It looks so easy. That's the thing about golf. Just pick a club, grip the handle and take a swing. Thwok! But then -- at least when I try -- something usually goes wrong and that little white ball finds its way into the forest, a lake or pit of sand instead of that beautiful green fairway in front of me.
The professionals playing in this weekend's U.S. Open in Bethesda, Md., all have something in common, they are both powerful and accurate with their swings. Which begs the question, is there a "perfect swing" that could be designed with the right combination of engineering and science? If so, what would it look like?
"Many perfect swings exist," said David Phillips, co-founder of the Titleist Performance Institute in Oceanside, Calif., who has advised hundreds of professional golfers over the past 15 years.
"There is a proper sequence of motions that the best ball strikers have regardless of their style. If you put them up there, they may look completely different, but if you look at them they use their body to create speed in similar ways."
Generating speed -- that's the important thing to do if you want to hit the ball a long way. Phillips says that today's professional golfers are driving the ball farther and farther, and it isn't just fancier clubs that are the culprit. He says that pro golfers are tougher, more athletic and have muscles in the right places to generate the kind of torque and club speed to smack the ball.
Here's how Phillips describes the perfect swing, or at least the perfect combination of movements that combine both mobility and stability: "From the top of the back swing through impact, the lower body initiates the start of the downswing, followed by the torso or the trunk, then the arms, then the club," Phillips told Discovery News. "That sequence occurs on the best ball strikers. You can be a PGA tour player and win millions without that sequence, but you then have to excel at the short game or putting."
Nick Hedwig has been teaching golf for 11 years. He agrees that the human body can't achieve an ideal, but the top golfers come pretty close.
"We don't believe there's such thing as a perfect swing," said Hedwig, who teaches at the Butch Harmon School of Golf in Las Vegas. But he added, "The closest thing to a perfect swing is Tiger Woods back in 2000."
For those that don't remember, that's when Woods was machine-like in his ability to hit perfect shot after perfect shot.
Woods isn't the first to be compared to a golf machine. In the early 1960s, an inventor put together a mechanical golf swing device called the "Iron Byron," named after golf champ Byron Nelson, known for his almost-perfect swing. The machine was used for decades by the PGA and equipment companies to test various golf clubs, followed by a similar device called "Ping Man."
Gary Yamaguchi studies human engineering and has taught college courses on the biomechanics of the golf swing. He says there's one big difference between human and robot golfers.
"Robots can be programmed to do a single motion every time, but a human can't," said Yamaguchi, principal engineer at Exponent Inc, an engineering analysis firm in Phoenix.
And for those who desire a perfect golf swing, technology may have an answer: a three-dimensional imaging system developed by Advanced Motion Measurement. Technicians attach 12 tiny sensors to your body and the golf club and then take 3D images at 240 frames per second.
The idea is to figure out what you are doing wrong and then correct it. Half of the top 100 golfers at this weekend's U.S. Open have used the system, according to the firm's co-founder Phil Cheetham, who is also senior sports technologist at the U.S. Olympic Committee's training center in Chula Vista, Calif.
"It tracks the motion of each part of your body and tells us what parts of are working efficiently and which ones aren't," Cheetham said. "Then we design a training program."
Northern Irish golf pro Rory McIlroy -- who was leading the U.S. Open as of Friday morning -- has benefited from the 3D imaging to improve his swing, Cheetham said. Tiger Woods -- out with a chronic knee injury -- has not.