Inventing a Better Golf Club (Part 2)

I met Karsten Solheim my first year on the PGA Tour—in 1964. I was taking a week’s break from the Tour by playing in the Arizona State Open golf tournament, which I eventually won. My closest friend and previous teammate and roommate at the University of Houston—Babe Hiskey—took me and other PGA Tour player Al Kelly to Karsten’s house in Scottsdale, Arizona, to meet him. It was quite an experience, and it was the beginning of many more I had with Karsten and his lovely wife, Louise. Despite Karsten being an engineering genius, Louise was every bit Karsten’s match regarding wisdom. They made a good team.

That first putter Karsten made was one of the ugliest golf clubs I have ever seen. Its putter head was a long, rectangular-shaped brass bar with a steel golf shaft attached to the top of its middle rather than at one end like other clubs. Every time you hit a putt with it the club head made a distinct, loud, ringing noise that reverberated for a few seconds. It sounded like a tuning fork or some percussion musical instrument. Because of that pinging noise, Karsten called it “the Ping putter.” Rather than inserting it into a golf bag, I thought it needed to be inserted into an orchestra! The first time I putted with it, I looked up, looked its inventor in the eye, smiled, and wondered if he was just a little bit cookhoo. No joke!

Right away, serious Mr. PING started trying to convince me of his precious invention. I thought this was getting hilarious when he then handed me another one of his putter contraptions. This one looked even uglier than the other one. It had a big, rectangular, aluminum head, also shaped as a rectangular bar, with four large holes drilled from top to nearly the bottom. Its swing weight was way too light. And there was a strange-looking, V-shaped wire attached to the toe and heel of the backside of its putter head that came back behind it forming a little loop at the end of the V.

Karsten then placed a standard sized, 11”x8.5,” white sheet of paper on the floor and taped it there so that it couldn’t move. Then he put a golf ball in the middle of this sheet of paper. Next, he took two lead weights from his pocket and inserted both of them into the two holes on this putter head that were nearest its center. As one might expect, these lead weights fit perfectly into any of those four holes. Then Karsten took a black magic marker pen and inserted it vertically into that wire loop behind the club head so that it remained securely attached. With the added lead weights, the putter was now the normal swing weight for a putter, making it ready to use.

Karsten then had me putt that ball with the middle of the putter face making contact. That’s the center of gravity which golfers often call “the sweet spot.” Of course, that ensures a “solid hit.” When I did hit the ball, the magic marker made a black line on the paper. That line was slightly curved, revealing the inside curving path of my natural putting stroke until the putter face struck the ball. After that, the black line on the paper wavered slightly for about an inch or a little more. Karsten had me hit more putts to see that the line usually wavered just a little after each hit, and it was usually the same on each putt.

Then Karsten took the lead weights out of those two middle holes in the top of the putter head and inserted them into the other two holes—one on the toe of the club head and the other on the heel of the club head. He put a new sheet of white paper on the floor and had me hit the ball again. To my amazement, when I struck the ball with the middle of the putter face the magic marker line didn’t waver at all. I hit more putts with the weights inserted that way and they always produced a very smooth line.

Next, Karsten took the weights out of those end holes and put them back into the middle holes. And he placed another new sheet of paper on the floor. He then told me to hit a putt in the toe of the club head. I did, and the black, magic marker line that reflected the hit went bezerk! At the place in the line where I had made contact with the ball, the line then made a very noticeable curve towards me and then wiggled back and forth for a few inches, with the width of those wiggles decreasing until the line was smooth again. The result was this toe hit was that the ball went to the right of where I was aiming.

My mouth dropped open and I was in shock. This time I looked at this Mr. Solheim fellow very serious like. I no longer was smiling at him, thinking he was cookhoo. Instead, I started thinking I was standing in the presence of a genius. Right then, I was absolutely convinced that my new friend had “built a better mouse trap” so to speak.

What was happening? With the two weights in the two center holes, when I hit the ball on the toe of the club head it immediately twisted and opened up for a split second before the ball left the face of the club head, so that the club face was aiming to the right when the ball left the face and the ball went to the right of my target. And when I hit the ball in the heel of the club head, it twisted just the opposite making the ball roll to the left of my target. In other words, hitting the putt in the toe caused the club face to open, and hitting the putt in the heel caused the club face to close. The magic marker showed that this was happening each time. That was proof-positive evidence of what was happening.

Karsten said this phenomenon was similar to a male tightrope walker grasping a long, heavy pole at its middle and walking across the tightrope with it. He explained that to walk a tightrope with the pole rather than without it was easier because the weight of the pole had caused the total weight of both the man and the pole to be distributed farther away from the tightrope, making it easier for the man to stay balanced.

I never did use that first pinging putter, mostly because I couldn’t get used to how ugly it looked. But eventually I was using other PING putters Karsten developed which had more eye appeal. By then, he was accepting the fact that making a golf club that people will use must have some eye appeal and therefore not depend only on some engineering principle. People usually described Karsten’s putters as having “toe-heel balance.”

