The recent PGA Merchandise Show in Orlando made clear an obvious trend in golf. Computers are changing the game and the way we play it, from simulators and practice ranges to swing analysis and clubfitting.
The most important computer use, as I saw it, was The Optimal Motion Instructor (TOMI, $895, tomi.com). We've had video technology and computer swing analysis for golfers' full swings for some time. Finally, technology has come to the masses for putting, which is arguably the most important part of the game. Golf lessons are common, but when was the last time you saw anyone get a putting lesson?
TOMI is a small launch monitor that is placed on the green adjacent to your ball. It is plugged into a laptop computer that you've loaded with TOMI software. A sensor is attached to your putter. Then you putt and TOMI gives you a graphic readout -- after every stroke if you wish -- about your stroke in nine categories, including alignment at impact, stroke path, velocity at impact, impact spot, stroke tempo and effective loft. These are the parameters that define putting strokes.
It is invaluable information. I know my putter tends to cut across the ball from right-to-left at impact and TOMI reinforced that knowledge and reminded me that I need to seriously work on that. Obviously, the main market for TOMI is for club pros and golf instructors, but it's compact, easy to use and inexpensive enough that you can get your own. It heads up my Most Wanted list of golf items.
Hail to the vectors: The Accusport Vector Pro (approximately $3,995, accusport.com) is more than just a typical launch monitor, it helps you analyze your swing. The briefcase-sized unit measures ball speed, launch angle, backspin, side spin and side angle -- pretty much everything you need to know when trying to figure out which clubs and balls best suit your game and your swing. This is the kind of technology that only tour pros used to have access to. Now, with units like this, clubfitting is coming to the masses. You can learn important details about your game, such as exactly how far you fly a 5-iron, an important stat every tour player knows precisely but probably only a handful of amateurs can guess within a few yards. You can even use the accessories to create your own simulated practice range at home. You can use the Vector Pro indoors or outdoors, with or without a tee. This item makes my Most Wanted list.
Sim city: Golf simulators are better than ever. You can check out About Golf's simulators (aboutgolf.com) in stores such as Golf Galaxy, PGA Tour Superstore and Edwin Watts. The simulators calculate spin and analyze your shot, then show you where it went on the screen that you hit into -- which may be a practice range or one of 30 courses you can download and pretend to play, including Pebble Beach and Spyglass Hill. It's perfect for the cold-weather golfer who otherwise finds hitting balls into a net tedious.
\nRich and infamous: I'm sure there are a few public golf courses in America that don't have at least one of Loyal (Bud) Chapman's iconic fantasy golf hole paintings hanging in its clubhouse. His early works, like the golf hole on a ledge overlooking the Grand Canyon, were so striking that some people wanted to know where that course was so they could go play it. The holes were all in Chapman's head and his popular series -- featuring a fairway cut through a giant redwood and a hole at Macchu Picchu and other zany locations -- is the stuff of legend.
\nThe only thing better than remembering Chapman's wacky course -- he eventually produced a full 18 -- would be playing it. And now you can. Infamous 18 ($19.99, Aboutgolf.com/games.html) is a golf video game. It was three years in the development and the graphics are impressive. Chapman's infamous holes really do come to life. And they're just as difficult to play as you imagined. I'm still at the novice level and if not for frequent use of the mulligan key (perhaps the game's greatest idea), I might not finish a round. The graphics are so real that when you hit an errant shot into, say, Victoria Falls, it takes a full 15 or 20 seconds for the ball to plummet through the roaring waters and finally come to rest. You're not going to get bored and start shooting 56s anytime soon like with some other golf video games. You have to get good just to survive the round and its myriad of ice shelves, volcanoes and waterfalls. I could spend more time on the details but trust me -- just get it and play it. It's a riot.
Fruit of the loop: Two carry bags caught my eye, both from Sun Mountain. The Sun Mountain H20 Tech bag ($229, sunmountain.com) is completely waterproof, an overdue idea. How many times have you played in a rain, carefully kept a hood on your bag and then pulled out a club only to find that the grip was already wet. The H20 Tech bag solves that with waterproof materials -- even the pocket is waterproof. The key is that even the bag zippers -- where water usually leaks, are sealed. And the bag is light, just like Sun Mountain's Superlight 3.5 bag, which is a featherweight. The other Sun Mountain innovation that was cooler and even more practical was its new hug technology. The company mounted a foam-padded coil -- it's C-shaped -- to the side of its dual strap bag. Put the straps on and load the bag on your shoulders, then you pry the foam coil from its holding position and snap it around your waist, where it clings firmly. The hugging coil takes 60 percent of the weight off your shoulders. It's ingenious and it really works.
