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Golf equipment truths: Will golf balls ever become trackable?


Illustration by Harry Campbell

We are lucky to have two of the most knowledgable golf gearheads in our office. And they are sharing their knowledge with you. Golf Digest's equipment editors, Mike Stachura and E. Michael Johnson, have covered the golf equipment business for decades, and there are few who know the equipment industry better. We've asked them to answer your questions in a weekly equipment round-up. Tweet them any equipment questions you have, and they might answer your questions next week. (Click here or here to ask them a question.)

Are any major ball manufacturers realistically working on developing a way to track location (for finding stray shots or logging-rounds purposes)? On the surface, fewer lost balls would seem bad for sales, but I know many golfers who’d pay a premium for this kind of golf ball. —@HogansBookLied

The key word in your question is “realistically.” The answer, however, is yes. A few years ago, OnCore Golf made a presentation during PGA Show week about its GENiUS ball—a ball with a chip in the core that could track things such as location, distance and backspin in real time on a smartphone. The company had previously made a ball with a hollow metal core, so the idea of putting a chip inside the ball and being able to protect it from damage didn’t seem far off.

The product has yet to make it to market, but the company is still pursuing the idea. In fact, a spokesman said the ball could be a reality before the end of the year. Said CEO Keith Blakely, "OnCore has continued to work on the significant challenges that a trackable ball presents, not only with respect to developing the electronics and software capable of delivering useful information based on the ball’s flight characteristics—things like rotational axis and rate, velocity, aerodynamic lift and trajectory, etc.—but also performing similar to USGA-conforming golf balls with regards to distance and spin such that the balls’ playability and utility of the data being captured is of value. Furthermore, it has to be capable of being wirelessly recharged so that the ball has some useful life and able to communicate all of the important information back to the golfer in real time via Bluetooth protocols. Last but not least, it has to be able to withstand repeated hits off the tee with a driver."

Those are legitimate benefits and not insignificant challenges. That said, we have our doubts about the viability or, quite frankly, the need. While producing a golf ball that you can find certainly seems like a boffo idea, it’s difficult to see how such a ball wouldn’t be compromised in some manner performance-wise. You’re taking out performance technology and replacing it with golf-ball-finding technology. That doesn’t seem like a trade worth making. Of course, getting in-game diagnostics from the ball might make for an interesting TV broadcast enhancement. As opposed to, you know, the actual golf tournament.

Of course, the cost also is likely to be prohibitive and if you sink it in the water on the 15th at PGA National no ball retriever is gonna reach that sucker. We also have doubts about it speeding up play. Anyone paying that premium for a ball is going to hunt and hunt and hunt for that sucker like it’s Andy Dufresne escaping Shawshank. Sure, you might find it faster. But enjoy those three whacks to get it back in the fairway from the jungle habitat that your GPS golf ball found for you. Doesn’t seem faster when you would have just dropped one and went from there. We’ll never say never, but we’re thinking it will be later rather than sooner.

All this talk about distance and a ball rollback: What are your thoughts on reducing the legal number of clubs a player can have from 14 to eight? How did we get to 14 anyway? —@GoranBarnes

We’ll answer in reverse. The 14-club limit was instituted in 1938 in order to avoid players carrying obscene amounts of clubs. Lawson Little was notorious for having north of 30 in the bag, and some players went so far as to carry a right-handed and left-handed set. In addition to the load, there also was some thought that wealthier players who could afford to buy more clubs would have a significant advantage. As to why 14, we have no clue— though some have theorized that most standard sets at the time were nine irons, four woods and a putter.

Now to the more fun stuff. Having played a lot of one-club and three-club golf, it’s an absolute blast to do so in order to create shots and think your way around the course much like one would do in billiards—your current shot setting up your next. It would appeal to the rollback crowd in that shotmaking certainly would be brought back. But reducing the number of clubs from 14 to eight doesn’t solve the distance issue because we’re pretty sure a driver would be among the clubs any sane person would choose. Besides, most who feel the ball goes too far would probably argue that tour pros don’t use more than eight clubs anyway so why bother? So as much as we applaud the inventive thinking, we think playing with a reduced number of clubs is probably better served at your Thursday night men’s league, adult beverage in hand.

My irons are a few years old: I use some Adams CMBs. I shoot in the mid 80s. Would my game be better improved by updating my irons or spending the money on lessons from a pro. —@yebollix

A few years old? I’ve had three dogs since those were introduced, man. Have you at least changed the grips? Seriously, while it’s a fine iron (Gold on the 2013 Golf Digest Hot List), you’re due for an upgrade for one big reason: Faces have gotten much more energetic, so I think a good fitter easily gets you 10-15 yards, 7-iron to 7-iron, because at the very least you’d be comparing a 34-degree club of eight years ago with probably a 3- to 4-degree stronger-lofted iron with a flexible face of today. Plus, today’s stronger lofted iron is going to still get you green-grabbing, high trajectory thanks to smarter and lower centers of gravity. If you think technology hasn’t progressed enough since then, let me know how things are going with your Google Glasses.

Why are we always wondering about either/or propositions when it comes to improving our games? If you’re not working with an instructor on a regular basis, then all you’re ultimately doing is going for a walk with a bunch of clubs on your back. Let’s commit to total improvement, and that means combining equipment upgrades with instruction, and ideally some fitness thrown in. Now, if you’re asking which is going to make a change in your game faster: It’s not a contest, especially in your case. Replacing antiques (irons more than six years old, woods more than four years old) with properly fit modern gear will produce the kind of relatively instantaneous change in your game and lifestyle that will make the boys over at Just For Men a little bit jealous.

Of course, if you want that change to last, you’ll want a teacher’s eye on a regular basis. At the end of the day, start thinking about the investments in your game the way we think about the other significant purchases in our life: Amortize it. Your clubs are a new car, and your instructor is the oil change. If you want to get to where you’re going, you need both. Right now, you’re leaking oil.