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Cackett learned to play golf from his grandfather and today carries a solid 10 handicap, but he never imagined the sport would figure so largely in his career. At Rensselaer, a friend convinced him to work on the RP-2 glider project—the same plane now suspended from the roof of the Commons Dining Hall—and Cackett became immersed in the study of composite materials, under the guidance of Volker Paedelt, who still oversees the university’s aircraft design studio.

Cackett’s NASA-funded master’s project involved composite materials. He then rapidly moved into aerospace jobs at General Dynamics, McDonnell Douglas, and a firm called Composite Optics. In 1996 he was lured to Callaway, the equipment maker that has played a leading role in creating golf’s age of power hitting.

Cackett is not alone in the move from aerospace research to golf. He’s part of a trend whose genesis lies in recent political history. The end of the Cold War led to a scaling down during the 1990s of the aerospace defense industry, which had famously powered a large part of Southern California’s economy. In turn, many engineers, scientists, and researchers who had spent years studying aerodynamics and materials involving airplanes, rockets, and satellites took their talents to the now-booming business of golf. The area north of San Diego, where Callaway and other industry firms are located, has become the Silicon Valley of golf, home of the best research and design shops in the business, where academic training matters. “To this day,” says Cackett, “I still regularly apply many of the engineering fundamentals I learned at RPI.”

Researchers use virtual testing to simulate the impact of clubhead and ball and the resulting launch conditions, ball flight, bounce, and roll. Hundreds of thousands of shots can be instantly simulated for statistical evaluation of a new clubhead design.
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Callaway has made its mark through innovation, sometimes upending golf’s conventions. The company dates to 1982, when founder Ely Callaway, a textile entrepreneur and winery owner, bought a golf equipment-maker named Hickory Stick, USA. Callaway moved the firm to southern California, and in 1991 introduced its renowned steel driver, the “Big Bertha,” which, more than any other club, allowed recreational golfers and pros alike to do some heavyweight slugging from the tee. Coupled with improvements in ball technology, player athleticism, and course setup, the result is that the average drive on the PGA Tour increased by 30 yards between 1993 and 2003.

“Until the early 1990s, golf had evolved by trial and error,” says Cackett. “It was more of a craftsmanship industry, small companies without much in-house research.” As with other industries, golf equipment manufacturing was revolutionized by the Computer Age. “Advanced computing became more widespread and was applied beyond the aerospace industry to consumer products,” he says. “Titanium became cost-effective for golf clubs, and composite materials were moving in that direction. That confluence of circumstances led to rapid advances in golf, with newer designs coming at a much faster pace.”

Along the way, Callaway has assembled a formidable roster of championship-winning clients. The firm’s biggest star, Phil Mickelson, has won the Masters twice and is widely considered the world’s second-best player behind Tiger Woods. Annika Sorenstam, one of the best female players ever to play the game, is another Callaway golfer. Other Callaway luminaries include Ernie Els, who has won two U.S. Opens and the British Open, and Rocco Mediate, whose valiant runner-up effort at this year’s U.S. Open, where he lost a playoff to Woods, earned him widespread praise.

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Rensselaer (ISSN 0898-1442) is published in Spring, Summer, Fall, and Winter by the Office of Strategic Communications and External Relations, Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, Troy, NY 12180-3590. Opinions expressed in these pages do not necessarily reflect the views of the editors or the policies of the Institute. ©2008 Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute.