Wooden Soldier In Louisville, Elmore Just waits for the day when clubs made of persimmon make a comeback

Aug. 28, 2000
Aug. 28, 2000

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Aug. 28, 2000

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Wooden Soldier In Louisville, Elmore Just waits for the day when clubs made of persimmon make a comeback

The end had been coming for a long while, and finally it arrived,
on the Sunday before the PGA Championship. I was playing in my
regular game, at home in Philadelphia. I used my $400 Titleist
975D titanium driver 12 times. Didn't hit a single fairway. Given
the places I was driving the ball, my round of 86 was no small
feat. (I'm an 11.) The next morning I was in the factory of the
Louisville Golf Club Company, just down the road from Valhalla.
Louisville Golf is the last large-scale U.S. manufacturer of
persimmon drivers. I was looking to go back to wood. Seems like
most everybody is.

This is an article from the Aug. 28, 2000 issue

Well, that may be an exaggeration. But Elmore Just, president of
Louisville Golf, had heard that Bob Estes, winner of the 1994
Texas Open, was considering going back to a wooden driver. Just
also reported that Bobby Nichols, the '64 PGA champ and a native
son of Louisville, had sent a nephew to the factory to pick up
one of Just's new Smart drivers, with the idea that Nichols would
consider using it at Valhalla. But that was before Nichols pulled
out of the tournament. Still, Just hopes that wood will come
back. "It has a good past," he says. "No reason it can't have a
good future. We're just trying to keep our dog in the fight." All
of golf--caddying, playing, spectating, manufacturing--is rooted in

Louisville Golf was founded in 1974, in the heyday of persimmon,
an era when all golfers, but pros in particular, had a much more
personal relationship with their headcovered clubs. After all,
the wood with which they made their living had itself once been
alive. On the practice tee at Tour events, players would
routinely use the words and manners of courting in regard to
their wooden clubs. A tasseled sock would be pulled off
triumphantly, and a neighboring player would grip the club
loosely, waggle it a few times and say, "She's a beaut."

Many of those beauties were made by Louisville Golf, by Elmore
Just or one of his four brothers: Ron, 54, Mike, 50, Robert, 48,
and Gerard, 44. Mostly they made clubs for other companies. When
Payne Stewart won the '91 U.S. Open, he played a laminated,
big-headed Wilson Whale driver made in the back shop of
Louisville Golf on Grassland Drive, in an industrial zone on the
outskirts of the city. The Hogan Apex persimmon driver Tom Kite
used in winning the '92 U.S. Open was made by Louisville. "I
remember on the last hole," says Ron Just, "the TV guy said,
'Looks like Kite's using a three-wood here to play safe,' and
then they show the club up close and I say, 'That's no
three-wood. That's our driver!'"

At its peak, Louisville Golf employed more than 100 woodworkers
and produced about 800 clubs per day. Now it employs 11
woodworkers and makes maybe 100 clubs a day, half of them fairway
woods and drivers, the other half wooden-headed putters. The Just
brothers watched as the Tour, and the golfing nation with it,
went from all wood to nearly all metal.

The last holdout was Davis Love III, a superb driver, who used
the same No. 1 wood--a pear-shaped Cleveland Classic--from his
rookie year in 1986 through the middle of '97. That year Love
came out with a book in which he wrote, "Golf is somehow more
pleasing to me when played with a driver made of wood." We were
of like minds. (I helped with the typing on Love's book.) I had a
long-term relationship with a MacGregor Eye-O-Matic, from the
'50s, an artwork that I hit sort of short but mostly in play.
Love was the hero of Elmore and Elmores everywhere, wood men
trying to hold on.

Then in August 1997, Love won a major, the PGA, using a new
driver, a Titleist 975D, with a titanium head that had the loft
of a putter and a shaft about as flexible as a wooden leg. A
while later he gave me one of his spare drivers and said, "If I
switched, maybe you should too." I spent three years trying every
loft and every shaft flex. There were some good moments, and my
best drives with those clubs were my best drives ever. That was
the tantalizing thing. But there were more moments of misery than
anything else. My heeled shots went dead left. They had no curve
to them, tree-bound from the get-go. Toed shots were the same,
affording me a visit to the right woods on an equal-opportunity

Elmore Just has heard this all before. "That's why wooden clubs
are better," he says. "The wood club has more curve to it, more
bulge and more roll. Because of that curve, an off-center hit
with a wood club imparts more spin on the ball. What people don't
seem to realize is, that's good. You want your heeled shots to
start down the left side and fade back into the fairway. You want
your toed shots to start down the right side and draw back."

