Karsten Solheim (Part 3)

One of my favorite stories about Karsten Solheim is his philosophy about the golf swing. He believed that the more a golfer could keep the club face square to the target line through the impact zone, the straighter his or her shots would fly. Actually, that was good thinking. But it’s how Karsten tried to accomplish it that seemed strange to most golfers. When he swung the club, after he made ball contact he would keep his hands stiff and his arms straight on his follow through. The result was that he would finish his swing standing tall, facing his target, with his arms and club pointing straight up to the sky. It was comical looking. With this swing, Karsten got lots of stares, some snickers, and a few laughs. It was the same reaction he would get with his first PING putter when people heard its pinging sound.

But watch how some pros on the PGA Tour swing the club nowadays. Karsten may have the last laugh. They’re hitting all of these punch shots, especially with their irons. They don’t allow their wrists to release the club head, thus keeping the club face square to their target line longer. Even though they cock their writs on the backswing and release them on their downswing, they don’t cock their wrists on their follow through as is customary with a natural golf swing. And their left arm often stays straight, or nearly so, when they finish their swing. The only difference between their iron shot swings and Karsten’s iron shot swings is that they have a more abbreviated follow through than Karsten did.

During the Phoenix Open each year in the late 1970s and early 1980s, Karsten and Louise hosted the PGA Tour Bible Study in their home. It was located at Moon Valley Country Club, a golf course Karsten later purchased. Karsten and Louise hosted me in their home numerous times when I came to Phoenix and would visit the PING factory.

When my career on the regular PGA Tour was winding down, in 1983 Karsten offered me a job working with him in the PING design department. I gave that some serious consideration. But I decided I had a higher calling—working with Jim Hiskey to establish a Christian golf ministry called Golf Fellowship and writing theological books. So, that’s what I did through 1990. In late 1991, I started the Senior Tour.

Karsten Solheim was known as a Christian man. During the many years the Solheim family lived in Arizona, they regularly attended Bethany Bible Church in Phoenix which still exists. It is an evangelical, non-denominational church that is regarded as the mother church of Bible churches in the valley.

Karsten’s parents were church-going people. Karsten’s fond childhood memories include the many times his family hosted missionaries in their home. That’s an important reason why Karsten and Louise have been very generous in contributing financially to missionary organizations.

In 1985, Karsten and Louise established their own nonprofit organization and named it the Solheim Foundation. With it, they contributed financially toward many humanitarian causes, Christian organizations, and other ministries. And they often gave unsolicited gifts when they sensed a need. Karsten and Louise were very generous people. Karsten was known for treating employees well. He had a well known reputation for rarely firing an employee.

For example, Karsten and Louise donated a large sum of money to build the Solheim Athletic Center at Moody Bible Institute. It is a world-class, multi-level, 70,000 square foot facility used for sports and recreation. This college, located near downtown Chicago, was originally named the Chicago Evangelization Society. It was founded in 1886 by the legendary Dwight L. Moody. He had been a shoe salesman who taught Sunday school and did volunteer work for the YMCA. Moody eventually became a traveling evangelist throughout the U.S. and somewhat abroad. He was theologically conservative yet ecumenical in his approach, firmly committed to belief in Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior and the Bible as the inspired Word of God.

Another, smaller example of the Solheim’s financial gifts and grants is something I have never mentioned publicly. In 1990, Karsten and Louise through their Solheim Foundation contributed $10,000 to the publication that year of my book, Palestine Is Coming: The Revival of Ancient Philistia. It is about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict from both a historical and biblical perspective.

Back in 1970, Karsten Solheim changed his looks by growing a white goatee beard, and he kept it for the remainder of his life. It made him a little more distinguished looking. In fact, as Karsten’s hair was graying and turning white, it made him look strikingly similar to the ubiquitous headshot of Colonel Sanders, the founder of the hugely successful Kentucky Fried Chicken fast-food enterprise. When people would see Karsten, they sometimes mistook him for the Colonel. But Karsten was not trying to look like Colonel Sanders; Mr. PING was already famous in his own right.

Karsten grew that goatee because of an auto accident. He and Louise were vacationing and traveling in the Far East, making the PING brand more known. On their way to visiting a Christian missionary work in India, which their church supported, their chauffeur-driven jeep hit a big pothole. Only Karsten was injured, sustaining a bloody gash on his chin. That’s why he soon grew the goatee, to cover up that scar.

The PING brand has been a prominent sponsor of the Ladies Professional Golfers Association in the U.S. Thus, in 1990 the Solheim Cup was created in honor of Karsten Solheim. Patterned after the Ryder Cup in men’s professional golf, it is a biennial, match-play competition between two teams of the best women professional golfers from the U.S. and from Europe. As with the Ryder Cup, the Solheim Cup is the most coveted trophy in women’s professional golf. It is interesting to me that the two men who sponsored these two, preeminent, international, golf competitions, and for whom they and the trophies commemorating them are named, were Christians well known as such in their hometown communities.

