Inventing a Better Golf Club (Part 3)

Inventing a Better Golf Club (Part 3) July 9, 2013

In late 1969 I told Karsten Solheim, otherwise known as MISTER PING, “I don’t think you’re using perimeter weighting in the golf club that would benefit from it the most.” He said, “what’s that?” I said, “the driver. It has the lightest club head and the longest shaft of any club in the bag. So, it produces more off center hits.” (This was decades before the long putter. And club heads are made lighter with longer shafts in order to have a uniform “swing weight” throughout the entire set of clubs except for the putter.) In other words, the shot pattern on the driver clubface has a wider disparity compared to that of other clubs. I said it results in more twisting of the clubface on ball contact, which results in the ball starting more off the target line and with more sidespin than with any other club. So far, I wasn’t telling Karsten anything he didn’t know. Actually, I was the pupil, and he was the teacher.

Well, MISTER PING was by now a very busy man. His company was starting to really take off. He was so involved in improving his irons. And he was constantly coming out with a new PING putter. So, he said to me, “Why don’t you do it.”

Wow! I was a young pro on the Tour, working hard at trying to succeed. I had just won my first PGA Tour tournament two years prior—the 1968 Kaiser International at Napa, California. I didn’t have time to do both. Nevertheless, I took this reply from my friend and mentor as a challenge. The first few months I worked on this with my pro friend on Tour, Joel Goldstrand, from Minnesota. Joel was a close friend of Karsten and was using his clubs. But Joel soon tired of the project, and I was left with it.

So, in 1970 I hollowed-out my first driver on the workbench in the garage of my house in Friendswood, Texas. During those days, wood clubs had plastic inserts that were glued into the club faces, and they had metal soleplates on the bottom of the club heads that were attached with screws. These inserts and soleplates were for the purpose of preventing wood clubs from deteriorating too quickly due to the harsh treatment of striking golf balls and perhaps the ground with them.

However, soleplates on wood club heads had another purpose: it was to add needed weight to the club head to get the proper swing weight. Without it, wooden club heads were too light. Fairway woods usually had brass soleplates to make them a little heavier, and drivers usually had aluminum soleplates. Brass is significantly heavier than aluminum. The reason for this difference in metals was that the shafts of fairway woods were shorter than the shaft of a driver. Thus, the fairway woods needed more weight added to their club heads than a driver did in order that the entire set of wood clubs would have the same swing weight. Actually, the metal soleplate lowered the center of gravity on the club face slightly, which was good, too.

But there was something about how wood clubs were made which was the exact opposite of perimeter weighting, and it seemed that no one knew about it except Karsten. Wood clubs had a big chunk of lead weight in the middle of the club head. Manufacturers would drill a fairly thick hole in the bottom of the wood and insert a lead weight in it of the same size. It was especially true of the driver. Club manufacturers could attach a thick, brass soleplate on the fairway woods that was heavy enough to achieve the desired club head weight, thus avoiding the addition of lead weight inside. But they usually didn’t do that, and therefore used a thinner brass soleplate and added lead weight inside the wood.

However, there were two manufacturers of wood clubs that usually didn’t put a chunk of lead weight inside their drivers. And pros generally believed that these two companies made the best woods, especially their drivers. Those companies were MacGregor and Powerbuilt. In the 1950s, 1960s, and 1970s, MacGregor drivers were prized by PGA Touring pros. Sometimes, a Touring pro would buy an old MacGregor wood-headed driver for several times the price of a new driver. What was the difference?

Most people thought it was all about the wood. Yes, MacGregor certainly obtained the best persimmon wood for their wood clubs. Persimmon is a very hard wood that doesn’t crack or absorb moisture easily if cured. Cured U.S. persimmon was the best wood for making wood golf clubs.

