Karsten Solheim (Part 1)

Karsten Solheim was born in Norway in 1911. His family emigrated to the U.S. in 1913 and settled in Seattle, Washington. (That’s where I was later born and reared.) Karsten’s dad was a shoe repairman. Karsten’s first job was working for his father soling shoes. But that didn’t seem to satisfy his inquisitive mind, so he soon quit. Surprisingly, he eventually started selling pots and pans door-to-door in Seattle. However, Karsten really wanted to be a mechanical engineer. So, he enrolled one year at the University of Washington. But lack of funds and the war years prevented him from continuing.

One of my favorite stories about Karsten Solheim is told by his lovely wife, Louise. With a twinkle in her eye, she tells about how they met. It was at an evangelistic church service in downtown Seattle. The evangelist preached with much conviction and some citation of scripture. He said young people should marry when they are about twenty years old and then populate the earth.

As the church service ended, Karsten had his eye on Louise, who he had never met. So he came over to her and asked what she thought of the preacher’s message. See replied, “OK.” He then interjected, “I think he’s right about when people should marry. I’m twenty years old. How old are you?” I guess you could say that Karsten didn’t believe in beating around the bush; he liked to get right to the point. Karsten and Louise married three years later. They had three sons and a daughter.

Karsten obtained some university education in California and began working as an engineer for General Electric in the mid-1950s. At 42 years of age, his GE colleagues introduced him to golf. Karsten soon grew fond of the game. He was an average golfer, but that didn’t matter to him. He thought about golf equipment with his innovative, engineering mind.

Karsten soon started a hobby making putters in his two-car garage in Rosewood City, California. His first putter was center-shafted. The club head design was a bar of metal, but with much of its middle hollowed out from top to bottom. When the club head hit the golf ball, it made a pinging noise that reverberated briefly. It sounded sort of like a tuning fork. When you heard it, you wondered if it should be in a golf bag or an orchestra! Karsten received lots of smiles when golfers heard it. Nevertheless, he got a patent on it in 1959 and named it “PING 1A.” Years later, Sports Illustrated magazine called it the “musical” putter.

Louise tells the now renowned story about how Karsten named that first putter he made. She relates, “I remember Karsten came running up the stairs and yelled to me, ‘I’ve got a name for my putter.’ He was so excited, and he put the ball down on the floor, and hit a putt, and it made a distinct P-I-N-G sound. ‘I’m going to call it PING!’ he said. I replied, ‘That’s great, honey, now come eat dinner.’ I always regretted I didn’t say more, because that putter changed our lives. At the time, I didn’t think PING was that great a name, but I guess it was.’’

In 1961, Karsten moved his family from California to Scottsdale, Arizona. I first met Karsten Solheim in 1964 at his Scottsdale home. He was building weird-looking putters in his two-car garage. Then he would personally sell them at the low price of $5 apiece to his friends and us PGA Touring pros when we came to town to compete in the Phoenix Open. In those days, Karsten wouldn’t give his putters away free to anyone, even us pros as all golf club manufacturers did. He had a philosophy about that. Karsten always had a well-thought-out reason for what he did.

Karsten got his sales philosophy from selling those pots and pans in Seattle. He thought if people paid money for a product, no matter how little they paid, they would be serious about trying to use it.

In 1967, Karsten undertook a big risk in his working career. He resigned his position as an engineer at GE, borrowed money from the bank, and founded Karsten Manufacturing Corporation for making his PING golf clubs. Then he moved his golf club business out of his two-car garage at home to the present location. Most people who knew Karsten very well will tell you that he was a genius. With his PING putters and now his new PING K1 irons, he was bringing so much innovation to the golf club industry.

One way Karsten endeared himself to Touring pros who came to his factory was by calibrating their forged irons made by other companies at no charge. For many years, golf club manufacturers didn’t offer that service. Through use, the loft and lie of forged irons changes quickly, especially when used by pros, so such clubs eventually need correction. In 1973, Karsten invented and patented his “Loft and Lie Gauge” which was more accurate and very fast for calibrating the correct loft and lie of irons. Then, he loved to demonstrate to Touring pros how difficult it was to change the loft and lie of his investment cast PING irons because their steel was 17-4ph, which was the strongest stainless steel available.

Later in life, Karsten became the only golf club manufacturer to be inducted into the World Golf Hall of Fame, in St. Augustine, Florida. Its website profile about Karsten well explains his career in golf as follows:

“Solheim began tinkering in his garage with a blade putter. He assembled the working model for his first putter, the 1-A, with two popsickle sticks glued to two sugar cubes with a shaft in the middle, rather than attaching the shaft to the heel of the blade. The radical design transferred the weight to the perimeter of the club and the hollow center area created a distinctive “ping” when it struck the ball. Thus, a name for his company was born.

“Before Solheim, few applied scientific principles to the design of gold equipment. “I saw immediately that by using the simple laws of physics and mechanics it would be possible to make something more efficient than a blade, and thus avoid such off-line putts,” Solheim explained.

“Solheim’s homespun operation usually confined itself to the garage in its early years. When Solheim first toted around his unconventional looking putter to the practice greens of pro tournaments, he was not readily accepted. The breakthrough occurred when Julius Boros won the PGA TOUR’s Phoenix Open in 1967 using a PING putter.

“Solheim sketched his “answer” to inconsistent putting on the sleeve of a 78-rpm record. His wife, Louise, suggested he remove the “w” so the name would fit on the club. Within a few years, Solheim’s putters were being used by pro golfers all over the world and the Anser putter remains one of the most popular and copied designs to this day.