Cover story: Two new travel covers from Ogio are beyond cool, even for this innovative outfit. The Ogio Monster (Ogio.com, $229) is your basic wide-body travel cover on wheels. It stands upright by itself and is so roomy, it looks like you could jam your clothes in there with the bag and dispense with the suitcase. The Ogio Mammoth is an upgraded Monster. It doesn't just stand upright by itself, it's got four additional coaster wheels so you can push it along with two fingers or, if you're bored, spin it like a top. Near its top is a specially designed compartment to hold hats, which otherwise get crushed in a suitcase. It's middle compartment is a shoe bag carrier that detaches. Pretty smart stuff. The Monster comes with a lifetime guaranty, by the way.
Saved for a rainy day: Last year, I raved about ProQuip's Silk Touch raingear (Proquipgolf.com). It wasn't just another rain suit, it was the softest, most flexible and quietest rain suit I'd ever seen. It's still the best in show. You may have noticed it at the Ryder Cup. The European team picked ProQuip as its official rainsuit -- no endorsement money changed hands. The payoff came during the rainy Ryder Cup. Remember how fresh Darren Clarke and Lee Westwood looked in their raingear? Meanwhile, Tiger Woods (and the rest of the U.S. team) wore a different brand and Tiger looked drowned and soggy. The Silk Touch is still an amazing product. New this year are the Silk Touch Half-Sleeve Wind Shirt and Wind Jacket.
Graze anatomy: One secret of golf is your body. If you're flexible and fit and athletic, your chances of playing better golf improve. You might want to check out this soft-cover book, Anatomy of the Perfect Golf Swing by Glennon E. Bazzle. He comes at the golf swing from a different angle, that of a master masseur-fitness instructor who is well-trained in massage therapy. He applies his knowledge of the body and how it works to the golf swing and how it works. Mr. Bazzle was certified as a golf teaching pro in 1995. Though overly technical at times about how the body joints work and are applied, the book is full of useful drills to train your body to become more flexible.
Potpourri for $100, Alex: Apparently, I'm among the last to know that ECCO (eccousa.com) makes some of the most stylish and most comfortable golf shoes out there. Check out the ECCO Casual Cool model ($160) on the website, which look like racy court shoes with colored souls. Or you can check them out on my feet (in burnt orange stripes) this season. The secret to ECCO's comfort is the use of three different widths, so you get a better fit. For wide-bodies like myself, great news.
Golf grips are usually pretty dull but not this year. Golf Pride has an enticing new grip. The top half is a full cord (giving you the grip-power you want on the left hand) and the bottom half is a tacky rubber (so the cord doesn't rip up your ungloved right hand, assuming you're a right-handed golfer). In addition, the bottom half of the grips come in bright colors such as orange, red and green, so you're less likely to pick up someone else's wedges on the green by mistake. A great idea and a great product.
Would you believe an unbreakable tee? Lucky Tee makes several models, including a spring-loaded tee designed to bend in the middle at impact and not break. Clever. See it at myluckytee.com.
The SLP Putter-Stroke Training Aid (slpgolf.com) is a small, wrench-shaped piece of plastic that attaches to your putter shaft. You then attach several red plastic caps to the device and use the concept developed by the SeeMore Putter guys -- if you see the red caps during your putting stroke, you're doing something wrong. The SLP aid is designed to improve your square-to-square putting stroke. If you putt with a swinging-gate style, it's not for you.
The Free-Release shoe (free-release.com) is part training aid, part health-care item. Its slightly movable sole rotates, allowing the wearer to stay steadier. United Golfers Corp, which produces the shoe, says is reduces wear and tear on ankle and knee joints and the hips and spine.
Windage ($6, playthewind.com) seems like just one more small thing to lug around the golf course, but OK, it is useful. Windage is a small bottle of fine powder. Just shake and squeeze and you can determine the wind direction without having to pull up some grass (I think you can get arrested for doing that at Augusta National).