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Putters

Jan. 30, 1995
Jan. 30, 1995

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Jan. 30, 1995

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Point After

Putters

From rank amateurs to top pros, frustrated golfers have turned the flat-stick industry into a $182 million business

Ben Hogan had the right idea about putting: Abolish it. Never a great putter, Hogan suggested greens be replaced by huge funnels that would stretch to the following tees. That way an approach shot would land in a funnel, roll to the next tee and, voilà, no more putting.

This is an article from the Jan. 30, 1995 issue Original Layout

Unfortunately the arbiter of the game in this country—the United States Golf Association—won't go along. "There has been no movement whatsoever to remove putting from the game of golf," says Tom Meeks, USGA director of rules and competitions. "And I can guarantee that it won't happen for at least a million years."

What to do, then, if putting ain't going away? What is the key to this most bewitching aspect of the game? Is there a Holy Grail or a Special Stick?

The answer is sad but inescapable. "There's no such thing as a magic wand," says the world's most famous customputter designer, T.P. (Truett Purser) Mills. A former airplane mechanic from Tuscaloosa, Ala. , Mills is the only designer of flat sticks who still charges Tour pros for his works. He made his first putters in an airport hangar in 1964, and scores of professional golfers, not to mention even' Republican president since Eisenhower, have used his models.

"If you blend all the components of a putter just right—weight, balance, feel and look—that's the best you can do," says Mills, 74. "Golfers are always looking for the newest magic blend, like fishermen looking for a lure. If they like the way it looks and think it'll work, they'll buy it."

Indeed they will. According to the National Golf Foundation, $182 million worth of putters were sold in 1993. At an average of $75 a pop, that's a lot of putters.

If you're like most golfers and have five or 10 unmagical wands stashed away, you're not doing so badly. The world's best players—touring pros—are the ultimate suckers. Arnold Palmer is the worst. Even in his prime the King would take 10 to 12 putters with him to the practice green every day. His legendary collection once hovered around 3,000, but over the years he has lost some putters, given others to friends and donated hundreds to charity. He now has 1,500.

Most pros are more reasonable. Scott Hoch has only 150 putters on the storage rack in his basement. Tom Lehman has 75 in his garage. Craig Stadler owns about 100, though he would have more if he hadn't deposited a plethora of putters in lakes, garbage cans, forests and other spots. Ben Crenshaw has used Little Ben—the Wilson 8802 blade his dad gave him 27 years ago—throughout his career, but he keeps 40 other putters at home in Austin, Texas. "They're backups," Crenshaw says with a grin. "Just in case."

Unless they want a T.P. Mills special, pros never have to pay for their putters. They get them from tour reps, the well-dressed, slick-talking company missionaries who stand on practice greens from dawn till dusk at tournaments trying to persuade pro after pro that theirs is the perfect putter. The theory is that consumers buy what the pros use, and recent history has proved that persuading a pro to use your putter can prove very profitable.

Bobby Grace ran a golf club collectibles business in St. Petersburg, Fla. , until he began designing putters full-time three years ago. In the spring of 1992 he took his first mallet designs to the PGA Tour, and for the next couple of years a handful of pros used his putters. Grace got the break every putter maker lives for last July at the St. Jude Classic. Before a practice round, Nick Price picked up one of the oversized aluminum mallets Grace had designed in 1992. Price used it in the final two rounds, shooting 66-64 to finish fourth. Thereafter, the club was known as The Fat Lady Swings.

Two weeks later Grace was tinkering in his garage when he turned on the tiny TV near his workbench to watch the last round of the PGA Championship. "I was sure I was toast, Nick changes putters so often," the 34-year-old Grace says. "But when I saw him win the PGA with my baby, 1 got so nervous, I started shaking. I didn't know what to do."

In the next eight weeks, Grace took orders for $6 million worth of Fat Ladies (at $150 apiece), which necessitated leasing a new 5,000-square-foot production building, more than tripling his staff, to 20, and contracting a nearby machine shop. Grace laughs at the staggering influence of Price's win. "It's a vicious business," Grace says. "We call it putter wars. But dreams do come true. Look at me. I went from a Toyota to a Lexus overnight."

