Golf takes to the launch pad

Radar technology, computer software can give an average player the right fit


Bobby Jones - perhaps the greatest golfer of all time - has been dead for nearly 35 years, so it's impossible to know for certain. But it's probably safe to assume that Jones never foresaw a day when golfers from all around the world would be using missile defense technology to help them hit a golf ball farther at Augusta National.

That, however, is exactly what's happening these days, yet the practice isn't limited to professional golfers seeking to gain an edge before playing in The Masters. Any weekend warrior now with a 32 handicap and consistently ugly, left-to-right slice can walk into a golf shop with an on-site launch monitor and, without going broke, watch technology work its magic.

Don't have the time or the patience to improve your game with practice? Then getting fit for the proper clubs on a launch monitor might be something to consider. Military-designed radar technology and a computer software program can measure your ball flight, swing speed and launch angle, then help you find the right clubs to tweak those numbers and gain maximum distance. A growing number of golfers are embracing it, and it's likely coming to a municipal course near you.

"First off, no matter what you do, you can't buy a golf game," says Frank Blind, a PGA teaching professional at The Woodlands and Diamond Ridge golf courses in Baltimore County. "But entirely too many people either have clubs that don't fit them, or they go out and buy clubs that don't fit them. And having the right equipment makes a lot of difference. I look at it like this: If you needed to buy a diesel pickup truck, and someone sold you a Volkswagen Bug instead, it's not going to fit your needs. It's the same thing with golf clubs. A launch monitor can only help."

A club-fitting session with a launch monitor is a no-brainer for the men and women, like Tiger Woods, Phil Mickelson and Annika Sorenstam, who make their living hitting a golf ball and has been for years. But more recently, as the equipment has become more prevalent and more affordable, more amateurs are using the technology to pick the right shaft, the right ball and the right club for their swing. According to Golf Digest, only 10 to 15 percent of amateur golfers have been properly fitted for their clubs, but that number is slowly growing.

"It's the future," says Chuck Freedman, the launch monitor specialist at Mammoth Golf in Columbia, and former PGA teaching professional. "You don't have to be a Tour pro to get fit anymore. You just have to come in with an open mind."

In the past, picking out the right club usually meant finding a demo day at a range somewhere, then trying out four or five drivers or irons, and picking one based on "feel" as much as anything else.

These days, a golfer can make an hourlong appointment at a place like Mammoth Golf, which has launch monitors in both of its stores in Columbia and Timonium, and for a $50 fee (which comes with a $25 gift card), watch the $20,000 computer replace "feel" with cold, hard stats and facts.

Want to know exactly how far you hit your driver or your 6-iron? Want to find out which brand of club you hit farther and straighter, Ping, Titleist or TaylorMade? Want to get more distance without swinging harder? A launch monitor, like the EDH Sport FlightScope Pro at Mammoth Golf, can give you those answers and more in seconds. Launch monitors can also identify things that are impossible for the naked eye to see, like the amount of backspin and sidespin on a golf ball as it travels at speeds that can surpass 180 mph for a PGA Tour player.

Typically, after warming up, a golfer will hit balls with a variety of clubs into a net, and the launch monitor - a small white box that sits on the ground, behind the golf ball, and shoots out an invisible radar grid, in the case of the FlightScope - measures and records things such as distance, launch angle, swing speed and ball speed. Then, a certified launch monitor specialist will make specific recommendations of what the golfer should be playing with based on the numbers the program churns out. A golfer who has played for years with a Titleist driver with 8.5 degrees of loft might find he or she can hit the same driver 15 yards farther and more accurately simply by using more loft, like 10.5 degrees, or by installing a different shaft.

"Most golfers generally don't have enough loft in their drivers," says Jesse Johnson, the launch monitor specialist at Mammoth Golf in Timonium. "But the ideal ball flight in recent years has changed. It used to be, everyone wanted to hit the ball low and have it climb like an airplane does when it takes off. But what [testing] has found is that with a higher launch angle, the distance you can get is actually much greater."

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