Biomechanics On The Green

May 4, 2007
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Wearing a lightweight vest rigged with wireless sensors, local golf professional Scott Dowling takes a swing into the practice net of his off-season facility at 2950 Prairie St. in Grandville.

The ball sails into the net, and the laptop computer at his side begins buzzing with data. On the screen, a three-dimensional animation replicates his swing frame by frame. The machine instantly measures the angle of his spine, the position of his hips, torso and feet, the speed at which the club moves and its kinetic change — the amount of force with which it strikes the ball. In a use borrowed from the medical world, it produces animations specific to certain parts of the body, such as hips and spine.

“Historically, all we’ve had to go by was ball flight,” Dowling explained as he surveyed the metrics, looking for unwelcome variations in posture or motion. “Even with video, you’re still guessing to some extent, trying to eyeball what went right or wrong. From a teaching standpoint, this takes the guesswork out of it.”

To a golf purist, this might seem like cheating. To everyone else, it’s about time.

Biomechanics is not a new concept in the sporting world. At the professional level, particularly in baseball, science has picked apart swings and throws for years. There was even a scene in 1985’s “Rocky IV” showing the digital analysis of a punch thrown by fictional Russian boxer Ivan Drago.

In golf, the use of video and swing-analysis software is already popular, with professionals offering the service throughout the area. Digital coaching is available at Golf Galaxy and other stores nationwide.

Even with the aid of software programs, video still is limited. Most cameras will only record up to 30 frames per second (the human eye sees 12 to 15). However, a three-dimensional system such as Dowling’s K-Vest, a product of New Hampshire-based Bentley Kinetics, will record 120. The problem could be found at an angle not seen on the footage, and sometimes, a bad swing will look no different from a good one.

“There is certainly a place in golf instruction for this type of device,” said Matt Pinter, coordinator of the professional golf management program at Ferris State University and one of the foremost golf educators in the nation. “I grew up teaching without this technology, and now … I absolutely use it. It won’t make a bad teacher good, but it will make a good teacher a lot better right away.”

In Big Rapids, students work with K-Vest and similar technologies. A group of 40 students recently participated in a number of biomechanics studies in conjunction with GolfTEC Improvement Centers, Moore Performance Consulting and Grand Valley State University physical therapy professor John Stevenson. For one putting-specific study, a wire was run from golfers’ wrists to shoulders and around their waists, with a separate sensor fitted into the ball. Another study used GolfTEC’s SEVA digital video program.

“You can check all kinds of different relationships throughout the golf swing,” Pinter said. “This can really help a student. You can tell them all day long what they’re doing wrong, but when they can see it, it’s easier for them to make the correction.”

According to Dowling, who is one of only two teaching professionals in West Michigan currently using the K-Vest system, the biomechanical data provides an exciting new measurement for students. Instead of only concentrating on the distance of the ball, students have concrete values for kinetic change, posture and other concerns to represent improvement.

As the system can be wheeled out to the green, students can see the data instantly.

“If you’re using video, by the time they’re seeing it, they’ve forgotten what that swing felt like,” said Mines Golf Course director of instruction Scott Seifferlein, the other local teaching professional using K-Vest. “You can make the changes as part of a live session.”

Dowling, the only Michigan pro certified by the Titleist Performance Institute, said that the use of biomechanics not only benefits performance, but can have measurable benefits on golfers’ health.

“In a nutshell, it’s about getting you to swing more efficiently and not hurt yourself,” he said. “There are so many things people do to set themselves up for injury. When you’re swinging inefficiently, the wear and tear on your body can be huge.”

With spring’s arrival, Dowling will be largely vacating his Grandville training facility and moving to the green, weather permitting. He will be teaching this season at the Meadows Golf Club in Allendale Tuesdays through Fridays and at Gleneagle Golf Club in Hudsonville Saturdays through Mondays. He will be joined by another local pro, Stacy Snider. Seifferlein will be at the Mines Golf Course in Grand Rapids.     

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