As the putter industry has exploded, fueled by overnight successes like Grace's, the regular corps of putter tour reps has swelled to about 10, though a dozen more occasionally show up. That's a far cry from the old days, when many of the best putters were designed, built and sold by fledgling Tour pros such as Otey Crisman II and George Low. "I remember going to tournaments with Dad," says Otey II's son, Otey III, who runs the family putter business in Selma, Ala. "He'd drive up to the practice green, open the trunk of his Buick, and we'd be in business."

What used to be a mom-and-pop business has grown so large that this year the PGA Tour limited the access tour reps have to the practice greens. "It's a war out there," says Ron Graham, the PGA Tour rep for Odyssey Sports, Inc. "The stakes are so high, and so many companies are trying to get exposure."

Ping has been winning the war since the early 1960s, when Karsten Solheim set out in his 1959 Citroën and began doling out his kooky-looking putters at pro tournaments. At the 1967 Phoenix Open, 46-year-old Julius Boros became the first pro to win a PGA Tour event while using a Ping. Since then more than 1,200 tournaments worldwide have been won by players wielding Ping putters. In 1994, 35% of consumer golfers interviewed for the Darrell Survey putted with Pings. That's a whopping 25% more than second-place Titleist, and 30% more than third-place Ram, which makes the Zebra, the best-selling mallet putter of alltime. More than 1.5 million Zebras have been sold since the model was first used by Gene Littler in winning the 1975 Bing Crosby.

In the past couple of years Solheim has felt more and more pressure from the competition. His two hottest new rivals are a Carlsbad, Calif. , putter designer named Scotty Cameron and Odyssey Sports. Last year both made huge gains on Ping on the pro tours. In addition to its annual consumer report, Darrell Survey publishes a weekly report of equipment usage on the pro tours. "Until July of 1994, Ping was Number 1 on every survey I can remember since 1980," says Darrell president Susan Naylor.

Last year Scotty Cameron was consistently No. 2 in the PGA Tour putter count, as 129 different players used one of his designs in at least one tournament. Now, having merged with Titleist in September, Cameron is ripe for a run at Ping.

Odyssey staged a blitzkrieg on the Senior PGA Tour in 1994, the company's third year of existence. Players used Odysseys to win 12 senior tournaments, and at the Northville Long Island Classic in July, Odyssey became the first company other than Ping to top a Darrell Survey putter count. Odyssey remained atop the Senior list through Jan. 15.

Both Odyssey and Scotty Cameron are led by stocky, cocky 32-year-olds who eat, sleep and live for nothing less than being No. 1. "We make the best arrows in the world," says Michael Magerman, Odyssey's co-founder and president. "Will they help everybody? I can't say that. But the best Indians in the world use my arrows."

Magerman was raised in Philadelphia, graduated from UCLA in 1984 and then worked in Carlsbad, Calif., in the interactive TV business for five years. At a party in 1990 a friend introduced him to Jim Flood, co-inventor of the graphite shaft and co-founder of Aldila, the world's largest graphite-shaft company. Within a year, the two started Odyssey with seed money Magerman raised by selling his condominium, depleting his savings account and begging from friends and family. The main selling point of Odyssey's putters is the Stronomic (elastomer) insert on the club face, which produces a cushioned feel when the ball is struck.

Hoping to burst into the business, Odyssey bought a booth at the PGA Merchandise show in Orlando last January. Bad idea. "We went to Florida guns ablazing, but nobody cared," says Magerman. "We were just another company telling the world that our product was better." So Odyssey's troops retreated to their spartan offices in Carlsbad and sketched out a new game plan. "We decided that if our stuff really was the best, we'd take it out to the best. If they would use it, that would convince the public."

Magerman hired Brad Adams, the 29-year-old son of Taylor Made founder Gary Adams, and sent him into battle. Adams hit every Senior tour event last season, and his diligent work translated to astronomical sales. Odyssey took, in $3.5 million in 1994, most of it in the last three months. Magerman anticipates four times that amount in 1995.

