Golf firm shooting high with space-age element

CHRIS STEVENSON -- Ottawa Sun

, Last Updated: 7:12 AM ET

ORLANDO, Fla. -- The PGA Merchandise Show is part pro shop, part carnival and, even though it is here in Central Florida, a lot of Las Vegas.

There are a lot of people spinning the wheel of fortune to bring their product to market, hoping to be the next Callaway, TaylorMade or even Adams Golf.

Element 21 Golf, a company with strong Canadian connections, joined the fray yesterday with a media conference and product launch that was out of this world.

Literally.

Element 21, which has its headquarters in Toronto, has some clubs and ball on the International Space Station. The plan is to have the ball knocked into orbit from the ISS where it will orbit the Earth, making it officially the longest drive in history.

Hey, you got to have a hook, huh?

Element 21 is staking its potential success on scandium, the 21st element on the Periodical Table (titanium, the metal it hopes to replace as the material of choice in golf, is 22nd).

The company's pitch is scandium, which has been used in the Russian space program and missile technology (hence the tie to the ISS yesterday). It has the highest strength-to-weight ratio of any material used for golf clubs. It's 25% better than titanium, 50% better than graphite and 70% better than steel, says the company.

Its claim to fame in the sports market is it is used to make very successful Easton's metal baseball bats, said Nataliya Hearn, the president and CEO of Element 21.

She's on sabbatical from the University of Windsor, where she's a professor who was involved in technology transfers from the old USSR. That's how she got involved in the scandium business.

"I don't even golf," she said, "I'm an engineer. I live vicariously through the golfers."

Element 21, around for three years now, started out making golf shafts out of scandium under Dr. Howard Butler, the former vice-president of shaft technology at True Temper.

The company has now branched out into club design. It received USGA approval for its clubhead designs about three weeks ago and yesterday launched a full line of clubs -- driver (The Shock Driver), hybrids, irons, wedges and putter.

(In the interests of full disclosure, I bought some of the company's stock recently. The stock closed at 38 cents US yesterday, down 11.63%.)

"Scandium has been around for a long time. It's an abundant material that was originally used by the Russians for space products, missile fins, MiG fighters ... it's light weight and high strength," said Jim Morin, E21's vice-president of product development.

The shafts have very low torque and shock absorption qualities. The iron shafts are scandium metal and the driver shafts are hybrid graphite. The shafts have been attracting interest on the PGA Tour with John Cook and Davis Love III apparently trying them out. The company's representative on the tour said in November he expected 30 PGA Tour players would use the company's products in 2006.

HOLDS PATENT

E21 has two U.S. patents on scandium.

"We're in a unique position with scandium. Because of the breakup of the Soviet Union, we were able to do a technology transfer and get a patent," said Hearn. "You usually don't have a material patent. We're in a curious position.

"Callaway introduced titanium in the Big Bertha, but they didn't control the rights to titanium and everybody ended up jumping on the bandwagon. We're in the same position, but we control the rights to the material. Anybody that wants to build anything in golf out of scandium has to (deal with E21)."

The company showed a glitzy computer-generated video of the ISS and how the launch of the golf ball is expected to unfold, with an astronaut tapping it one-handed with a club off the station. It's expected to be a trillion-yard drive was the pitch yesterday.

Whether Element 21 golf goes into orbit or joins the legions of companies that have made a big splash here then disappeared like a shooting star remains to be seen.


Videos

Photos