Irons in the Fire

by Beau Adams

06/03/2012

Minus the invention of the steel shaft in the 1930s, golf clubs had barely changed in decades. Irons were forged of steel. They were muscle-backed and dipped in chrome, and woods were an inconsistently milled teardrop of persimmon wood glued to the bottom of a shaft. The most popular putters of the day resembled a smaller version of their iron cousins, lower profile with less loft.

Then, in 1966, came the PING Anser. The Anser was invented by a GE aeronautics designer named Karsten Solheim. Its moniker was a bastardization of “answer,” the missing “w” born of the necessity to fit the name in the space afforded on the club—evidence of its designer’s rigid aesthetic of form follows function.

The son of an immigrant shoemaker, Solheim grew up in the Ballard area of Seattle. Currently crawling with cyclists, foodies, and hipsters, Ballard was more of a fishing village in the early 1900s when Solheim and his family immigrated.

He was never a great student, at least not early on. His grandson, Andy, recalls a story told to him by his grandmother. “In fact, there was a time when he decided that he was going to study and do well on a test and he did. But then his teacher basically accused him of cheating.” Underchallenged in high school, Solheim applied to the University of Washington and was accepted to its engineering program in 1931.

He made through the course work, leaving the college after only one year to help in his father’s struggling shoemaking business. Luckily for Solheim, there were just as many lessons to be learned in the private sector.

“When Karsten went back to work for his father making shoes, he found that he had a new competitor who had opened a shop across the street,” says his son John Solheim, current CEO of PING. “This guy was undercutting his prices and taking his customers, so Karsten decided he would lower his prices as well and start using less expensive material to build shoes and make repairs.”

This experiment failed miserably and Solheim nearly sank the family’s business. In a bold redirect, he decided to start using the best quality materials he could find. Though it drove the price of his product beyond double what his new neighbor was charging, he found that the market responded favorably and within a couple of years he had put his competitor out of business.

Solheim kept looking to the future, and for an opportunity to again study engineering and design. In 1945 he got his break. What the Depression had stolen, WWII would give back.

***

After Pearl Harbor, materials, supplies, and engineers were suddenly in great demand. The University of California offered a 10-week crash course in aeronautical design through an extension program. Solheim enrolled and finished the course work in five weeks.

In 1945, he took a position with Ryan Aeronautical, the engineering team that had designed Lindbergh’s Spirit of St Louis. Solheim was a project engineer for the first tricycle landing gear that made it possible for airplanes to safely land on aircraft carriers. He developed systems that would guide the Atlas missile for another company, Convair.

Solheim worked for a host of engineering and design firms through the ‘40s and ‘50s. After the war, while at GE, he was the lead on a design team that not only invented the first portable television but also perfected the “rabbit ears” antenna. “GE thought that they would build about 40,000 units,” recalls John Solheim, “but the design was so popular that they built over 4 million.” A Chicago firm would accept the credit for perfecting the rabbit ears. Solheim decided this would be the last time he invented something that he didn’t manufacture himself.

Solheim’s military, aeronautic, and industrial design experience had turned into a career. Although chiefly a tennis player, he was persuaded to take up golf by his workmates at GE.

“Some of his engineer friends invited him out to play without realizing that he had never played before,” says John. “They were on the second tee before he had finished up on the first green.”

Like a lot of golfers, Solheim struggled with putting. But rather than throw clubs, he deconstructed them. His engineer’s mind told him that the design of the putter seemed off. The shaft met the club head at the wrong junction, and the weighting of the club seemed haphazardly scattered throughout the design plane. It was as if almost no practical thought had gone in to the making of this contraption. With no sensible putters on the market, Solheim decided to build his own. He borrowed $1,100 and holed up in his garage.

