Michelle Penney, the changing face of TaylorMade

TaylorMade engineer Michelle Penney on designing Stealth, losing shoes following Tiger, and her love of a dirty workshop.

We sat down with Michelle Penney, an engineer who has been with TaylorMade for 14 years, to talk about making waves in the golf industry, how she made the switch from designing cars to golf clubs, as well as her aspiration to inspire the next generation of girls to see engineering as a fun and fulfilling career.           

I’ve been a Product Development Engineer at TaylorMade for 14 years, before that I designed Nissan and Honda cars.

I’m responsible for the performance of the clubs we produce. I make CAD models of the tech coming in from our advanced design and industrial design teams; my aim is to meet the performance targets set by our product creation group. I’m a funnel for lots of things, I’ll look at the sound and feel of products as well as how shots launch into the air.

I’ve always loved maths.

I was a studious kid at school, but smart girls were told they’d become doctors – there was never mention of going into engineering. At college I realised I hated biology, it just wasn’t my calling. I was good at physics, so when a school councillor asked what I’d like to do, I spoke of my love of cars, she reckoned engineering could be something to aim for. I was like, “Ok, I can do something I’m passionate about and good at…” I decided then to work within a car environment.

The TaylorMade Stealth Plus driver

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I put my resume up online and waited to see what happened.  

I had five years of experience working for Nissan in San Diego and Honda in Los Angeles before switching to golf. The hours were long, which I didn’t mind when I was young and single, but I missed home and I wanted to get married and have children. I’d never played golf before, yet TaylorMade contacted me and invited me to interview.

I knew nothing about golf, but the game ignited a spark within me.

I was a very good CAD designer and a good engineer, I also had lots of experience working with designers and applying that knowledge realistically to designs that were mechanically sound and could realistically be made. There are lots of things that translate from the automotive industry to golf really well.

The crowd went nuts, it was emotional investment of the highest order.

I got hired in 2008, and we got tickets for the 2008 US Open at Torrey Pines. It was the first live golf I’d watched, it was incredible seeing Tiger and Rocco Mediate in the playoff.

I remember Tiger using two irons as crutches, I was thinking this guy just isn’t human. I lost a shoe as we ran to see him make the final putt at 18. I was like, “OMG, I get to design product for people doing this?!”

It was such a cool thing for me. It set the bar high, but I was all-in with golf, I wanted to learn the game and get good at it, I’ve never looked back and I’ve loved golf ever since.

The Stealth driver face

The nerds are tucked away downstairs at the TaylorMade HQ in Carlsbad, California.              

It’s like you work at NASA, we’re tucked away behind a door you need two key cards to access. On my induction the recruiter couldn’t even take me through the door, that’s how secretive the stuff we work on is. We love breaking stuff, getting dirty, tinkering and cranking away at different projects in R&D.

I don’t know if I’m cutting stuff open, measuring thicknesses and investigating stuff that I could do it in a super clean room. We’re looking at renovating the TaylorMade building and it’s cool to have input into what the space should look like. TaylorMade is the technical epicentre of the golf industry any new R&D space should represent that.  

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One year I will work on premium drivers, the next maybe a family of rescues or women’s product.

It’s important for us as designers and engineers not to become bored and stagnant by just looking after one category, so we switch it up every year. It sounds cliché but my favourite project has to be the Stealth. It was our most challenging and most collaborative by far. Emotionally the amount invested nearly killed us, but the passion shows through. It was so demanding and is so different in the market, I’m very proud of our achievements.

Michelle Penney TaylorMade Engineer

They’re very smart people but we had two engineers working on the Stealth driver face for 20 years.

It’s difficult to comprehend, but the work put in was phenomenal. Creating a carbon fibre face that performs better and is durable enough to hit thousands of golf balls at 110+mph but also coming up with a cover to control spin when conditions were wet or dry is massive levels of work. So huge in fact the project almost got shelved.

Me and my team were responsible for the face layup and cosmetic, others came up with a head shape that worked globally.  

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It’s a watershed moment for the company, you want to be involved in products that impact the industry like Stealth.

Just because of the nature of Stealth you had to work way harder than you ever had before. Everyone who worked on it is super proud of Stealth, and now it’s in the marketplace it’s lovely to see consumers resonate with it. Our message is clear, and it’s backed up by performance.

During the development process, it’s easy to get consumed by every detail, and forget what you’re making will change the industry, I’m in the excited and proud post-launch stage now.

The TaylorMade Stealth Driver

It feels great to have come from back of house to front house, but I’ve always been comfortable in male dominated environments.      

I’m just cutting my baby teeth on this type of forward-facing role and speaking to the media, but I was the first woman hired into each of the three jobs I had in the automotive industry. I was also the first female engineer at TaylorMade (they hired another 3-months after Michelle’s appointment).

We were a bit of a unicorn, we just didn’t exist in the industry, I’m also not a scratch golfer, but instead of shutting that way TaylorMade have embraced us. Over time they’ve recognised the value we bring, they’ve supported us and we’ve learned from each other.

“This looks amazing, but what are you doing for women?”

Back in a time when TaylorMade were owned by adidas I and 100 male employees attended a presentation about the apparel to be launched the following season. The representative explained all about the better materials but everything, even down to the imagery, was focused at men.

I asked what was being done for women, the response was “we’re focusing on serious golfers right now”. Everyone in the room knew that wasn’t the right answer, women can be just as serious golfers as men.

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The TaylorMade Kalea Premier family

I’m a horrible golfer but I love the game. 

Golf because of its tradition, history and exclusivity tends to treat women as different golfers, as an industry we haven’t been trained to think on the same terms for men and women. We’ve come a long way and I’m so grateful to be part of the change.

I’m happy being that person (along with others) that has pushed my way through the industry, so when we hire women now it’s a much less daunting to be a female. Trust me the days of TaylorMade taking a Burner Plus driver and changing the paint fill from red to aqua are well and truly over.

I’m not sure I’d know what to do in a room full of women.    

I have three boys at home, I’m just so used to being around men, a roomful of women would probably kick me out. I’m all over an adventure though, if somebody told me when I was a teenager this was going to be my path I would never have believed them. I would have signed up for the journey instantly though.

I mean I get to do something I’m passionate about, go to new places and speak to people with such different perspectives to me, that sounds like a successful career to me, I’m all over that.

We do engineering in golf.            

If my story reaches girls who’ve been told because they’re smart they’re going to be a doctor, that would just be the absolute icing on the career cake. I’d love to let young girls know this is an industry you can get passionate about, and the more women involved in the industry will only make the game better. 

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