87: Putter Devotion

87: Putter Devotion

From Chicken Soup for the Soul: Tales of Golf and Sport

Putter Devotion

Perseverance is not a long race; it is many short races one after another.

~Walter Elliott,
The Spiritual Life

When I was working for General Electric in Ithaca, New York in the early 1950s, I began to notice an interesting phenomenon on Mondays and Fridays during fair weather. Several of my fellow engineers seemed to be in high spirits those days. When I listened in on their conversations, I figured out why. Fridays they were planning their weekend golf outings; Mondays they were ribbing one another about what went on in them. It all seemed such a good time that I asked if I could join in.

I was forty-two years old and had never so much as picked up a golf club. “How hard can it be?” I asked myself. That Saturday, after borrowing some clubs and meeting up with my friends, I found out: harder than I could ever have imagined.

On the first tee, I watched my friends and took a few practice swings, imitating them as closely as I could. It felt pretty good. Then it was my turn. I teed up a ball, waggled the driver as my friends had and took a good cut. Whoosh! A clean miss. Then another. “Take it easy,” my companions said. “Just keep your eye on the ball and swing evenly.”

I did, and caught a huge clod of dirt, but not the ball. Soon dirt and grass were flying everywhere, but my ball just sat. I was still swinging away when my friends gave up and told me to catch up to them on the second tee. Grimly, I hacked my way to the first green, only to discover that putting was even more frustrating. As an engineer I was confident that I could figure the slope of the green and anticipate the correct trajectory for my ball. Not so. I couldn’t get my putter to send the ball where I wanted it to go. There’s no reason putting should be this hard, I thought.

My score for the round would have been a good one if I’d been bowling. I was frustrated, but I liked spending Saturdays outdoors. Being with the fellows was fun too, so I kept practicing. I was determined to find out why a seemingly simple game was so difficult.

After playing several times more, I felt confident I could make some improvements in the clubs, and I shared my ideas with my wife, Louise.

“It seems to me that if a fellow can putt well he can certainly improve his game,” I said. “And I’ve got some ideas about this putter....”

“I was wondering when you would get around to the nuts and bolts of it!” she said with a laugh.

“Well,” I said, showing her my borrowed club, “it’s no wonder I have a hard time putting, the way this thing is made.”

She nodded and smiled knowingly. “No doubt you’ll have it fixed up to your liking soon.”

She was right about that. In time I bought my own clubs and began working on the improvements I had in mind. I loved working with my hands, fixing things. It’s something I had discovered back in my dad’s cobbler shop, where he taught me the basics of shoemaking. Before I was out of grammar school I was helping him resole shoes. It was a good place for a curious and handy kid to get his start.

Later, I started college with high hopes of becoming an engineer, but the Depression put an end to that after only one year. So I ran one of my father’s two shoe-repair shops. Soon after, I met Louise, just out of high school, at church, and I asked her father’s permission to marry her. He said no. Louise and I were disappointed, but I told her I was sure our marriage was meant to be and God would direct our path to it if we could be patient and trust him. When her father saw how determined we were to marry, he accepted it.

I resumed my engineering studies, but soon World War II intervened. I went to work in the defense industry, designing radar and missile systems, then moved to GE, where I worked on improving existing products and developed a new portable television set with an attachable rabbit ears antenna.

It was all this engineering experience that I put to work fashioning a new putter. I made myself a simple blade putter by shaping a block of aluminum and inserting weights in the heel and toe. The effect was to keep the putter from twisting in my hands. Finally the putting motion began to feel right to me.

I started haunting the practice green at our local golf club, and my handicap began going down. Even some of the pros were asking me to play with them.

One afternoon a club pro stopped me as I was coming off the practice green. “You really putt well,” he said.

I laughed. “Thanks, but you should have seen me before I made this.”

“You made the putter?” he asked. “Well you should make more and sell them, because it sure does work.”

That afternoon I determined to make my putter even better. I took my design to a nearby toolmaker, who soon returned to me a putter head. I took it home and inserted a shaft, then struck a ball. Ping! So that’s what I called my putters, PINGs, and I began trying to sell one at local golf shops. That’s exactly what I did. I sold one—in six months of trying.

I started traveling to golf tournaments and asking pros to try my club and give me their opinions. I took their suggestions back to my garage workshop and made improvements. My youngest son, John, then in junior high, helped me with a jerry-rigged drill press to bore out the club heads; then I heated the heads on the kitchen stove to insert the shafts.

That may sound funny, but back in the beginning I had to make the best use of the equipment I had. Besides, some people say I’ve always had a mad scientist side. Like the time I was working on a more aerodynamic wood club head, only to be stymied by how to test my different models. Riding along in a car one day, I got an idea. I persuaded my son Allan to take me to a deserted secondary highway in our 1959 Citroen. When there were no cars in sight I told him to step on it, then I held each of my drivers out the window at different angles to test their wind resistance. We had a good laugh over that, but the test worked and I got the answer I was looking for.

Still, none of my improvements made my PING putters any better looking. One pro told me, “That thing looks like a hot dog on a stick.” I didn’t care much about its appearance, just its performance.

I was having so much fun with my fledgling enterprise that I wanted more than anything to devote myself full-time to it. But the advice of the first pro-shop owner to stock my club haunted me. “These putters of yours are great, but whatever you do, don’t give up your job. This is a fickle business.” Even so, sales began to pick up when a few professionals started using the PING putter on tour. Then a well-known professional, Julius Boros, used one in winning the 1967 Phoenix Open.

But by then Louise and I were mulling over a big decision. The previous fall, my boss had told me that General Electric wanted to transfer me to a plant in Oklahoma City. I was torn. My job was solid and safe, and more than anything, I wanted my family to be secure. Yet we had invested a lot of time and money in my putter business, and my latest one was selling so fast we couldn’t keep up with the orders.

“What do you think?” I asked Louise one morning at breakfast.

“I think back to that confident young man who courted me,” she said. “Remember what you told me? You said, ‘God will direct our path. He will lead us where he wants us to go.’ Besides,” she said, her brown eyes twinkling, “I’m keeping the books. I know we can make it.”

So in early 1967 I retired from GE, and we began manufacturing clubs full-time in a small building we had bought in northwest Phoenix. More and more golf professionals were winning with PING putters, so I turned my attention to building a better iron, then to woods and other golf products. Karsten Manufacturing Corporation, as we’ve called it since 1967, became a storybook success.

It’s hard to believe a golf outing more than forty years ago, when I couldn’t sink a putt no matter how hard I tried, has resulted in a company that ships clubs to seventy countries worldwide and employs fifteen hundred people. Yet in a way I’m not surprised. As Louise and I learned so long ago, if you trust completely in God’s goodness and follow where he leads, things have a way of turning out nicely.

Now I’m proud to say that our son John is president of our company. These days I’m taking it a little easier. But who knows, one day I might even figure a way to make that putter of ours a little prettier. Meantime, even I can sink a putt with it.

~Karsten Solheim as told to Gina Bridgeman
Chicken Soup for the Golfer’s Soul

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