It began in a way that most of us can relate to, but continues in a way that most of us can only dream of, if we circulate in a world in which technology and innovation are used to maneuver around 18 holes in fewer strokes.
To call the late Karsten Solheim a great innovator in golf may be seen as a trifle maudlin, but recognition from his peers and the World Golf Hall of Fame induction that went along with it in 2001, a year after his death, offer a nice way of backing up that claim.
Half a century ago, he was another unknown guy frustrated with his putting, an engineer from General Electric who set out to create a better putter in Redwood City, Calif., by distributing weight to both ends of the head to stop it from twisting on off-centre hits, a process now known as heel-toe weighting.
What caught the attention of those around him, however, was its distinctive “ping,” which would become more than a sound, but one of the game’s most recognized brand names, now in its 50th year of operation, with several celebrations planned in 2009 to recognize that milestone.
On March 23, 1959, Solheim filed the paperwork for his unique 1-A putter head with the United States Patent Office and the company’s humble roots continued as a garage operation, even when he was transferred to the Phoenix area in 1961.
His wife Louise handled the business side, while his sons were recruited to build clubs. “My room was on the other side of the garage. The house was built by some people who raised dogs and this was the dog-grooming room,” said John Solheim, now company chairman and chief executive officer.
“I also had windows in between the garage and my room. My dad would watch the news and then, he’d go to work. I’d be working on my homework and gone to bed and I’d get this rap on the window and it was time to come work in the garage,” added Solheim, who was 13 in 1959.
“You’d go work for a few hours. That was the normal father-son thing. Basically, he pretty much trained me how to build clubs and that gave him the freedom of designing new stuff. He was constantly trying to improve and that’s so important.”
With all of those memories of father and sons working together, it’s little wonder that Ping / Karsten Manufacturing holds a unique status as a family-run business in an industry dominated by public companies.
“One of the big things was we got a large order of 200 putters from one company to give away as gifts,” said John Solheim, now 63. “We’d never built that many putters all at once, so we laid them all out back and I got up on the fence and took a picture with my box camera.”
That was just the beginning of the company’s moments to be kept for posterity. In 1961, Karsten developed his first cavity-back iron, the Ping 69, a forged model that his son Allan milled out in the back with the idea of increasing the size of the sweetspot.
In the mid-60s came what many consider to be Karsten’s finest moment, with the introduction of the Anser putter, a design he originally drew on the dust cover of a 78 rpm record.
Designed to be the answer to putting woes, he wondered how he would fit the word “answer” onto the head, but Louise solved the problem when she suggested he lose the w. It was the popularity of the Anser that caused Karsten to leave GE in 1967.
“What we didn’t realize at the time was that that funny-looking hosel that my dad put on to get the shaft ahead of the face, it made it stand out on television,” said John Solheim.
“You’ve got to remember we didn’t have high definition on those black and white TVs. All of a sudden, there was this funny-looking putter out there,” he said.
All of Karsten Solheim’s innovations didn’t centre around the building of clubs. In the 1970s, he developed a colour coding system for custom fitting and custom building.
“My dad always fit,” said John Solheim. “There are so many pros that he adjusted their clubs and then, they won the following week because they knew what distances the clubs would go and the direction they’d go.
“There was no way for people to know about what he was doing, so the colour code opened that up to letting people understand that there was a difference in clubs and there was something that fit them, a club that didn’t fit other people,” he added.
There have been several variations added over the years and fitting remains a company emphasis today, an era in which nFlight softwear and the AFS (Advanced Fitting System) fitting cart is being used exclusively by those qualified by the company.
“It gives you a complete fitting that works out your gaps, works out everything,” said Solheim. “We’re not stopping there either.”
The innovations in clubs continued in the 1980s, with a benchmark being the introduction of the wildly-popular EYE2 irons, which became the centre of a great controversy over so-called squared grooves and ended in a lawsuit between Ping and the United States Golf Association that was settled out of court in 1990.
That same year saw the first-ever Solheim Cup played at Lake Nona Golf Club in Orlando, Fla. It’s an event that continues today as the women’s version of the Ryder Cup, a prestigious competition between the United States and Europe.
Things didn’t change much once John began to take over, first as company president in 1995, then as chairman and CEO in 1999.
John, who was back at work shortly after receiving a new kidney four years ago, had worked on lightweight stand bags and even helped popularized stands when the company got college players to put them into play.
“That led into stands becoming acceptable for all golfers where before, it was an old man’s thing,” he said.
John was at the helm for many other innovations such as the nickel alloy for softer feel in the Ping ISI irons and the Cushin insert used to filter shaft vibrations and improve the feel of Ping irons, but he says a significant step in company history came in the late ‘90s with the introduction of the 320 c.c. TiSI driver.
“We did okay with the wood woods, but nothing like what the TiSI started with the variable face thickness. We brought that out at a time when the other companies were thinking of going smaller with drivers and here we brought a bigger one out,” he said, recalling the odd looks the TiSI got at the PGA Merchandise Show in Orlando.
The list of innovations goes on, such as the development of the Ping Man in the 1970s that simulated the human golf swing and shoulder turns to help Karsten research and develop new clubs in combination with high-speed cameras.
Others include investment casting, the use of 17-4PH stainless steel, heat treating, the lob wedge, the use of serial numbers to register specifications with the company and exotic alloys.
This story could run on forever with all of the tales from half a century, but the good thing is that there’s an entire milestone year ahead in which to hear them all.