Boeing diverts from ‘runway to fairway’

New Zealander Danny Lee hits a drive with the Callaway XR 16 on Friday at the Masters.

This being Sunday at the Masters, many sports fans are tuning into golf.

So, too, is one of the Charleston region’s top employers.

In one example of its interest, Boeing has been a key sponsor since 2012 of the PGA’s annual South Carolina stop, where the Heritage gets underway Thursday on Hilton Head Island. Also, the Golf Channel has been awash with TV ads this year as part of the company’s 100th anniversary celebration.

But the planemaker is even more invested in the game as the 2016 season cranks up, having put its air flow know-how to work by helping club maker Callaway Golf Co. develop its newest driver.

“Speed, weight and drag are just a few of the concepts our engineers work with every day when designing Boeing airplanes,” Randy Tinseth, vice president of marketing for Boeing Commercial Airplanes, wrote in a blog post about the collaboration. “These same principles also apply to golf club designers.”

The two companies teamed up in the fall to upgrade the XR 16. The project involved a small group of aerodynamics experts based in Seattle. Boeing called this “runway to the fairway” venture part career-development exercise, part engineering cooperative.

“This project in particular, was viewed as a special assignment during which the Boeing participants could be exposed to a short-flow product development and innovation cycle while also providing their technical expertise to supplement the talent of the Callaway team,” spokesman Tom Kim said.

Along with some younger workers were veterans like Wayne Tygert. He was the chief project engineer for the 787 Dreamliner, which is made at the company’s North Charleston campus.

“They didn’t send us the B team,” said Dave Neville, senior director of marketing at Callaway.

The XR 16 was their first official collaboration, but the interplay between the two companies goes back to at least the late 1990s. Back then, a former Boeing aerodynamics expert joined Callaway to lead the design of the company’s HX golf ball.

Neville said the latest link is Roger Cleveland, the wedge design guru who works for the Carlsbad, Calif.-based club manufacturer.

“He’s had a relationship with Boeing for a number of years,” Neville said.

It was Cleveland who helped arrange the XR 16 venture. He asked Callaway executives whether they’d be interested in participating in a cross-industry rotation program Boeing had created for its technical workforce.

“When the top aerospace ... company in the world offers to work with you on a project, you don’t turn them down,” Neville said.

Callaway’s aim was to make its updated driver lighter and more aerodynamic without sacrificing any of the “forgiveness” factors — those design elements that help compensate for poorly struck tee shots.

Boeing’s point man on the project was a golf novice: Jeffrey Crouch, senior technical fellow for flight sciences.

“I very much came at it, as well as the team at Boeing, the other engineers involved, very much as a technology problem, as a flow-physics problem, as opposed to ... trying to improve our experience of golf,” Crouch said in a video.

Using sophisticated modeling software and robotics, engineers were able to locate the exact point in the swing that generated the most drag. That led them to add a slight ledge or “trip step” to the crown of the titanium club head, along with a series of raised portions that are shaped like the wing of a plane. Crouch said the tweaks tightened the airflow and streamlined the wake. That, in turn, lowers drag and allows the club head to move faster, which is the key to hitting the ball farther.

“We found we could make improvements, and we could also overdo it and actually make it worse,” Crouch said in the video. “And so out of that space we picked the best configuration, and that really is what fed into this.”

Callaway’s Neville called the collaboration with Boeing a win-win.

“It’s helped us on the marketing side, but no money changed hands,” he said. “That’s important to point out. It wasn’t done for marketing purposes. It was done for engineering purposes.”

The retooled XR 16 made the trip to Augusta National this weekend, where Phil Mickelson, Henrik Stenson, Danny Lee, Marc Leishman and Danny Willett have variants of the new driver in their bags. And it will likely be on the tee box Thursday when the RBC Heritage Presented by Boeing starts at Harbour Town Golf Links.

The driver hit the market in late January and runs about $400. It’s available, among other places, in the merchandise shop at Boeing’s main 787 campus in North Charleston. While Callaway doesn’t release figures for specific equipment, XR 16 sales so far “have been incredible,” Neville said.

Not everyone is ready to upgrade. A Boeing social media follower is holding out for the next club collaboration between the two companies. The fictitious but anticipated XR 17, according to the Facebook user, “will have micro jet propulsion engines and will increase club head speed to 850 mph!”

Contact John McDermott at 843-937-5572.