Whereas Odyssey's success stems from tenacious promotion, Scotty Cameron's has come more from dedication to great design. Despite his relative youth, Cameron is already considered one of the world's premier putter designers. His specialty is milled putters. Last August, Titleist outbid five other companies to purchase his business.

Wally Uihlein, chairman and CEO of Titleist, was sold after his first visit to Cameron's factory in San Marcos, Calif. "We sketched out a hypothetical putter in words," says Uihlein. "Then, I was amazed by the speed, dexterity and precision with which he took a block of carbon steel, put it on his Bridgcstone milling machine and crafted the concept into life." The first line of Scotty Cameron putters by Titleist will be introduced this week at the PGA Merchandise show in Orlando.

Cameron's rapid ascension is no accident. "People look at me as the kid who gets lucky," says Cameron, a seven-handicap golfer but a terrible putter. "What they don't know is that I"ve been doing this a real long time." As a child in Southern California, Cameron spent weekends scouring flea markets, Goodwill stores and swap meets with his late father, Don, an insurance inspector and avid classic-club collector, who died when Scotty was 13. "That's where I developed my taste for beautiful and classic designs," he says.

When he was 12 Cameron built his first putter in a machine shop owned by his best friend's father, and a few years later his mother let him put a milling machine in the garage to satiate her putter-crazed son. "Scotty is an excellent putter maker," says Crenshaw, who has entrusted Little Ben, the world's most famous putter, to Cameron for routine repairs for several years. "It's a very artistic craft, and you've got to have the eye, which he obviously does."

Having attended junior college from 1980 to '83, Cameron played amateur golf for a few years before landing a job with the Ray Cook Golf Co. in 1986. In four years Cameron's designs, among them the Blue Goose and Billy Baroo, were so popular that Ray Cook's president, Bob Bauer, wanted to change Cameron's pay from royalties to a straight salary. "He thought I was making too much money," says Cameron. "That made it a no-brain decision. I put my head down, went out on my own and concentrated on making the finest putters in the world."

After a year Cameron began selling designs to Mizuno, and within a few months, Mizuno had risen to No. 2 on the PGA Tour Darrell Survey count. In 1993 Bernhard Langer won the Masters with a Mizuno/Cameron, but soon, feeling that Mizuno wasn't marketing his products well enough, Cameron severed his ties with the company.

For Titleist, Cameron will travel the world to 25 tournaments a year. When he is at home, he hardly sleeps. He is in his garage-cum-workshop at dawn, at Titleist's factory from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m., and after dinner he tinkers in his shop for another hour or two. "I want my work to be known as the Cartier or Tiffany of putters," he says. "If you make the best, people will buy it."

People have bought plenty of Scotty Camerons, ranging from $199 for Titleist models to $1,500 and up for custom designs that he spends 15 to 20 hours building. Cameron and his wife, Kathy, just moved into a sprawling three-floor house overlooking a valley in Carlsbad. They have an ocean view, a pool and a garage for their Mercedes 560 SL and Lexus 400.

All this from putters? "Yup," says Cameron, standing on his terrace overlooking the Pacific. "All from putters."

Abolish putting? Not if Scotty Cameron has anything to say about it.

PHOTOPHIL SHELDONPalmer has played with a plethora of putters.TWO PHOTOSJAMES DRAKE[See caption above.]PHOTONEERMEN-MEGA[See caption above.]PHOTOJACQUELINE DUVOISIN[See caption above.]TWO PHOTOSJACQUELINE DUVOISINJim Albus (above) and Rocco Mediate (below) have newfangled wands, but Crenshaw is ever faithful to Little Ben.PHOTOPHIL HUBER[See caption above.]PHOTOMIKE POWELL/ALLSPORTAt the Titleist factory in Carlsbad, Calif., Ralph Garcia makes sure that Bulls Eye putters measure up.PHOTOROBERT BECKCameron has struck a balance between hard work and the good life.PHOTO