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Asiaweek Pictures.

Playing the Modern Game
Satellites, lasers, space-age materials and computer-assisted practice sessions are part of today's golf coursework

Cool (Golf) Aids

It's fair to say that my golf game has plenty of room for improvement. In fact one of the most charitable comments you could make about the strokes I play is that there sure are a lot of them. Since I first picked up a bag of clubs last year, I have played just six rounds of 18 holes. Not one of them has been within driving distance of par. A regulation round is 72 shots. So far I've carded 141, 122, 129, 131, 119 and 118. Rest easy, Tiger.

There is, of course, a surefire way I could raise my game: Practice. But who has got time for that these days? I've only managed to squeeze half a dozen rounds into my schedule in the last 18 months and I don't have time to waste hacking balls into an empty field at the driving range. No, better technique is not the answer. Better technology is.

Reaching for the double-A batteries may seem at odds with golf's tweedy, traditional image, but I'm not the first duffer to turn to science for help. Ever since engineer Karsten Solheim developed his first Ping putter in 1959, golfers have been in thrall to the latest products coming out of the workshop. Today golf R&D is big business. U.S. manufacturer Callaway recently spent $170 million developing its first golf ball. Tiger's woods aren't handcrafted by some old geezer out of a persimmon tree. They are being forged from exotic metals like titanium, tungsten and zirconium by aerospace engineers who cut their teeth shaping fighter jets.

The result of all this progress is that rank amateurs are now driving distances once reserved for the pros. But it don't mean a thing if you ain't got a clue how to swing, so I made an appointment with David Lloyd, owner of Improve Your Game Limited in Hong Kong. A banker-turned-instructor from Scotland, the home of golf, Lloyd is a stickler for dull practice drills. Luckily he is also a technology buff who keeps $75,000 worth of computer and radar equipment set up in the back of his shop. Leading me past the ranks of putters, irons and giraffe-shaped club cosies to his laboratory, Lloyd promises to teach me in an hour what it would take weeks to learn down on the range. The trick: video swing analysis.

I grab a seven iron and skip onto the practice mat. Kleig lights shine down on me and a pair of videocameras record back and side views of my swing, information that in turn is fed into a PC. I'm impressed with my performance. In four swings I only miss the ball once. "I think I've seen enough," says Lloyd. To his expert eyes, it is immediately clear what my problem is. I don't know how to play golf. "We all have an idea in our minds of how we look and most people are shocked to see themselves on video for the first time," says Lloyd in a tone of voice I guess he reserves for breaking particularly bad news. "But seeing yourself is by far the most useful, stimulating element of the learning process." Easy for him to say. Lloyd is a scratch golfer with a swing as smooth as Cary Grant. On video playback, mine is more like Lon Chaney in The Hunchback of Notre Dame.

Worse is to come. Lloyd calls on the pros to show how it should be done. One by one, recorded images of Freddie Couples, Jack Nicklaus, and Ernie Els pop up on screen to shame me. I can hear the crowd sniggering the length of the 18th fairway. However, there proves to be more to video training than ritual humiliation. To my untrained eyes, my gravedigger swing is just a jumble of limbs. It's obviously wrong, but where to start putting it right? Using the PC's software Lloyd shows me, drawing on top of the picture the way that commentators do on television. Arcs are described, angles measured and body movements noted. Lloyd places me side-by-side with the pros and clicks through our swings frame-by-frame. The confusion on my side of the screen resolves into a series of faults that can be seen, understood and corrected on the practice mat. More footage is shot to see how I'm progressing. By the time our hour is up, I have a new swing — and the video evidence to prove it. Lloyd runs through my first and last takes side by side. I'm still not Cary Grant smooth, but it's a startling improvement on my old Quasimodo lurch.

Self-image rebuilt, it was time to take my game to the course. I set up a challenge match with Alaister Frew, a teaching professional at Laguna National Course in Singapore. Frew is a scratch golfer and a former instructor in the teaching academy of South African legend Gary Player. He's been playing since he was six years old. Still, my spies at the course tell me that he spent the previous day on the range oiling his rusty swing in preparation for my arrival. When I do show he immediately feigns injury. "Stiff shoulder and neck," he grimaces. "I think I slept awkwardly." With a crack of thunder the heavens open and the sound of an air raid siren echoes across the course. I don my Asiaweek cap. Let battle commence.

Frew has every reason to be scared. I'm packing some of the best equipment money can buy (borrowed, of course, from helpful manufacturers and distributors). I step up to the first tee brimming with confidence. At least five onlookers crane their necks to get a better view as I pull out my three wood. Made by Ping, it boasts a sole made from zirconium, which is 50% heavier than the titanium clubhead. Add to that a weight of tungsten and you have a club with a center of gravity so low that the ball is almost guaranteed to soar. So it comes as some surprise when I only scuff it a mere 40 meters. My second shot is no better. Arcing off on a dangerous slice toward the next fairway it is arrested only by the gnarled roots of a tree. Something is clearly wrong with my clubs.

