If I asked my mother how I could get more out of my golf clubs, she would probably reply: “Buy bigger ones so you can hit the ball easier” or “Ooh! Those orange ones look nice.”
When John Solheim asks his mom, she replies something like this: “You need to shave three-thousandth of an inch off the leading edge, rejigger the hosel fitting, decrease the swing-weight tolerance by 34.5 percent and realign the toe.” She would then go out and win a driving contest.The Solheims — the women’s equivalent of the Ryder Cup is named after them — are a tight family and this is reflected in the family business: PING, one of the most recognizable golf club manufacturers in the world.
On a swing through Asia to promote the company’s new i3 line of clubs, PING chairman and CEO John Solheim took time out to talk about his mom, his dad, Karsten, who created the company, golf and golf clubs with The Japan Times.
“My mother has always played a very important part in the decisions of the company,” Solheim stressed. “She is a very talented writer and mathematician who used to work in the wind tunnel at Convair (now General Dynamics). She used to use the engineer’s computer to do calculations.”
She also played an interesting part in naming one of Karsten’s putters. Karsten didn’t know what to call one of his creations, so Louise told him: “Call it The Answer.”
Karsten wasn’t so sure, but Louise persisted. “Call it The Answer,” she told him.
Karsten, who originally created the PING clubs with his own hands in his garage and named the company from the sound his first putter made, had a problem.
“It won’t fit,” he told his wife.
“Leave out the W,” she replied, and The Anser was born.
The company went from strength to strength under Karsten’s guidance and John quit school early to help his father in the rapidly expanding business.
Karsten, who quit a good job with General Electric to run the company full-time, was a hands-on boss who oversaw all aspects of the clubs’ design and manufacture, and despite ill-health is still actively involved in the company.
The influence of his parents remains strong in current CEO John. Talking about the new i3 irons, John recalled: “PING took irons from being blades into cavity-backed clubs. We wouldn’t do something my father would be against — we wouldn’t produce a club without forgiveness.”
To a large extent, PING has created its reputation as an everyman’s club, from tour professionals to the most amateurish amateur. Indeed, Karsten created his first perimeter-weighted putter as a result of his own poor putting. His engineer’s brain told him that if you put all the weight on the outside of the putter, it would reduce the tendency of the club to twist as the stroke is played, a source of millions of missed putts each year.
Karsten started out with putters and for a long time he made them all himself, until demand outstripped supply. The principle of evenly distributed weight in the putter is the same for PING’s legendary irons the PING Eyes and the PING Zings, but in 1972, Karsten went a step further in his quest to make golf clubs more suited to golf’s players by introducing a color-coded system to custom-fit clubs to individuals.
PING keeps a record of all the clubs it manufactures and if you lose or damage your clubs, identical replacements can be made and shipped within days. The customized fitting of clubs means that PING doesn’t need to keep a huge inventory at its base in Phoenix, Ariz. In fact, in the United States, a golfer can order a custom-made set of clubs one weekend and be using them the next weekend.
John Solheim knows the value of customized clubs. “Some of the things that you can’t understand at the average level the golf pro can,” he explained. “And when you’re trying to improve your trajectory, there’s things we can do to adjust the clubs to help that.”
As an example, he relates the story of how he took a club from former PGA champion Bob Tway and made it 2 degrees more upright, giving him an instant improvement of 10 yards on his drives. “Each degree of lie is 5 yards of direction linewise on a 5-iron,” Solheim points out.
PING’s philosophy is summed up in the company slogan: “Helping people all over the planet keep from hitting the ball all over the planet.”
In developing the new i3’s, PING has moved away from the classic cavity-backed irons that became the best-selling irons in the world, but like its sister irons the PING i3 blade still has a cavity and is still adjustable to the preferences of the customer. “It’s more forgiving that any blade club has ever been,” Solheim explains. “We’re trying to redefine what a blade is.”
John spent some time in the workshop developing the clubs.
“I built three sets of clubs for Bernhard Langer and spent about an hour grinding time for each club myself because I was trying to achieve the optics that he wanted. That helped me understand what he was trying to achieve in a blade club,” Solheim noted.
After that, the PING team of John Bliss, Dan Cubica and golf pro Mike Nicolette set about creating PING’s first blade. “For the i3’s, we started with a blank sheet of paper,” Solheim pointed out.
“The i3 is a PING blade,” Solheim stated while emphasizing that the blade version of the club is not a bastardized version of any other club in the PING family or any other club elsewhere. The i3 comes in two versions: the blade “for the good player that has control” and the O-size, which, according to Solheim, “has more bounce on it to make it more forgiving for the average player.”
PING users such as Mark Calcavecchia, Billy Mayfair, European Ryder Cup captain Mark James and Spanish star Miguel Angel Jimenez are all flying the flag for the new i3’s. Notable by their absence are any Japanese players, although Japan Tour regular Todd Hamilton is sponsored by PING.
“We’re working on Japan,” Solheim explained. “It’s difficult to get into the market here, but our goal is to have Japanese players.” Easier said than done as Japanese manufacturers snap up promising Japanese players as quickly as you can yell “Fore!”
The Japanese would suit PING’s strict definition of who can endorse their products. The Solheims are a tight, church-going family and the company is keen to maintain a wholesome image. It’s ironic then that one of PING’s biggest success stories was the wild man of golf himself, John Daly, who came from nowhere to win the 1991 PGA Championship — with a set of PING clubs. However, Solheim never had the chance to worry about any of Daly’s idiosyncrasies.
“He left us for Wilson because he was offered $1 million a year,” Solheim explains. “How could a young man like that turn something like that down when he never knows if he’ll win another event.”
But the Christian side of Solheim is quick not to condemn Daly’s excesses. “I like John,” he admits. “But unfortunately, he doesn’t meet with the image of what we’re trying to achieve today. There’s so much talent there, but someone needs to spend a lot of time with him. He’s somebody that I pray for.”
Solheim, like his parents, obviously believes in setting and maintaining standards, as a person and as a businessman. According to him, other manufacturers do not always maintain such standards.
“The industry’s got some settling out to do,” he said. “Some of the big guys have hurt themselves recently because they’re being driven by the bottom line; the consumer is tired of hype when you don’t have product to back it up. Our goal is to be No. 1 in the world and we want to do it with product, not hype.”
With the standards that the Solheims have set, it is no surprise that the women’s equivalent of the Ryder Cup is named after them. There have now been five editions of the Solheim Cup and the event is growing in stature every two years, something that John Solheim is very proud of.
“There’s nothing like an event that you play for your country,” he notes. “There’s more pressure than anything and being match play, you have to beat somebody on the hole so you have to hit more chancy shots than you would if you were just playing to score.”
For Solheim, the excitement of the cup that’s named after his family represents the purity in golf that he aspires to in his personal and business life. He says that his father would prefer to dump a bad product in the garbage bin and start all over again rather than risk dumping a substandard product on the public. It’s a rare quality in sport and business and it’s a quality that has made PING one of the top golf club manufacturers in the world.
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