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Keeping it in the Family

By: Tony Dear


Wander around the Nordic Heritage Museum in Seattle’s Ballard neighborhood and you eventually come across a scaled-down version of an actual 1930s shoe repair shop. Behind a table, covered with the various tools of his trade, stands a large photograph showing the shop’s owner, Karsten Solheim. The shop is small, and business, it seems, is slow. But Solheim has a look about him that suggests an intensely ambitious and industrious character. It’s the look of a man who knows he’s going places.

Solheim, a native of Bergen, Norway, who arrived in the U.S. at the age of 2, did indeed reach those places, but not as a cobbler. Instead, he used the engineering skills he would later acquire, a love of golf and a burning desire to create the game’s finest clubs to become one of the golf equipment industry’s great pioneers. In the process, he amassed a fortune which, at the time of his death in February 2000, was said to be worth $500 million. You don’t make that sort of cash gluing soles and stitching uppers.

Solheim didn’t start playing the game until he was 42. Working on Atlas Missile guidance systems for General Electric in Ithaca, N.Y., he accepted an invitation from colleagues to join them for a few holes. He was instantly hooked but, like most beginners, didn’t fare too well. “I took ten swings and missed the ball ten times,” he recalled later. Clearly, his swing had flaws but it was an inability to putt that exasperated him the most.

Solheim believed much of the blame lay with his putter. A blade-style, typical of putters from that era, its head had a habit of twisting when the ball was struck off-center. Solheim started experimenting with the head’s shape and soon discovered the Moment of Inertia (MOI), an object’s resistance to twisting, could be significantly increased by positioning lead weights at either end of the putter head. With its greater stability he was able to keep the putter face square to the target even when he miss-hit the ball slightly. The result? More holed putts. Heel-toe weighting, the forerunner to perimeter weighting in irons (another Solheim innovation), was born.

He gave no thought, however, to mass-producing his invention. “I experimented with my putter to play better myself,” he said. “There was never any intention of manufacturing it.”

From Ithaca, Solheim moved to Syracuse where he worked on portable television sets and rabbit ear antennas. In 1956 he relocated again, this time to Palo Alto, Calif., joining scientists from Stanford University Research Institute and Bank of America personnel in producing the world’s first banking computer system. It was in California that Solheim’s unconventional putter got its first ringing endorsement. Pat Mahoney watched one day as Solheim practiced his putting at Palo Alto Golf Club. After trying the bizarre looking implement himself, the club’s professional told Solheim that, with a few refinements, he would sell a million.

“Whatever you do, though, don’t give up your day job,” Mahoney cautioned. He knew a golf club’s appearance influenced how well it sold, and this one didn’t look good.

Solheim wisely kept banking his monthly paychecks, but started selling putters out of his Redwood City garage after hours. By 1959, the year Solheim began commuting to the General Electric plant in Phoenix, Ariz., the various prototype putters had evolved into his fledgling enterprise’s first recognized product, the 1A. Solheim also called it the Ping Putter on account of the high-pitched sound it made at impact. The name stuck. Interest was high and, before long, club professionals from as far away as Wisconsin and Florida were placing orders.

Solheim’s move to Phoenix became permanent in 1961. There, he continued with his garage sales, began tinkering with irons and woods, and gained a reputation as the game’s first clubfitter by altering loft and lie angles (angle between shaft and ground) of clubs belonging to big-name professionals in town each January for the Phoenix Open.

But the focus of his operation remained putters. In 1966, Solheim introduced the famed Anser. Demand was sufficient, he felt, for him to now go it alone as a golf club manufacturer. Thus, in 1967 he set up shop in a 2,200-square-foot unit in the northwest section of Phoenix, incorporated as Karsten Manufacturing Corporation and started mass-producing Ping brand putters.

“My parents told me I was mad to leave GE after 14 years,” he said in a 1992 interview. “But it turned out pretty well.”

Ya, for sure.

Today, thanks largely to the incredible success of the Anser and the EYE 2 Iron of which over a million sets have been sold, Ping’s Phoenix headquarters occupy an entire city block. Sales are approaching $200 million a year and the firm employs approximately 1,300 people around the globe.

The present chairman and CEO is the founder’s youngest son, John A. Solheim, who took over from his father in June 1995. John’s brother Allan is an executive vice president while his other brother Louis and sister Sandra have both retired from the company. John K., the boss’s eldest son, is a vice president of engineering.

“Unlike most other golf manufacturers, we're a private, family-based business that still operates the same way it did in my father’s day,” says John A. “We prefer it like that as we don't have to answer to stockholders or meet quarterly targets which often causes bigger companies to do things that damage the brand.”

