The Life & Times of a Golf Club Maker

By: Tony Dear


Fifty years ago, a Norwegian immigrant built a rather odd-looking putter and forever changed the way the game is played.

It's likely that golfers of a certain age still have an old Anser putter in their bags or at least have access to one from a deep pile of old discarded sticks stashed away in a corner of the garage. If they don't actually possess one of their own, they will certainly be familiar with the guy at their club who purchased a Scottsdale Anser 40 years ago and has somehow managed to hold on to it (every club has one). They will also own a set of color-coded EYE-2 irons, or know somebody who does.

We can say this with some certainty because the Anser and the EYE-2 are two of the most popular golf clubs in the history of the game. In the mid-1980s, the EYE-2 commanded a 40% share of the iron market, while the Anser was only a percentage point or two behind in the putter category. Of course, these and countless other innovative clubs were all conceived, designed, developed and manufactured by Ping, which celebrates its 50th anniversary this year.

Karsten Manufacturing Corporation (KMC), which owns the Ping brand and other subsidiaries, put on a huge picnic at its Phoenix headquarters for its 1,000 employees and their families in late February 2009, but considers January 15th as its actual birthday, as that was the date in 1959 when founder Karsten Solheim shipped his first club - the heel-toe-weighted 1-A putter.

No one at the company (Karsten passed away in 2000) today remembers where that first shipment was headed or how many putters were in the box. But we do know that whichever club pro purchased the intriguing new club, and intended selling it in his shop, was taking something of a risk.

Six years in development, the 1-A looked quite unlike the standard blade putters of the day and, of course, made a rather strange, high-pitched "ping" sound at impact. And though Solheim went to great lengths at times to prove that his theory of heel-toe weighting prevented the putterhead from twisting at impact and thus helped golfers strike the ball more solidly, many people who saw it for the first time considered the 1-A far too ugly and unconventional to actually work.

Seeds for the putter's design sprouted in 1953 soon after Solheim played his first round of golf. He took to the game immediately, but was frustrated by his putterhead's habit of twisting at impact. Keen on tennis, Solheim knew that the power generated from the middle of his racket came courtesy of perimeter weighting - the distribution of the head's weight to the rim which surrounded the actual point of contact with the ball - and he was sure the concept could be applied just as successfully to golf clubs as tennis rackets.

A natural-born engineer who had worked at Ryan Aviation where he helped develop the Fireball Jet Fighter, and Convair where he worked on the Atlas Missile project, Solheim was now dreaming up guidance and radar systems for General Electric in Ithaca, N.Y. He would later be transferred to Syracuse where he worked on portable televisions and invented the rabbit ears antenna. In 1956, the company moved him again, this time to Palo Alto in California where by day he joined scientists from Stanford University Research Institute and Bank of America personnel in devising the world's first banking computer, and then work on his putters at night.

"We actually lived in the Flamingo Motel in Palo Alto for six months while our house in Redwood City was being built," says John A. Solheim, the youngest of Karsten's four children and now KMC's Chairman, President and CEO. "My father did a lot of work in the kitchen, using the oven burners to heat the clubs, but there was no kitchen at the motel, so no work got done." When the house in Redwood City was completed, production in the garage workshop began in earnest with Karsten grinding the heads and John drilling holes for the shafts.

"My dad loved tinkering in the garage," John A. remembers. "He was a phenomenal engineer. He would come home from work every day and we'd sit down to dinner shortly afterwards. Then he'd watch the news before going to the garage. My bedroom was on the side of the garage and there was a window between the two. Every night, after finishing my homework and getting ready for bed, I'd get a rap on the window and he'd say it was time to go to work."

Two years after settling in California, Karsten was on the practice putting green at Palo Alto Golf Course. Club professional Pat Mahoney watched intently. "He was very impressed with how well my father was putting," says John A. "He was fascinated with the putter and said that if my dad could build one that achieved a better roll on the putting surface, he'd sell a million."

Encouraged, Karsten took out a $1,100 loan to finance his home-based operation and, after moving again, to Phoenix, allowed John to take over production entirely. "I was still in high school when we moved to Arizona in '61," he says. "I took over production completely and realized then that this would probably be my future. We had a few people helping make the putters now, including Rick Heppler who is still with us. His father was a machinist at GE who worked with my father."