In 2000, the Solheim Foundation had Northfield Publishing of Chicago, a division of Moody Publishers of Moody Bible Institute, publish Karsten’s biography. It is entitled Karsten’s Way: The Life-Changing Story of Karsten Solheim—Pioneer in Golf Club Design and the Founder of PING®. Louise soon sent me a copy. I immediately read it and wrote this note on its first blank page: “This is a very good book. It’s not a white wash. It tells not only Karsten’s strengths but his weaknesses as well…. It’s a tribute to Karsten and an inspiring book about success in business and life.” Here is one such revealing paragraph in the book, which I think probably comes from Louise: “The real Karsten Solheim, at the time of his boost into significant wealth, was a man maturing both spiritually and emotionally. He could still be stubborn and opinionated. He had a one-track mind. There was Karsten’s way and the wrong way.”

The book has an Appendix of letters. One is from my dear friend Bill (and wife Judy) Garrett, who played the Tour. For many years afterwards, Bill worked for Karsten as his personal assistant, and Judy did likewise for Louise. Few people knew Karsten and Louise better. The following are excerpts from this letter: “Karsten had the best work ethic of anyone I have ever known…. Karsten was the most hospitable person I have ever known. Respect for the common man was a characteristic of Karsten’s…. Karsten and Louise will go down as philanthropists extraordinaire. They have made many gifts … but they would consider none as important as those which will further the gospel of Jesus Christ. Sunday was a wonderful day of worship and fellowship, but each day of the week the open Bible was on the kitchen table. It was read, discussed, applied to life’s situations—a strength and refuge in times of trouble, a guide for each day. Many people have benefited from Karsten’s strong testimony of faith. But his commitment to the Lord and the work done in HIS behalf will have eternal value.”

Louise contributed much to the Solheim family’s Christian identity, even from an early stage. Karsten’s Way relates that, prior to the move to Arizona, Karsten had various jobs in different locations in the U.S., which required a relocation of the family. The book says on p. 103, “At each new location, Louise made it her priority to find a Bible-teaching church with an active youth group. This way the children would get involved in church activities and make friends quickly. Karsten too had become active in the men’s group at church.”

In about 1990, Karsten began to develop dementia, more specifically, Parkinson’s disease. That becomes a very sad and debilitating way to come to the end of life. Some people think the grooves controversy aged Karsten.

Due to Karsten’s failing health, in 1995 he made his youngest son, John Solheim, the CEO of the company. Also during that year, Karsten Manufacturing Corporation discontinued making products for other industries, primarily for the aerospace industry, which it had done for many years.

One funny story about Karsten during this time, which I hope the Solheim family won’t mind my telling, concerned a PING worker named Dean. By this time, the Solheim family had someone attending Karsten wherever he went. For a while, that job fell to Dean. One afternoon, Dean was supposed to drive Karsten from Moon Valley Country Club, which Karsten then owned, to the PING factory about four miles away. Karsten said he was going to drive. The two of them argued back and forth about it until Karsten blurted out, “I own the company, so I drive.” How can you argue with that? Karsten’s driving was erratic enough that one driver stuck his arm out his window and flipped him the bird. Like Mr. Magoo—the cartoon character voiced by Jim Backus—Karsten thought the man was waving and waved back to him. When Karsten drove into the PING parking lot, Dean was so nervous and sweating, he exclaimed, “Now be careful.” But that didn’t do any good. Karsten crashed into a beautiful, parked Mercedes Benz. Dean thought it probably belonged to some wealthy PING client. Without saying a word, Karsten got out of his car, went around and looked at the license plate of the now severely dented Mercedes. Then he came back, put his arm around Dean’s shoulder, and said, “Don’t worry about it, Dean, I own that one, too.”

Karsten Solheim passed away in the year 2000 at 88 years of age. His wealth was estimated at over $500 million. The local media then reported that he was Arizona’s richest, self-made man. Karsten had been honored with many national and state awards in his life, all of them during his last fifteen years. He is a shining example of a man of average wealth who, at 56 years of age, engaged himself in a completely foreign business to him and thereafter amassed great wealth from it. And although he only took up the game of golf in his mid-forties, he improved the design and manufacturing of golf clubs more than anyone ever has. He started his company from zero in 1967, and by the 1980s his was the most financially successful golf club manufacturing company in the world. But I think Karsten Solheim’s greatest legacy is that throughout his life he was a committed Christian known for helping people and treating everyone with respect.

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