Rory McIlroy had very little idea of what he was about to encounter.
In his waning days as the world’s No. 1 player, the two-time major champion walked onto the driving range at PGA National in Florida this past March for a three-hour European Tour commercial shoot.
He knew a few things: He would face off against a golf robot in a skills competition involving washing machines.
He definitely wasn’t told that his mechanized opponent had quite a sass mouth on it.
Back in January, London-based ad agency Saatchi & Saatchi decided they wanted to take the European Tour’s “Every Shot Imaginable” campaign to the next level. Sure, the spots shot to date had been great — hitting clay pigeons with golf balls in Dubai, skipping balls across a waterway to hit a gong, chipping into an exploding ship and taking down driving-range ballpickers from long distance — but they had never worked with a name as big as McIlroy.
That’s when Gene Parente, founder of Golf Laboratories, got a phone call.
“It was pretty close to a blind call,” Parente said in a telephone interview. The ad agency needed a golf robot — namely his.
“I don’t know if they knew exactly how accurate the robot was. I think they were just looking to get something that could swing the golf club and get the ball kind of close (to a target) and kind of highlight Rory.”
Over 23 years, Golf Labs has refined its golf robots, beginning with one purchased from Titleist in 1990 that was powered by a garage-door-opening spring, to become the preeminent robotic testing equipment maker in the game.
Every major manufacturer uses a Golf Labs robot today. So, too, do the USGA and R&A. Turns out, “Iron Byron” is just a generic term for any golf robot but, like the clubs we play with, how they’re tested has evolved dramatically in a very short period of time.
The latest iteration of their robot is able to swing in a way to replicate any set of launch conditions, making it not only incredibly accurate in mimmicking the best swings in the world, but just plain accurate.
“For the longest time, we could duplicate anyone’s swing with the robot. … But now, we can really define what the shaft does in the swing and how important it is to the swing.”
Meaning simply, if two golfers produced golf shots with the exact some launch conditions using two completely different swings, the robot can now get to the ball both ways. In other words, the robot’s swings are no longer so mechanical. They’re art.
The robot would deliver way more than they were expecting.
“The funny part is that the robot is about as accurate as any golfer in the world,” Parente said, including the world’s best player. “So it turned into quite a competition once we started filming.”
With the premise set and the talent booked, “Every Shot Imaginable” series director Kelvin Hutchins and his Motion Picture House team employed a documentary-style shoot to maximize his mere 180 minutes with the then-best golfer in the world. Hutchins shot the commercial with expediency in mind, not quite telling McIlroy what was going to unfold on the range.
So when Rory shows up, every reaction is genuine.
“All Rory knew when he showed up that he was going to be involved in a skills challenge, with washing machines, against a robot,” Parente said.
What? Did you think Rory can act?
“Everything else was literally his reaction as it happened.”
And, no, the robot did not come pre-programmed to spit out those zingers. London-based comedian Geoff Norcott was hired and flown over to the United States specifically for the shoot. Like everything else, McIlroy wasn’t told about Norcott before the shoot. In fact, they didn’t even meet until filming was done.
Norcott was kept hidden in a tent some 30 yards behind where the cameras were capturing all the action. Based on the raw footage piped into a monitor in the tent and what he observed with his own two human eyes, Norcott dished out improvised disses to McIlroy in a disembodied voice masked to resemble HAL 9000.
Maybe the most stunning thing about the whole shoot — aside from the alarming accuracy of man and machine — is how McIlroy developed a true rapport with Geoff the Robot.
The Ulsterman knew the robot didn’t talk but, according to Parente, sure enough, a conversation developed over their three-hour range session.
“It’s like human nature,” he said. “You’re bantering back and forth with this machine. The robot would hit a shot, and McIlroy would comment on it. Rory was talking to the robot like it was an animate object.”
McIlroy was clearly a good sport about the whole thing, truly enjoying the whole bit.
Parente said, “Everything you hear about him is true — very professional, very polite.”
McIlroy even earned his Screen Actors Guild card at the tail end of shooting, when he was coached into acting like he was going to pull Geoff’s plug — and apparently touching the robot’s nether-region.
The only scripted line in the whole shoot is the one that’s not even shown on camera. McIlroy mocks Geoff, saying, “Have you thought about doing something else, like becoming a photo copier?”
Parente has no intentions of turning his robot into a Xerox machine. In fact, he’s quite proud of how his latest creation held up against one of the best swings in the world — but had even stronger words for McIlroy.
“Rory’s pretty skinny, yet he generates a ridiculous amount of clubhead speed,” Parente said. “His biomechanics, his hips and his rotation are just awesome. It’s really impressive to see. … But I was really in awe of his swing and, in all honesty, the accuracy he can generate.
“Rory’s an exeptional player.”
After the display McIlroy put on in his match with Geoff, however, the business of being a man in high demand rolled on: He had to get to a Nike shoot.