In This Issue
Winter Bridge on Frontiers of Engineering
December 14, 2018 Volume 48 Issue 4

An Interview with . . .Maverick McNealy

Thursday, December 13, 2018

Author: Maverick McNealy

RON LATANISION (RML): Hi, Maverick. I understand you’re taking a little break from the PGA tour?

MAVERICK McNEALY: Yes, I’m practicing, playing with friends, and I’ll spend time with family in the off-season as well. It’s nice to be home for a little while.

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RML: When is your next tournament?

MR. McNEALY: I have a few small events in November and early December, then the first event of the Web.com Tour season is the first week of January.

RML: Well, we are happy to have an opportunity to get some of your thoughts on how engineering has affected your life and your prospects as a member of the tour. Your Stanford degree is in management science and engineering. Is there a major engineering discipline associated with that, or what kind of engineering exposure did you have?

MR. McNEALY: Management science and engineering (MSE) is a really broad major. It’s 120 units, which is a lot more than most other majors and it felt like I took core classes from a bunch of different majors—econ, math, a lot of statistics and probability because I did the finance and decision analysis track and concentration. I would say more than half the classes I took for my major were along the lines of probabilistic analysis, statistical modeling, intro to data science, things like that. I had to take a few core engineering classes and hard sciences but primarily based around decision engineering.

CAMERON FLETCHER (CHF): What were the core engineering classes you took?

MR. McNEALY: It was kind of odds and ends to fulfill requirements. I took one on energy production and storage, which was a little more pertinent than I anticipated because halfway through my time at Stanford the university claimed half of our practice facility and built what was essentially a huge heat exchanger on it: every time a building was being air conditioned the excess heat from there was used to generate electricity, which is pretty cool. We spent two days in our class going over that. And obviously there was a physics requirement—I prefer physics to chemistry by a long shot—but it was again less hard science and more math.

CHF: Before you decided to go pro as a golfer, what were you thinking you might do with this background?

MR. McNEALY: I honestly didn’t really know. I interned the summer before I started college and between my freshman and sophomore years at a startup called Wayin in Denver. I took a couple weeks between the tournaments I was playing and basically did whatever odds and ends they threw at me. I enjoyed taking a lot of information and trying to make something useful out of it.

When I was reading through the different majors, I knew I wanted to do something in the engineering school based on what I enjoyed in high school, and MSE seemed to be about how to make good decisions—that’s what I enjoyed doing. I figured that out from my time interning, and that way of thinking has translated into the way I go about golf.

When I started school I didn’t think I was ever going to be good enough to play professional golf. I didn’t think that was even an option. I was just excited to be on the team and have a spot to play and that’s why I guess people made a big deal about me not knowing whether I was going pro until late in my senior year.

But I went to school for school first and to be the best teammate I could be, and I ended up having some pretty cool opportunities in golf. The ability to make decisions with a lot of input did help me with the decision to turn pro because there’s a lot of things to consider. And I think I made a pretty good decision.

RML: I have an engineering question for you. I taught at MIT in the Materials Science and Engineering Department for nearly 30 years and I remember some of my colleagues being interested in sports equipment—skis, golf clubs, for example. They were looking at new materials, like carbon fiber or even depleted uranium of all things, for the heads on golf clubs and drivers. Do you have any experience or thoughts on that?

MR. McNEALY: Here’s kind of a longer way to answer that question. There were three equipment companies I was considering when I was turning pro and thinking about who to sign with: Callaway, TaylorMade, and Titleist—the three biggest golf equipment companies.

I visited the Callaway headquarters in Carlsbad (CA) and they were smart, they knew exactly how to get my attention: they walked me through their entire R&D department. I got to see the way they designed their Epic driver, which completely changed the golf club market in the US and made Callaway the number one driver company.

There’s something in golf called characteristic time (CT), it’s a way to measure how fast a driver is, how fast a ball can come off the driver face. There’s a legal limit and some pros handpick heads that are close to it but they have to work around the limit to find ways to make the driver head faster.

