For many golfers, pros and weekend warriors alike, their trusty old putter can be like a reliable friend — comfortable, predictable, solid. The thought of changing it? Well, let’s not even go there.
Yet, an undergraduate in the Wallace H. Coulter Department of Biomedical Engineering at Georgia Tech and Emory University has been working on a project that could make it easier to experiment with putter characteristics. The project’s goal is to allow golfers to adjust parts of their club to find a better stroke, rather than having to buy a new club. It also could help equipment manufacturers reimagine their prototyping and design process.
For the last year and a half, Caroline Means has been designing a putter using an advanced metal-depositing 3D printer that is usually used to make aircraft parts. Working with Jud Ready, principal research engineer at the Georgia Tech Research Institute, the idea was to be able to adjust the putter’s key characteristics, toe hang and loft, and explore new kinds of face materials.
“We wanted to design a club that was able to be customized to a golfer in those three areas without having to get a new club or go to a professional and have them bend your club, and without significantly and permanently altering the structure or composition of the club,” said Means, a fourth-year student who has pursued the idea as part of a President’s Undergraduate Research Award at Tech. “There hasn't been as much innovation in the area of putter heads, and so, we decided to take on that challenge.”
The team’s prototype putter is made from stainless steel (eventually they’ll explore a multi-material composition), with an innovative shaft attachment method that allows for continuous adjustment of the toe hang. Its face inserts are made of either metal or a polymer created by Carbon, a California-based 3D-printing company. The inserts come in a variety of angles to adjust the club’s loft. They can be combined or stacked and easily removed via a unique attachment system Means and Ready created.
“The 3D printing in collaboration with mechanical engineering associate professor Chris Saldana gives us an advantage to create structures that could not be machined through traditional methods,” Means said. “That means that after it's been manufactured, a golfer can pick what face surface material they want for the putter. They can decide how many degrees of loft is best for the green conditions that day. As their swing changes and improves, they are able to adjust the toe hang of the golf club.”
Perhaps it’s worth pausing for a quick putter primer: Toe hang is a measure of the center of gravity of the putter, which affects how the clubhead moves during a stroke. The idea is to hit the ball with the putter’s face squared up, but every golfer’s stroke is different, and most rotate the face during their swing. Changing the toe hang can help the putter and the golfer’s swing work together for improved directional control of the ball.
Loft is the angle of the putter face when it rests on the green — usually just a degree or two. Too little loft, and the ball is pushed into the green when the putter hits it, slowing it down; too much, and the ball may hop at contact instead of rolling. All of that affects whether the ball reaches its intended target: the bottom of the cup.
To create their patent-pending design, Means and Ready contacted the golf pros at Atlanta’s historic Bobby Jones Golf Course. They also enlisted a pretty famous Georgia Tech alumnus who knows a thing or two about golf clubs.
“I come from a unique perspective on things like product development and innovation,” said Stewart Cink, a former Tech golfer and eight-time winner on the PGA Tour, including two wins in 2021. “I've got the on-course experience and knowledge, and I've been through a lot of product innovation with companies that I've worked with in the past. Jud had no way of knowing that it would be something that I would like really like, but this is part of my job that I really enjoy doing.”
After many months of design and a nearly day-long printing operation with the help of Saldana’s graduate students Elliott Jost and Jaime Berez in Tech’s Advanced Manufacturing Pilot Facility, Cink and his son Reagan tested the putter this summer at Bobby Jones Golf Course. The Cinks were hooked up to a system that collects mountains of data to help the pros at the course teach golfers about their stroke and where they can improve.
Cink said the adjustable putter could help golfers explore new putter configurations that might help their game without breaking the bond they have with their club.
“One of the biggest challenges with the pros and their putters is how to go from something that's really cozy and warm and comfortable to something that has a little bit different specs,” Cink said. “What their putter does is, it gives you the chance to take the old baby and change a little bit about it at a time. If you decide you want to go back to the other way, just change it back.”
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