feb Alan Hocknell interview

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Alan Hocknell is Callaway’s head of R&D, an Englishman abroad etc, designer of square driver.. He's also pretty good friends with Phil Mickelson and a fascinating man to talk to about golf...

After I completed my Masters and PHD at Loughborough University I was offered a job in Cambridge doing general engineering  - it could have been heart valves or toasters – that sounded very interesting. I also had the chance to work for Rover in crash-testing, and that seemed like a good use of my Phd. Instead I took the luxury, dispensable item route and applied my knowledge of impact mechanics to golf. The fact that Callaway is based in San Diego didn’t hurt either.

You wouldn’t believe what goes in to making a driver. Take the ERC: the face was built in Australia, the body parts in China, and it was assembled in Thailand. The drivers have gone around the globe before they even leave Carlsbad. At one point we were making the faces in the US in Georgia and the bodies in Korea, using Russian titanium and Japanese carbon-fibre.

I was always interesting in new products and would read about them in Golf World.  But when you join golf industry and see how many claims are unsubstantiated it is frustrating because we know how much we spend on science and people. Others do it on a shoe-string and say they have these magic formulas but many simply aren’t true.

Two things that Ely Callaway did revolutionised golf: he had a great new idea in terms of technology in the Big Bertha driver, and he changed the way they sold and marketed clubs. Until Callaway came along, most golf sales were done at golf courses and pro-shops, but he pioneered selling to off-course retailers. Those two together really set us apart, and it was all Ely. He was very astute.

We developed the capability to simulate golf club performance without having to build the club and that enabled us to have a virtual test centre. We could put clubs of any description and represent mass properties and dimensions and hit loads of shots and see statistically where they were going. That was how the square driver started out.But the bosses were dead scared of it and it was shelved. Eventually, the president said the company had lost its roots, the bold new ideas had all dried up and R&D was too much in the present. So he took a load of people from R&D, put me in charge and told us to go away and work on the future. The first thing we did was dig up the square stuff.

The hard part was getting something so unfamiliar to actually look like a golf club. We made a spectrum of models from the unfamiliar to the very familiar and asked lots of golfers to say where they felt uncomfortable with the shape. Phil was also involved at this stage and even got us to make a left-handed version. He called it Big Daddy. It was a bit of a pain doing it because the robot is right-handed, but his input was really useful. We filmed all the players’ reaction to first seeing it and Michael Campbell’s was a classic: he took off the headcover, said ‘you beauty!’ and proceeded to smash it down the middle of the fairway.

We built an all-titanium version but it didn’t work anywhere near as well at the FT-i. The reason is that titanium is heavier than carbon fibre so if you make a titanium driver square you are spending some of your 200gram mass budget pushing the shapes to the corner. When you do that you’ve nothing left from your 200gram total to stick in the corners. With Carbon being so much lighter, you’ve still got 50 grams to put in the corners you have created and that allows plenty of creativity.

Accuracy is really important now. As designers we have known for a long time how to hit the ball a long way, but how to help everybody do that is what it’s all about now. So good ball speed and spin rates when you don’t middle it is what we are aiming for. That is called robustness, and it’s about helping the average player.

Because Phil Mickelson’s stock shot is a fade he was struggling to keep up with Tiger and really didn’t like being outdriven. The trouble was that the iron swing is the one that dominates his game, so essentially he is putting his iron swing on his driver, with a steep angle of attack and a high rate of rotation. That is not great for driving. So we built one driver that is optimal for fade shot and another for the long draw. He thought he was making the same swing on both but the longer, draw-bias driver naturally shallowed out his attack angle and improved his launched angle. We couldn’t configure one driver for the two shots he wanted so I suggested taking them both. He experimented locally with a view to maybe doing it at Augusta where you need to move the ball both ways off the tee. He played a few round with either one or the other during the West Coast swing of 2006 and then tried it for real at the BellSouth. He won and had his all-time career driving stats that week. The following week he did it again at the Masters and the rest is history. 

Phil had a bet with the company president Patrice, who is French, just before the 2004 Ryder Cup and the loser had to buy the entire R&D department lunch. Phil laughed and said it wouldn’t even be close. He was right! So on the Wednesday after Europe had thrashed the Americans, Phil went to the local burger drive-through and waited in the parking lot while they cooked 200 burgers and fries. Then he came into the R&D Performance Centre wearing his Ryder Cup team shirt and served everybody lunch. That really endeared him to us.

When we design clubs we are looking at everybody from the World No.2 to people like you and I who enjoy playing but don’t have the time to practice. Obviously we are not designing Big Bertha irons for Phil Mickelson but we will go and show them to him and get his opinions. Sometimes things do crossover: the Big Bertha irons from 2002 had long irons that we great and forgiving and the ball flight was just what pros wanted so many took the 2 or 3-irons in the bag even though technically it was a game-improver.

It was the same with the 2-ball putter. We never thought that would get picked up on Tour, we just thought it would be niche product that people who struggled with alignment might like. Then Paul Lawrie holes one from the Valley of Sin in the Dunhill and it all goes crazy. You just never know what will happen. 

Arnold Palmer still comes over occasionally and it is always great to get his insight. Whenever he is here I try to say as little as possible, I just listen to him talk. Rather than asking him loads of questions about what he thinks about various things, I’d rather just let him talk and pick out the salient points. When the Ely Callaway Performance Centre reopened, Arnold hit the first drive down the middle with an FT-I and it was great.

We built a series of FTI prototypes for staff players, including Annika, and after we came back from Florida it somehow ended up in the boot of my car with loads of other stuff. One day I was at the driving range with my wife, who is not much of a golfer, and she had a game-enjoyment set we make for beginners. She hated the driver, though, so I got the Annika one and she hit it really well and has stuck with it. She has the strangest set in the world.

Titanium and carbon-fibre make a great club when used together and to be honest, planet earth doesn’t have much material lying around that we could use that is superior. Maybe improvements lies in choice, be it owning more than 14 clubs and choosing the right 14 for that day or being able to change the head and shaft in your driver. The Rules on the permanency of the join between driver and head changes in January 2008 so that could open up a whole new avenue.

There is a strong rivalry between the companies here in Carlsbad, and we play a Ryder Cup type competition against the other manufacturers that is hotly contested. It has been going for 8 years, with Callaway winning the last two. It’s great to have the bragging rights.