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See Inside March 2009

Golfer's Ear? Will That Driver Make You Deaf?

A humorous review of the perils of the technical advances of golf



MATT COLLINS

Golf is a game fraught with peril. The torque generated when swinging a golf club can torture the lower back. The repetitive stress involved in smacking the ball may induce the tendonitis known as medial epicondylitis, or golfer's elbow. The beers im bibed on the course might lead to comic yet hazardous tumbles from the golf cart.

Some 11 years ago I noted in this space that bad golfers face additional hazards, ahem. Because their errant tee shots force them to wander into high grass or forest, duffers are more likely to get the tick-borne disease ehrlichiosis fever, chills and the shakes are particularly problematic while putting [see "He Shoots, He Scars"; Anti Gravity, October 1997]. But now medical researchers have identified a hitherto unrecognized danger lurking on the manicured tee boxes of golf courses around the world: hearing loss.

My playing partners are always at risk for auditory problems, what with me screaming "Fore!" (and other four-letter words) at the top of my lungs so often and so close to them. But the recently revealed hearing issues are related to a technological advance now commonly employed by avid amateurs everywhere the humongous driver, the head of which looks like it should be tested for steroids. When that monster club smashes the ball, the sound produced is "like a gun going off." That's what one golfer said about his gigantic driver, anyway. The constant ka-blam degraded his hearing and led to bouts of tinnitus (the high-pitched whining that sounds like it's caused by the insects in the woods with you as you search for your ball but isn't). Research on the hard-of-hearing hacker appears in the December 17, 2008, British Medical Journal.

The driver is also known as the stupid stick, because you're stupid for thinking that after slicing the ball into the trees the first 13 times you teed off with it, the 14th time will be different. (If not for the four short par-3 holes on most courses that require a less powerful club for tee shots, you could be stupid a perfect 18 times.)

The particular stupid stick in question here is the King Cobra LD thin-faced titanium driver. A typical driver 30 years ago had a thick stainless-steel face on a head about the size of Fred Funk's fist. The King Cobra has a head about the size of Padraig Harrington's head. (Or possibly Mark Calcavecchia's cranium, Greg Norman's noggin or even John Daly's dome.)

The study's authors searched the Internet for corroborating anecdotal reports about the driver's sound and found comments such as "Drives my mates crazy with that distinctive loud BANG sound" and "Not so much a ting but a sonic boom which resonates across the course!" Indeed, about 112 decibels sprang forth from the King Cobra LD in tests cited in the BMJ report. (A club called the Ping G10 topped 120 decibels, if you're really looking to rattle the clubhouse windows.)

The U.S. Golf Association's official rules put an upper limit on the coefficient of restitution (COR), which is not a measure of how much money you owe your buddy after betting a Nassau with an automatic press (IOU).* Wikipedia helpfully explains the science and cultural importance of COR: "The ratio of velocities before and after an impact.... The coefficient of restitution entered the common vocabulary, among golfers at least, when golf club manufacturers began making thin-faced drivers with a so-called 'trampoline effect' that creates drives of a greater distance as a result of an extra bounce off the clubface."

The CORs of the King Cobra and other nonsanctioned drivers are so high the clubs should come with a label warning "not to be used by small children as an actual trampoline." Anyway, the excessive COR helps to create the explosive noise. Which, to some golfers, is its own reward. One Cobra owner's Internet comment was, "I don't mind the loud BANG as it sounds like the ball goes a really long way." It sounds long. Hey, it's not called the stupid stick for nothing.

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