tin cup

In the 1996 film “Tin Cup,” Kevin Costner plays a washed-up golfer who loses his swing (a common plot device in golf movies). When he finally hits rock bottom, costar Rene Russo discovers him shackled in swing aids, plastic gizmos and rubber straps latched to every part of his body in his desperate attempt to remember how to move properly.

Since the days of yore when Scottish shepherds invented the absurd game of golf, there has always been a quest for a magic move, a cure-all panacea that would instantly fix the veteran when his swing mysteriously goes awry, and allow the novice to bypass the traditional learning route, which basically consists of banging tens of thousands of balls over the course of years.

The flashiest entry into the world of golf training aids — it’s certainly the largest, priciest, and most technologically advanced — is RoboGolf Pro, which resembles something we might drop on Mars to dig through rocks. Developed in Germany and distributed in the US by Scot Nei under the name RoboGolf Pro, the machine features a golf club on the end of a computer-driven hydraulic arm. Custom data is input into the computer, the club is gripped, and the robotic arm takes the user through the path the club should ideally take in order to hit the ball long and straight. It’s a way of not only teaching the proper plane on which the club should travel, but of ingraining muscle memory at the subconscious level, says Nei.

RoboGolf Pro is priced at $150,000 and its target market is professional golfers (even they want to get better), teaching academies, and private golf clubs. There are currently 12 locations in the US where you can book a learning session, but all that technological input doesn’t come cheap. RoboGolf suggests package deals, stressing repetitions to build muscle memory, with packages typically runing $2,000.

One of the unique challenges of golf is recognizing that human beings are not machines, and that every day you feel a little different. The key thought that worked yesterday fails to work today. And it bears repeating that throughout history great golfers have possessed every possible body type, tempo, style, and every other variable, and yet the only thing that mattered was that they all got themselves into the same position at impact, golf’s so-called moment of truth.

For as long as there are golfers there will be those willing to resort to anything to learn and improve. But science fiction always cautions us that artificial intelligence is hardly the same as human intuition, and there’s no individuality inside moving  limbs of a robot. Mankind has yet to devise a guaranteed shortcut to perfecting the golf swing, for, as a celebrated book says, “golf is not a game of perfect.” And neither is being human.

Forum magazine, spring 2016

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