I find my ball in the rough. It's on a slope and is surrounded by fallen branches, an appalling lie. By my third shot I'm forced to bring out my secret weapon: Taylor Made's Firesole Rescue club. It may look like a fairway wood with the front lopped off, but this is the clunker's club par excellence. Again heavy tungsten is used to ensure that a full three-quarters of the clubhead's considerable weight rests in its lower half, helping the worst hacker get the ball in the air from almost any bog, trap or thicket. I find that it also handles being thumped against a tree root on your practice swing. I bang the ball back firmly onto the fairway and finish on a solid nine strokes: a quintuple bogey. Frew knocks in an easy par.

I pull my Palm III handheld computer out of my bag. Scribbling on cardboard is old-fashioned. Software from Intelligolf keeps score and gives you statistical feedback on how well (or badly) you're playing. It can even calculate side bets, although I was off that idea. At any rate, there was little time between holes to enter the information. Luckily the buggies at Laguna are computerized, with an on-board screen showing the score and maps of each hole. They are also equipped with a Global Positioning System (GPS) receiver, which uses satellites to give players a fix on how far they are from the center of the green. Most courses have yardage markers at certain strategic points, such as the area of the fairway where your tee shot is supposed to wind up. Considering my unorthodox landing zones, GPS proves a godsend.

The next few holes disappear in a blur of incompetence. I hook balls left, I slice them right. I set one straight down the road like a cruise missile, narrowly missing a speeding buggy. Then something remarkable happens. I crack a long, high and straight drive off the tee. It's all in the wrists, you know. This was the result I had been looking for. Usually my best drives travel around 170 meters. This looked more like 200. The driver I was using, Cobra's Gravity Back model, probably helped. It gets more heft where it is needed, behind the ball, because the rear of the clubhead is stuffed with a bronze alloy. In my hands it was dangerous enough to completely decapitate my plastic tee. But perhaps more important, the ball I was using was designed for distance.

In fact, the ball is currently the hottest item on golf's R&D agenda. Just as new materials have revolutionized club design over the last decade, so innovative combinations of polymers are now being used to create "intelligent" balls. Wilson's Smart-Core ball has at its center a combination of titanium, for distance, and urethane, a soft polymer that reacts differently depending on whether it is struck hard or soft. The result: a ball that rockets off the tee but is responsive enough to be chipped and putted around the green. If only they were clever enough to swim when I hook them into the lake.

"Gary Player reckons that at the age of 63 he is still hitting the ball the same distance he was at 25 because of the technological advances in equipment," Frew observes. But pulling up the buggy next to my ball I am stunned when I notice the GPS readout gives the distance of my last drive as a mere 150 meters. Clearly, the advanced satellite system is fibbing — probably as a result of the tee having been moved back since the unit was calibrated. But I need corroboration if I'm going to brag about my big drive back at the 19th hole. I pull out the Bushnell Yardage Pro, an infrared rangefinder that can give accurate readouts up to 550 meters away. I level the the crosshairs at the tee and get a reading of 202 meters. Vindicated.

But no matter how well I drive, it's doing nothing for my score. Golfers like to quote the dictum "Drive for show, putt for dough." I'm lacking a money shot. I had prepared well using another Bushnell device, the LaserPractice Pro, in a late-night practice session on my hotel room carpet. The little black ray gun clamps onto the putter shaft and projects a line of red dots on the ground to encourage a straighter motion. I even came armed with a brace of state-of-the-art putters. Nothing is of much help. The greens are not as even as the carpet in Room 902 and I may as well be playing crazy golf the way the balls keep veering away from the hole.

The best trick shot I play bypasses the green altogether. Faced with a tough pitch onto a raised green, I reach for my Taylor Made pitching wedge. The clubhead is made from the same steel they use on FA-18 fighter aircraft. The material allows for a thinner club face — yet another way to concentrate the weight in the sole of the club. It makes the ball jump, yes. I clock it clean over the green, onto the road and land the ball in the back of the golf cart. If I can reproduce that shot regularly I could forget about joining the pros and just join the circus. Frew cards a distracted par and I abandon the hole.

At the end of our five-hour marathon round, the sun is setting and I've shot 139 — my worst score since my debut. It seems technology has failed me, that a pricey club is a poor substitute for any discernable talent. And yet, I feel like I played better than usual. The shots I fudged were less frustrating now that I knew — and could address — what was wrong. Those that I connected with flew further and truer than I was accustomed to, and the few that landed on the green sat up nicely rather than skipping off into the rough. Even at the low level where my game languishes, it was clear that better equipment had an effect. "Even a really poor player can be affected by a bad set of clubs," agrees Lloyd, although he believes better gear is worth no more than a 5% performance gain. "In the end the role of the club plays a relatively minor role compared to the role of the body." Looks like I'm headed for the practice range after all.

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