Aiming for success on the golf course

Have trouble lining up tee shots and putts? Matthew Chute's ball may help.

Published August 10, 2006

Golfers dream about ways to improve their game. Matthew Chute has been dreaming about a way to help them - for more than a decade.

Chute, a longtime St. Petersburg resident, has an interesting resume that includes schooling at the Massachusetts Maritime Academy, playing and teaching golf, running an ad agency and trying to bring a golf ball to market.

His invention is one of those "why didn't I think of that" ideas, one that has been patented but awaits the mass marketing and distribution required to turn the endeavor into a success.

Or to put it in true golf terms, if you believe Chute's invention has Tiger Woods-type potential, it is at about the U.S. Junior stage of development.

Chute, 45, has come up with the Universal Alignment golf ball. Through a good amount of research and experimentation, he has devised a method by which balls are marked to help players line up with their target, whether it be off the tee or on the greens.

"Setting up to the ball is the source of all problems. People just aim wrong," Chute said. "They don't take enough club on their approach shots to the green, and they aim wrong. If you can get people to aim better and take enough club, you can get 10 strokes off their game just like that."

Chute's journey has visited many places, but a good starting point is when he contracted what was eventually diagnosed as Lyme disease in the mid 1990s. It wasn't until 1999 that he felt healthy enough to play golf, and that's when, on a whim, he played a round at Lansbrook Golf Club in Palm Harbor.

A charity was offering the opportunity to win a sleeve of golf balls if a golfer knocked his tee shot onto the par-3 11th green and made a donation. Chute accepted the challenge and aced the hole.

That earned him $1,000 and a chance to compete in a $1-million hole-in-one contest in Las Vegas.

"I started to think, 'What was going to increase my chances of getting another hole-in-one?' " he said. "I thought if I could just line myself up to the shot as best I can, I've got the best chance of doing it. You can't put lines down on the ground, you can't put clubs down (for alignment). But there is no rule that said you couldn't draw anything on the golf ball.

"I started to experiment with drawing different things on the golf ball. I really needed to know my swing plane, I used my knowledge of trigonometry, and I came upon the Universal Alignment."

Chute went to Las Vegas, where he said he was aimed perfectly, only to see his shot roll 2 inches past the cup. He knew he was onto something with the ball, "but I didn't know how to go about doing it," he said.

So he abandoned it until two years ago, when he came across a company in China that manufactured golf balls.

"I just had no idea of what the golf ball industry consisted of," he said. "I knew there was Nike, Callaway, Titleist and Spalding and all these others. I thought they were all making their own balls. I didn't realize that the golf ball industry had been modified and that certain parts of it were made in China. ... I got enthusiastic about the possibility of the concept taking off."

At some point, Chute would need to raise capital. And he would need to protect what he invented. "And it's expensive to get a patent," he said.

Enter an Orlando patent attorney who used to do work for Titleist. Michael Leetzow started his own practice with people like Chute in mind.

"This gives me the opportunity to help the little guy who probably wouldn't be able to get a patent attorney to spend more than 25 minutes on the telephone," said Leetzow, who decided to help Chute.

"He had a vision. He had his concept. He had done more research than most people that I know when he came to me. 'I know what I'm doing. I've got this. I'm a golf teacher.' And what he talked about made some sense.

"Everybody has alignment issues. And there are probably as many alignment aids on the market as there are golf club manufacturers out there. Is he going to make this a go? I don't know. Was it like patenting one of the major pharmaceutical companies? No. It took some time, but golf is fun. I like to play. And it sort of worked out to where I wanted to see what happened."

Chute got approval from the USGA, which is no slam dunk. According to Dick Rugge, the senior technical director for the USGA, "approximately 1,000 golf balls and about 2,000 golf clubs are submitted to the USGA for conformance evaluation each year."

Chute said the ball works by placing it on the tee so the vertical line is aimed at the target. The horizontal line serves as a reference point for swing path and clubface.

There is a mental component to the ball, Chute said, in that over time it helps golfers visualize the proper swing.

Since a player cannot touch his ball in the fairway or rough, it is only of use on the tee and on the greens.

"If I gave you perfect alignment on 18 tee shots and 18 putts, that's 36 strokes with perfect alignment," he said. "And that helps with better alignment on the other shots. It sets into motion an improvement mechanism that comes from experience."

There are some huge hurdles to overcome, however. Chute has a Web site (universalalignment.com) and sells the balls in both right-handed and left-handed versions. But if somebody wanted 10,000 of them today, he couldn't fill the order. And so far, the big manufacturers have not come along to make an offer.

"Access to the market is probably what he needs most," Leetzow said. "If he can associate the process he's come up with major manufacturer, I think he'd do well.