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Vision Quest

January 26, 2011

The next frontier in golf-club design might have nothing to do with the inside of a driver head. Instead, it could have a lot to do with the inside of your head. The newest driver and putter designs not only work as well as ever from a physics standpoint, they might help teach your eyes how to aim your body. The theories in play run the gamut from retinal ganglion cell function to Gestalt psychology.

"Visual alignment in golf has been neglected for years," says Steve Hitzeman, director of the sports-vision program at the Indiana University School of Optometry and a consultant to TaylorMade on its line of white clubs. "If you're going to put an alignment aid on a club, you're going to have to look at the visual system itself."

Alignment aids are hardly new. Lines or marks on the top of clubheads date to at least the 1700s. What's changing now is the science behind them. Equipment designers are exploring what the mind perceives as it tries to line up a clubhead. Golf presents visual challenges because, unlike most sports, players have to align themselves to a target they don't look at. It's why Clearview putter designer Stephen Ross believes 90 percent of golfers aren't aimed in the direction they think they are. That's where vision science comes in.

Wilson designed the Vizor putter after research showed that the eye positions of golfers when addressing a putt varied from four inches outside the ball to eight inches inside. Clearview uses a transparent putterhead to address the problem;Wilson chooses an aiming line for the Vizor that's visible only when you're aligned correctly.

Meanwhile, TaylorMade is focusing on how the mind perceives edges. The combination of the white crown and black face on its R11 and Burner SuperFast 2.0 metalwoods and its Ghost putters is designed to increase awareness of edges by exciting or inhibiting certain neurons within the nerve cells of your retinas. Hitzeman's research for TaylorMade also suggests that the matte-white finish helps reduce glare, and glare, or hot spots, can distract the brain at address.

In contrast, Odyssey wants to stimulate the mind to improve focus through the principles of Gestalt psychology. Chief putter designer Austie Rollinson says the Gestalt concept—that the mind immediately intuits what's missing to complete a full picture—is at the core of the D.A.R.T. putter philosophy. When golfers see the D.A.R.T.'s angled lines, they will complete the point precisely in the middle of the ball.

"The mind wants to work in a holistic manner to find patterns in things, to complete what's not there," Rollinson says. "Your eyes aren't seeing the point of the arrow, the brain is. It uses that point in the center of the golf ball to fine-tune that realignment to let you know you're aiming at your target."

Still, colors and lines can't completely solve a golfer's attempt to see straight, says Dr. Larry Lampert, a developmental optometrist and consultant to Transitions Optical. He estimates at least 20 percent of the population has binocular vision problems that would inhibit proper aim and alignment. As golfers age, he says, they require much more bright light to distinguish subtle differences, maybe three times as much at age 60 as they did at 30. That's why adding visual cues can make a difference.

"It's a good start, and there are a lot of things that manufacturers are obviously doing a lot better than they used to, but it's not the whole picture," Lampert says. He suggests golfers consider "vision training" as another way to improve, along with equipment, instruction and physical fitness.

Still, vision enhancement is only part of what makes a golf club work better. Any effort to improve aim and alignment can't fully sacrifice mass properties, feel or traditional looks. "It might be a different answer for every person," Rollinson says. "That's why we have a lot of different alignment features. I like to use putters that don't have any alignment features at all. I don't trust what my eyes see sometimes."