Engineering doctoral students Kyle Hanquist and Kevin Neitzel’s journeys to national TV began in an alleyway in Copenhagen, Denmark.
At a conference in Europe last year, the aerospace engineers received an email from the University’s College of Engineering about a new Golf Channel reality show “Driver vs. Driver.” The challenge: in “Shark Tank” style, aspiring golf club designers invent an innovative driver to pitch to equipment manufacturer Wilson Golf.
Hanquist and Neitzel received the information only one week before video submissions were due and questioned whether there would be enough time to produce an idea and application.
But the opportunity to combine their aerospace knowledge with a love for golf couldn’t go to waste — not to mention the prospect of teaming with one of golf’s most legendary brands.
Wilson Golf’s range of products includes drivers, fairway woods, hybrids, wedges, putters and balls for amateur and professional players. Since 1922, PGA Tour stars Arnold Palmer, John Daly, Vijay Singh and others have won a combined 61 major tournaments using Wilson products.
“Being outside of the golf club design industry, we thought our idea could bring something new to (golfers),” Neitzel said. “And there’s a half-a-million-dollar prize, so that was pretty good, too.”
After brainstorming to reach their best concept, they conducted the video shoot in the Copenhagen alleyway.
“That was pretty random,” Hanquist said. “But I think it helped us stand out when they saw us.”
Besting over 300 applicants, Hanquist and Neitzel — now coined “Team Michigan” — were among 11 teams selected to compete head-to-head on the show. Engineers, teachers and golf professionals are among the many hopefuls.
The seven-episode elimination series culminates with the announcement of the winner on the Nov. 22 finale. The $500,000 grand prize comes with a chance for the winning driver design to be included in next year’s Wilson product line.
The first episode aired on Oct. 4 and the second this past Tuesday. Teams pitched their designs to judges Tim Clarke, President of Wilson Golf; Frank Thomas, former United States Golf Association Technical Director; and Brian Urlacher, former Chicago Bears linebacker and avid golfer.
Through two episodes, Team Michigan survived the elimination of five teams and were surprised the cut was so steep so early in the filming. The third episode airs Tuesday, and Hanquist and Neitzel say they will be heavily featured.
“To have a one-in-six chance on half-a-million dollars, I’d take those odds,” Hanquist said.
Even if defeated, Hanquist and Neitzel plan to pursue turning their driver design into a business.
Team Michigan is confident its expertise in aerodynamics will not only help golfers hit balls with greater velocity and further, but straighter off the tee. They turned to Formula One cars and airplane designs’ aerodynamics for inspiration to incorporate into their club technology.
“(Wilson Golf) wants something that’s new, that’s going to break the mold a little bit, so we really tried to be different than what’s out there already,” Neitzel said. “We really focused on things that we would want in a driver, and pushed things a little bit with the physics background we have.”
Taping started last October at Wilson’s Chicago-area headquarters and presents the full process of bringing driver ideas to life. Although Hanquist and Neitzel know the contest’s outcome, they are prohibited from disclosure. However, they alluded the next five episodes shift focus from design pitches to the evolution and production of tangible clubs, with more contestants getting cut along the way.
Though having their club being used on the PGA Tour would be a remarkable feat, Team Michigan hopes one person above anyone else will “grip it and rip it.”
“We see (Michigan football) head coach Jim Harbaugh golfing in a lot of Pro-Ams,” Hanquist said. “That would probably be the coolest thing ever if we saw him using our golf club at Pebble Beach. I mean, that would be the most surreal thing ever.”
Over a year ago, Hanquist and Neitzel shot their application video in a Copenhagen alleyway, with no idea if they would get a spot on the show. Now, the opportunity to represent their university on such a large scale is one both men could never have imagined.
In honor of the third episode airing, an official watch party is open to the public at The Brown Jug on Tuesday, October 25 from 9:00-11:30 p.m. Details: https://www.facebook.com/TeamMichiganDVD/.