The Robot Named After Tiger
This could be the most influential golfer of the next 25 years.
The best description of the robotic swing of Ben Hogan was authored by the late writer Charles Price, who said Hogan hit the ball “like a machine stamping out bottle caps.” So it came as a bit of a surprise that the United States Golf Association’s golf robot was named “Iron Byron” after the more artistic swinger, Byron Nelson.
Nelson became known as “the Mechanical Man” when he won 11 consecutive tournaments and 18 total in 1945. The True Temper shaft company built the first swing robot in 1967, modelled on Nelson’s “perfect swing,” and for decades the USGA used it to test balls for compliance with the rules.
Most of the USGA’s testing is now done indoors, but modern versions of Iron Byron can be cranked up to 130 miles per hour (208 kilometres per hour), matching the fastest swings on the PGA Tour today.The USGA’s robot is stationary, so it’s kind of a one-trick pony, hitting perfect drivers.
Now along comes Gene Parente, who runs a company called Golf Laboratories Inc. Parente is the inventor of a robot on wheels with an adjustable swing that can hit balls out of bunkers and putts on the green as well as every imaginable tee shot. His partner Gary McCord named it LDRIC after Eldrick (Tiger) Woods, a gibberish acronym for Launch Directional Robot Intelligent Circuitry.
“At his peak,Tiger was able to take emotion out of the moment and hit pure shots,” McCord says.“Our LDRIC is a tribute to that spirit and resolve.”
So it was quite a coincidence when Parente and McCord rolled out LDRIC onto the stadium par-3 16th at TPC Scottsdale in Arizona on the Wednesday of last year’s Waste Management PGA Tour event and made a hole-in-one (on its fifth try). Beer cans rained down on the green from the stadium seats, reminiscent of the 1997 ace made by the originalTiger on the same hole.
Parente has been a longtime technical advisor to Golf Digest and performs the robotic tests for our annual Hot List evaluation of equipment. His overnight success began when he graduated in 1989 from UCLA with a major in International Relations and a plan to work in the foreign service. His father is Richard Parente, the former Palm Springs golf pro who started the wedge company, Hickory Stick USA, later purchased by Ely Callaway and renamed Callaway Golf.
Richard had another idea for an independent testing company and knew of a swing robot for sale by Titleist. Gene agreed to give his dad’s plan a try as a temporary job before graduate school, and 27 years later his evolving robot, built jointly with Sean Dynes of Dynes Unlimited Products, has become the go-to device in the industry for testing clubs and balls. It can also replicate hooks, slices and other flaws inherent in the human swing, which is the basis for a new venture by Gene and Gary and another partner, Mike Abram, to use LDRIC as a teaching tool.
You might have seen the European Tour promotion showing Gene’s robot competing in a skills challenge against Rory McIlroy hitting balls into washing machines on a practice range. Or in a match in Japan against Shingo Katayama.
There is more to come as LDRIC combines robotics, information, education and entertainment with golf learning. “You only have to see how kids react to a seven-foot talking robot in junior clinics to appreciate the impact on teaching science and promoting the game,” Parente says.
At the end of the day, LDRIC’s performances are eerily similar to that of another golfer goofing his way through a clinic and amazing attendees with power, speed and accuracy.That guy was a young Tiger Woods. A quarter-century later, it’s his robotic namesake that might be changing the game.The most influential golfer of the next 25 years might not be human.