One of the things Callaway did with its Jailbreak Technology is they put two bars behind the driver face, connecting the bottom of the driver to the crown, but they found that they were losing energy as the crown bubbled up at impact. So they anchored it at two points to minimize the amount of energy loss from the crown deforming.

RML: To stiffen it somewhat, is that the idea?

MR. McNEALY: Pretty much. PXG is trying to copy that by creating a more rigid titanium top to their driver to minimize that effect as well, but at this point it’s really about who can develop lighter and stronger materials to move weight around in the driver head to create the fastest and most stable head.

RML: Does the PGA oversee this in any way? Are there regulatory considerations from the PGA about what can and cannot be done in terms of producing clubs?

MR. McNEALY: Actually the USGA is the governing body that creates the rules and regulations on golf clubs. If you win a major your clubs are often tested to make sure they are within legal limits. For example, there are limits to the dimensions of grooves on a wedge to prevent excess spin. And there’s obviously length limits and things like that.

But some club companies work around PGA’s limits. Interestingly enough, a driver that you buy off the rack in a store is sometimes above the legal CT limit.

I know that Callaway, since Chip Brewer took over four years ago, is extremely strict on quality control. I also know of cases where guys have gotten in trouble from playing an off-the-rack driver that was not legal.

RML: I know the same kinds of considerations are given with, for example, skis. If you’re a professional or Olympic-style skier, the chances are you want the very best, fastest, most flexible skis. Some people have actually built skis that have transducers in them so they can respond to any flexure and make corrections. I don’t know if they are allowed in competition but I know they are available for the public.

Do you get involved with Callaway in the process of developing or designing golf equipment of any kind?

MR. McNEALY: Callaway uses their players a lot for feedback—we’re kind of the testers. A lot of players have really good, tight skills as to how a club performs—sound, feel, ball flight…. For example, I can guess the spin rate within 1,000 RPM, usually 500, of pretty much any club.

I think I take an interest, more than most players, in what’s creating what I’m feeling and seeing. A simple example is changing the center of gravity of a driver head. If the center of gravity is low, the ball will launch high with less spin because there’s gear effect on the face. If you hit the driver in the center, the bottom will be more stable than the top; the top will deflect open and that puts a higher launch and more spin on the ball. So if I have a driver that’s going left, I’ll put either red tape or internal glue on the toe to create more left to right spin or less right to left spin.

CHF: Are you allowed to modify your clubs when you’re playing professionally?

MR. McNEALY: Yes. We can’t do that mid-round but we can do it between rounds. I would say just about every professional has a handpicked head that is within a couple degrees or a couple tenths of a degree of the loft and lie angle that they like to see. From there we can modify the center of gravity. So almost all my drivers have red tape on the toe because I hate to see a ball going left.

Another thing I’ve gotten really interested in is the dynamics of the golf ball—performance in the wind, ball flight and spin rates. It’s really important to pay attention to.

One of the things Callaway has done with the last two iterations of their golf ball is they’ve created a less dense, bigger core, which has allowed them to create a heavier mantle, which increases the moment of inertia (MOI). The challenge is how to create a big, less dense, lighter core that won’t be brittle and crack over a certain number of times that you’re hitting it with 118 mph driver speed.

They’ve been able to move weight toward the perimeter in these balls to increase ball speed. I was just testing two days ago with them on their new driver and ball and the ball was 3 miles an hour faster than the ball I’ve been playing.

CHF: How do you gauge the speed of these balls when you’re out on the course by yourself?

MR. McNEALY: There’s a product called TrackMan; it’s probably the most common one, but there’s a couple versions. It’s essentially a modified Doppler radar. Behind players on the driving range, there’s a little orange box about an inch and a half thick that measures all the watched conditions of the golf ball—launch angle, speed, spin rate, spin direction, spin axis—as well as all the characteristics in the club at impact—speed, angle of attack, path, space angle, face deflection to a certain degree. It infers face deflection and from there we can tell how the club and ball are performing.

