This is one for the geeks. Over the last weekend I got hold of a device called ‘FitChip’ to measure acceleration patterns, and more specifically, the ‘release timing’ of my golf swing. The results, and what they suggest, is perplexing, even amusing, to most pros I’ve spoken to. Apparently, in spite of having a swing speed higher than 100 mph, I need softer shafts. Counterintuitive? Absolutely.
I remember reading an interview of PGA Tour legend Hale Irwin many moons back in which he had an interesting take on golf club shaft flex. “Early in my career, my 3-, 5- and 9-irons performed differently than other irons, but I adapted and made them work. Then when frequency matching came along in the early ’80s, I put my clubs on a machine and found that the shafts on those irons were different than the rest, even though the labels all read “S” (stiff). Shafts today are much more consistent but don’t try only clubs with, say regular flex shafts just because your driver is regular and you like it. Try different shafts, you might play better with a mix of flexes in your set,” he had proffered.
Then there’s this story about the late great Bobby Jones: apparently Jones always said that there was something ‘different’ about his 4-iron. So they pulled out his clubs (which were housed in a museum) and checked them on a frequency machine. Sure enough, the 4-iron was off while the others were fine.” I first heard about Fitchip many years back when PGTI pro Gurbaaz Mann got hold of a unit and went about testing pros. Now Mann knows a thing or two about club-fitting and the golf swing. With a technical bent, the golfer has always been known for his penchant for theory and for getting fit by club-fitters around the world, searching for that elusive perfect ‘fit’.
“Back then I’d already been fit by many well known fitters in London, Indonesia, Carlsbad (US), among other places — but I was still not happy. Jesse (Grewal) and I were poring over swing videos and trying to understand why the shaft behaves like it does, which led us to research on ‘release timing’, and that’s when I stumbled on FitChip,” Mann had told me at the time.
Mann’s unconventional fitting advice had created waves because it radically challenging long held notions about shaft flex. After getting himself fitted by Mann, Chandigarh pro Ajeetesh Sandhu — who has one of the quickest and better looking swings on tour and played with an extra-stiff shaft-moved down to regular shafts.
This turns fitting theory on its head. In simplistic terms, fitters have long used swing speed as a parameter for shaft flex-the quicker your swing speed, the stiffer the shaft, and vice versa. For a shaft to provide leverage in a golf swing, it needs to load (which happens at the transition from backswing to downswing) and unload on the golf ball during the release. The quicker a golfer swings, the stiffer the clubshaft needs to be (to prevent it from unloading before impact and expending its energy). At least, that’s how it goes with conventional fitting theory.
So how does it work? FitChip is a small cylindrical device which clasps on to the shaft. When the club is swung, the device gathers data on the acceleration of the club during different parts of the swing, especially the ‘release’, and identifies the time differential between the loading and unloading of the club (called the kick initiation point).
That data is fed into software to get a ‘swing release timing’. Fitters then use a shaft with a frequency that matches that timing. In layman’s terms, the system uses the aggressiveness of the release, rather than the overall swing speed, to determine how the club is squared into impact. It’s here that the diversion from contemporary belief takes place.
According to Lloyd Hackman, the American inventor of FitChip, when two players have the same time interval between release and ball impact, the one with the higher clubhead speed gets a softer golf shaft than the player with the lower clubhead speed.
This is because the player with the higher speed is gets more help from centrifugal forces and needs less spring action to bring the golf shaft back to straight. A stiff shaft unloads quicker into the ball than a softer one. It certainly has seemed to work for your columnist. The aggressiveness of your release determines what shaft you’re fitted with. And now when I think about it, I’ve played my best golf with regular shafts. What really struck me was, if my shaft is not bringing the clubface square at impact then it makes no difference how well I’m swinging. “When you’re fit with the correct shaft, the club behaves like you would expect it to. For example, if you make an out-to-in swing, then the ball should move left-to-right. If that doesn’t happen and the ball gets pulled instead, then how’re you going to correct that?” asks Mann rhetorically.
‘Effective plane’ is how Mann describes the crux of what really matters in a golf swing. And that’s described as independent of the visual plane. “On video you may see a swing on a perfect plane but the player may not have any consistency. For example, Jeev (Milkha Singh) may look unorthodox visually but at impact his club shaft is in a straight line which is his ‘effective plane’. That’s the position that every golfer needs to achieve. And it’s only possible when the shaft is fitted precisely to the golfer’s swing,” says Mann.
Ironically, Mann says that the eventual aim is to become an instinctual golfer. “Every golfer has a unique natural release pattern. The idea is to give him clubs which match that perfectly, and allow him to play golf as a reactionary sport without thinking of positions in the swing or anything like that. The idea of using technology is to bridge the entire gap, and come back to instinct.”
A golfer, Meraj Shah also writes about the game