Golf Bombs Away!
Alumnus works with students to engineer highly rated clubs
- By Joshua E. Brown
When Josh Ross received a new golf club — a driver designed by four UVM undergraduate engineering students — he was, he says, “a little skeptical.” An independent reviewer for Golfballed.com, a partner with Reader’s Digest, Ross receives a stream of gear from major manufacturers. Golf is big money: the National Golf Foundation reports that there was about $4 billion in golf equipment sales last year.
But the lime-green-and-black club Ross received was built by the decidedly non-major manufacturer BombTech, the one-man-shop of Tyler Sullivan, a UVM School of Business alumnus, class of 2007. He built the club at home in Vermont.
"Can a guy really get together with some college students and create a driver that is comparable to those already on the market?” Ross wanted to know. Apparently yes — or even better.
“I have received many items to test and review,” Ross writes. “There has never been one that blew my mind as much as this driver.”
Say “pull the pin,” and some might think of a grenade. Golfers might think of the putting green and the need to pull the flag — the “pin” — when a well-placed shot comes in toward the hole. Sullivan hopes his customers will think of both when using his driver. He calls the new club “The Grenade.” And it seems to be hitting many reviewers and golfers who have tried it, as, well, explosive.
The tests Ross and others have done give the BombTech club higher numbers for ball speed, carry distance, backspin, and total distance than other high-end drivers from companies like Titlelist, TaylorMade and Callaway.
Sullivan reports that business is brisk. He’s sold hundreds of the clubs, direct from his company’s website (he doesn’t use retailers, he says, to keep his costs down). List price, $499; as of press time, the club was on sale for $299.
His growing business began in frustration on the golf course. But not because he kept shanking balls into the rough. Instead, the clubs he was getting would break. He hits the ball hard. After six or seven drivers broke, he says, he’d had enough.
So he started building drivers himself, ordering shafts and high-end heads and assembling them at home. “I found out I was good at this,” he says, and pretty soon he was providing home-built clubs to his friends, too, and began to make some sales. But back-orders on heads — and a sense that the design of drivers was not what it could be, led him to wonder if he could go to market with his own, better, driver.
In 2012, Sullivan — called “Sully” — approached UVM’s College of Engineering and Mathematical Sciences to see if they could help. Professors John Novotny and Steve Titcomb, who lead the year-long “capstone” course for seniors in the college — “SEED" for "Senior Experience in Engineering Design” — connected him with four students.
Soon, Mark Belanger, Ryan Corey, Ryan Mickelson, and Evan Olson — all mechanical engineering majors, class of 2013 — were working away on club designs as their senior project, mentored by Professor Douglas Fletcher. On a computer, they developed 3-D models of various possibilities, with an eye toward reducing wind drag on the club’s head.
“Bombtech Golf wants a radically new golf driver head to be sold to the public,” the students wrote in their design problem statement. “The driver head must adhere to USGA standards and must not infringe on any existing patents.” They explicitly had the average golfers’ ability in mind, seeking a club that is very aerodynamic while offering a large sweet spot.
The computer simulations led to building a real prototype that they tested in a wind tunnel in UVM’s Votey Hall. It had a large face, two large cavities in the underside, and a pleasing bulbous shape that fills the limit of the USGA’s rules: 460 cubic centimeters.
“It's not a hard science,” Mickelson says. “You have to balance the visual appeal with the functionality. We had some ugly drivers and some pretty drivers. There is no template out there which says: this is how you make the right shape.”
Their design is similar to other large drivers on the market — except for the dual cavities. These aim to reduce drag by creating a vortex behind the club head. Their final design, cast in Ti-1188 titanum, led to a 48 percent reduction in drag compared to a traditional driver.
An unexpected additional benefit of the cavities is that they slightly raise the club’s center of gravity. This, the students report, “reduces spin and creates a more penetrating ball flight,” reducing the “ballooning” that is the bane of many mid-pack golfers. Even more unexpected, the cavities seem to aid in squaring the face of the driver, increasing the odds of hitting the ball straight. “Now that is something no other company can claim,” Josh Ross writes. “It’s almost as if the driver has self-correcting technology.”
Sullivan isn’t stopping with the driver. This year, he’s engaged another group of UVM engineering seniors to design a putter for BombTech. Corey Tillson, Tori Thacher, Cody Jackson and Jeff Keenan have developed a design for a wing-style mallet putter, heavier than average, to be milled in carbon steel.
Tillson holds up his smartphone to show two competing near-final designs the students have developed. They both look vaguely like spaceships. With Sullivan, the students are in final design talks with Stephens Precision, Inc., a specialty metal fabricator in Bradford, Vt.
“We want a 100 percent Vermont product,” Sullivan says.
“From our research, we came up with ways that our design would be better than other designs on the market,” Keenan says. Once they have a metal prototype in hand they’ll get to work testing it. They’re building a pendulum rig out of PVC pipe that will let them refine and widen the putter’s sweet spot and more tightly focus the paths of balls hit off-center.
“This next semester is really important,” Thacher says. “We’re going to be pilot testing our club, and we want to be sure it stands out over other clubs in the market.” One of the fundamental advantages the students have over major manufacturers is that they only need to think about best designs for golf, not tweaking exisiting product lines to meet marketing plans. And actually playing some golf using her own club should be rather fun too, she admits.
”We’re excited and nervous too,” Jackson says. “Sully has put a lot of trust in us to design something that will be marketable and ‘game-changing’ as he says. We’re his engineering team.”
Sullivan played golf as a youngster and finished fifth in the Massachusetts State Championship his junior year at Westborough High School. “Then I took a total hiatus in college. I played rugby. I wanted nothing to do with golf,” he says. Then, in 2010, one of his buddies invited him to a long drive competition in New Hampshire. “I just showed up; I haven't played golf in years, and I qualified,” he recalls. “I hit it 350 yards. I got hooked. I was back.”
A certain reporter — who is so bad at golf that his handicap, if he had one, would need to be expressed with an exponent — did not grow up playing golf. Still, he tried out the Grenade at the Kwiniaska Golf Club driving range in the fall. Sullivan and the four students who had designed it were there, hitting what looked like missiles nearly out sight. The reporter fingered the club anxiously.
Then, feeling more like he was chopping wood than playing golf, the reporter arced the club down and barely grazed the top of a ball that dribbled, maybe, 20 yards over the grass. But the reporter heard a pleasing metallic noise nonetheless. “Just grip it and rip it; you'll be fine,” Sullivan said. “Swing easily.”
So the reporter took a deep breath and tried it again. Then, like an out-of-body experience, the Grenade swooshed down toward the ground with a delicious sense of weight, a moment of commune between titanium and plastic, a satisfying “ping,” and the ball vanished.
“There it goes,” said Sullivan pointing. And, after a moment, the reporter could see the tiny white dot land straight away, maybe 150 yards. “Made contact. That's good,” said Sullivan. “A little more weight on your back foot.” OK, the reporter realized, a club can’t make you a good golfer, but it can make you feel the power of a good design.