Can Playing Golf Ruin Your Watch?
Mr Bubba Watson wearing his Richard Mille RM 055 watch at the PIF Saudi International at Royal Greens Golf & Country Club in Al Murooj, Saudi Arabia, 6 February 2022. Photograph by Mr Oisin Keniry/Getty Images
Watches can go to war or into space, withstand sudden temperature changes atop the tallest peaks and vast atmospheric pressure several hundred metres below the surface of the ocean, but what about an 18-hole stroll around your local country club? After more than a century of engineering the wristwatch, can it really be that the most benign of sports has bested the world’s greatest horological minds?
Here’s the theory: the forces at play in an average golf swing are too great for a movement to handle when extrapolated over the course of a round. Some say the repeated shocks to the movement can lead to reliability issues, while more dramatic individuals attest that the vibrations running through your arm and wrist can potentially destroy the movement entirely. Some watches are specifically designed to mitigate against the effect of a professional 300-yard drive, implying there’s a degree of risk to an “ordinary” watch; on the other hand, countless golfers take to the tee every week wearing mechanical watches. Are we all secretly trashing our finely tuned Swiss movements?
“Golfing is never a problem for a sports watch,” says Dr Lorenz Brunner, head of IWC Schaffhausen’s research and innovation division, “Swinging your golf club at 60G, every mechanical watch – at least from IWC – shows absolutely no problem.” Brunner’s team has conducted extensive research on shock resistance in sporting activities such as running, swimming, badminton, mountain biking and golf, measuring the G-forces each sport exerts on a watch. “What we found is that in all the sports, the G-forces your watch sees are roughly between 20G and 60G,” he says. When you consider that in 2021 IWC released a prototype watch, the Big Pilot’s Shock Absorber XPL, capable of withstanding 30,000G, it seems like they’d know what they’re talking about.
A Richard Mille RM 055 watch on the wrist of Mr Bubba Watson during the US Open golf tournament at Torrey Pines Golf Course, San Diego, California, 19 June 2021. Photograph by Mr Orlando Ramirez/USA TODAY Sports
This is no trouble for IWC’s core line of sports watches, including the Ingenieur and Big Pilot’s collections. Prior to reaching the market, each model undergoes rigorous shock-resistance testing at 25G, 100G, 500G and, finally, 5,000G in a machine that sounds an awful lot like chucking them in an industrial washer-dryer. “We put the watches in a rotating cylinder, which causes the watch to bang on the edge of the container. We do this well in excess of 100,000 times at 25G, then again at 100G, 1,000 times at 500G, and finally we hit the face and each side of the case once at 5,000G,” Brunner explains.
These gruelling tests are intended to simulate the rough and tumble of daily life and then some. But how do the watches hold up to such a battering? “Sometimes during testing, what we might see at really high forces is hands fall off or perhaps the foot of the dial can break or some indices might be displaced, but the movement itself is so highly engineered that it’s really, really quite sturdy.”
“The movement itself is so highly engineered that it’s really, really quite sturdy”
So far, so reassuring. Why, then, go to extreme lengths to engineer a watch specifically for golf? Over the last 20 years, Richard Mille has grown into one of the most familiar high-end sports watch brands on the planet. Its distinctive tonneau-shaped case, technical movement architecture and use of materials from aerospace and motorsport has pushed the envelope in terms of both design and function.
The watchmaker’s first sports partnership was with F1 driver Mr Felipe Massa in 2004, but Richard Mille has gone on to collaborate with tennis megastar Mr Rafael Nadal, Olympic sprinter Mr Yohan Blake and two-time golf major champion Mr Bubba Watson.
The Richard Mille RM 055 Bubba Watson, created in collaboration with the Masters winner, features a number of fascinating details designed to withstand the force of one of golf’s longest – and therefore hardest – hitters. The movement is held in place by four shock absorbers, cradling it within the external case framework in an effort to reduce the impact of vibrations. The bridges and baseplate of the movement itself are also made from grade 5 titanium to create a flat, strong and stable platform for the gear train. The theory behind this is that any flex in the baseplate could lead to wheels jumping out of bridges or other elements moving around under high G-forces, so the stiffness of titanium pays off. Keeping the whole watch as light as possible also reduces the forces on it; the case is a high-tech mix of titanium and something called alumina-toughened zirconia.
Mr Phil Mickelson wearing his Rolex Yacht-Master 40 in rose gold at The American Express at the Stadium Course at PGA West in La Quinta, California, 22 January 2022. Photograph by Ms Steph Chambers/Getty Images
According to Richard Mille’s Mr Tom Mason, watchmaker at the brand’s pre-owned boutique in London, Ninety on Mount Street, it’s also worth it for the long-term health of the watch. “The use of these durable materials in the movement and case means these watches are incredibly hard-wearing in comparison to other watch manufacturers. From a servicing perspective, sure there are components that I will change on an everyday service but that’s because there are certain parts of mechanical watchmaking you can’t get around, whatever you do. But generally speaking, the hardiness of the movements is evident and makes my job an awful lot easier,” Mason says.
“As for whether it’s OK for people to wear their mechanical watches on the golf course, I don’t see any reason why not. Richard Mille wanted to prove that these sports stars could wear their watches during competition and not just for the prize ceremony after. I think he’s done exactly that.”
Other golfers have taken a very different approach. When Mr Phil Mickelson became the oldest player ever to win a major championship at the PGA Championship in 2021, he did so wearing a white-gold Rolex Cellini ref 4233 that’s approximately 20 years old, with no new-age shock-resistant technology in sight. If golf really was so bad for the watch, you’d imagine Rolex would advise its long-time ambassador not to take the watch on the course. Whether you believe golf to be “a good walk spoiled” or not, one thing that watch experts can agree on is that it won’t spoil your watch. We will say this though: it’s important to make sure your watch is regularly serviced. Leaving it too long – more than five years, on average – between check-ups from a watchmaker will increase the chance of breakages whether you’re hacking out of a bunker or simply watching from the 19th hole. Check out our guide to watch care here. And – whisper it – if you’re in any doubt, try a smartwatch; TAG Heuer’s Connected can also track your game, which not even Richard Mille can match.