For me it’s a huge club fitting tool and club testing tool. That’s how I can now guess within a few hundred RPM where the ball is spinning, which direction it’s launching, and use that for club fitting.

RML: If you need to make corrections to your swing is that an avenue that allows you to pursue that?

MR. McNEALY: It is. I think sometimes guys get too lost in the numbers, they’re too focused on getting perfect numbers. There’s a balance between play and feel and the numbers. For me, it’s always a good second opinion but honestly I use it more for club fitting and then adjusting to conditions.

Another thing that’s really important is the condition of where you’re playing. Las Vegas is at 3,000 feet. As a general rule, the ball goes about 1 to 2 percent farther per 1,000 feet of elevation. This is obviously extremely important when golfers nitpick about 1 or 2 yards when they’re hitting a 230-yard shot.

Launch angle also impacts that. If I hit a high shot with a lot of spin, it’s going to go farther than a low shot with less spin at altitude. And humidity affects the ball, especially when it’s warm. If it’s cold and humid, the air plays heavier and the ball goes shorter. If it’s hot and humid, the ball actually stays in the air longer for whatever reason.

Temperature has an enormous impact—for the golf ball more than the actual air. If the golf ball is warmed up 10 degrees, it can go 5–6 yards farther.

CHF: Are there restrictions governing the temperature of the golf ball when you play?

MR. McNEALY: So you’re not allowed to intentionally warm up a golf ball. You can have a handwarmer on a cold day, they can’t really get you in trouble for that, but I keep my handwarmers in my gloves and I don’t put them in the same pocket with the ball—partly because I’d be worried that half the ball would get warmer than the other half and what that would do.

So yes there are rules. The USGA thinks of stuff like that. I actually once saw a guy rubbing his handwarmer on his driver. That’s 100 percent against the rules.

RML: I can tell that your interest in science and engineering pervades your game. You’re interested not only in playing and the camaraderie of the folks on the tour but also in the technology that is part of the game.

MR. McNEALY: My freshman year there were a couple guys on the team, Cameron Wilson and Patrick Rogers. Cameron won the national championship my freshman year and Patrick is on the PGA tour. They taught me a lot about TrackMan and ball flight and how to generate the most spin on a pit shot and what the optimal impact conditions are. Also how important it is to clean your wedge between every shot because if you have grass on your club face it’s going to almost cut the spin in half as opposed to if you’re using a dry ball and a dry wedge. Things like that were really interesting to me.

RML: Do they have some experience with science or engineering in their backgrounds or have they picked up a lot from playing?

MR. McNEALY: Patrick was a sociology major and Cameron was a history major, but they both really understood how to use TrackMan technology and how to design a golf club to impact what they’re seeing and feeling. So they weren’t necessarily engineers by training but they used a lot of that information.

CHF: Maverick, you’re clearly in to all the minutiae of the technical side of the game. I’m wondering how much you get to talk about all of this with other golfers when you’re out and about.

MR. McNEALY: It really depends. There’s a huge range and there’s a lot of ways to play good golf. With a lot of guys all they care about is whether the club does what they want it do, and there’s a lot to be said for that. There are other guys who are way more interested in things like this. We’re the minority, but I would say most profes-sionals understand at least the most important bits of why they’re seeing what they’re seeing and things like that.

I really enjoy being partnered with Callaway because they can talk my ear off about this stuff and there’s a lot that I don’t understand, which is really exciting for me. I love talking to their R&D guys and the guys who are actually making and building the clubs. And I love how they take player feedback and translate it into something physical with the makeup of clubs.

For example, if the club doesn’t feel right in my hand, if it doesn’t swing right or it doesn’t create the ball flight that I want to see or that I picture on a given shot, that drives me nuts. So Callaway built me a set of irons that were the exact weight, swing weight (which is kind of a way to measure static torque), length, head weight—everything was identical, even the frequency of the way it swings. But I said, “It doesn’t feel like a club to me. It feels like there’s a big glob of metal on the end of a stick. That’s the best way I can describe it.”