About a year later, Karsten came out on Tour with a set of forged irons for right-handed golfers since most people play golf right-handed, as I do. These clubs had the same perimeter weighting principle built into them as his putters did, but with a different look. The back of those iron heads had a sizable cavity, as if it was hollowed out with a drill. This design resulted in that portion of the club face that had grooves on it being quite thin. And the outside edges all around this club head were quite thick. I liked the look of those irons as you addressed the ball with them. They were cast iron and chrome plated, like all iron clubs made by major golf club manufacturers back then. Now, Karsten didn’t seem to me like the crazy scientist who came from another planet, maybe the one Superman flew away from.

But, alas, there was still something about these new iron clubs that was vintage Karsten. Yes, these, too, were weird. Each club had a bend in the shaft right at the end of the rubber grip. So, when you addressed the ball with one of those clubs, it was as if your hands were aiming ahead of the ball by six inches or more. Until you got used to them, you would naturally play the ball farther back in your stance. Either way, for pros and scratch amateurs this club caused their shots to hook.

But that’s exactly what Mr. PING wanted! Most golfers slice, and they hate it. So, for the first time a golf club had been invented that would straighten out a golfer’s disdainful banana ball. Amateurs loved it. I think Karsten was seeing dollar signs.

Karsten then informed me that the bent shaft in his new irons reflected another engineering principle. He said, it is easier to pull an object than to push it.” He cited the example of a (motor) vehicle pulling a cart. He also said it is easier to pull a wheelbarrow than to push it. Karsten Solheim was always seeing things the rest of us didn’t see. PGA Touring pro John Schlee used to say, “Ask Karsten Solheim for the time of day, and he’ll tell you how to build a watch.”

Yes, Karsten had another weird way of demonstrated this other engineering principle to me. He took a coat hanger, straightened it out, and bent it near the last few inches of its other end to assimilate the appearance of a golf shaft with a club head on that other end. Then he had me to hold the end of the straight end of this coat hanger with my two hands, as if I was gripping a golf club. He then placed the middle of the other end of the coat hanger, which assimilated a club head, against a leg of a table in the living room of his house, which, of course, would remain stationary. The table leg crudely substituted for making contact with a golf ball.

Karsten then told me to move my hands gripping the coat hanger forward a little as if I was swinging a golf club on the forward swing. When I did so, that portion of the coat hanger which assimilated a golf shaft would bend forward due to the pressure I was exerting. The other end of the coat hanger, which assimilated the club head and was against the table leg, would easily and quickly slide either toward its heel or its toe. If it slid toward its heel, that bent portion of the coat hanger which assimilated the hosel of an iron club head remained wrapped against the table leg and in a closed position, thus aiming left of where it aimed before I exerted that forward pressure. But if the assimilated club head moved toward its toe it would open up and instantly lose contact with the table leg.

Karsten’s point about this portion of the demonstration was that by me applying pressure, as in the forward motion of a golf swing, the assimilated club head at the other end of the coat hanger easily and quickly slid into either a closed or open position. He said this demonstrated that when a golfer hits iron shots in the heel or toe, ball contact instantly causes the club face to close or open, respectively. Thus, it did what he had demonstrated to me three years earlier with his lead weight putter contraption.

But then Karsten took this assimilated golf club made out of a coat hanger from me and put another bend in it. He bent it where the bottom of my grip was and similar to the bend in the shafts of his new irons clubs. He then had me grip it again, and again, he placed its assimilated club head against the table leg. And again, he told me to move my gripping hands forward a few inches as in making the forward motion of a golf swing.

As I did, the assimilated club head remained in its original position against the table leg. Thus, it did not slide toward the heel or toe unless I applied more pressure. Again, I was amazed. Karsten said this phenomenon was similar to a vehicle pulling a wheeled cart.

When anyone makes a golf club that is new, and therefore different, if s/he wants it to conform to regulations for golf clubs it must be submitted to the USGA or Royal and Ancient Golf Club for approval. Of course, Karsten wanted this iron club to conform because he was thinking of the possibility of manufacturing and selling it to the public. So, he submitted it to the USGA. The USGA approved the hollow cavity in the back of this iron club head, but it ruled that the bent shaft did not conform to regulations. Karsten was very disappointed that the USGA declared the bent shaft on his new iron clubs “illegal” as popular golfspeak goes. During the late 1980s and early 1990s, when Karsten caused the so-called “square groove” controversy with the USGA, many industry folks believed that Karsten did that partly because the USGA earlier had declared the bent shaft on his iron clubs as “nonconforming.”

Nevertheless, in 1967 Karsten made a bold and very successful decision to quit his job with General Electric and go into the golf club manufacturing business by establishing his own company named Karsten Manufacturing with the brand PING for all of his golf clubs. As soon as he did, I started telling lots of golfers, “Karsten Solheim is going to totally revolutionize the golf club industry.”

That’s exactly what happened—Karsten Solheim revolutionized the golf club making industry, perhaps even more than I thought he would. Look at putters, irons, and metalwoods today: they all have that perimeter weighting principle built into them which Karsten pioneered in the golf club industry. And for many years his company was the foremost leader in this industry and still remains among the leaders today.

(Part 3 next Monday. These Monday golf posts are intended to become a book, entitled Christ on the PGA Tour, in celebration of the fiftieth anniversary of the PGA Tour Bible Study in 2015.)

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