A hole-in-one for computerized golf cart

Move over Big Bertha! Callaway Golf is preparing a computerized swing-analysis and club-design golf cart that uses a radar gun and an IBM notebook computer for recording golfers' swing data.

Callaway Golf Co., whose stock has been in the rough lately, is about to pull a high-technology, customized golf club from its bag.

Callaway, maker of the Big Bertha driver and other clubs and golf balls, says it will unveil a swing-analysis and club-design system called the Callaway Custom Fitting Solution next week.

Using the system, which utilizes a radar gun and an International Business Machines Corp. notebook computer for recording golfers' swing data, Callaway will be able to tell players exactly what clubs they should use--either Callaway's off-the-shelf varieties or customized clubs it will make to fit their specifications.

Making customized golf clubs is a cottage industry, with hundreds of small shops shaping drivers, irons and putters to order from standard parts. Callaway is using technology to create a mass-customization process that it hopes will draw the average golfer and juice up its sales.

Callaway plans to roll out a pilot program with 300 of the custom-fitting carts going to country clubs and a few large retail stores. If successful, the program will be expanded to several thousand machines.

Optimize your performance
Thomas Preece, director of customized products at Callaway, says "our standard products fit a wide variety of players, but you can always optimize the performance of a club for a given player." He says a correctly fitted club might improve the efficiency in converting club speed to ball speed, and thus to distance, as much as 25 percent. Callaway has been using computers to analyze swings since it began designing clubs in the early 1990s. Today, many of the touring professionals that it sponsors use the company's labs to analyze their swings and select custom-fitted clubs, he said.

With the portable cart, after recording basic height and hand-size measurements, a golf teacher will be able to take a golfer out to a driving range and record and analyze his or her swing. The device will record ball speed, clubhead speed and projected distance; the teacher will add observations about hooks or slices, and ball trajectories. Based on that information, the system will design a set of clubs optimized for the golfer.

Callaway, of Carlsbad, Calif., says a set of custom clubs won't cost any more than its standard models, which top $1,500 for a set of irons and $625 for a single titanium driver. It says it can take an order entered on the cart, transmit it over the Internet and ship it out in 48 hours.

To make the product more alluring for teaching pros who make their money by giving lessons and selling merchandise, Callaway also designed a customized swing-analysis program that they can use for lessons. The program lets the teacher film a swing with a video camera, enter it in the laptop and then show comparisons to professionals side by side with the student. Preece says some pros likely will use the device as the core of a lesson and then pitch a new set of clubs.

IBM initially will supply standard laptops for the custom-fitting cart. Rick McGee, a marketing vice president in IBM's personal-computer unit, says Big Blue hopes to design wireless devices that will eliminate the need for cables snaking around the driving range from video cameras to the laptop.

Callaway could use a lift. This month, it slashed its outlook for second-quarter earnings to half what analysts were projecting, or between 35 cents to 38 cents a share, and cut its revenue projection to $250 million from more than $290 million. The company blamed the economic slowdown, bad golfing weather and the U.S. Golf Association's ban on Callaway's ERC II driver, because its thin titanium head has a trampoline effect when it strikes a golf ball that the organization has ruled violates the rules of golf.


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