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Equipment game changers: Heel-toe-weighted putters

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The quote has a variety of versions, is usually attributed to Winston Churchill or Woodrow Wilson, and scholars of this sort of thing doubt that it was original to either. But that doesn’t diminish its center-cut analysis. It goes something like this:

“Golf is a game whose aim is to hit a very small ball into an even smaller hole, with weapons singularly ill-designed for the purpose.”

Karsten Solheim certainly subscribed to that ill-designed weapons part. And being an engineer, as well as a good athlete who, like many good athletes, was frustrated by golf, he decided to do something about it.

"He always tried to make things better,” says his son, John Solheim. “If he could improve something, he would. Didn't matter what it was.”

The first thing Karsten Solheim tried to make better was putting, a part of golf that particularly bedeviled him after he took up the game in his early 40s. His solution in 1959 was a putter crafted in his garage in Redwood City, Calif. He called it the Ping 1-A. The name came from the sound a ball made coming off the face. The essence of the design was weight distributed to the heel and toe of the blade through hollowing out the center of the blade. That allowed the clubhead to resist twisting when the ball was not struck on the center of the face.

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The working model of the club was two Popsicle sticks glued to two sugar cubes, with a shaft in the middle.

The concept fundamentally changed the way clubmakers fashioned flat sticks.

Solheim, who worked for General Electric at the time, drew on his previous experience with aircraft when he worked at Ryan Aeronautical in San Diego.

"He realized how much more stable the airplane was if it had wingtip tanks - when the tanks were full as compared to when they were empty,” John Solheim said. “That was like heel-and-toe weighting."

Inventing a putter was just the first step. Now Karsten Solheim had to sell them. Once again, he drew on his experience from a previous job.

In his first career, Solheim had been a cobbler, but an ice-skating injury left him unable to perform shoe repair for a long enough time that he needed to find another way to make money. He and his wife, Louise, were invited to a dinner party where a salesman cooked a meal using an innovative set of aluminum-alloy cookware that allowed him to cook without using oil or butter or even water. Solheim was sufficiently impressed that he began selling the Miracle Maid pots and pans.

"He was very good at telling the reasons of why this is better,” John Solheim said.

Karsten Solheim gathered up his putters and hit the road, traveling to PGA Tour stops, where he would head for the practice green. 

"I remember the first tournament I went to,” John Solheim said. “It was the Crosby [the current AT&T Pebble Beach Pro-Am]. I was standing under the trees trying to stay dry while he was on the putting green. I was 13.”

Getting the pros to accept the putter was a slow process, given that Solheim was an outsider in the golf world. But along with death and taxes, a third certainty is that at any given time and any given place, there is a golf pro looking for a new putter. And if that pro likes the putter, he may tell his colleagues. John Solheim cites Rocky Thompson as being particularly helpful in spreading the word about Ping putters.  “A lot of guys were using them because Rocky gave them to them," Solheim said.

In 1969 Karsten Solheim designed a putter that would become his signature club. It was called the Anser, because it was the answer to competitors’ putters (removing the ‘w’ to make the name fit better on the clubhead was Louise’s idea.

Karsten Solheim sketched the design on the sleeve of a 78-rpm record. It didn’t look like the 1-A, but it utilized the same principles of physics. The putter became so popular that Solheim resigned from GE and went into the golf club business full time.

The revolution was on. Today, you would be hard-pressed to find a putter that doesn’t incorporate some form of heel-toe weighting.