Following John Barnum's win with a Ping 69 at the Cajun Classic in 1962, and the introduction in 1966 of the Anser (dubbed the "Plumber's Nightmare" for its unique hosel design but that helped Julius Boros win the Phoenix Open just a few months later), plus the launch of roughly 20 other models in between the two, demand for Ping's distinctive but inarguably effective putters reached a point that necessitated two manufacturing shifts at the Karsten house.

John decided to leave Arizona State University after a couple of years' studying "machining and tool-making" in order to work for his father full-time. Karsten, meanwhile, formed a one-man R&D department not only to design new putters but also develop the idea he had hatched in 1961of applying perimeter-weighting to irons. Part of that R&D involved going out into the Arizona desert with John, who would drive the car at 100 mph while his father held prototype ironheads out the window to check the drag caused by a typical professional's swing.

Another significant development in 1966 was Karsten's decision to leave General Electric despite his father's insistence that he not quit the well-paid position. In July 1967, Karsten incorporated his own manufacturing business, setting up shop in a 2,200-square-foot warehouse in northwest Phoenix. "When I moved into that little room, I felt like a king," he told one reporter at the time. Within a year he had 30 employees and within two years sales had risen from $50,000 to $500,000.

In 1969, the company's first iron, the K1, was launched. Featuring a gouge in the back of the clubhead that pushed the weight to the perimeter and therefore improved the club's Moment of Inertia (MOI), and cast from 17-4 ph stainless steel, the K1 was, like the putters that preceded it, a true original. Holding fast to the belief that performance was considerably more important than cosmetics, Karsten refused to add chrome plating to his irons and heat-treated the clubs so they would resist corrosion and could be adjusted for loft and lie, a process that eventually led to the introduction of Ping's famous color-coding system in 1972 and the company's loft and lie gauge being awarded a patent in 1973. The K2, K3 and K4 irons soon followed and then, in 1978, the original EYE iron - which Minnesotan Jerilyn Britz used to win the U.S. Women's Open - in 1979.

The year 1982 saw the launch of the EYE-2, which wasted little time in becoming the best-selling iron in the world with well over a million sets sold to high-handicappers, touring professionals (okay, the pros probably didn't buy them) and everyone in between. That success, the development of the game's first lob wedge in 1984 and the continued prominence of the company's putters - Larry Nelson's win at the 1987 PGA Championship was the 25th major title for Ping putters and in 1988 Ping models were used to win all four major championships - plus Bob Tway's victory at the 1986 PGA Championship (first major win by a staff player) and Mark Calcavecchia's British Open triumph in 1989 combined to make the 1980s perhaps Ping's most successful decade to date.

But it wasn't all fun in the Valley of the Sun. In 1984, Karsten had taken advantage of the United States Golf Association's (USGA) 1981 ruling allowing square grooves, and he incorporated them into the faces of the EYE-2 iron. Because these U-shaped grooves damaged balls more easily than their V-shaped counterparts, however, Ping rounded off the edges, making them five-thousandths of an inch too wide according to the USGA, which moved to ban the club at their competitions from 1990 onwards.

Convinced the USGA's method for measuring the distance between the grooves was "arbitrary, inconsistent, unreliable and not a recognized standard of measurement," and that the ban violated antitrust laws, Karsten consequently filed a $100-million lawsuit against the USGA, which was eventually dropped after the two parties settled out of court. He reached a similar settlement - prior to the case going before a jury - with the PGA Tour, which also threatened to ban the use of the club at its tournaments. The agreement reached stated that EYE-2s manufactured before March 31, 1990, would remain legal but that Ping would cease making the club with the violating groove pattern. It was an arrangement most people believe worked in Ping's favor.

Even so, the saga took its toll on the aging Karsten Solheim. "The whole groove issue in the late '80s and early '90s affected my father badly," said John A. "He really took it to heart. In fact he pretty much stopped designing clubs for a while."

Almost as distressing was the realization that other equipment manufacturers were now paying players exorbitant sums of money to play their products and that Ping would soon be forced to drop the pool system it had used to issue bonuses to staff players for the previous 25 years. "Basically, the best performers among our staff players got the biggest rewards," says Ping's Director of Communications Pete Samuels. "Players had to have at least 12 Ping clubs and carry the staff bag to qualify for the pool. If two players had very similar seasons, the one with more Ping clubs got the bigger bonus."

