The end had been coming for a long while, and finally it arrived, on the Sunday before the PGA Championship. I was playing in my regular game, at home in Philadelphia. I used my $400 Titleist 975D titanium driver 12 times. Didn't hit a single fairway. Given the places I was driving the ball, my round of 86 was no small feat (I'm an 11.) The next morning I was in the factory of the Louisville Golf Club Company, just down the road from Valhalla. Louisville Golf is the last large-scale U.S. manufacturer of persimmon drivers. I was looking to go back to wood. Seems like most everybody is.
Well, that may be an exaggeration. But Elmore Just, president of Louisville Golf, had heard that Bob Estes, winner of the 1994 Texas Open, was considering going back to a wooden driver. Just also reported that Bobby Nichols, the '64 PGA champ and a native son of Louisville, had sent a nephew to the factory to pick up one of Just's new Smart drivers, with the idea that Nichols would consider using it at Valhalla. But that was before Nichols pulled out of the tournament. Still, Just hopes that wood will come back. "It has a good past," he says. "No reason it can't have a good future. We're just trying to keep our dog in the fight." All of golf—caddying, playing, spectating, manufacturing—is rooted in optimism.
Louisville Golf was founded in 1974, in the heyday of persimmon, an era when all golfers, but pros in particular, had a much more personal relationship with their head-covered clubs. After all, the wood with which they made their living had itself once been alive. On the practice tee at Tour events, players would routinely use the words and manners of courting in regard to their wooden clubs. A tasseled sock would be pulled off triumphantly, and a neighboring player would grip the club loosely, waggle it a few times and say, "She's a beaut."
Many of those beauties were made by Louisville Golf, by Elmore Just or one of his four brothers: Ron, 54, Mike, 50, Robert, 48, and Gerard, 44. Mostly they made clubs for other companies. When Payne Stewart won the '91 U.S. Open, he played a laminated, big-headed Wilson Whale driver made in the back shop of Louisville Golf on Grassland Drive, in an industrial zone on the outskirts of the city. The Hogan Apex persimmon driver Tom Kite used in winning the '92 U.S. Open was made by Louisville. "I remember on the last hole," says Ron Just, "the TV guy said, 'Looks like Kite's using a three-wood here to play safe,' and then they show the club up close and I say, "That's no three-wood. That's our driver!' "
At its peak, Louisville Golf employed more than 100 woodworkers and produced about 800 clubs per day. Now it employs 11 woodworkers and makes maybe 100 clubs a day, half of them fairway woods and drivers, the other half wooden-headed putters. The Just brothers watched as the Tour, and the golfing nation with it, went from all wood to nearly all metal.
The last holdout was Davis Love III, a superb driver, who used the same No. 1 wood—a pear-shaped Cleveland Classic—from his rookie year in 1986 through the middle of '97. That year Love came out with a book in which he wrote, "Golf is somehow more pleasing to me when played with a driver made of wood." We were of like minds. (I helped with the typing on Love's book.) I had a long-term relationship with a MacGregor Eye-O-Matic, from the '50s, an artwork that I hit sort of short but mostly in play. Love was the hero of Elmore and Elmores everywhere, wood men trying to hold on.
Then in August 1997, Love won a major, the PGA, using a new driver, a Titleist 975D, with a titanium head that had the loft of a putter and a shaft about as flexible as a wooden leg. A while later he gave me one of his spare drivers and said, "If I switched, maybe you should too." I spent three years trying every loft and every shaft flex. There were some good moments, and my best drives with those clubs were my best drives ever. That was the tantalizing thing. But there were more moments of misery than anything else. My heeled shots went dead left. They had no curve to them, tree-bound from the get-go. Toed shots were the same, affording me a visit to the right woods on an equal-opportunity basis.
Elmore Just has heard this all before. "That's why wooden clubs are better," he says. "The wood club has more curve to it, more bulge and more roll. Because of that curve, an off-center hit with a wood club imparts more spin on the ball. What people don't seem to realize is, that's good. You want your heeled shots to start down the left side and fade back into the fairway. You want your toed shots to start down the right side and draw back."
I had come to the right place. Just fitted me for one of his Smart drivers, a solid piece of persimmon—a wood that's hard and heavy—but with a somewhat bigger head than the classic shapes from the Eisenhower years. With hope in my heart, I plunked down $375 for the club. (About the only good thing the titanium clubs have done for him, Just says, is raise the bar on what golf nuts will spend for a driver.) My club was assembled to order. I asked for a heavy head with 10.5 degrees of loft, a D-5 swing weight, a 44-inch lightweight graphite shaft with a regular flex and a Winn grip, one wrap oversized. My new wood would be ready the next day.
Louisville is a woodworking town. One of the biggest employers in the city is still Hillerich & Bradsby, maker of the Louisville Slugger baseball bat-Powerized!—and PowerBilt golf clubs. Elmore Just, who is trim and graying and 52 years old, grew up in South Louisville, the working-class side of the city, and was the first Just to go to college, which he did at Bellarmine on a partial golf scholarship. After college and the Army, Just came home to Louisville and took a job at H & B, and it was there, in the early '70s, that he got bit by the clubmaking bug. When a clubmaker, the late Earl Gordon, left H & B to go into business for himself, Just went to work for him and learned alongside him. "If you heard Earl Gordon talking about clubs, he sounded like a poet, but Lord was he mean," Just says. "He'd say to his pregnant wife in the dead of winter, 'I got to take care of some things; go out and warm up the car for me.' " Before long, Just got in his car and left Gordon, too scared of the man to return for his Royal manual typewriter and big wooden desk. It was then that he started Louisville Golf.