After a lifetime of searching, Arnold Palmer may have found the perfect putter -- it just needs a little grinding, maybe a new grip and perhaps the face could be whittled just so or...our Chris Rodell talks with Palmer about the most tinkered with club in the bagMay 2005
Some tinker with space-age alloys in brightly lit, well-funded laboratories. Some hunker down in cave-like basements for so many solitary hours that concerned spouses become convinced they’ve lost their loved ones to crackpot madness.
Clearly, the unsightly results of their labors justify those spousal fears.
Like alchemists who seek to turn timber into gold, these mystical tinkerers have made it their mission to invent wonder wands that will bestow ordinary golfers with magic that rivals the inimitable Harry Putter, er, Harry Potter. The sorcery they seek to harness can turn ordinary men into virtual corporations with squads of lawyers, publicists and adoring fans at their every beck and call.
Or they just might help some poor schlub banish the butterflies the next time he stands over a dainty 3-foot sidehill putt for birdie.
They are the men and women who make the most important club in the bag, the putter. And, fittingly, their patron saint is, himself, a restless club tinkerer of the first order. When it comes to friends and fans, Arnold Palmer has a shown a loyalty that makes even the best dogs seem turncoat. But when it comes to clubs, well, Palmer’s a regular rascal.
“If a wizard gave Arnold Palmer a divining rod that would point to gold in the ground, Arnold would take it home and start whittling it to point to diamonds, too!”
That was the declaration of the late Mark McCormack, the sports agent who practiced a different sort of magic. Together, he and Palmer forged a hand-shake relationship that became the model for every successful athlete/agent in the world today.
But it was a different sort of handshake that made it all possible. First, Palmer had to devote countless hours with his sizeable mitts around the leathered grip of a simple putter. Make no mistake, that’s what made it all happen.
“It’s impossible to overestimate the importance of being a good putter to being a successful golfer,” Palmer says. “I used to think there was an actual formula for great putting and that if I could discover the key to that formula, I would become the greatest putter in the history of golf. It’s a formula I’m still seeking.”
These days he’s seeking it with a first generation Callaway 2-Ball White Hot Mallet, 34-inch, with an out-of-production Lamkin Leather paddle grip. “It’s got great feel and gives a true roll every time,” he says. “Best putter I’ve ever had.”
Maybe, but Palmer’s best putting years were when he wielded the classic blade he used to win the motherlode of his 92 professional victories, putting tools that match the profile of the ones golfers had been using for nearly a centuries.
Palmer’s Latrobe work shop is full of bags of cast off clubs, tubs overflowing with shredded leather grips, pairs of spikes, and walls casually decorated with the kind of sports memorabilia that would spark the envy of many metropolitan sports bars.
But it’s the wall of putters, more than 2,000 of them, that never fails to enthrall. They rest in a spider web of wires that other connoisseurs might use to store fine wines. There are ones he’s used maybe a time or two, vintage rusties that look like they could have been lifted straight from the bag of Ol’ Tom Morris, and the Wilson-manufactured Arnold Palmers that ruled the greens at Augusta for so much golf history. Those originals, cast right in amidst the makeshift contraptions sent by earnest admirers, are among the most valuable to club collectors. Rare and significant Arnold Palmers produced by Wilson from 1955 through 1963 have fetched as much as $5,000 from eager aficianados.
Then there’s the odd assortment of fat ones, skinny ones, ones that look like they could hammer rocks. Green putters, bottle putters, putters wearing protective black sox. Yes, it’s like the Armour hot dog jingle right down to one reddish weiner putter.
There’s one with a frieze of a multi-propellered airplane facing away from the ball. One has a disconcerting head that’s no bigger than the ball itself. And some of them look like mini-manhole covers sawed in half and welded to a shaft. Many of them have griddled vice-marks near the heads, signs that the master found a flaw and tried to coax it toward perfection with some grinding or well-placed weights.
The grips range from scuffed to shiny, but it’s the heads that hold the appeal. Most are as individual as children and often as temperamental.
A look through Palmer’s putterpalooza will convince you that not a single advance was made in putter technology from the age when the shepherds banged featheries against the dunes, clear through Palmer’s heirloom flatheads. But it seems the last 20 years have ushered in a golden age of putter innovation. Daring club makers of today know no boundaries in regards to size, scale and after a quick look on the internet, it would seem, tastefulness.
What is it about the putter that brings out the artist in clubmakers? Why does the club designated to perform a seemingly simple task invoke Salvador Dali in some who feel compelled to make abstract shapes that make finding the striking surface a visual puzzle, while others release their inner Charles Schulzes (one inventor sent Palmer a peanut putter).