……..

“In 1969, Solheim applied the concept of perimeter weighting to irons. His new design and method of manufacturing took the golf world into a new dimension. By taking the weight from behind the center of the head and redistributing it to the toe and heel, Solheim increased the size of the sweet spot. He was the first to use investment casting in order to improve the consistency of his irons. The Ping iron was a boon to the average golfer because of its playability. Even off-center hits could achieve results of decent direction and distance in comparison to the less-forgiving forged irons.

“In only three years, Solheim captured about 40 percent of the market and his Ping Eye2 model remains the best-selling iron ever. It is said that Ping irons and putters have inspired more look-alikes and knockoffs than any other clubs.”

 

But throughout the 1970s, why were so many PGA Touring pros playing a Ping putter, yet hardly any of them were playing Ping irons? That question takes me back to about 1969. As soon as Karsten got established with his company, he was saying he wanted to have a staff of PGA Tour pros playing his clubs as his competitors did, such as Spalding, Wilson, and MacGregor. He asked me to help him do so by playing his clubs regularly on the PGA Tour. Some of my closest friends on Tour did, such as Babe Hiskey and Joel Goldstrand. But some of the better pros on Tour would jest with them, alleging that they were using inferior clubs made only for amateurs and thus not for pros. I remember one pro telling Babe, “Just think how good you’d be if you used good equipment.” That could be taken two different ways: sincerely or sowing doubt.

I agreed that those Ping K1 irons were not best for pros. I was under contract with Spaulding my first seven years on Tour, from 1964 to 1970, so I played their clubs. But from 1970 on, I never contracted with a golf club company again. That was a loss of some income. I was hoping Karsten would make clubs I liked, and then I would play PING. Another reason was that I eventually was contemplating going into golf club manufacturing myself.

Karsten had found a way to improve the average golfer’s game by making iron clubs particularly for them. And when he asked me to play his clubs, thus have an endorsement contract with PING, I declined. I said, “In order for me to play your irons, Karsten, you would have to change four things on them.” He asked what they were. I explained, “dull the leading edge, slightly camber the sole so that it doesn’t have that inverted bounce on the long irons, reduce the offset in the hosel, and increase the size of the grooves to the maximum width the rules allow.”

Those first three items on Karsten’s irons were clearly for improving the average golfers’ game. But they were detrimental to an accomplished golfer, such as a pro. Both the sharp leading edge and inverted bounce helped the average golfer take a divot. Actually, a pro would take more of divot with them than with traditional irons. Most golfers have difficulty “hitting down” on their iron shots and therefore taking a divot after making ball contact. Hitting the ball on the downswing with an iron is what causes the ball to elevate and have backspin. Instead, many golfers swing with a sweeping action at the ball, thinking they have to hit “up” on the ball in order to lift it into the air. The truth is that it’s just the opposite.

That third feature—the offset hosel, which was accentuated on the long irons—was a visual oddity. Karsten did that to help golfers cure their dreaded slice. But that caused pros to hook. Plus, those clubs were difficult to aim until you got used to it. Furthermore, they were so much different than a wood club with its projected face. In contrast, these iron clubs had their face behind the shaft.

That fourth feature—the tiny width of the grooves on Karsten’s Ping irons—is what I was most adamant about. (I have explained my objection, and disagreement with Karsten, concerning this feature in a previous post.) For years, Karsten and I argued about the width of grooves. I insisted, as most PGA Tour pros did, that grooves on irons clubs should be as wide as the USGA regulations allow, which is 1/32 of an inch. Karsten maintained that grooves weren’t important. For support, he cited the book written by two British physicists entitled, The Search for the Perfect Swing. I contended that their tests didn’t take into consideration playing conditions, in which grass, dirt, mud, and moisture get between the ball and club face at impact. I claimed that grooves are very necessary to allow some of that material into them on impact so that the ball can grab the groove edges and therefore result in ample backspin.

Grooves sometimes are even necessary on wood clubs. For example, one of my favorite drivers I hollowed out and played with in PGA Tour tournaments didn’t have grooves on its club face for a while. I knew that grooves weren’t necessary on a driver because the ball is struck while it sits on a tee. That’s how those two British physicists had tested iron clubs—hitting balls off of a tee. That way, you don’t have the problem of getting grass, dirt, or moisture between the ball and club face, which can reduce backspin. However, one day I was playing this driver in a Tour tournament when the wind was blowing ferociously, and it was raining as if it was Noah’s Flood. I hit a teed-up drive into the wind. It was a perfectly solid, straight shot. But the ball did a nosedive and landed only about 150 yards up the middle of the fairway. Instantly, I knew what had happened. Water on the ball and clubface at impact caused the ball during flight to have virtually no backspin whatsoever. If that clubface would have had grooves, the water would have escaped into the grooves before the ball departed from the clubface, and that would have allowed the ball to grip hold on the edges of the grooves and therefore resulted in ample backswing.

Golf pros fear what we call “fliers.” That’s an iron shot that launches slightly higher than intended, sails through the air, lands farther than it’s supposed to, and probably rolls more. It’s because the ball doesn’t have sufficient backspin which causes added friction against the air. The ball actually slides up the clubface before departing impact, causing it to launch higher and have less backspin. When you see a PGA Tour pro on TV hit an iron shot from light rough that lands past the green and rolls, it’s probably a flier.


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