At 65, many people find golf an elixir, and such is the case with Karsten Solheim, though his handicap grows higher each year. For even if he is unable to improve his own score, any day now he may come up with a startling way to help Tony Jacklin or Debbie Austin lower theirs. Solheim is regarded by the touring pros as the most ingenious designer of golf clubs in the world.
His burgeoning golf-equipment company had its genesis 17 years ago in his garage. With a loan of $1,100, he began by making the mold for a putter that would, after several frustrating years, become a sensation on the pro tour. Now Solheim manufactures a full line of clubs—even his own golf balls—and his business is worth $20 million. The garage and kitchen assembly lines have been replaced by the Karsten Manufacturing Corporation, a series of air-conditioned buildings set against a mountain backdrop on Phoenix' northwest side. And that early putter, called the Ping because of the sound it made when it struck the ball, remains one of the most popular models on the tour. Karsten has annual sales of more than $10 million and ranks among the top five golf-equipment companies. In rival boardrooms, executives worry about what this weekend golfer (he had only played the game for six years when he designed the Ping) will come up with next.
Like auto manufacturers, golf-club makers seem to believe that new shoelaces can transform old sneakers. Innovations are rare. The steel shaft was an exception, but it was introduced long ago. Yet in the gallery at any pro tournament, you can find half a dozen people who claim to have the remedy for the slice or hook: a differently honed club. What sets Solheim apart is that he had a design that worked, and he persevered, endured ridicule and triumphed.
Solheim was born in Norway and was brought to this country as an infant. When he was forced to drop out of college during the Depression because he was broke, he worked as a cobbler in his hometown of Seattle, saving his money so that someday he could continue his education. He never returned to college but pursued his engineering bent at Ryan Aeronautical and Convair.
In 1953 he went to work for General Electric and had a lot to do with the development of the portable television set. Solheim also created the rabbit-ears antenna. GE was not interested in manufacturing it, so he took his idea to a Chicago electronics company, and over a lobster-tail dinner, gave the company president the design gratis. When the outfit produced its two-millionth antenna, two gold-plated ones were given to Solheim, who thought ruefully, "The next time I invent something, I'll make it myself." Which he proceeded to do.
"All my life I was hoping to build something that somebody wanted," he says. "The last thing I had in mind was a golf club. But if I was planning my life, I don't know of anything that would be more enjoyable." His iron design, which involves weighting clubs on their perimeters and making them from molds instead of forging them, a process called "investment casting," has been imitated by every major manufacturer. By casting the clubs, Solheim ensured uniformity and eliminated the grinding process needed to hone a forged club. (A Ping pro could not have had the trouble Tom Watson and others had last month at the PGA, when the grooves in their irons were found to be too wide.) In the past, manufacturers prized their expert grinders as much as opera companies value their stars. People like John Huggins of MacGregor were craftsmen, and touring pros could look at a set of clubs and tell you if it had a Huggins grind. "Karsten's investment-cast clubs changed the whole business," says Leon Nelson, once head of MacGregor's advisory staff. "Companies are able to spring up overnight because the new clubs are so easy to make."
Solheim's factory is a notably informal place. Recently a worker charged into the office of the President and Chairman of the Board and complained that her workbench was the wrong height. Solheim said he would fix it over the weekend. He relishes his success, a token of which is a $500,000 computer, with which he can check such things as the progress of the Malaysian prime minister's latest order or the number of nine-irons ready for shipping. A few years ago, he was using a hair dryer as one of the tools on his assembly line.
Because of his bizarre appearance—a goatee the color of aluminum and eyebrows so bushy that they seem to dogleg off into space—and radical ideas, Solheim was considered a kook when he began showing up at tour events around 1960, but he was perceptive enough to head straight for the practice putting green. That is where the tour's sick and wounded pull in for repairs, and they always are looking for a miracle cure. His eyebrows fluttering in the breeze, Solheim spread graph paper over the green as a curious, mumbling group of pros gathered. He attached a marking device to a player's putter and showed him why his putts wobbled. "Everybody will look at something weird, and it sure looked weird," says Bob Goetz, the club professional at Preston Trail in Dallas. Goetz was the first player to use Solheim's Ping putter (Solheim now markets 49 other models), which makes its distinctive sound because vibrations are trapped in its curved construction. The sound was not the reason for its success, of course. The club has a larger sweet spot, balls can be lined up more easily with it and it is adaptable to all kinds of grass.
John Barnum was the first tournament winner to use a Ping putter, in a senior event, and in 1967 Julius Boros, then 46, an age when putting becomes particularly painful, won the Phoenix Open using one. When pros like George Archer, then the tour's best player around the greens, started brandishing a Solheim, the stampede was on. Solheim quit his job with General Electric and set up manufacturing lines. Sales went from $50,000 in 1966 to $800,000 in 1968.
When Solheim decided to move into irons and woods, he arrived at the practice tee with a set of clubs that had strips of stainless steel across their backs, hiding their design characteristics. (To this day, he is secretive about his work. Dogs patrol the research and development departments of his factory, and visitors are not allowed to carry cameras.) He also brought clubs with bent shafts that effectively reduced torque—the twisting action that makes you feel as if you have just hit a park statue and that sends your ball veering toward the weeds. But the USGA, ever vigilant about anyone lessening the misery of the game, outlawed the bent shafts. Still, his less extreme irons and his woods worked as well as the putter, and even if pros did not play them as much, partly because Solheim did not pay the huge equipment contracts proffered by other manufacturers, the public did. Now almost every set of clubs bought in a pro shop incorporates Solheim's designs.