I said, “Can we take apart my set of irons and the set you built?” We did and they found that they had put a 6 gram plug in the heel to get the swing weight correct as opposed to the 4 gram plug that was in my iron. We took the 6 grams out, put the 4 grams in and put two rows of red tape on the back of the iron so that it maps the profile of the iron itself, and it felt back to normal.

That’s what I love about these guys. As nitpicky as something I might say sounds, they find a way to fix it or the reason why I’m feeling what I’m feeling with the club. Every single time I’ve come to them with something, they fix it.

RML: That’s a real testimonial to your sort of instinct or sense of feeling with clubs. It’s almost like it’s an extension of your body. If you can come to the point where you recognize those sorts of subtle differences, that’s pretty impressive.

MR. McNEALY: Well, if you’re swinging a 3½-foot-long club where the club head is moving at 110 miles an hour, those 2 grams feel like a lot more!

RML: That reminds me—I’m not a particularly good golfer, I play occasionally; my brother’s a much more active golfer. But a few years ago I had some lessons from a pro at Hilton Head and when he came out on the course he was limping. I thought, ‘That’s not a good sign.’ He was going to play some tournament in the not too distant future. I said, “What’s the problem? You don’t look like you’re in very good shape.” He said something like, Swinging a golf club is not a natural act. I thought that was pretty informative! It reminds me of this marvelous comeback that Tiger Woods is making, because I think he’s had some major back problems. What are your thoughts on this? I understand Tiger is also a Stanford alum, is that correct?

MR. McNEALY: He is, yes. Just over a year ago now, we were having a team meeting while I was with the Stanford guys and Tiger was playing his first tournament back, in the Bahamas. We were all saying, “Is Tiger going to win again?” I thought, ‘If Tiger can go a year without a setback from injury he will win again, because he’s that good.’ And I think his swing is awesome now.

Tiger is the best approach player—hitting from the fairway to the green—of any player on tour in the last 10 years, every single year that he’s had enough rounds to be eligible to be ranked, which is incredible.

The way they measure that is with a thing called -ShotLink: sensors and lasers on each hole track where every player hits every single shot. So on the PGA Tour it’s possible to go back and see where every single one of Tiger’s shots was played from.

From this information a statistician at Columbia named Mark Broadie created the “strokes gained” -metric, which shows how much better you did than the average of a PGA Tour player. He found that from, say, 7 feet, a PGA Tour player averages 1.5 strokes to hole, which means half the time they make it, half the time they two putt. So if you make a 7-footer you gain half a shot, and if you miss a 7-footer you lose half a shot.

Broadie did this for all distances in all lies—fairway, T box, rough, bunker, trees, and greens. In other words, if there are 175 yards and the strokes to hole is 2.8 and you hit the ball to 7 feet and the next strokes to hole is 1.5, you gained 0.3 shots. That’s quick math.

All these numbers show that Tiger is number one in strokes gained approach average on the tour in every year in the last 10 that he’s been ranked.

RML: I like Tiger Woods a lot. I watched him develop over the years. A few years ago I saw him on a tour and he hit a shot and then buckled, literally onto his knees because his hip, back, spine, something was obviously bothering him. And to see him play in the last couple tournaments and then especially the one he just won, it’s absolutely stunning. What a comeback. It’s great to watch.

What about the comment about swinging not being a natural act—do you do anything in terms of training or exercising to keep your back in good shape? What are your thoughts on that, from the physiology standpoint?

MR. McNEALY: I had no back or hip problems until my junior year of college—and I played ice hockey until my senior year of high school. You think in hockey you get hit a lot, but I didn’t have any injuries from hockey.