History and structure aren’t the only ways Ping differs from its much larger, publicly listed competitors. Rather than take advantage of cheaper labor costs by having its components manufactured in Chinese and other Southeast Asian foundries, Ping, which as a sideline cast metallic parts for the aerospace industry during the 1980s and ‘90s, prefers to source its clubheads from the foundry it owns in Phoenix.

As John A. explains, “We do have a bag facility in Mexico and some of our driver heads are made in Australia and Thailand, but virtually all our other products are made in the U.S., which is unusual in today’s market. The foundry we own produces all our iron and putter heads, which has several advantages: no duties, no language barrier and we can keep a much closer eye on the production process.”

It’s a policy that may have lost the company some ground to giants like Titleist, Callaway and TaylorMade in terms of profit and market share during the last dozen years or so, but for the Solheims, past and present, Ping has always been about quality.

“My father said if you build a better product the dollars will take care of themselves,” says John A. “We are not focused solely on the bottom line here. We try to build the best clubs available and provide the best customer service. If you're just chasing money, you’ve got the wrong goal.”

Lee Westwood, leading money winner on the European Tour in 2000, has used Pings for 17 years and swears by them. “I started with EYE 2s when I was 13, but switched to Zing 2s in 1994, my rookie season. I’ve always liked Pings and can see no reason to ever change.”

Nor, a few rungs further down the world rankings, can 15-handicap Stuart Walker from North Yorkshire, England, who has played Pings for as long as he can remember. “Callaway and TaylorMade are probably making the best clubs nowadays, but Pings are right there with them,” he says. “Their clubs always feel great and are very forgiving. Sometimes I actually think it’s hard to hit a bad shot with them.”

For a company whose stated reason for existence has always been to build clubs that make the game easier, that’s testimony indeed.

Ping Timeline

1959 – 1A putter, or Ping Putter, introduced.

1960s – Karsten Solheim begins calibrating loft and lie angle on pros’ clubs. Leads to introduction of Ping’s Color Code Custom-Fitting system.

1962 – Patent No. 3,042,405 for heel-toe weighting issued. John Barnum becomes first player to win on PGA Tour using a Ping putter (Cajun Classic).

1966 – Anser, the world’s all-time best-selling putter, is launched.

1967 – Karsten Solheim leaves General Electric and incorporates as Karsten Manufacturing Corporation. Sets up small factory in northwest Phoenix.

1969 – ‘K’ Series irons introduced; first-ever Ping irons, first-ever perimeter-weighted irons, first irons to be made by Investment Cast (Lost Wax) process.

1982 – EYE 2 introduced. Becomes best-selling iron ever.

1988 – All four majors won with Ping putters.

1989 – Mark Calcavecchia wins British Open with EYE 2s.

1998 – Company introduces first completely custom-fit metal woods.

2000 and 2001 – i3 irons are the No. 1 selling irons in U.S.



This story originally appeared in CNN Traveller Magazine.

The above photo of Karsten Solheim is courtesy of Seattle's Nordic Heritage Museum. For more information about the museum, the only one in the U.S. honoring immigrants from Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Norway and Sweden, please visit http://www.nordicmuseum.com.

Tony Dear has been writing about golf for 11 years. A former assistant club pro from Sussex, England, Tony started out as a freelancer in 1992 before taking a staff writer’s job at Fore!, a magazine based in Peterborough. As the magazine’s chief instruction writer, it was Tony’s job to compose instructional articles aimed at a youngish readership whose letters to the editor suggested they often got confused by technical jargon and theory. Tony bought his simple approach to teaching golf to the magazine, helping boost sales by 10,000 issues. As a result, he was nominated within the company and nationally for Young Writer of the Year awards.

From there, Tony moved 20 yards across the Emap UK office to join Today’s Golfer. There, he was soon promoted to a senior editorial position, focusing on equipment, and became a significant part of a team that saw sales figures double within the magazine’s first 12 months.

After three years at Emap UK, Tony was dragged kicking and screaming across the Atlantic by his American wife ("not really, I love it over here") and, after short spells in Phoenix and Denver, wound up in Seattle in May 2003. He recently moved to Bellingham in the far northwest corner of the far Northwest of the U.S. and became a father to a son on whom he has already staked £5 for the 2029 Open Championship. At present, he is freelancing for a number of print and online publications back in England including Today’s Golfer, Golf World, Bogey, The Open Championship Magazine and Casino.com. He is also a contributing editor for Denver-based Colorado AvidGolfer.

Recent features include a look at Colorado’s self proclaimed ‘links’ courses, an interview with Suzy Whaley, with whom he played nine holes ("and got soundly thrashed") and a 64-page instruction supplement for Today’s Golfer.

Tony has authored three books in the last five years and been nominated for several specialist and young writers awards. "Although I’ve never actually won one," he admits. He is a member of the Northwest Golf Media Association and the Golf Travel Writers Association based in London.

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