Chip embedded in ball tells all
FAIRHOPE – Stop me if you’ve heard this one before – a lightbulb goes off in a guy’s head with a can’t-miss idea. He spends four years at night and on weekends secretly tinkering with it in his garage before unveiling it to the public.
And when he finally does, the product turns out to be an immediate …
The rest of the story has yet to be written on whether it was time well spent or if the guy is just another dreamer whose product never makes it.
In this case, that guy is an engineer named Brian Heaton. His invention is a “smart golf ball.” But it certainly seems with their PuttLink Smart Ball that Heaton and his three partners have tapped into a part of the golf market that is somewhat a blank canvas.
The PuttLink Smart Ball concept is simple – a computer chip inserted into a golf ball that sends immediate feedback via Bluetooth to an app on your device that records all things related to putting – green speed, percentage of makes and misses, speed of the ball entering the hole and from what distance those makes and misses occur.
The idea of an embedded chip is so simple it’s surprising nobody has put a similar idea on the golf market by now. But nobody has, and that’s why after being named “Best New Product” at the 2023 PGA Merchandise Show in Orlando in January and getting positive feedback from show attendees, Heaton and his partners are confident the PuttLink Smart Ball can be successful.
The idea for the PuttLink Smart Ball was born from Heaton’s desire to help his son Michael become a better golfer.
PuttLink connects via Bluetooth
“I love golf,” Heaton said. “I have a love/hate relationship with golf. I play every chance I get. I am just not good. I don’t know why God did not bless me with the ability to play golf, but I love being out there. My son is the golfer I wanted to be.”
Heaton installed a putting green in his back yard so Michael could work on his game.
“Parents will do anything for their kids,” he said. “I did this kind of for him. I built the green so he could work on his game. I built this ball so he could get better at his game.”
Heaton said he noticed that not many people enjoy working on their putting, and by developing the PuttLink Smart Ball he hopes to bring added enjoyment to practicing their putting.
“I hope we can make a difference because putting is 40 to 50 percent of your strokes,” he said. If we can get a little bit better at putting, people will be a lot happier.”
Heaton engaged his partners – Matt Smith of Nashville, Mike Smith of Atlanta and Jeremy Hamilton of Maine – to develop the app that compiles and displays the data on both IPhone and Android devices.
“The ball connects to your phone and as you putt, it collects data for you,” Heaton explained. It knows how far the ball rolled, how fast the green is and how many putts you made from 6 feet or 8 feet or 10 feet. We’ll be adding four or five drills before we release the product later this year.”
Heaton hopes to be able to integrate the data so it can be compared to that of other players.
“That means we are putting you in a pressure situation when you practice,” he said. “You need to feel that pressure when you play.”
Heaton said he liked that he could see his results from day to day and week to week.
“When I got out on the green, I knew what my make percentages were from the day before or week before. I wanted to keep seeing my average go up. I felt like if I am going to come out here and practice, I better be getting better at this. I would feel like I am working on something here; I’m not just banging a ball around the putting green. That is when it became addictive to me to get out there and each day better myself and do a little bit better. That’s contagious.”
A magnet placed in the cup confirms you holed it
Sensors figure out most of the data, and a cup accessory – essentially a magnet – solved the problem of how to record the ball going into the hole.
“The ball goes into the cup and touches the magnet it knows if you made it,” he said. “We didn’t want it to be faked out. If we are going to collect this data, we want it to be real and not make mistakes.”
The PuttLink Smart Ball is the same size and weight as a regular ball. Heaton cautions that the ball is for putting only and points out that it is non-conforming to USGA and R&A rules, so it can’t be used in competition. But it can be used in practice rounds. The PuttLink website warns that hitting the ball with anything other than a putting stroke will ruin the ball..
He said feedback from some college golfers indicates they like it because it calculates green speeds, which comes in handy on unfamiliar courses.
Heaton attended the PGA Merchandise Show for three years. On the brink of launching his product, he scraped together enough money to get a booth at the show. Admittedly, Heaton was uncertain how PuttLink would be received.
“We ended up with a great spot near the putting green and near some bigger [manufacturers],” Heaton said. “We didn’t stop talking to people the whole day. I looked at my wife and my partners and said, ‘I guess we have something pretty good here.’”
Interest in PuttLink from a manufacturer
A representative of a major manufacturer stopped by the PuttLink booth and after trying out the ball, told Heaton to give him a call. It was icing on the cake when PuttLink was named “Best New Product.”
“I was overwhelmed and then we won the award,” he said. “Just every blessing I was hoping for came true and that makes all the years of tinkering in the garage worth it.”
There now is a manufacturing plant for PuttLink in Brewton, about 60 miles northeast of Mobile, where each ball is made by hand.
“It’s a long way from where we came from,” he said. “I still have a day job and I work in a totally different field. I do this at night and on weekends, and so do my partners. Until we can make a go of this, that’s what we have to do. We just have to have some luck.”
The PuttLink Smart Ball will retail for $199, but can be pre-ordered at puttlink.com for $159. The package includes one ball, one cup accessory and the app with a stats package. The ball is powered by a battery designed to last up to two years. Heaton’s team is looking for a wireless charging solution.
For more information, go to puttlink.com.
Gregg Dewalt is the editor of Alabama Golf News
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All photos courtesy of PuttLink