So here’s how this started. In a video posted on his YouTube channel, Bryson DeChambeau showed off the prodigious ball speed he was getting from a new set of prototype irons. With a Pitching Wedge, the big-hitter recorded a swing speed of 138 mph—about 30 percent quicker than the Tour average for that club. DeChambeau then proceeded to hit prodigious distances with these clubs (well over 200 yards with a six-iron for example). Go have a look online, if this sort of thing interests you.
I’m somewhat jaded with this entire obsession with swing speed, ball speed, and distance—the quest which the US Open champion appears to be consumed by. I watched not to see DeChambeau do his thing, but rather, to have a look at the kind of equipment we all might find ourselves using in the not-so-distant future. 3-D printed does not mean homogeneous—these clubs have been built by Cobra specifically for DeChambeau who has had an active role to play in every step of development. The rest I don’t have to tell you: free of imperfections or variance that inevitably creep into handmade objects, these clubs are like the kind of futuristic things, a Marvel’s Avenger would brandish, And the larger-than-life DeChambeau, frequently referred to as ‘The Scientist,’ for his penchant with radical, technology-based overhaul of equipment and swing technique, is the ideal model.
After a few minutes of watching DeChambeau pulverise the golf ball, and launch it depressingly long distances, I switched back to my standard screen saver on the channel—a compilation of Fred Couples’ swings over the years. This, I could watch all day. In any case, the objects of interest, DeChambeau’s clubs—were blurred out in the video—ostensibly to obscure the design, but probably more to create some hype around a new product launch.
As you might be able to surmise by now, I won’t be ordering a set anytime soon. But, then, I’m clearly prejudiced. Given that, it’s only right for me to lay out my biases right at the outset. I don’t need to elaborate: I like analogue music and watches; will take craftsmanship over perfection; and, ergo, love my old blades. Brave New World? You’ll have to drag me into it. But, for people with some common sense, the prototypes present an alluring peep into what the future of golf equipment might look like.
And that, by all indications, is not going to be forged by human endeavour. Sophisticated AI software will be fed data points of an individual’s golf swing. Lo presto! The connected hardware will regurgitate the perfect club tailored for your golf swing. Nothing wrong with that, you say? You’re right, of course. The one single objective of every single golfer is to get better at the game. And we’ll do whatever it takes: practice swings on the terrace, coaching clinics, battering golf balls at the driving range. And most crucially, constantly upgrade equipment.
As anyone who grew up playing the game in the 1990s in India will know; we didn’t have the luxury of choosing golf clubs. You were lucky to come across a retail set, and in that event, proceeded to grab it with both hands. Most sets were acquired either through people visiting from overseas, or from pro shops that would occasionally stock ‘Slazenger’-type irons. If you haven’t heard of these then I recommend you run an online search. These were like knives, with small heads and about as much forgiveness as a stick with a stone attached at one end. Getting an off-centre hit with one of these would transmit so much ‘feedback’ that players couldn’t feel their fingers for a bit. Ironically enough, it’s the same feedback in traditional blades that’s so valued by professionals and better amateurs. Better known as ‘players’ irons,’ in modern nomenclature, the finest blades are made by hand; forged and hammered to provide the densest metal that will allow better players to feel the strike and the ball. This allows them to ‘work’ the ball in both directions, and get creative in their shot-making. A bit like road feedback to the steering wheel being important for the race-car driver and an irritation to the commuter.
For someone who’s always played with blades, I find it near impossible to play with anything else. And I do believe that blades force you to focus on a solid strike first, and actually improve your golf swing. Still this is an arguable notion, and I’m certainly not proposing you dump your current irons in favour of clubs you may find unplayable. The game is hard enough.
I am, however, left with a sense of loss. Yet another bastion, a preserve of time-honoured craftsmanship, distilled over years, appears to be on the verge of disappearing in the face of an unstoppable, ever-marauding technology blitzkrieg. But it’s also an indication of the way the game is going—one that clearly rewards power and distance off the tee over finesse and shotmaking. The only saving grace is that there are plenty of models in this world for things of beauty being forever. And for those who have had the privilege, the feeling of holding a Japanese hand-forged iron, perfectly hammered and chiselled to a matte finish, grooves matching to a tee, is quite un-3D printable.
Meraj Shah is a Delhi-based writer and television producer