Surfers of UC San Diego: Chuck Golden ’94, PhD ’00

Chuck Golden ’94, PhD ’00 surfing back in the day.

Chuck Golden ’94, PhD ’00

  • College: Warren
  • Major: Mechanical Engineering; PhD Marine Geophysics
  • Hometown: Kailua, Hawaii
  • Currently lives: La Costa, CA
  • Career: Senior Director of Research – Acushnet Company – Titleist Golf Clubs

When did you first learn to surf?

I grew up in Kailua, which is on the east side of Oahu. The waves aren’t very good there, it’s better for windsurfing because it’s windy all the time. But it’s a good place just to learn when you’re a little kid because it’s waist-high, and you can catch a million waves. It’s where you transition from boogie boarding with your family to actually getting a surfboard. Oahu has so many other world-class surf spots that you can graduate to.

Did you know there was a surf team when you decided to come here?

I knew the surf was terrific in San Diego and that Black’s was fantastic. Back in the ’80s, a lot of the surfing magazines had a competitive results section. I’d read the college contest results and see UCSD, Point Loma, Santa Barbara and SDSU.

Did you plan on trying out right when you got here?

I came more for the academics and the college experience. The team was something that I grew into and just showed up to try out. I liked the guys on the team, and at first I was nervous about competing, but eventually enjoyed it. I’d competed in other sports before, but only sparingly. It became second nature when I got comfortable with it personally.

Do you have any favorite memories from days on the team?

For both undergrad and grad school, I was on the surf team for about nine years. I span three generations of the surf team. I don’t really have a favorite memory, but the one thing that I would want someone to take from me is that I was very impressed with the people I met on the surf team. They were such good humans. If you think about it, it’s amazing that we stuck together, as we had all these other obligations with school, and didn’t even have a surf coach at the time.

We had to organize ourselves and be responsible. We showed up and competed at a high level, even though we did very well in school too. Essentially, we were nerds, but we could also surf well. When I think about the people I met during those nine years, they become such good members of our society. We had Jon and Tim Foreman and Chad Butler ’97, the guys that started Switchfoot. Not only were those guys really good surfers, they’re extremely smart and talented. All of a sudden they show up and have us check out their demo tape. Next thing you know, they’re Grammy winning artists, and they’ve done so much for the community here in North County and Encinitas. Amber Puha ’93 has a PhD in mathematics too; she actually has a mathematical theorem that’s named after her.

We won some national titles, but to think about what people have become and how they’ve impacted our society so positively and been such good people–that’s what makes me most proud. There’s not one story or episode. It’s just this collective group of good people that went on to have really good trajectories later on in life that’s so great to me.

What do you love about surfing?

Surfing puts you in uncomfortable situations. Every wave is different. The ocean is different every day.

It’s so addicting because in its purest form, surfing is really about overcoming failure. There are surf schools, but it’s not easy to learn. Now back in the day, they didn’t have schools, and you fell and fell and fell, and did things that didn’t work out. But you slowly got better. And then all of a sudden, you improve.

It’s very difficult to grasp. I think a lot of people go through life expecting everything to be orderly and exactly the way they envision it. In reality, life is chaotic, and it’s a series of near misses. Surfing allows you to deal with that, to deal with change and failure. Embrace the process of getting better because not every day is perfect.

Chuck with his wife and children.

Where did your education take you?

I graduated with a BS in mechanical engineering. Soon after, I applied to get a PhD at UCLA and got accepted into a program called Applied Ocean Science Program. It was a joint program between the UCLA engineering department and Scripps Institute of Oceanography. I was part of the Marine Physical Laboratory. I graduated with a doctorate in marine geophysics. I haven’t looked at it obviously in decades, but I think my diploma actually says “oceanography” because it comes from Scripps. Everything says oceanography, but my degree was actually in marine geophysics, and we did a lot of seismology and imaging.

I did a lot of big data analysis and a lot of modeling, like seismology and geophysics. A lot of the software and code that I was writing also applies to commercial products, like acoustics for automobiles. What was interesting was a job opening in the golf industry up here in North County. My wife was working at Scripps Hospital in La Jolla, so I applied for the job. They were looking for a research engineer, and it turned out that the same modeling techniques and software I was using in grad school, just applied to golf clubs. The company was really interested in how to design the golf club to create a pleasant sound at impact, how to manage vibrations and create good acoustic signatures for their golf clubs.

So I got my foot in the door and worked there for a couple of years, then a job opportunity opened up at Titleist in North County for a research manager to build a research team. This’ll be the end of my 17th year there.

I could have done something automotive, aerospace, even defense, but I love San Diego. I wanted to stay in North County, and I got my foot in the door with golf and took it from there. At Titleist, we have a full scale CNC shop, like they have down at Jacob’s school. We run a bunch of consumer testing where we bring in people to try different clubs and get their opinions on things.

When people think of golf, they don’t necessarily think of very technical things, but science has been embedded in golf for decades. I’ve been fortunate to get my foot in the door 20 years ago and bridge the gap between golf, business and science.

How did surfing help you in your career journey?

As I’ve gotten older in my career path, I’ve become less of a technical scientist and more of a manager of people. Surfing has helped me because managing people is similar to surfing–you’re never a hundred percent. I wake up every morning going, “You know what? I’ve got to get better at being a manager.” People come from different backgrounds, different cultures, different attitudes, and they even wake up in different moods. My job is to figure out how to get this collective group of individuals to succeed. And I can’t treat them all the same way. They all need to be treated differently, and they all have different parameters or triggers that will help them succeed.

But it’s not like I go into a meeting going with all the right answers. They’re truly the experts doing the work and I’m there to maneuver the group into successful territory. That’s a lot like surfing; you don’t have all the answers when you paddle out. Like I said, the waves are always different. You might have horrendous wipe outs, or you might get great waves. There’s so much unknown both in surfing and in managing people. The process of getting better in your relationships is the same way as in surfing. That’s why surfing is so addicting to a lot of us that were on the team.

What would you share with someone thinking about joining the surf team?

Cherish the relationships. Join the team not just because you like surfing– do it because you’re going to meet probably some of the best humans that you will ever know. To this day, my best friends are from the surf team.

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