High Heat Driver
By Gary Van Sickle
Senior Writer, Sports Illustrated
Published: February 04, 2008
You couldn't see the most intriguing club in golf at the recent PGA Merchandise Show. It wasn't there. You can't find it on the shelves of your local pro shop or discount golf store, either.
The only place to catch a glimpse of the High Heat driver is on Pandagolf.com. What makes the High Heat the most intriguing club in golf? It's based on the inventor's study of anti-submarine warfare, it's made from a special Russian titanium (other equipment makers use Chinese titanium) and, oh yeah, it's long. I used the club for 15 rounds during a January trip to Florida. After thawing the Pittsburgh frost from my backswing, I picked up 10 to 15 yards off the tee.
The club is the brainchild of Dean Knuth. Why does that name sound familiar? For 16 years, he was in charge of monitoring handicaps for the United States Golf Association and was dubbed "the Pope of Slope" because he was the primary inventor of the USGA Course Rating and Slope System. Knuth, who turned 60 this year, retired from the USGA a few years ago to move to San Diego, where he ran a software company. Now he's an engineer for Northrop-Grumman, which took over the software company, and he has pursued an inventor's dream — making a better driver.
Knuth got the idea for the High Heat at a World Scientific Golf Congress at St. Andrews in the '90s when he heard a visiting professor theorize that there should be a way to significantly decrease the loss of energy from the driver to the ball. Knuth, who has a masters degree in computer systems technology, had done research on energy passing through different mediums (such as metals, air and water) while in the Navy's postgraduate school, which he attended from 1975 to 1978. His postgrad program focused on anti-submarine warfare.
"I got out my notes from one of my courses and theorized that there was an optimum frequency for reducing energy loss in the transfer from ball to driver," Knuth said.
Using a friend's test lab, Knuth eventually found a frequency that optimized the energy transfer. While developing a driver head, he found that parabolic lobes on the sides of the driver cavity could be used to tune a driver to a specific frequency, a finding that eventually turned into the first of four patents he got for the club. He needed a tough-but-thin metal to achieve that optimal frequency, but the Chinese titanium typically used in golf clubs broke down in his design. Knuth found a Russian titanium called BT 22 that was strong enough — after he made it into sheet metal instead of forging it, used a laser to cut it and pressed it into a die at 70 tons per square inch.
A lot of money, brainpower, time, and trial and error went into perfecting the process. Eventually, Knuth came up with the High Heat, which has been approved by the USGA. He was hoping to sell his driver or his technology to an established equipment company but was rebuffed. The head of one major manufacturer told him, "We spend so much money on research and development that it wouldn't make sense to go outside the company to buy technology." Said Knuth, "And that's pretty much the attitude of all the companies."
So for now, unable to come up with the big bucks that a major marketing campaign would require, Knuth relies on word of mouth and the Internet to sell his driver, which costs $399 and comes in only two lofts, 9.5 and 11 degrees. This hasn't deterred Knuth, who knows something about patience. He was at sea during much of his 11 years in the Navy, from 1970 to 1981. He was off the Vietnam coast on the USS Bronstein from 1970 to 1975 and later, after joining an admiral's staff, he rode the Atlantic on various aircraft carriers for military exercises and critiqued the fleet's command-and-control abilities.
He is a 1970 graduate from Annapolis who grew up in Eau Claire, Wis., and notched a perfect score on the math portion of his SAT test. He has written a golf guide to Scotland and has his own Web site, Popeofslope.com, that covers a wide assortment of topics, including handicaps, sandbagging, junior golf and technology. He is a man with lots of ideas and a thing for golf. He still contributes to a monthly golf magazine.
"I get into a hotel, my mind gets going and I start working on things," said Knuth. "It's been a great life."