The face to path looks good but the attack angle is a little off, and that just craters your smash factor.
Such is golf in 2018, especially where UNLV is concerned.
With the opening of Hospitality Hall and the Dwaine Knight Center for Golf Management, the PGA Golf Management Program upgraded its game not just in the facilities, but in the technology necessary to turn the university into a prime destination for research.
“I always wanted a space where we could do research on the swing and product testing,” said Chris Cain, program director. “I felt like that would connect the College of Hospitality with some unique opportunities in the STEM fields of kinesiology and biomechanics, and really use the game of golf as a vehicle to say, hey, there's a lot of mathematics and engineering behind not only the swing but behind the products that are being used to produce the right results. How can the center be truly a center where we can bring other disciplines in and study this thing about a stick and a ball.”
Long before there was a Hospitality Hall, the seeds for a golf center were planted. Back when Stuart Mann was dean of the Hospitality (then-Hotel) College he had a vision of transforming the north side of campus into a complete hospitality experience, with an academic building and a hotel, anchored by the Stan Fulton Building.
The recession some 10 years ago stopped progress on that vision, but a fully realized golf center wasn’t going to be denied. When plans started for Hospitality Hall, the center was always part of it. In three years of design work, Cain kept coming back to his alma mater, Penn State and its pro golf management program. It's Golf Teaching and Research Center served as a blueprint for UNLV’s center.
At the heart of the center, named for UNLV longtime golf coach, is UNLV's biomechanic lab. Its 12-camera system is mounted 360 degrees on scaffolding and mounted on force plates, all oriented toward a projection screen that displays biomechanic data thanks to golfers wearing motion capture-style vests. If Andy Serkis every wanted to play a CGI Arnold Palmer, he’d be in the same get-up.
The lab gives UNLV golfers and prospective coaches in the management program data to help fine-tune both their game and their ability to teach, but that’s just the drive off the tee where this kind of technology is concerned.
There’s a wealth of research that can be done in the lab both in and out of golf.
“This lab can literally test anything that's movement,” said Kendall Murphy, assistant director and program coordinator. “The cool part about it is whether it's a football team doing collision tests to check for [chronic traumatic encephalopathy] and helmets, or whether it's the dance department wanting to come in and see the effect of the ground on a pirouette, whatever they're doing, we can design an experiment based on our center.”
Partnering Up for Research
The system UNLV selected for its biomechanics lab, Qualisys, was already in use by Penn State. Cain tapped his connections there to provide valuable insights in how to set up a facility — particularly when it came to the size of the cage and position of the cameras mounted on it, as well as the types of materials to use for turf, netting and the screen.
But it wasn’t just a matter of learning practically from another school’s trial-and-error. Using the same system as Penn State allows UNLV to embark on joint research with its eastern counterpart.
“It makes for a more powerful piece, with Penn State being around since the 1800s," Murphy said of the collaboration. "We get to man the West, they get to man the East.”
Penn State has had its biomechanics lab, the Golf Teaching and Research Center, in place since 2009, where they’ve used it to study individual parts of the swing chain, how golfers move, and how ground forces affect the swing among other research projects. Their system is also used extensively by the university’s kinesiology department, not only for analyzing movement, but in medical studies, like analyzing how and why seniors might fall when climbing or descending stairs.
Eric Handley, director of Penn State's center, came to Las Vegas with Samuel Masters of its kinesiology department to ensure both universities collect data in the same manner. That lays the groundwork for research collaborations while leveraging two distinct populations of golfers. The collaboration will broaden and deepen the data collected.
“Biomechanics research in golf has helped us understand every golfer should be treated individually,” Handley said. “We can't just assume what an elite-level athlete does is what an average golfer could do. They're each an individual, they each have their own patterns in their body. I think there's an opportunity to look at research projects that you wouldn't be able to do in one setting with one university. We can start thinking about larger projects, larger data sets with more power to them now that we can get more subjects.”
An initial step for UNLV is bringing in golfers from the men’s and women’s teams — a high-performing group easily accessible to the center — and to start collecting data. While Penn State continues to work across the spectrum of the swing, UNLV could examine clubhead speed, ball speed, torso rotation, hand release at the end of the swing, using a lie board to simulate conditions of hitting uphill, downhill or more.
“There's so much out there,” Cain said. “We just have to find through the development of a research team what contributions we can make that both in the literature and in the marketplace that others are not making. There's so much we can do. We have to funnel it down to the most precise analysis.”
One project on Cain's list is profiling athletes to create a series of benchmarks that will give young golfers hard data on the levels they need to reach to succeed in the game.
The program will bring in top junior golfers, high schoolers, golfers, and pros to collect swing data at all levels. When a prospective recruit comes to UNLV and says they aspire to join the golf team, for example, Cain can put them in the lab and tell them where they are relative to their peers and where they’ll need to go to be competitive at each of the next levels.
A Community Resource
The biomechanic lab has a more layperson friendly counterpart, the center’s simulation room. It uses technology more widely distributed at golf courses and clubs around the country. Both the lab and the simulators are allowing students to sharpen their coaching abilities, while training them on the kind of equipment that will become commonplace in the industry as the prices of technology continue to drop.
Every fall, the program offers a four-week player development program. Students bring in friends, family, faculty members, or whoever else they can get their hands on to take lessons designed to take them from little-to-no golf experience and get them up to speed enough to be able to go out to golf course, and get a tee time. They might not come away knocking on the door of the PGA tour, but they’ll be able to go out and play 18 credible holes.
Using the simulators, student instructors are able to point to concrete data as they get newcomers up to speed. Being able to work with the underlying technology in the simulators with golfers of all skill levels is, in itself, a selling point when it comes time for them to enter the job market.
Senior Riley Clark says that thanks to being familiar with Trackman, the equipment that powers the center’s simulators, he’ll be a good fit for high-end clubs that already have the tech in place.
“We're very blessed to have all this crazy equipment. Being able to have that data, being able to run it and have a sense of training on it intrigues membership,” he said. “It's getting to a point if you want to be a teacher in this industry, you need to know it. At least to a point of being able to communicate it to somebody. It's our objective data to be able to argue and talk and come up with theories. You do at least need to touch it. That experience of having touch has been beneficial to create job opportunities.”
The biomechanics lab will, in years to come, impact sports beyond golf. Qualisys, the system that powers the lab, has applications in entertainment and engineering, human and animal biomechanics, as well as a range of other sports like running, cycling, and swimming.
Cain envisions collaborations to come with the department of kinesiology and nutrition sciences, with other athletic teams and programs, and even with Las Vegas current and future professional teams.
In the next year Cain expects to have gathered data from PGA pros, including those who participate at next year’s Shriners Hospitals for Children Open. As more college and pro athletes come on board, the Dwaine Knight Center will become known for its research in Las Vegas and beyond.
“We could be the institution that helps inform what we should be looking at as far as athletic motion related to other sports,” Cain said. “Those are the bridges we need to build.”