On the contrary, I had extremely strong and mobile legs and hips. Generally where golfers run into back trouble (this is an overgeneralization) they have weak or immobile hips. The way my physical therapist explained it, your body alternates mobile and immobile joints: your ankle is a mobile joint, your knee is immobile, your hips are mobile, your lower back is immobile, your upper back thoracic is mobile, the base of your neck is immobile, and then the upper neck is mobile. Same with wrists, elbows, shoulder, rotator cuff, things like that.

If a golfer’s hip complex becomes immobile then the lower back has to take on some of that movement because a swing is a very fast and violent and asymmetrical motion for the body. That’s where a lot of golfers run into problems.

About 2 years after I stopped playing hockey I had an injury. And at the end of my senior year of college I sprained and dislocated my left SI joint in my hip. I struggled with that for upwards of 6 months. Then I just started skating again, because everything my physical therapist was telling me to do felt like it was strengthening hockey muscles. So I thought, ‘Why don’t I just go skate some more?’ Within my first 15 minutes on the ice I felt my lower back opening up and releasing and relaxing as my hips complex woke up. It was one of the weirdest things I’ve ever felt. But it felt amazing.

I also have a left-handed club in my bag. I can barely hit a left-handed shot 100 yards and I chunk it half the time. But since I swing right-handed 500 times a day, when I swing left-handed 15 to 20 times I find that my right hip capsule is really tight, part of my right forearm and left hand are weak and tight, and so is part of my right shoulder that basically isn’t used. So I’ve been trying to balance out my body that way because the golf swing is a very asymmetrical motion.

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RML: I can see that you’re a student of not only the mechanics and physical dimensions but also the -physiology of the game. And that’s a good thing. I think of other professional athletes, like Tom Brady, who at 41 years old is probably one of the most fit people on the planet. As far as I can tell it’s because he really works at it and understands it.

MR. McNEALY: I read his book on the way he trains: he trains to maximize pliability—not necessarily flexibility or strength—which he defines as the elasticity of muscle potential. So he doesn’t stretch. He does this breaking active release therapy of expanding and contracting and relaxing muscles while pressure is being applied, to lengthen and soften muscles.

That was the start of my recovery from these injuries. I stopped lifting heavy weights. I started not stretching as much, which I thought actually put some strain on some of my joints. I spent a lot of time with the vibrating foam roller, which is way more effective than a normal foam roller—it kind of tricks your muscles and nerves into relaxing because the pulsating mimics the signals that your brain sends to your muscles to expand or contract. And it hurts less, which is great.

In addition, I started playing more hockey and strengthening the right muscles in the hip block complex. In the last two weeks or so I’ve been able to go back to doing some of the ice hockey workouts and lifts I did, and instead of feeling pain and discomfort in my hip I feel stronger and like it’s more protected from golf-related stress and overuse injury.

RML: I have a sort of historical question. I know your dad, Scott McNealy, by name from Sun Microsystems. I don’t know much about your grandfather, Raymond McNealy, but I’ve read that he worked in Detroit in the automotive industry. Is he an engineer or what’s his background? I’m just curious.

MR. McNEALY: He was vice chair of American Motors. I don’t think he was an engineer but he worked there for a while. That’s why we have the Detroit connection and my brothers and I are all named after American cars—besides me there’s Dakota, Colt, and Scout.

RML: So you’re a Ford Maverick and –

MR. McNEALY: There’s the Dodge Dakota, Dodge Colt, and Jeep Scout.

RML: Your grandfather must be delighted. What an interesting story.

Well, Maverick, I think we’ve taken as much time as we promised we’d take this morning. You’re a very young man but I can see that you’re going to play an important role in golf’s future in a number of ways. I’m so delighted we had this opportunity to talk with you. We appreciate the time you’ve taken and we’ll keep an eye on the PGA tours.

CHF: Thank you, Maverick. This was certainly very informative and interesting.

MR. McNEALY: Yes, there’s a lot of stuff that goes on in golf. We love speed and love to hit it farther so we try and figure out as many ways we can do that. Thanks, you guys. 

About the Author:Maverick McNealy is a professional golfer.