Despite the ongoing legal wrangling with the PGA Tour and the need to increase player endorsement fees, the 1990s began well with the launch of the Solheim Cup, the ladies' version of the Ryder Cup. But in the increasingly competitive equipment wars, Ping began losing significant market share in both the iron and putter categories. By the mid-'90s it was clear significant changes were necessary if the company was ever again be the industry's most successful manufacturer.

Karsten, now in his 80s, stepped down as President and CEO and handed the reigns over to John A., who began with the unfortunate task of overseeing the company's first layoffs in 30 years. On a happier note, Ping became far savvier at marketing its clubs and accessories and, in 1996, launched the ISI, the first Ping iron made of nickel. Also that year, Karsten was honored by the PGA of America with the Ernie Sabayrac Award for lifetime contributions to the game. In 1997, the Isopur putter insert debuted and the total number of tour wins achieved with Ping putters topped 1,800. In 1998, every single player at the NCAA Division 1 Championships carried a Ping bag, and the company saw the successful launch of its first oversized metal wood, the TiSI, which featured variable face thickness. The i3 iron in 1999 didn't quite enjoy sales figures comparable to its predecessor, but it too become the best-selling iron in the U.S.

Thus far, the 21st century has been a period of strong recovery for Ping, not only from the effect of increased competition but also the death on February 16, 2000, of Karsten Solheim following complications from Parkinson's Disease. In 2001, John A's son, John K., was appointed VP of Engineering after graduating from ASU with a degree in Mechanical Engineering and an Executive MBA. Responsible for 60 engineers, John K. has supervised the introduction of numerous critically acclaimed products, including the Craz-E putter, the G2 range of woods and irons, the G5 range, the G10 range, the multi-material Rapture and Rapture V2 drivers, and the company's custom-fitting software, nFlight.

Despite the onset of the current bear market in the second half of last year, and continued frustration with the USGA (John A. insists the organization makes more demands of them than the military used to make of Karsten Manufacturing which, in the '80s and '90s, produced aircraft and weapons parts in its Phoenix foundry), Ping, and John A. in particular, anticipate great times ahead. "Today is a very exciting time for us and the industry as a whole because the tools used to analyze equipment are so good," he says. "Just by making small tweaks, we can affect great improvements. My father moved ounces around the clubhead, we can only move grams so the improvements we can make today aren't as great perhaps, but there is still room. And there will always be the need for innovation because as the golf ball changes, so clubs need to change and vice versa.

"When TaylorMade believed they had gotten as far as they could go with the metal-headed driver, that opened the door for Callaway," he continues. "When Callaway believed they had gotten as big as they could go and started producing smaller heads, that opened a door for us and others. You can never think you've reached the limit."

As for that bear market, Solheim defers to Samuels, who admits that times are tough but that Ping, still a family-owned business that employs roughly 1,000 people at its two Phoenix plants, is more than capable of riding out the storm. "We think we are as well-positioned as anyone because of our business model," he adds. "The custom-build aspect is a real advantage for the retailer who doesn't have to maintain a high inventory in his shop. He just fits the consumer, sends the order and the clubs are delivered within 48 hours. It's a system that works well for everybody."

And it's just one of the many reasons why Ping is likely to be around in another 50 years.

Tony Dear is an Englishman living in Bellingham, Wash. In the early 1990s he was a member of the Liverpool University golf team which played its home matches at Royal Liverpool GC. Easy access to Hoylake made it increasingly difficult for him to focus on Politics (his chosen major) and, after dropping out, he ended up teaching golf at a club just south of London where he also made a futile attempt at becoming a "player." He moved into writing when it became abundantly clear he had no business playing the game for a living. A one-time golf correspondent of the New York Sun, Tony is a member of the Golf Writers Association of America, the Pacific Northwest Golf Media Association and the Golf Travel Writers Association. In 2009, Tony won first place for Editorial/Opinion in the ING Media Awards for Cybergolf. The article (http://www.cybergolf.com/golf_newsa_euros_take_on_the_2008_ryder_cup_matches) that impressed the judges was the one about Europe's Ryder Cup team and Captain Nick Faldo's decision to pick Paul Casey and Ian Poulter rather than Darren Clarke.


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