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Ping Man

He has four feet and no head. Connected to his one arm are two hands, each with three fingers. He has neither hair nor eyes nor mouth. Five feet high, six feet wide and seven feet thick, he weighs close to 1,100 pounds. Voice lessons aren't scheduled until next year, so his only sounds are occasional beeps. No, he is not some Jurassic Park mutant or War of the Worlds alien. He is Ping Man, the world's best golfer. He can make holes-in-one practically on cue.

At an exhibition in Phoenix last March, Ping Man made an ace using a wedge from 80 yards on his fifth attempt. The ball landed in the hole. A few days earlier, in a practice session, he required eight swings for an ace. And who sprang for the customary celebratory cocktails? No one. Ping Man doesn't drink.

He does, however, provide the Phoenix-based Karsten Manufacturing Corporation, maker of Ping brand clubs, with some incredibly sophisticated and accurate research on golf equipment and performance. Actually, there are two Ping Men, or Ping M5s in company parlance, and they are the fourth generation of a design that's the brainchild of the company's 82-year-old founder, Karsten Solheim. "I trust machines more than any person," says Solheim, who patented the first Ping Man in 1976. "They answer a lot of questions without saying a word."

In the early 1970s Solheim experimented with what is still the only other robotic swing machine, the Iron Byron, which is made by True Temper and named for Byron Nelson, whose swing was used as the model. But Solheim was dissatisfied with Iron Byron's performance, which he found inconsistent. So he simply invented the machine he wanted. The first Ping Man was powered by a DC motor and a flywheel. It had to be manually operated by winding an electromagnetic clutch and then ducking for cover as it was released.

Twenty years later the newest generation has a direct-drive electric motor that is computer controlled. Ping M5 can play like a dream or a duffer. It's all in the computer settings. The engineers can set him up to make any swing, from perfect to perfectly horrible, of any length, at speeds up to 140 mph at impact. The posture setting can vary to suit any club from a wedge to a driver, and the ball can be played off a tee, artificial turf or a piece of sod. The robot's arm is connected to the hands by coaxial gears that allow the hands to rotate back and forth in a startlingly human manner.

One Ping M5 stays in the R&D lab. This model is connected to two optical sensors, strobes and a high-speed, stop-action camera that can shoot up to five million frames per second. This allows Ping engineers to measure a golf ball's velocity, spin rate and trajectory, as well as shaft and club-head performance throughout the swing, in .2 millionth-of-a-second intervals.

Ping M5's twin lives in the corner of a large warehouse with a sliding door that opens to a fenced-in grass field. Sound sensors and weather instruments on the field work with this Ping M5, which is used primarily for accuracy and distance testing.

Before starting Ping in 1967, Solheim worked for engineering firms designing portable televisions and rabbit-ear antennas, as well as missile guidance systems. A man with an unshakable faith in science, Solheim believes in voluminous research. With every swing Ping M5 generates 500 kilobytes of data, roughly the equivalent of 500 written pages.

In the late 1980s the U.S. Golf Association, which sets equipment standards for the sport, banned the use of Ping's Eyc2 irons in USGA events because, it claimed, the clubs' square grooves didn't conform to its specifications. Basing much of its legal case on data produced by Ping Men, Ping finally forced the USGA to drop its ban in 1990. For years the USGA and Ping had spoken to each other only through lawyers, so it was most unusual a couple of weeks ago in Phoenix to see Solheim giving a personal demonstration of Ping M5 to Stuart F. Bloch, the outgoing USGA president.

Solheim was explaining to Bloch why weight in his new Zing2 irons is nearer to the sweet spot and lower on the club face than with the original Zing model. "Tests have shown how at impact a club dips way down into the ground, well below the address position," said Solheim in his calm, crackly voice. He showed Bloch the stop-action photos. "About .99 inches."

Bloch's jaw dropped open, and he repeated, "About .99? Wow." Defense rests.