I had come to the right place. Just fitted me for one of his
Smart drivers, a solid piece of persimmon--a wood that's hard and
heavy--but with a somewhat bigger head than the classic shapes
from the Eisenhower years. With hope in my heart, I plunked down
$375 for the club. (About the only good thing the titanium clubs
have done for him, Just says, is raise the bar on what golf nuts
will spend for a driver.) My club was assembled to order. I asked
for a heavy head with 10.5 degrees of loft, a D-5 swing weight, a
44-inch lightweight graphite shaft with a regular flex and a Winn
grip, one wrap oversized. My new wood would be ready the next

Louisville is a woodworking town. One of the biggest employers in
the city is still Hillerich & Bradsby, maker of the Louisville
Slugger baseball bat--Powerized!--and PowerBilt golf clubs. Elmore
Just, who is trim and graying and 52 years old, grew up in South
Louisville, the working-class side of the city, and was the first
Just to go to college, which he did at Bellarmine on a partial
golf scholarship. After college and the Army, Just came home to
Louisville and took a job at H&B, and it was there, in the early
'70s, that he got bit by the clubmaking bug. When a clubmaker,
the late Earl Gordon, left H&B to go into business for himself,
Just went to work for him and learned alongside him. "If you
heard Earl Gordon talking about clubs, he sounded like a poet,
but Lord was he mean," Just says. "He'd say to his pregnant wife
in the dead of winter, 'I got to take care of some things; go out
and warm up the car for me.'" Before long, Just got in his car
and left Gordon, too scared of the man to return for his Royal
manual typewriter and big wooden desk. It was then that he
started Louisville Golf.

Just has been a tree buff and a persimmon head since he was 15,
when he started playing golf at a public course that had a small
stand of persimmon trees. In the fall he would eat the sweet,
ripe fruit in mid-round. The great regions for persimmon in the
U.S. are in the bottomlands along rivers in Arkansas, Mississippi
and Louisiana, but a half-dozen persimmon trees are growing on
Grassland Drive in Louisville too. Just planted those trees about
15 years ago. "Come fall I'll go out at lunchtime, gather a dozen
or so persimmon fruits and eat 'em at my desk," says Just, who in
1984 wrote a 48-page, self-published book titled The Persimmon
Story, which concludes with a family recipe for persimmon pudding
(left). "I like to leave the fruit in my mouth till you've got
nothing but seeds."

The man is a zealot. A pamphleteer too. On the Monday afternoon
of PGA week, he handed me a green piece of paper with six of his
own talking points on it. Here's number 6: "Is there a
conspiracy? In 1989 a leading golf publication did a test
comparing persimmon to steel heads. The results showed persimmon
actually outperformed metal. The test was never printed." I took
the green sheet and my persimmon seeds and wished Elmore a good

I don't know about any conspiracy, but certainly metal woods,
which are far cheaper to produce than woods made of wood,
benefited from a marketing campaign the likes of which golf had
never seen. On Tuesday morning at Valhalla, I asked Greg Norman,
possibly the greatest driver in golf history, if he missed
playing with wood and if wood could ever come back. "We were
discussing that on the driving range the other day," he said,
"wondering what would happen if players used their old wooden
clubs. Quite honestly, they'd probably do just as well as they're
doing now. As to wood coming back, I don't see that taking place.
It's not a very forgiving material for all you guys." Just says
the opposite. He says wood is more forgiving for all us guys.

I went looking for Bob Estes and found him in the locker room,
actually reading the news section of a newspaper. I asked him if
he was considering a return to a wooden driver. "Considering?" he
said. We left the locker room, found his caddie and his golf bag.
Estes pulled out his driver. It was gorgeous, a MacGregor Tommy
Armour 945TW Tourney made in 1953, with a medium coffee finish
and an X-100 True Temper steel shaft in it, 43 1/2 inches long.
Estes had bought it from a man in Mesquite, Texas, for $700. The
PGA would be his first week with it.

