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Adam Clark
Boeing engineer Adam Clark helped design Callaway’s golf clubs. (GeekWire photo by Alan Boyle)

EVERETT, Wash. – When experts at Callaway Golf sought Boeing’s help to improve their golf clubs’ aerodynamics, Boeing turned to a special breed of engineers: recent hires with a hunger for projects off Boeing’s beaten path.

Some of the engineers didn’t even play golf before they took on the challenge – but now they’re learning.

Previously: Callaway shows off its aerodynamic golf club

The result of the collaboration is Callaway’s XR-16 line of drivers, which sport a pattern of chevron-shaped “trip steps” to optimize the aerodynamics of a golf swing. Computerized analysis helped the engineers tweak the club’s shape ever so slightly: By making the air flow just a bit more turbulent at a key point, the engineers reduced the drag encountered during the swing.

“We’ve obviously been working on this problem for many years,” said Evan Gibbs, Callaway’s senior manager for research and development for woods. But for the XR-16, Callaway had only a few months to up their aerodynamic game. That’s why the company turned to Boeing’s engineering-savvy duffers.

The unusual collaboration is arguably the highest-profile success story for Boeing’s Opportunities for New Engineers program, also known as ONE.

XR16 golf clubs
The XR16’s trip steps are the patterned chevrons just at the edge of the top of the club, as seen in the far left view. (Credit: Callaway)

Typically, working at a place like Boeing requires engineers to focus on a narrowly defined task. ONE gives fledgling engineers the chance to work on something completely different – whether it’s building an airplane from a kit, or figuring out the aerodynamics of a golf club.

Boeing executives select which ONE projects will go forward, and the company funds them internally. Thus, no money changed hands between Boeing and Callaway. Instead, Boeing took on the job for the exposure and the experience it would provide for the company’s young engineers.

About a half-dozen Boeing engineers were on the ONE team, including Adam Clark and Harrison Chau. Neither of them knew much about golf, but they were both intrigued by the idea of applying the principles of airplane design to golf club design.

“There are a lot of similarities and a lot of differences,” Clark told journalists this week during a briefing about the project at Boeing’s Everett plant. “The physics is always the same.”

Aerospace engineers typically find themselves limited by regulatory restraints: Because of safety concerns, the Federal Aviation Administration doesn’t let airplane manufacturers go wild and crazy with their designs for commercial airliners. Boeing’s engineers quickly found out that golf-club designers face somewhat similar restraints that are dictated by U.S. Golf Association’s equipment rules.

There are lots of things that could be done, and have been done, to make golf clubs better. However, the USGA has rules that limit a club’s size, shape and flexibility, with the aim of keeping the playing field level. Boeing’s engineers had to make sure that the changes they prescribed conformed to the USGA’s requirements.

In the end, the tryouts — conducted by beta-testing golfers and a robo-golfer nicknamed “Iron Byron” (after golf great Byron Nelson) — convinced Callaway that they had a winning combination. That goes for the company’s relationship with Boeing as well as for the XR-16.

“The collaboration itself was as satisfying as the end product,” Callaway’s Gibbs said.

On the other side of the partnership, Boeing senior technical fellow Jeffrey Crouch said he was impressed by how Callaway used rapid prototyping to test the look and feel of their products. Boeing is already taking advantage of 3-D printing, but now Crouch is thinking about other ways to use the technology in aerospace design.

He’s also taking golf lessons.

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