The name PING owes itself to a bizarre attribute of Solheim’s initial putter design, which he called the 1A. Built from a prototype of sugar cubes and popsicle sticks, the 1A was weighted on either end and had a gap between the face and the back of the club, which upon striking a ball provided for a xylophonic tone. The 1A was a success by design standards, but golfers resisted it. It didn’t look like anything else on the market and it made a strange sound.

In order to get his putter to market, Solheim moonlighted by promoting his product to industry leaders. He was a regular at tour events, hanging around the practice greens, diagrams in hand, ready to prove his design to those who would listen.

Eventually, Solheim would redesign the 1A into the more aesthetically pleasing Anser. Through sheer persistence he struck distribution deals with pro shops and convinced several touring pros to use the putter on tour. His true genius for marketing came from his decision to imprint his company’s contact information on each club, much like a design firm would tag each page of a blueprint. “You’ve got to remember,” says John, “we didn’t have the Internet; we didn’t have anything. So what Karsten did was put his address on every golf club—cast in. And we’d get letters from all over the world requesting our products because of that.”

An up-and-down pro named Julius Boros won the 1967 Phoenix Open, sinking the winning putt with a PING putter, sending orders through the roof. Solheim then turned his attention to the other clubs in the bag.

***

At age 25, Texas-born Mike Holder had taken the reins of the Oklahoma State University men’s golf program in 1973. A gifted amateur golfer, Holder earned medalist honors in 1970 at the Big Eight Championship while playing for OSU. During his coaching tenure, OSU won eight national championships. Additionally, he coached his way to 21 conference titles, a number bested by only one other coach, Forrest Clare “Phog” Allen. He and his players have amassed more individual and team awards than is worth mentioning, but if it wasn’t for football, Holder may have never found his way to golf.

“It was in the seventh grade. I played football that year and the school told us that if we wanted to play football the next year, we had to play a spring sport,” Holder recounts. “So I said, ‘Alright, what sport ya got?’ Well, they only had golf and track—they didn’t have baseball or anything else. So I was a little pudgy kid, and I’d been around track but it wasn’t my strong suit. My dad had a set of golf clubs in the garage. I’d never seen him use them, but I’d seen them in there, so I asked him if I could borrow them and try out for the junior-high golf team.

“So he took me out in the backyard and he told me to keep my left arm straight and he kind of showed me how to hold the club.”

Holder would make the team at Sapulpa Junior High School and golf would make him forget about football. “I kind of liked it right off the bat,” he says, his eyes pointed toward the ceiling in his office. “You didn’t have to be the fastest or the strongest guy.” And although playing golf that spring semester meant he was eligible to play football the next year, Holder can’t even recall if he did.

What he does remember is becoming a dominant force as a coach in the world of college golf. Mike Holder was to college golf what Mike Krzyzewski is to college basketball. His teams were perennial contenders, and known for being top-notch athletes. He insisted on it. They did aerobics at 6:30 a.m. weekdays. They did push-ups and ran stadium stairs to atone for miscues on the course. Holder held team qualifying rounds in the midst of spring storm season, in an effort to cultivate mental and physical toughness. Holder-coached teams were the trendsetters, the innovators, sometimes even the laughingstock of the league for their unorthodox regimen. That made them the perfect target for PING.

***

In 1976, club manufacturers weren’t in the habit of courting amateur programs. “You might be able to get a set of clubs at wholesale or something if you were a really good player,” Holder says, “but mostly a college golfer had to purchase his own equipment.” PING’s offer to outfit his team was of interest to Holder, but he had reservations. Namely, the look.

“They were ugly,” Holder says with a puzzled look on his face, even still. “I didn’t like anything about them. They were offset at the hosel, which kind of made them hard to line up. The finish was dull instead of shiny. The whole thing seemed wrong.”

Unimpressed with the current design, Holder sent the PING representative, Gary Hart, back to the drawing board. “I said, ‘Look, you’re a great guy and it sounds like you have a great company, but no one wants to use your clubs, they’re too ugly’.”

