They came to this country with nothing. How many times have you heard that expression? Antonio Valente came to the U.S. from Portugal, with his wife, Maria, in the 1960s, when they were in their 40s. They came with nothing. "Poor but clean," Antonio used to say. In dribs and drabs their nine children came over too, eight boys and, batting in the ninth position, a girl. They came to New Bedford, Mass., with its whiff of the Old World and its massive Portuguese population. There were other reasons that New Bedford made sense. The town was home to a major commercial fishing industry. There were jobs in construction and manufacturing. Polaroid was a big employer. Johnson & Johnson hired thousands. The Valente children found their way to the Acushnet Co. It's Titleist to you and me, but Acushnet to locals, using the name of the rubber company that segued into golf. Of the nine Valente children, seven worked (or work) for Acushnet, plus four spouses. If you've played a Titleist sometime in the last 40 years, chances are that a Valente had a hand in making your ball. It's not their fault you lost it.
The Acushnet Co., named for the town next to New Bedford where it was founded, has a workforce of roughly 4,500, and of the 1,500 employed in New Bedford, about half are of Portuguese descent. The CEO, Wally Uihlein, says the manual dexterity that helped make the Portuguese such legendary fishermen shows up in golf ball manufacturing. That was particularly true when balls were still wound with rubber thread that came off spools like fishing line comes off a reel and the winding had to be knotted off.
The other day, Paul Valente, who is 43 and already has 25 years at Acushnet, gave me a tour of Ball Plant III, where the first 2013 Pro V1s were just coming off the line. Paul is droll, in that New England way, but he could hardly contain his excitement. ("You're one of the first from outside to see them," he said.) Antonio and Maria were his grandparents. He works in quality control, and he was wearing a white lab coat.
I could tell that the little alignment arrow on the new ball is now gray instead of black. Others will have to report to you what makes the '13 ball new and improved. Three years ago I was with Rory McIlroy at the Titleist testing facility in Southern California on a warm February day. He was hitting the new 2009 ball for the first time. He said after three balls that the '09 ball was faster rising than the Pro V1 he played the previous year. He could tell the difference. You and I, we take our cues from them, right?
Two other Valentes were on my tour. They were Paul's cousin Kevin, a Titleist computer technician, and Kevin's father, Julio, a small trim man who recently retired from Acushnet after 37 years. At one point, a large Nigerian-born engineer named Felix Egbe gave Julio a hug and said, "My favorite Valente! We miss you in injection molding, man!" Later, Julio saw his wife, Maria, who was hand-inspecting balls for flaws. She was working a 3 a.m. to 3 p.m. shift, eight hours straight time, four hours OT. She gave her son a kiss and her nephew and her husband a wave. She removed a blue-rubber surgical glove to shake hands with me. She was wearing clam diggers and sneaker-style safety shoes.
Let's be frank here: Julio and Maria have worked manual labor, nonunion jobs at Acushnet for years and decades; they saved with discipline, they invested prudently, and they're very, very comfortable. Are they the millionaires next door like my barber at home, with all his real estate? I don't know. What I do know is that when Romney and Obama go on the campaign trail and talk about the American Dream, Julio and Maria Valente are Exhibit A. Julio's English is not fluent, but if you spend a day with him, you'll discover he has picked up certain American catchphrases and turned them into his life. Sitting in a Dunkin' Donuts, he said, "It's not how much money you make; it's how much money you save."
He insisted on paying for my bagel and iced tea. He was wearing a Titleist golf shirt, as he does most days. His truck was spotless. He built his house himself. He built Kevin's, too, a palace where he lives with his Thai wife, Nichakorn, a computer scientist. As it happens, Titleist has a major facility in Thailand, and many of the managers and engineers there are from New Bedford. Julio visited once, when he was in Thailand for his son's wedding.
In their garden in Acushnet, near the fig trees and the clothesline, the Valentes grow string beans, sweet potatoes and all manner of tomatoes. When I asked Julio if I could try a cherry tomato, he gave me a bag of them. I'm eating them now, so sweet they're like candy. In the corner of the living room stood a grandfather clock, given to him by the company for one of his work anniversaries. In his garage and work sheds I saw every type of shovel known to man but not a single golf club or anything else used in recreation.
Later, we drove to the Acushnet River Valley Golf Course, where his brother-in-law was about to play in the Ball Plant III Wednesday-afternoon league. I asked Julio if he knew the name Davis Love. "Davis Love, Davis Love ..." he said. He put his hand on his chin. For years the Ryder Cup captain was the face of Titleist. Julio was vaguely aware of the name. David Duval's name elicited less recognition. Julio was familiar with Phil Mickelson, Tiger Woods and, most especially, Bobby Orr, the Boston Bruins' Hall of Famer. All the Valentes are crazy about Bobby Orr. When the Valentes were making their mark at Acushnet, and in America, the Bruins were Gods in Massachusetts. Not that Julio is one to God-up people, because he's not. From time to time celebrity athletes and politicians and businessmen came through the plant, but they didn't make much of an impression on Julio. "They need to eat and use the bathroom just like I do," he told me with a shrug.
I asked Julio why his wife, born in Portugal and getting near retirement age herself, was working a 12-hour shift, something she does about once a week. They don't need the money. He said, "I think it's in the genes. It's hard for us to say no—hard to say no to a company like this. Her managers know they can trust her to do a good job."