball go in the air,” says Middleton. “fortunately, we don’t have that restraint. Expect our driver to be much smaller than 460cc, because it will be used by someone who can accurately strike a ball.”
That person could be Karl Woodward, who is now in his 60s, but remains a prodigious hitter thanks largely to a medical quirk.
“Back in 1985 I burst two discs in my neck,” explains Woodward. “the soft inner oozed out and pressed onto the motor that governed the nerves in my right shoulder, arm and hand. It took me six years to recover from this, and when I did the recovery still wasn’t full. I still have no reflex in my right arm and this means I can swing as fast as I like without my brain telling me to stop. As everyone knows, your brain governs everything you do, but because of the nerve damage mine doesn’t know my right arm still exists, so it doesn’t say ‘Whoa, slow down that swing or you will hurt yourself.’ Add this to a different mental approach to most professionals and a slight swing change that sees me make a double wrist hinge to create extra lag when I really want to hit the ball hard and you have the ingredients to be able to hit the ball huge distances.”
The different mental approach Woodward is talking about revolves around him swinging as if the ball doesn’t exist. It is a technique preached by his coach Jim cliffe. the swing guru used to make his charge hit 400 or 500 balls a day, while he stood beside him saying ‘there is no ball there’.
“It is a clever philosophy and it works,” says Woodward. “If you don’t believe me, try it. If you go to a launch monitor and hit a shot you will discover that you have reached a certain speed. Now take the golf ball away and swing as fast as you can. The result will be a much faster speed, perhaps even 15mph more.”
Even allowing for this, Woodward’s maximum swing speed tops out at around 140mph, a somewhat surprising statistic given that many who have tried and failed to break his carry record swing at speeds of over 160mph. This part of the project is where Dr Derek Marriott comes in. The Sheffield-based academic has spent most of the last decade endeavouring to discover an algorithm that explains how energy is transferred from the clubhead into the golf ball. It is a task that remains unfinished, but he has discovered some principles the team intends to use in their hunt to find the best person to wield their driver.
Nick Middleton poses with one of his patented Zen oracle putters.
“The biggest liability of any sporting record attempt is always the human”
“The irony for sports product engineers like myself, is that we can spend millions researching and creating the best possible product, only for it to fail because the user has an off day,” says Fleetcroft. “the biggest liability of any sporting record attempt is always the human, so we will be using Derek’s research to make sure our technology fits the fleshy thing who is going to swing it.”
The reason Fleetcroft chose the expression ‘will be going all out’ over ‘are going all out’ is because this project is still at the embryonic stage. In other words, if you are expectantly waiting for a description or image of this game-changing product stand down, because, bar a few doodles, some computer-aided design and lots of ‘what if?’ deliberating, the boys have not actually done anything yet. The good news, however, is that progress is on the horizon, with Woodward booked in for some testing sessions with Fleetcroft, and Middleton set to announce a series of events aimed at uncovering the game’s next big, big hitter.
“We will ask people to turn up at driving ranges and then measure their swing speeds and how far they can hit the ball,” says Middleton. “We will select the best and take them forward for more testing. This way, we will end up with a talent pool who can hit the ball better than anyone else.”
“I’m definitely going to try and make the talent pool on merit,” chips in Woodward, who apparently will not accept a free pass. “I’m so excited I am coughing up Mars bars. the guys are going to be able to do unbelievable things.”
And if he is that man, are Woodward’s teammates worried that his best days might be behind him? “Not at all,” smiles Fleetcroft. “If Karl is the man, he will break his record again.”
The record attempt will take place in South Africa on an as yet unspecified date in 2014 or 2015. In the mean time, watch this technologically advanced space.
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