If you could have anyone in the world make you a set of irons, whom would you choose? Most of us would probably select Karsten Solheim or Ely Callaway or maybe Roger Cleveland. But when Jack Nicklaus, Greg Norman and Arnold Palmer, along with a slew of other name players, were given that choice, they picked Don White.
If you've never heard of White, you're not alone. He's one of the best-kept secrets in golf. White, 45, began hand-grinding irons for the MacGregor Golf Company 25 years ago and is now the most highly admired artisan in the industry. Using only a lathe, White is able to transform nine chunks of steel into the best-looking, softest-feeling, most evenly balanced set of forged irons money can buy.
White's virtuosity (he's also adept at sculpting the master models that are used for the mass production of irons and at touching up investment cast irons) has made him neither rich nor famous, but his work is revered by club designers and the players who use his blades. In addition to Nicklaus, Norman and Palmer, players such as John Cook, Steve Strieker and Tom Weiskopf carry White grinds, while Amy Alcott, Paul Azinger, Ben Crenshaw, Tom Lehman, Nancy Lopez, Larry Mize, Chi Chi Rodriguez and Curtis Strange, among others, used them before signing endorsement deals with rival manufacturers. "Don has a gift from God," says Rodriguez, who used White-ground MacGregors from 1988 until 1993, when he signed a seven-figure deal with Callaway. "It's what the greats like Ruth, Picasso and Mozart all had—genius. Don's genius is in his hands."
Irons ground by White have won 11 major championships, including this double grand slam—a pair of Masters by Nicklaus, two U.S. Opens by Strange, a couple of British Opens by Norman, and PGAs by Azinger and David Graham. Today only a handful of pros use White's irons, but not because more don't want to. "A ton of guys on Tour have told me they'd love to use Donny's sticks, but contractually they can't," says Cook, who in 1994 joined the MacGregor staff largely because he was determined to play clubs made by White.
Some players are so high-powered that they can play the clubs they prefer regardless of an affiliation with a manufacturer. Nicklaus (Nicklaus Golf), Norman (Cobra) and Palmer (Arnold Palmer Golf) fall into that category. "Don's the best; he's a great artisan," says Tom Crow, Cobra's chief of design, who in 1991 hired White to grind irons for Norman and stamp the Cobra name on them. Cobra doesn't make forged blades, but the Shark refuses to play with anything else.
Growing up on a cotton plantation in Leary, Ga., only 24 miles west of Albany, where he now works and lives, White knew nothing about golf. "I'd seen a putter, I think, and a driver, too," he says, "but I had no idea what they were used for."
Along with his four brothers and two sisters, White was raised in a three-room house by his maternal grandparents. His grandfather, Joe (Doc) White, was a field hand. Roselle, his grandmother, also worked in the fields. Don has happy memories of those hardscrabble days. Money was tight, but not as tight as his family. Don's eyes tear up when he tells how he used to cuddle on Roselle's lap and listen to her read from the Bible. He says his grandfather "gave me my art sense. He could make something beautiful out of nothing." An expert craftsman, Joe White had a small work shed where he built wagons, furniture and toys. Don was usually at his side.
In 1968, having graduated from high school, White was uncertain about what to do next. He was a good student but didn't have the money to go to college. Instead he took a job as a welder for the Lilliston Corp. and moved in with his wife-to-be, Marion. Life was good. Too good. White was more interested in partying than in work, and in 1970 he lost his job. Fortunately, a short time later MacGregor moved part of its production facilities from Cincinnati to Albany. A friend told White about possible job openings, and he soon had a position polishing and grinding iron heads in the company's prestigious custom-club department.
Other companies, such as Hogan and Wilson, also have storied traditions in forged irons, but no one matched MacGregor during the heyday of the forged club, from the mid-1930s to the mid-'70s. MacGregor recruited toolmakers from around the country to grind its clubs. At the same time, Toney Penna, a Tour player turned club designer who represented the company on the circuit, recruited a glittering and enormous staff of pros that included Tommy Armour, Jimmy Demaret, Byron Nelson, Louise Suggs, Craig Wood and even Ben Hogan, who played MacGregors until he started his own equipment company in 1953.
Working for such a company rejuvenated White. For the first time since leaving his grandparents, he was happy. "I was raised from the dead," he says. "All the shapes and styles, the different cuts we had to do, the challenge excited me."