Many assume Palmer’s a reliable Republican, but his putter collection is purely bi-partisan: He has putters that represent both Democratic and Republican symbols: one putter sports an elephant head right above the putter head for the Republicans and a matching one has a donkey head for the Democrats.
“There are always gimmick putters, and more than a few of them have been sent to me,” he says. “They’re just silly. Some guys will put a metal fish head on a putter if they like to fish. I have one that’s a little bottle of Pennzoil, and one that’s a bottle of Scotch. They’re novelties. Just little conversation pieces, really . . . unless you get hot with one of them. That’s when it stops being a novelty and becomes a true friend.”
Ah, yes. Ray Floyd took some heat when he started playing with an unconventional Zebra camber-sole Ram Putter at the 1976 Masters. The purists howled . . . until he won. Then a flood of imitators swamped the market. Same goes for belly-putters (something Palmer’s never used).
But once an ugly putter begins sinking putts then it becomes a thing of beauty in the eyes of the beholder.
That’s why none of the putters sent to Palmer over the years is dismissed out of hand. “I’ve given them all a try,” he says. “Great putting is half technique and half mental. The best putting I ever did in my career was when I had a guy standing right beside me telling me what a great putter I was. All that positive reinforcement worked wonders. He told me I was a great putter and I became one.”
That man, the ever-affable George Low, enjoyed some tour success in the 1930s and ‘40s before becoming a renowned putting expert who often took credit for Palmer’s fine putting skills as an early tour pro. It’s likely the amiable old Scotsman would instruct golfers to avoid the putters built by the otherwise esteemed retired Col. Sam Lombardo, a proud veteran of the Battle of the Bulge.
That’s what happened on the practice green at Latrobe Country Club when 10 unusual refugees from Palmer’s vast collection were put to the test. One of several Lombardo’s made for Palmer, a lime green contraption that looks more like a crude metal detector constructed from Erector Set factory rejects, got thumb’s down reviews from local golfers.
“This one’s a clunker,” said one. “No sweet spot and, man, it’s just so ugly.”
The food putters, each with shafts like two-pronged pitchforks, tested better. The pickle putter was judged crisp. The banana blade, not coincidentally, seemed to do well on slippery downhillers. And the weiner was judged a winner after one golfer used it to sink four consecutive three-footers.
The most unusual putter, a completely adjustable (tiny wrench included), banjo number that looked like it would make a fine moon rake for Apollo astronauts, earned approval for the feel the 12-string face conveyed after the ball melodically boinged straight into the cup.
“Great feel,” said one tester, “and if you miss a bunch of short ones, you can use the face to play the blues on the greens.”
None of the golfers were willing to trade their standard sticks for the offbeat counterparts, each representing a dream that only a few, men like David Musty, end up fulfilling. Musty’s a man who likes to say he left one dream job to enjoy another. It wasn't that he was unhappy building multi-million-dollar custom houses in Southern California for people like Madonna. It was just, gee whiz, the guy couldn't sink a putt.
"I tried all kinds of putters and none of them worked," he moans. "If you didn't hit the dime-sized sweet spot, the ball would bounce or jump to the left or right. There was no consistency."
A natural-born inventor -- he rigged his toaster to butter and cut each slice of bread -- Musty started working with scraps of wood from his construction sites. He built himself a putter of out maple with a sweet spot Aunt Jemima would envy.
"First time out, I one-putted the first eight greens," he said. "The next day, one of the guys who saw me do it said he had to have a Musty Putter. I began thinking about a career change."
That was 1991. Today, Musty Putters (www.mustyputters.com) employs 11. Michael Jordan and Bill Murray own Musty Putters and sales soared when viewers saw Murray sink a 40-footer with one of the eye-catchers at the 2003 AT&T Pebble Beach Pro-Am.
Every Musty putter is handmade from beautiful hardwoods. Prices range from $175 to $300, but he charged -- and got -- $10,000 for one with pearl inlay. Palmer has two dazzling Mustys that stand out in his collection.
Perhaps Musty’s most unusual model, one not in the Palmer collection, is the Musty Smoker ($225), which is a working pipe -- with a tobacco bowl at the toe and a stem at the end of the hollow shaft. According to Musty, with slight modifications, it complies with USGA standards. "Besides being a great putter, it offers golfers one hell of an on-course attitude adjustment.”
It represents a crack-putt sort of victory for legions of golfers whose undying dreams of achievement will never go up in smoke.