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Ping Putter

April 24, 2001

A public radio commentary

Spring is here and if you listen carefully you'll hear the sound "ping", followed perhaps by swearing. It's the sound of golfers enjoying their game. That "ping" is the sound of one of the most revolutionary putters of all time called, of course, the Ping Putter. It's the invention of engineer Karsten Solheim.

He worked for years designing jet fighters and missles guidence systems at General Electric, before taking up golf at age 42. His first time, he recalls, "I hit the ball ten times, and then walked away ...." He didn't even make it to the first hole. Solheim had became frustrated while practicing putting. Instead of quitting he just designed his own club. Solheim noticed that if a player didn't strike the ball perfectly with a normal putter, the head would twist destroying the shot. So he moved the weight of the club head to its outer edge making it more stable, and letting the player putt straighter. This is called "perimeter weighting" and has been ranked as one of the top five breakthroughs in golf equipment.

At night, after work, Solheim kept busy in his garage refining his revolutionary design. He first worked with two popsicle sticks glued to two sugar cubes attached to a shaft to find the correct weighing. By 1959 he founded the Karsten Manufacturing Corporation to produce his putters. With a one thousand one hundred dollar bank loan -- his only debt ever -- he went to work in his garage in 1961.

Six years later he quit GE to make clubs full time. He called his new club the "Ping Putter" because of the sound it made when striking the ball. He spared no expense or effort in making nearly perfect clubs; for example, he pioneered a special type of metal casting to give the iron in his putters great consistency. Yet, Solheim had great difficulty persuading golfers to use a putter which looked so unfamiliar.

Promoting his designs at professional tournaments, he was treated as an eccentric to be gently humored. But before long his putters could be seen in more bags than not. The turning point came in 1967, when Julius Boros, a winner of three majors, won the Phoenix Open using one of Solheim's putters. "The putter," said Boros, "looks like a bunch of nuts and bolts welded together, but the ball goes in the hole." Solheim's relentless pursuit of perfection revolutionized clubmaking.

He built clubs of such quality that he forced the rest of the industry to upgrade its standards. So far ahead of the curve was Karsten Solheim that at times his innovative clubs were banned from official play, until golfers demanded they be allowed. It's probably no coincidence that the boom in golf equipment started about a decade after Solheim founded Ping.

Copyright 2001 William S. Hammack Enterprises