I know from experience about persimmon. American persimmon (Diospyros virginiana) trees grow wild mostly in the southeastern U.S. Their fruit is small with a yellowish-orange skin and a large seed. So, there isn’t that much flesh to eat, and, frankly, it isn’t that tasty. Persimmons are tart, and they’re best eaten when perfectly ripe. But I’m spoiled, because I used to have two beautiful, Japanese persimmon trees growing in my front yard. One was male and the other was female in order for bees to pollinate their beautiful, cream-colored flowers in the springtime and produce fruit. I planted them and ate their large, shiny, delicious, reddish-orange fruits for many years. They ripen in the fall season. One of my favorite stories about being an amateur horticulturist is that one day, when my persimmon trees were full of mature fruits, I had a knock at my front door. I answered the door and there stood a lady who was all smiles and very excited. She exclaimed, “Where did you get that beautiful tomato tree!”

Back to golf, persimmon wasn’t the only reason MacGregor woods were better. MacGregor and Powerbuilt usually attached a visible, metal weight to the outer back end of their wood clubs. I can’t recall any other golf club manufacturers doing that, at least as much. Certainly, MacGregor and Powerbuilt were most known for it. But they did it differently. MacGregor often drilled a hole in the wood and inserted a visible, lead weight into it. Powerbuilt often cut off a back portion of the wood club head and screwed a visible, rounded, brass chunk there.

Adding this metal weight to the back of the wood club head made it a functionally better club than drilling a whole in the middle of the bottom of the club head and adding a lead weight there. Why? The former was crudely perimeter weighting, and the latter was the opposite of perimeter weighting.

But there was even more to it than that, and I learned it from Karsten. He explained that adding metal weight to the back of a wood club head—and the farther back the better—slightly aids in stabilizing the club head during ball contact with off center hits. It didn’t only help by slightly reducing unwanted sidespin caused from either toe or heel contact, which causes the ball to fly right or left, respectively. Rather, striking the ball below the center of gravity on the club face, which is called a “thin shot,” produces added backspin and less velocity to the ball in flight. Many amateur golfers and non-golfers alike see such a shot, usually called a “climber,” and go “wow,” thinking it’s a great shot. But pros know differently; they don’t want lots of backspin when they hit a driver. Tests show that the more the backspin when hitting a driver, the shorter the ball travels through the air provided that the launch angle is acceptable. It’s that added friction in the air which reduces ball velocity. Moreover, the wind plays havoc with drives that have too much backspin.

So, when I hollowed out my first wood golf club, I first removed its soleplate and then removed the lead weight in its center. Of course, I first anchored the club head in a vise, using wood or rubber protectors so I wouldn’t ruin the outside appearance of the club head. Then I used a hand drill with both metal drill bits and various shaped stone drill bits made for woodworking. I could do the job better with a hand drill than I could with a stationary drill press. I always drilled a wide hole in the bottom of the club head. I used the metal drill bits to gouge out most of the wood material I wanted removed. Then I used stone drill bits to smooth the cavity and therefore not take a chance of drilling all the way through the wood. My goal was to make the club head somewhat of a shell without it being so thin that it would crack during play. When I screwed the soleplate back, you couldn’t tell that I had altered the club.

By now, the swing weight of this club was way too light, which was what I wanted. My next procedure was to increase the perimeter weighting feature of the club by adding lead weights to its toe and heel. Actually, I usually referred to this design as “toe-heel balance” since “perimeter weighting” suggests all around the club head. To do so in the toe, I drilled a hole in the far toe of the club face. Then I melted lead and poured it into that hole. But I left a slight indentation and filled it with wood putty. Sometimes, I would put another spray-varnish finish, or whatever, on the outside surface to ensure that no one could tell even from the wood putty that I had altered the club.

Adding a lead weight to the heel of the club head was more challenging for two reasons. First, the hosel is smaller from the front to back of the club head than the toe is, since wood clubs were designed somewhat pear-shaped looking at the top of the club head from above it. That made for a smaller area in the heel to drill in than in the toe. I tried filling the bottom of the shaft with lead, but that didn’t work well. Second, I had to work around the shaft in the hosel. Somehow, I would drill enough material out of the heel, fill it with lead, and add putty that resulted in what I thought was a better club.

