White's supervisor was Art Emerson, one of the best grinders in the business. Early on Emerson recognized White's gift and, unbeknownst to White, began to groom him as his successor by giving him more and more responsibility. By 1980 White was handling all of the important orders, including those from Nicklaus, a MacGregor staff member from 1962 until 1992. "I always told Donny, 'It's the little things that make a great iron,' " says Emerson, 74, who retired in 1987 after 37 years at MacGregor. "I'd tell him, 'Nobody has ever reached perfection, but that shouldn't stop you from trying.' "
Perfection for most amateurs usually comes in the form of a forgiving cast iron. The best players still prefer forgings even though, according to White, it is becoming difficult to find a well-made forged iron these days. "I don't know how most of the stuff for sale can be used," says White. "Even lots of Tour guys don't know it, but they're playing with junk."
Those are strong words, yet White can back them up. He has that strong a reputation among clubmakers. For example, Jack Wullkotte has been Nicklaus's personal club designer since 1964. For the last 19 years Wullkotte has allowed no one but White to grind the Golden Bear's irons. "I've been around clubmaking for 50 years," says Wullkotte, "and nobody has a better eye than Don White. For irons, his opinion is the opinion."
According to White, the most important aspect of making an iron is getting the correct smearing—the blending of the lines and protrusions on the club head so that the weighting is even while the club remains pleasing to the eye. White says irons' shortcomings are usually on top of the toe, in the heel and in the slope between the hosel and the topline. The worst built part of most irons, White says, is the sole. The leading and back edges of many are not round enough, causing the irons to dig into the turf instead of sliding over it. "Amateurs don't look for such things," says White, "but to pros it's the small things that count."
White tailors his irons to each customer's personal, and often demanding, specifications. Norman, for instance, likes his irons with no offset, with the leading edge "killed," or extra rounded, and the sole slightly cambered from front to back so that the front edge is higher off the ground than the back edge. Palmer uses the cast clubs that his company manufactures—after White has ground down the toe and rounded the sole. "Nicklaus, I don't see how he plays with his specs," says White. Nicklaus prefers almost no offset, a flat sole and a straight leading edge, features that would make most amateurs hit lots of fat shots.
White spends up to three days to finish an important order. First, the client selects one of MacGregor's raw club heads, which are made by Cornell Forge in Chicago. Then, after adding a shaft and grip and checking each head's loft and lie, White grinds, stamps, polishes and buffs. That he can match every club in a set is perhaps his greatest talent. "Imagine Rodin making a single masterpiece," says Clay Long, a prominent club-design consultant. "Don can give you a set of nine identical masterpieces."
Until 1988 White was paid $10 an hour. His current salary is $35,000 annually, and he has never received a bonus—not even for Christmas. "Maybe it hasn't been fair," says Kim Calhoun, MacGregor's communications manager, "but we've sort of kept Donny under wraps so nobody steals him away."
A few years ago Callaway and Cobra tried, offering White jobs in their design departments. He wasn't interested. Slumping profits had forced MacGregor to lay off everyone in the custom-club department except White, and he enjoyed having the workshop to himself. He also prefers living in rural Georgia. "We're a comfortable country family," says White, who has three daughters, Jennifer, 20, Madondra, 7, and Alisha, 5. "I'm not getting rich, but with Marion's work as a substitute teacher we get along fine."
The only thing that isn't fine is White's own game. He finally took up golf 10 years ago and expected instant success. He remains an 18 handicapper. "I found out that it's not so easy to hit the ball just because it's sitting still," White said recently after shooting 46 for nine holes at Turner Golf Course in Albany. "It's got to be technique. Look at Fred Couples. How does he get such reaction out of the ball? I've got muscles like him. I'd sure like to find the secret."
White paused, then added, "Maybe I need new irons."