Waikato student drives home master’s research into golf

29 October 2018

George Wardell with supervisor Dr Kim Hébert-Losier.

Growing up on a high-country station in Omarama, a small township nestled near the southern end of the MacKenzie Basin, George Wardell never imagined going to university.

He figured he’d follow in his dad’s footsteps and farm out in the hills - that was until dad caught wind and told George to “go get the piece of paper” so he had options.

Playing every sport under the sun it was a natural choice for George to opt for a Bachelor of Physical Education at the University of Otago. Following a move to the Waikato and a few years working with the Gallagher Chiefs, as intern then assistant trainer, George is now back into the swing of study. He is researching the effect of weighted golf clubs in training for his Master of Health, Sport and Human Performance at the University of Waikato.

“I had been playing around with the concept of developing speed for a while,” says George. “I was trying to understand the area of crossover between strength and conditioning, and neural priming in sprinting and see how some of those philosophies could be taken into golf.”

The lure of playing representative golf for the Bay of Plenty, along with some coaxing from Waikato Senior Lecturers Dr’s Brett Smith and Matt Driller, proved too much and George relocated to Tauranga to take up his masters with New Zealand Golf. George works full-time at P1 Academy, a training academy for high level golfers, and conducts his research out of the state-of-the-art sports facility, The University of Waikato Adams Centre for High Performance. “I really wanted to get a good thesis out there and the opportunity to work with 3D motion capture technology and biomechanics here in Tauranga totally roped me in,” he says.

Over the past 10-15 years there’s been a dramatic shift in the athleticism required in professional golf. The onus is on players to produce more efficiency, more power, and more distance from their swing. An American company responded by developing weighted golf clubs, lighter than a standard club, to be used as a training tool to create an over speed effect - akin to running downhill. Initially, George was drawn to the company’s claim of dramatic increases in swing speed following use on tour by high profile players. Then he became interested to see what was happening from a 3D, biomechanical point of view when players used the speed stick clubs.

Mt Maunganui's Alanna Campbell participating in George's research.

“There were several things I wanted to know,” says George. “First, are the speed sticks working and, if so, which segment of the body is the speed increase coming from? Is the speed getting relayed on to the ball as well? By using weighted clubs is there an impact on the accuracy of the player? Is there a trade-off between the increase of pure speed and the ability to hit the ball close? Are traditional warmup tactics as effective as the new protocols? Is the new product (speed stick clubs) something we, as trainers and coaches, should head towards or not?”

To answer some, if not all, of these questions George enlisted help from his supervisor, Senior Lecturer Dr Kim Hébert-Losier, to help him set up and use Qualisys – a high-tech system consisting of ten 3D motion cameras that enable access to carry out high-quality biomechanical research studies. The testing process involved taking twelve participants and setting up a series of marker points - 57 in total, 50 on the participant and seven on the club and ball. From there George put them through their paces - a protocol of warmups by hitting balls into a net, with the aim of monitoring any difference in speed when using a traditional golf club versus the weighted club.

Ideally, if the club head and the ball speed are increasing, George wants to ascertain which segment of the body is involved. Each participant completed five swings using three different clubs - one 20% lighter, another 10% lighter, and the last 5% heavier than a regular club. Hitting balls in groups of five made it easier for participants to get into their pre-shot routine.

“By swinging the speed stick, changing the clubs and going through the protocol as fast as we can, we’re aiming to get the sequencing nice and sharp and quick,” explains George. “The traditional warmup is more of a primer, progressing through an individual’s clubs whereas the speed stick technique is more aggressive.”

George’s participants were a mixture of professional golfers from the Bay of Plenty, men’s and women’s Bay of Plenty representatives, New Zealand reps, and some members of the P1 academy who were on spring break from their scholarships in the USA. Some participants completed one traditional and one speed stick warmup, others came in for a third session for reliability purposes.

While this type of testing could have been done on an outside range hitting into an indoors net for a study that spanned over three weeks, removed the effects of weather plus the equipment was all set up in same spot every day.

“When a player drives a ball down a range they get to see the end result of each shot,” says George. “I listened to New Zealand Golf Coach Jay Carter who told me that when good players see where their shot lands they will consciously or subconsciously change their swing patterns. Using a net means they will replicate what they believe is correct so it increases reliability in a testing situation.”

While the outcomes of George’s research will be of immediate benefit to elite athletes he believes there will be an eventual trickle-down effect to amateur players wanting to improve their game. For now, his sights are set on analysing his research data to complete his masters by mid 2019, and continuing to play representative golf for the Bay.

“Initially, I did want to be a professional sportsman, and part of me still does, but the drive I have to help others and learn is bigger than the drive to be a sportsman myself.”

George puts Alanna Campbell through her paces.

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