Through much trial and error, I came to realize something that is very important in designing golf clubs which some golf club manufacturers still don’t seem to understand. I’m saying that because I look at their clubs. Adding weight to a golf club for the purpose of creating a perimeter weighted or toe-heel balanced club should always be low in the heel and high in the toe.

There is a very important reason for this which can be learned by analyzing off center hits. Manufacturers have ways of doing that. Even the average golfer can purchase paper or plastic material that can be taped onto the club face, and when balls are hit with it they leave a visible, dimpled ball mark on that material. Whatever method is used, the shot pattern is high in the toe and low in the heel, at least for fairly accomplished golfers.

Thus, good golfers rarely hit a shot thin in the toe or high in the heel. Why is this? For good golfers, it is more difficult to control the swinging of a golf club on the correct plane at ball contact than it is to control the depth of that plane. One way to realize this is by taking the address position with a driver and a highly-teed ball, keep the center of gravity of the club face flush against the teed ball, keep your head steady, and move the club head toward the toe and then toward the heel. You will notice that the ball will touch the club face higher on the toe and lower on the heel in relation to the center of gravity of the clubface. It is easier for an observer to see this. It shows, especially for good golfers, that the shot pattern tends to be a line that goes across the clubface perpendicular to the shaft.

This typical shot pattern reveals that golf clubs should be designed so that the club head has more weight high in the toe and low in the heel. It is especially important to have extra weight in the heel. If too much weight is added high in the toe, especially with the longer shafted clubs and thus faster swing speeds, the shaft will bow too much at impact, causing the ball to be struck higher in the toe than otherwise. Karsten learned this when he made a set of irons that had a big chunk of metal added to the back of those club heads and at the very top of the toe. It took him a while to accept that that was what was happening. When he first made them, he had me hit them. I told him I hit them high in the toe and fat. He soon figured out that was because the shaft was bowing, supposedly like a stick in water dousing. Viewing a golf club head from above, the more its center of gravity is from the shaft, the more that shaft will bow at impact. And it’s longer hitters, who produce higher swing speeds, who experience more excessive bowing of the shaft at impact.

Well, I think Karsten should have listened to me about making perimeter weighted wood clubs. Instead, he spent many years, and had a lot of problems, making his wood clubs. I think worst of all, he kept making them with laminated wood. Yes, it is hard and less destructible. But touring pros didn’t use it. Wilson Sporting Goods Company probably was known most for making laminated wood clubs. But I don’t remember their leading staff pros on Tour using their laminated drivers much. Fairway woods, that was different. Sam Snead sure didn’t. He loved his custom-made, George Izett persimmon driver.

As for me, as I’ve said, for ten years I hollowed out drivers and played with them on Tour. And I tried to make driver club heads out of various metals, and some of them had odd shapes. One of the most renown among my colleague friends on Tour was what we called “the hot dog club.” It had a very narrow, elongated club head that was shaped like a hot dog, with a large, visible cavity in the back. The advantage to it was that it provided a big sweet spot, so that you shouldn’t have as many off-center hits as with a normal-looking club head. But there was a problem with it: the center of gravity from above was too far away from the shaft, producing excessive bowing of the shaft and therefore resulting in hitting the ball high on the toe. Fellow Touring pro Labron Harris, Jr., after witnessing some really funky-looking shots I hit with it, said, “You need to retire the hot dog to its bun.”

Well, I kind of regret not having pursued more thoroughly my endeavor at making hollowed-out drivers. I always wonder if I had done so, if I could have beat Gary Adams to market with a metalwood. What if———-. I guess I think “what if” too much, applying it to everything, including success at golf. One time, when I was a mid-teenager and an up-and-coming junior golfer in my hometown of Seattle, a college golfer friend of mine who I highly respected—Len Perry, then the #1 player on the men’s golf team at the University of Washington—said to me after listening to my golf experience diatribe, “Zarley, you win the If Trophy.”

(My goal for these Monday posts on golf is for them to be published as a book. My working title for it is Christ on the PGA TOUR.)

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