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Technology helping pros in many ways

The golf ball is placed next to two small tees in the ground, aligned near a gray box that houses a sophisticated camera. A strobe light flashes right after impact. All eyes turn to a monitor that calculates three sets of numbers.

Ball speed: 165 mph.

Launch angle: 13.5 degrees.

Spin rate: 2,987 rpm.

Golf technology is not limited to four-piece balls, graphite shafts, titanium heads with movable centers of gravity, or even the dreaded coefficient of restitution.

One component often overlooked in the increased performance of top players is the launch monitor, a device that measures the launch condition of the ball leaving the club -- how fast it's going, what direction and how much it spins.

The idea is to make sure players are fitted for the right equipment to get the absolute most out of their game.

``There's a lot of reasons the ball is going farther, and one of them is the launch monitor,'' Jeff Sluman said. ``You can really dial in the exact ball flight and get the right shaft and the right club. And that combination will maximize your potential off the tee.''

If nothing else, it gives players scientific proof of what they're doing.

For some players, too much spin can create drag during the ball flight and have an adverse effect, like a parachute. Players who don't generate a lot of clubhead speed might need more spin to get better lift into the air.

The answers can be found the old-fashioned way -- what a player feels upon impact and sees in the air.

The launch monitors offers confirmation, and allows manufacturers to adjust equipment to fit the players.

Charles Howell III was still in junior high when he first went to the Callaway Golf's test center and worked with a launch monitor. He came away with a lesson in engineering.

``I learned that it was a lot of numbers involved in driving,'' he said. ``I had tried a bunch of different drivers. At that age, you're just trying to hit the ball far, and you don't understand why one driver goes farther than another. Now, you have numbers to put to it. I was lucky enough to have that when I was 13 years old.''

Portable launch monitors that equipment companies take on Tour have been around for about 10 years and, like laptop computers, are getting smaller and more sophisticated.

The concept of measuring how a ball reacts off the club dates to the Bobby Jones era, when a professor at MIT took strobe photography of Jones' swing to analyze how the ball was rotating.

The parent company of Titleist is believed to have developed the first launch monitor -- called the Acushnet Golf Center -- that gave instant answers in the 1970s.

It featured a large mainframe computer with a camera that captured the ball and club at impact, and the ball about 12 to 18 inches into flight.

``Way ahead of its time,'' Acushnet CEO Wally Uihlein said.

As with other advances in equipment, launch monitors are now portable, smaller, more efficient, and frequently seen at the back of driving ranges on the PGA Tour.

Just about every company has one. Just about every player uses it.

Brenden Pappas used a launch monitor for the first time two years ago while on the Nationwide Tour. He found the equipment for optimal launch angle and spin, and now tests himself every four or five months just to make sure his driver is reacting the way it should.

Pappas is tied with Tiger Woods at 10th in driving distance on the PGA Tour.

``I've changed drivers to get extra spin on the ball,'' he said. ``If you don't embrace technology, you fall behind. I use everything at my disposal. You'd be crazy not to.''

The launch monitor is not singularly responsible for players hitting the ball farther. It's simply the catalyst for players being matched up with the best equipment -- clubs, shafts, balls -- for their game.

``It shows players what it will take to play power golf,'' said Bill Morgan, executive vice president of research and development at Titleist. ``The information shows players how to make changes that give them increments of distance. For some, it was big. For others, it was not so big.''

Phil Mickelson showed at the start of his season in Phoenix how much he was putting that information to use.

``The spin rate has been knocked down. The launch angle has been sent up. The ball is just taking on a whole different orbit,'' he said in Phoenix. ``From last year, I've got a 2-degree higher launch angle, 8 mph faster ball speed and about a 15- to 20-yard overall distance difference.''

The launch monitor still doesn't replace what a player sees and feels, and not every player will make changes just to hit the ball higher with hopes of getting longer.

Nike Golf has been wearing out its launch monitor as it gets ready to introduce the Ignite driver Woods started using this month. Still, it prefers to let players test various clubhead sizes and shafts before it starts crunching numbers from the computer.

``It's a tool we have to use to dial them into the new driver,'' said Debbie Hall, Nike's tour representative. ``But we never use it out of the box. We always fit players for their eye and our eye. What the launch monitor does is confirm that it's the right fit for them.''

Dick Rugge, senior technical adviser for the U.S. Golf Association, believes the launch monitor simply speeds up the process of finding the right equipment.

``It's a catalyst,'' he said. ``It doesn't create more distance, but it makes getting there quicker. Through trial and error, somebody could keep trying different clubs, balls and swings, and sooner or later they would get there. But the launch monitor makes it happen much quicker.''

Ultimately, the goal is for players to squeeze all they can out of technology.

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