By 1978, Karsten Manufacturing had made significant improvements to its irons and introduced the PING “Eye” series. This got Holder’s attention. “In 1978, David Edwards won the NCAA Championship while at Oklahoma State playing with PING clubs and a PING golf ball. By 1979 or 1980, everybody on our team was using them.”

The Cowboys won three national championships in the 80’s and two in the 90’s carrying PINGs. The golf world was paying attention. Sales of PING clubs took off, no small thanks to OSU. “It meant a lot,” Holder says. “It gave them credibility.”

“It was hugely important,” says John Solheim. “For us to be able to get into Oklahoma State at the time, there was no question that they were the number one golf program in the country. As soon as other teams saw Oklahoma State use our equipment, then they had to have it. And as soon as they went home, the kids at the clubs saw it, and they had to have it.”

***

Players weren’t the only ones noticing PING’s rise to domination. Traditional manufacturers like Wilson, Titleist, and Hogan found themselves saddled to a club design that was seen as stale and unsophisticated. Their sluggishness in the boardroom was getting them trounced on the fairway. Absent a design and engineering mind as capable as Karsten Solheim, they threw themselves on the mercy of the court—the governing bodies of professional golf.

In 1988, both the USGA and PGA disqualified PING irons manufactured over the previous two years. To qualify, a player would either have to play a PING club that was manufactured before 1986 or switch to a different club. The rule hinged on a negligible discrepancy regarding groove placement on PING’s most popular iron to date, the PING Eye 2. The argument was that the design created an unfair advantage by enabling players to impart more spin on the ball. In golf, more spin equals more control.

Solheim would spend the next couple of years in the courtroom instead of the design studio battling to keep his clubs in the hands of professionals. He pleaded his case with zeal, looking more like a mad scientist than an executive, a subtlety not lost on the staid, conservative governing bodies of golf with which he had filed repeated injunctions. Solheim was an outsider in every way. It allowed him to approach club design with a different perspective, and it lost him footing with golf ’s good old boys.

“I have no question that there were some of the old guard that got together on that,” says John Solheim of the controversy. Though the current CEO is reluctant to name names, he will admit that, “during the groove issue there were some people who kept prodding the USGA—a lot.”

It’s worth noting that the PGA, which carried on its court battles with PING long after the USGA reached an agreement with the club maker, was feeling considerable pressure from its sponsors to continue questioning PING’s viability. The PGA derives a sizable amount of income from club makers. Although its stated purpose as an organization is to protect player interests, a quick perusal of their current website yields motion ads from Titleist in the top two advertising spots.

***

The legal battles of the early ‘90s took their toll on PING and Karsten Solheim. John says his father’s inherent fight came, in part, from his heritage. “Part of that Norwegian that’s in you, your mind sticks on something and you can’t get it out of [there].” Karsten’s grandson, Andy, has an additional theory, “A lot of what got to him was that some people questioned his integrity.” For people to believe on any level that he was trying to cheat through design would have been the ultimate insult to Solheim. Ultimately, PING would be recognized as having no malicious intent regarding its non-conforming design and the clubs would be grandfathered in and allowed for play. But the damage had been done.

In 1995, John Solheim made a move at a board meeting to replace Karsten as company president. He had previously broached the subject with his father, but, “He wouldn’t have anything to do with it. But he knew he was slipping. So I told him at a board meeting that I would like to nominate him as chairman and I would like for him to nominate me as president. He and my mother discussed it for a few minutes and then he did it.”

Karsten Solheim remained chairman until his death in 2000 from complications of Parkinson’s disease. His children and grandchildren continue to run the company, which has not only regained its position atop the golf equipment industry, but has continued to attempt to emulate the innovative spirit of its founder. Concepts such as perimeter weighting, investment casting and custom fitting matter today because of Solheim.

Holder, now athletic director at OSU, says they broke the mold after they forged Solheim. “There’s not gonna be another one. Karsten was pretty special. There was nothing conventional about him. He was a genius.”