David Lee is the first to admit he’s not much of a golfer.
Rather, he’s a scientist, much happier thinking about how to stick two space-age materials together with epoxy to make a golf club than how to improve his golf swing.
Yet Lee, a physics professor at Gordon College in Wenham, is on a short list of professors invited by Golf Digest magazine to Nevada next month to offer his opinion on the hottest equipment of the year.
The magazine doesn’t care about Lee’s golf game. They want him for his physics knowledge.
“They fly you out there and put you up,” he said. “They feed you. It’s fun.”
This will be Lee’s third year on Golf Digest’s scientist panel, comprised of a half dozen academics who help the magazine’s editorial board evaluate new golf gear for its annual Hot List issue in February.
Once a year the scientists — with specialties such as aerodynamics, collision theory and materials science — sit around a table for two days and take on the hard questions: Does this marketing claim make sense from a technical point of view? What’s the difference between 303 stainless steel and 17-4 stainless steel? Can you move the center of gravity of a club head this much and can it affect ball flight?
These are questions golfers didn’t have to think about 10 or 15 years ago, said Mike Stachura, senior editor of equipment for Golf Digest. The past decade has seen an explosion in golf technology and new equipment, thanks to better scientific understanding of what happens when golf club and ball collide, he said.
Golf equipment manufacturers now employ fleets of engineers, including specialists who formerly worked in the aerospace and defense industries. Marketing materials are heavy with technical documentation and test results, he said.
“Literally NASA scientists are coming to golf,” Stachura said. “You can imagine little old me with my journalism degree trying to carry on conversations with people from NASA and people with PhDs. We thought it only prudent to try to beef up at least the people we consult so that we don’t go into this battle unarmed.”
That’s how it has come to be that once a year Golf Digest’s scientist panel gathers in a conference room with a white board, stacks of marketing materials and some sample golf equipment. For participants it’s a break from their serious research pursuits to focus all their attention on a game.
“It’s like throwing a little raw meat into a room full of caged lions,” Stachura said. “Because they’re ready to devour it.”
Lee is one of the materials science experts on the team. Specifically, he knows a lot about metals in golf clubs.
Long before Lee took the physics teaching job at Gordon College, he worked in private industry in Silicon Valley, California. One of his first jobs, after he got his doctorate in applied physics at the California Institute of Technology, was with a company that made golf clubs.
Specifically, the company was looking for commercial uses for a new metal alloy called Liquidmetal, which Lee had studied at CalTech.
Before joining the company, Lee was involved in an international scientific effort in the 1990s to send Liquidmetal on board the space shuttle Columbia to test it in a zero-gravity environment where it could float outside a container in nothing but an electromagnetic field. The metal flew on three missions.
“We were interested in the properties of the material,” Lee said. “We weren’t thinking about golf.”
Golf clubs just happened to be one of the first commercial products his new employer pursued, perhaps because the owner was a golf nut. Lee was anything but a golf nut, but he got excited about the engineering problems involved in taking a new material and turning it into something suitable for mass production.
Eventually Liquidmetal stopped making golf clubs and moved on to other products, and Lee left for another company.
At the height of the dot-com boom, though, Lee found himself struggling to find meaning in his career. One day at a young couple’s group at his church, he got into a conversation about finding work with spiritual meaning.
“How neat it would be,” he said, “if we could tie more closely our faith with how we view our calling in our profession.”
His wife was pregnant and Lee was burning out on his 80- to 90-hour work week. He saw an ad for a professor position at a small Christian college called Biola University in Southern California. Everything suddenly fit into place.
Lee taught at Biola until January, when he moved his family to the North Shore and took the teaching position at Gordon College.
At Gordon, Lee teaches physics classes and runs a new program that prepares Gordon students to transfer as juniors to an engineering college.
This fall he also is in the process of assembling a laboratory on campus for testing golf equipment, both for student use and for his own experiments — perhaps even to test products for equipment manufacturers.
Though Lee still doesn’t spend much time on the golf course, he said golf has become a useful tool for engaging students. And his gig with Golf Digest is a good example of how a scientific career can lead in a lot of directions you would never expect.
“I never would have thought I would have been designing a space shuttle experiment or researching golf clubs,” Lee said.
Nor when he was an undergraduate engineering student at Princeton or working in Silicon Valley did he ever expect to find a job that combined his faith and sense of civic responsibility with his passion for science as perfectly as teaching physics at a Christian college.
“You’re part of a community, part of a society,” he said. “You have a role to play. You have a contribution to make.”
David Lee is the first to admit he’s not much of a golfer.
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