"I've tried about every steel and titanium driver there is,"
Estes said. "I feel like I'm going to hit more fairways with this
one, that's the main thing. I get more feedback with this club; I
know where on the face I've hit the ball. The titanium drivers
carry a little farther in the air, but on a dry fairway I don't
feel as if I'm giving up any distance. At home I've got a bunch
of wooden three-woods and four-woods and five-woods. They might
be coming out soon, too."

Estes went off to practice, and all around the practice tee
thousands of people started to gather for the Champions Clinic, a
PGA tradition in which the golfing gods--all former PGA
winners--share their wisdom with the rest of us. The driving
portion of the clinic was handled by Love, Jack Nicklaus and, in
his first Champions Clinic, Tiger Woods. Woods, using a Titleist
975D, was launching tee shots so far and so high that Lanny
Wadkins, the emcee, said Woods could have two balls in the air at
once. Now would be a good time to point out that I have never
thought that my problems with my 975D could be laid at the head
of the club. As Woods has been demonstrating, the club works when
swung properly. At the clinic, he gave an excellent tip: If you
feel as if your head is coming over the ball at impact--he was
talking to me!--move your head back in the stance by moving your
right foot back. I was eager to try it.

It was getting late. Just was at the Louisville Golf booth in the
merchandise tent at Valhalla with my new Smart driver. I went
over to pick it up. It was gorgeous, with a tan grip, a black
shaft, a mahogany finish, Just's signature on the heel, my
initials on the bottom, a black insert and no scoring lines, just
a circle of eight gold dots to indicate the sweet spot. (Just
says scoring lines do nothing for a driver.) I shook hands with
my clubmaker and said goodbye, club in hand. I was more than
eager to try it.

It was past 7 p.m. Only a few players were on the practice tee at
Valhalla, and not too many security people. I gathered a dozen
balls out of a practice bunker and slipped onto the tee, next to
Jesper Parnevik, who was whaling on drive after drive with his
Callaway Great Big Bertha. The ting sound was so stinging it
almost made my ears hurt. I made eye contact with no one, afraid
of being thrown off the range. I thought about my new head
position, about what Tiger had said, and made some swings. My
shots off the heel were all in play, and I could feel where I was
hitting them. My good shots sailed through the heavy, musky
Louisville air. What a joy.

On my way back to my car, I walked through the players' valet
area. Brent Geiberger was waiting for his car. I had caddied for
his stepfather in a half-dozen tournaments years ago, when Al
Geiberger, the '66 PGA champ, had a bright red Spalding golf bag
made of kangaroo skin and a beautiful Spalding driver made of
persimmon. I triumphantly pulled the headcover off my new Smart
driver and handed it to Brent. He waggled it a few times and
placed it gently on a straight line on the concrete sidewalk to
check if the face was square. He had grown up on wooden clubs. He
knows the drill. He handed the club back to me and said, "Not bad
looking. Not bad looking at all."

COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY JIM GUND Head man Just, who founded Louisville Golf in '74, makes it his business to sell the world on the superiority of persimmon.TWO COLOR PHOTOS: PHOTOGRAPHS BY JIM GUND Good eating Persimmon trees, which grow singly or in small groups in the South, yield the fruit (left) for some Southern specialties.TWO COLOR PHOTOS: PHOTOGRAPHS BY JIM GUND Back in play Estes, who missed the cut, used a wooden driver, though not one of Just's models (right).

Elmore Just's Persimmon Pudding
Serves Eight

Squeeze 1 quart of persimmons through a colander, producing
about 2 cups of pulp.

Beat in:

3 eggs
1 1/4 cups sugar
1 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon any baking powder
1 teaspoon soda
1/2 cup melted butter
2 1/2 cups rich milk
2 teaspoons cinnamon
1 teaspoon ginger
1/2 teaspoon freshly grated nutmeg
(1 cup raisins or nutmeats optional)

Place the pudding in a greased 9-by-9-inch dish and bake at
325[degrees] until the pudding is firm (about an hour). Serve
with cream or hard sauce.