• Tracking potential: Technology invades golf, even early development

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    Bobby Hrdlicka is a 16-year-old Glynn Academy student. He has played golf for roughly six years and has been taking private lessons with Daniel Gray of Sea Island Golf Performance Center for the past year.

    Hrdlicka is a standout soccer player for Glynn Academy whose interest in golf has become more serious since he’s started to work on his swing with Gray, weekly.

    Gray is a 13-year PGA pro and Golf Digest’s 2016-17 Best Young Instructor. As Senior Lead Instructor for Sea Island, he’s focused on compiling research, technology and his own golf experience to develop long-term performance programs for players striving to be competitive youth, collegiate and professional golfers. On July 13, he demonstrated some of his expertise on Hrdlicka.

    India’s top junior golfer Shubham Jaglan practices at the Delhi Golf Club in New Delhi. AFP PHOTO

    That lesson was Hrdlicka’s first since playing a one-day amateur tournament in Savannah. At 4:15 p.m., Hrdlicka starts by warming up with his 7 iron on the driving range, filling in Gray about his play during the tournament, mostly regarding the results of his ball striking.

    At roughly 4:20 p.m. Gray produces a Trackman radar. The equipment itself is an orange and gray plastic prism, less than half the size of a pizza box. The small package produces instantaneous information available at the touch of a smart phone. When Hrdlicka swings, the radar — paired with Gray’s smartphone — shows the 16-year-old amateur’s diagnostics: his club head speed, the golf ball’s launch angle, spin rate and exit velocity, the approximate distance the ball traveled and a bird’s eye view of where his shots landed on the range. It’s the same technology Jordan Spieth used to study how cold weather and wind factored into his distances with various clubs.

    Gray notices something by studying Hrdlicka’s spray chart. Hrdlicka has a tendency to push shots to the right, evidence that 80 percent of the shots the radar marked were clustered to the right of the target.

    It’s 4:33 p.m., and the heat index is taking its toll. Hrdlicka and Gray go inside to a small structure no bigger than a toolshed. Inside is a flat-screen monitor that spans the width of the wall it hangs on. Gray and Hrdlicka settle in the air condition.

    “You could certainly shoot 73, 75 with this type of iron striking, but what you would have to do is be careful with your on-course decision making,” Gray said to Hrdlicka.

    Simply put, based on the small sample of data the radar gathered, Hrdlicka has approximately an 80 percent chance of missing a green when he aims at a pin positioned to the far right. His odds improve when the pin is positioned more-favorably to the left. Hrdlicka also described difficultly hitting a consistent distance with the same club. Gray refers to two of the primary inputs into shot distance: club head speed and launch angle. While the range of club speeds is approximately one mile per hour, his launch angles had a range of approximately 9 degrees. All of this data came from eight minutes and roughly 10 shots.

    For a player like Hrdlicka, who is just entering the competitive stages of his golf career, Gray uses radar as a periodic evaluation tool. The information gathered can be overwhelming to digest for pros, let alone the average 16-year-old amateur.

    But the radar provides only results, and it’s the actual biomechanical movements that influence a golfer’s bad habits. Biomechanics, particularly in a golf swing, is a study of chain reactions. A coordinated golfer will meet the club face with the golf ball no matter what the swing looks like. But there is a series of biomechanical dominos that fall until the swing is complete, then basic physics takes care of the rest. In Hrdlicka’s case, a lack of flex in his back leg led him to break his wrists as his swing passes through the golf ball, which will vary the ball’s launch angle.

    “I can feel that when I swing too,” Hrdlicka said. “Sliding forward a little bit.”

    One tendency becomes comfortable, and another rises to compensate for the other. Sometimes it’s difficult to see which minuscule mishap came first. In that way, golf swings can be as enigmatic as life. It’s like the cliche about the chicken and the egg, which came first? Gray’s job is to find out.

    At 4:41 p.m., the two go back outside to brave the heat for the remainder of the lesson. Gray installs a 2-foot plastic pole above the grip of Hrdlicka’s club. It’s a form of feedback. If Hrdlicka’s mechanics don’t respond to changes, he’ll feel a tap on the shoulder from the pole.

    Perhaps the most frustrating part of correcting one’s golf swing is the dismal results that come immediately afterward. Awkward swing after awkward swing can only be mended by repetitions, Hrdlicka said, and its paid of in most cases.

    Gray also issued some homework for Hrdlicka: 10 rounds of casual golf by the end of the month so he can establish a handicap. It’s a test of the 16-year-olds commitment to improving as well as building a larger sample of rounds for Gray and Hrdlicka to accurately analyze.

    The statistic strokes gained/lost measures the amount of strokes any particular shot has likely added to a round compared to a scratch golfer (a golfer with a handicap of 0-2 strokes). Gray is the owner of the statistics company Measured Practice, which he developed to centralize easily-analyzable data that illustrates where the strengths and weakness lie in a golfer’s game. By dividing shots into five categories — driving, long approach, mid approach, short approach and putting — a golfer can easily see where they are gaining or losing strokes.

    Doing this without data is possible, but sometimes difficult to diagnose. For example, a golfer plays a round, and misses three birdie putts. Those misses are likely to sting, and they spend a few hours on the practice greens. But what if putting is not necessarily the deficiency? Perhaps they performed just as well on those tough putts as a scratch golfer, but a poor approach shot or missed fairway set them up for that putt?

    If your head is spinning, you’re not alone. Sea Island offers more than swing coaching, from club fitters, to fitness professionals and a sports psychologist, and it can all be overwhelming.

    “All of this stuff we have, and we’re lucky to have it. … I think sometimes players have this question, ‘At what point do we introduce certain things?’” Gray said.

    Gray heads up Sea Island’s player development program a national and regional program that accepts pre-college and pre-professional applicants who will train at Sea Island on a quarterly basis. Gray’s goal is to use statistics and key indicators of success to assess how a player can optimally utilize all the performance center has to offer. TNS

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