Monday, February 19, 2007

No doubt you put your golf gear to the test. But that's nothing compared to the testing manufacturers do before their products leave the factory. Companies assess their goods relentlessly, ensuring they'll last and perform. From prototypes to finished products, nothing reaches the stores until it's been pushed to its limit.

Every company starts by testing raw materials. Club and ballmakers have exacting standards for the metals, composites, and other substances in their wares. Apparel, bag, glove, and shoe manufacturers check for durability, consistency, and quality. Then, once the ingredients are assembled, each company has its own methods of guaranteeing that its finished products are up to its -- and your -- high standards.

Apparel

Befitting its roots, rainwear-maker Sunderland of Scotland has a "shower testing room" in its Glasgow headquarters where garments are sprayed with water from four different angles, replicating wind-driven rain. Nike Golf tests the effects of perspiration and sunlight on its clothes with a chemical concoction that simulates various sweat samples (supposedly odor-free); clothing is soaked in this solution and exposed to synthetic light in an ultraviolet (UV) chamber. Companies also clock how quickly moisture wicks (moves from the side of fabric touching your skin to the outside) then evaporates.

Larger apparel brands such as FootJoy, adidas, and Nike, retain testers who play in sample garments, then fill out detailed checklists regarding fit, function, color, performance, cuff features, and pocket locations, among other factors. Some smaller companies have test panels, as well: Sunderland has Scottish club pros wear and test new garments. With an average rainfall of one inch every eight days in parts of Scotland, the company has no trouble "simulating" authentic conditions.

Artist: James Yang
James Yang

Bags

A surprisingly big problem with golf bags is fading. Belding and Ping place bags on the roof of their factories to see how they react to sunlight. Ping sometimes leaves the bags topside for up to a year, while placing others in a box that simulates a mix of sun and humidity.

Nothing beats a great pair of legs, so Ping built a machine that "drop tests" its stand bags, lifting and setting them down -- and extending the legs -- 10,000 times. Belding opens and closes each bag's legs 70,000 times. Several manufacturers utilize robots to yank a bag's straps, handles, and zippers. Belding fills the pockets, then opens and closes the zippers to test how much stress they can take, all before employees jump and stand on the stuffed bags. At Ogio, "we cook our bags, freeze them, and drop things on them," says a company official.

Balls

Every ball company inspects their finished products for cosmetics, appearance and, when applicable, compression. Most major brands also have a hitting machine that tests performance under a variety of conditions, and a high-speed camera that measures ball speed, spin, and launch angle at impact.

Every golfer wants a ball that's durable. Srixon and Callaway use a cannon to fire balls into a steel plate at 160 miles per hour trying to deform them. At Titleist, a special machine hits each ball hundreds of times to see how long it takes to go out of round or be otherwise damaged. These tests also are run in different weather conditions to gauge a ball's resistance to temperature and exposure.

Titleist, Srixon, and others also X-ray their solid-core balls to check that the core is centered.

Clubs

To check the internal structure and face thickness of metal wood heads, larger manufacturers rely on ultrasounds, sonograms, and X-rays. Some snake a tiny camera through the hosel to inspect the welds inside the clubhead. Many also electronically trace the grooves to check that they've been cut to the precise depth, width, and shape, with the right amount of space between them.

Cleveland Golf spins its clubheads in a darkened room at high speeds, flashing a strobe to freeze the motion, which allows engineers to check stability and moment of inertia. Shooting golf balls at the clubface in a studio allows Cleveland to test a club for sound. At Callaway, employees use a soundproof room to drop clubs and listen for rattles, while TaylorMade jangles its clubheads in a paint shaker to test the durability of the finish. Using an Iron Byron swing machine, Wilson checks for clubhead forgiveness at a variety of ball speeds, ball spins, and launch angles, then maps sweetspots in a nine-point impact test.

Artist: James Yang
James Yang

Gloves

Manufacturers test gloves for durability. For example, Maxfli runs prototypes through a cycle of exams that includes rubbing them with sandpaper and saturating them with water. As with clothing, gloves are wear-tested. More than 1,000 golfers in a variety of climates put prospective FootJoy gloves through their paces, then rate them on durability, feel, and grip. Etonic pits its models against a competitor's, giving 100 amateurs de-logoed gloves and asking them to fill out detailed questionnaires about look and feel. That's followed by on-course testing and more questionnaires. "We do this to choose between two materials or designs, or when we want to go after a competitor's product," says Mike McAuliffe, director of Etonic.

Shoes

Shoes can leak, which is why several companies bend theirs to create creases, then submerge them in water. Dale Bathum, owner of Bite, goes one step further: "I walk around in a lake in the shallow flats," he says. In winter, he hikes in snow to find leak points and test a shoe's breathability.

So You Want to Be a Tester
Interested in becoming a new-gear tester? You and thousands of other golfers. Nike regularly recruits only through selected golf courses, private clubs, and other outlets. FootJoy uses an independent market research company to enlist its thousands of testers. Adidas amasses its group from colleges, high schools, golf academies, and golf courses. Bottom line: Don't call these companies, they'll call you.

Adidas puts its shoes through 20 lab tests for waterproofing and bonding ensuring the shoe stays together. A UV light checks that colors don't fade, while climate simulators determine if a shoe can handle different temperatures and humidity. A clamp machine pulls where a golfer would (on the tongue, heel, and eyelets), a technician rubs the leather with an abrasive, and a machine flexes shoes 40,000 times in 48 hours. At FootJoy, each model must pass a 20-day test to become part of the line. Shoes are oven-baked for a week to simulate aging then cooled for two days, machine-flexed non-stop for a week, probed for leaks, dried, then de-soled to test for bonding.

Both Adidas and FootJoy employ "fit and wear testers," as does Bite, which also asks podiatrists to try its gear. Bathum personally removes spikes from random models and runs a few miles in them. "If I don't get blisters, then I know someone walking a golf course won't either," he says.

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