There's no denying that Scotty Cameron is a little nuts. After all, this is a fellow who as a kid got his kicks making and modifying golf clubs in his family's garage while his friends were out riding bikes. Now 39, he's still tinkering, still a bit obsessed, you might say, but today the putters that he produces—roughly 150,000 of them a year, all hand-finished—are revered by pros and amateurs alike.
Though Cameron says he often feels like a bartender to his PGA Tour clients because he's a good listener, he is also a talker who can spend hours opining on the relationship between a golfer and his putter ("The putter is to the player what the pen is to the poet"), discussing how the length of a club shaft can influence the direction in which a ball goes off the face,or explaining that one of his design goals is "to make the putter look as if it melts into the ground."
A visit to his studio in San Marcos, California, just north of San Diego and near Carlsbad, the golf-equipment capital of the world, is an education. Ask Cameron a simple question about his $4 million worth of high-speed video cameras, screens, and lasers and you are likely to hear a lengthy dissertation on how they help him analyze every aspect of a putting stroke. Inquire about the importance of a putter's lie and loftand he will slip a club head into a vise and change both with flicks of his wrist, patiently explaining the effect of each alteration.
Lie—the angle at which the shaft meets the putter head—determines the path angle of the club, which in turn dictates direction. Your ideal angle is determined by such things as your height and where you hold your hands when you putt. As a rule, Cameron recommends 19 degrees, which is standard for his putters. He also makes some that are ten degrees, for players who prefer a long putter.
Loft seems like the last thing you'd want in a putter, but it's actually crucial. Although the ball appears to rest right on the surface of the green, its weight pushes it ever so slightly into the ground; each putt starts by lifting the ball out of this indentation. After extensive tests, Cameron decided a four-degree loft accomplished this best for most players. However, because some players tend to hit down on the ball when they putt, he also makes putters with a five-degree loft. It's a tiny detail, to be sure, but just the kind of obsessive precision that makes his putters so extraordinary.
That meticulous approach extends to the construction process as well. Cameron has always insisted on milling his putters instead of casting them. Most manufacturers make putters by heating steel until it liquefies, then pouring it into a cast, or mold, where it hardens, and finishing the result into a putter head. This results in inconsistencies and tiny air bubbles in the finished product. Cameron, on the other hand, mills each putter from a single block, creating a more precise club, as well as better feel and sound.
Boyish and soft-spoken, with blue eyes and wire-rimmed glasses, Cameron is an inveterate tinkerer and seems incapable of walking by any tool or machine without thinking of some way to improve its design. As he strolls through his 15,000-square-foot facility—a good bit bigger than his old garage—he says, "Look at this idea I have for a bunker rake," then pulls a prototype out from the shadows and demonstrates why his would work more efficiently. He says he also has an idea for a new type of billfold, and then—his mind going a mile a minute—suddenly switches to talking with quiet intensity about the tool that he developed a couple of years ago to repair the pitch marks golfers leave on greens.
But it is with putters that Scotty Cameron makes his money—and his mark. "His are the best in the business," says Jerrett Garner, a professional clubmaker in Fairfield, Connecticut, who works with top professional and amateur players. "The guy is so meticulous, so talented, and so good."
Wally Uihlein, chief executive officer of the Acushnet Co., which makes Titleist, Cobra, and FootJoy golf equipment, feels much the same. "Scotty puts out instruments of performance," he says. "He understands balance and feel, and he pioneered the analytical study of the putting stroke." And that's not just talk: Uihlein was so impressed with Cameron's work that he persuaded Acushnet to acquire Cameron's business in 1996; it now brings in $25 million in annual revenues.
Even other club designers are enamored of his work. "As a peer, I have to tip my hat to Scotty," says Clay Long, a longtime golf-club designer best known for the work he did for Jack Nicklaus. "His putters are gorgeous, and the fact that a lot of touring pros use them tells you something about the way they perform."
A lot of PGA touring pros do use Scotty Cameron by Titleist putters. In fact, for the past five years, no putter has been more widely employed on the circuit, and every week, on average, half the 144 players on the greens have one in their bags.
Numbers are nice, but the greatest testament to Cameron's handiwork can be found on what he calls his "wall of fame." It runs along the 75-foot putting lane flanked with video equipment where he brings the best golfers in the world to help them better understand their putting strokes and figure out what type of putter is right for them. Some 200 of these golfers have signed their names in black Magic Marker and expressed their appreciation:
SCOTTY, TEACH ME MORE. I'LL BE BACK. HAL SUTTON
SCOTTY, YOU HAVE SOME REALLY COOL TOYS. THANKS FOR LETTING ME PLAY WITH THEM. JUSTIN LEONARD
SCOTTY, THANK YOU FOR TAKING THE TIME TO HELP ME BECOME THE BEST PUTTER I CAN BE. YOU'RE THE BEST. TIGER WOODS
Yes, that Tiger Woods. The one who, in a professional career not yet six years old, has won 29 PGA Tour events and six majors—and every one of them with a Scotty Cameron putter.
Few would have predicted such success for the boy growing up in the Southern California town of Fountain Valley. But his father, Don, did. "My father was a golf nut," Cameron explains. "He liked to play, and he liked to fiddle with woods and putters. He was a real craftsman, and I started hanging out with him in our garage when I was five years old. Eventually I started helping out, and my father always used to say, 'Do it right, or don't do it at all.' And if I used the wrong tools to do the wrong job just to get by, he would make me leave until I wanted to do it right.
"The thing is, I loved working with him, and I loved working with putters," Cameron adds. "It was what we did together, both tinkering and playing. And it lasted for about eight years, until my father died at the age of forty-six. One of the last things he said to me was 'Stick with the game of golf. I think you have a future.' "
Scotty Cameron also saw his future in golf, and he kept up with his club making. "I liked that putters inspired the most craftsmanship of any club and were the ones golfers used the most," he says.
During his teenage years, Cameron created many different types of putters on his father's milling machine, passing them on to friends to try out and report back on. He worked in a golf shop for a while after college, and in 1986 he joined the Ray Cook Co., which made and sold putters. For the next several years he worked for various golf companies, designing putters and learning other aspects of the business. In 1991, he started his own company, buying used equipment with money he had saved. When a friend offered to represent him full-time on the PGA Tour, he began getting his putters into the hands of pros.
"My goal from the start was to make the finest putters anywhere, ones that looked and played better than anything," Cameron recalls. "And my big break came only a couple years after opening, when Bernhard Langer won the Masters with one of my putters. A major makes names, and it definitely put me on the map. I suddenly went from being this wannabe to being a putter maker, and it was a lot easier getting my products into players' hands."
But it wasn't only players who became interested in Cameron's work. "In 1994, I started asking people on tour which putter maker impressed them the most," recalls Uihlein. At the time, the savvy Acushnet CEO was looking for a way to expand in that product category. "I wanted someone creative who understood putters from both a product and a use standpoint, and was also a machine-shop junkie who could take a piece of steel from scrap and turn it into a finely tuned piece of equipment. And the name I kept hearing was Scotty Cameron."
So Uihlein contacted Cameron, and after meeting for several hours, they decided to join forces in a way that allowed Cameron to continue operating as independently and entrepreneurially as he had before, but as a part of the Acushnet Co., which has just under $1 billion in annual revenues and has as much financial, marketing, and distribution muscle as any company in golf. By all accounts, the deal has worked well for both. Titleist now has the hottest putter line in golf, and Cameron's operation is flush with cash. Among other things, this has enabled him to purchase all that high-tech equipment.
"All that gear really helped me understandthe putting stroke," Cameron says. "When I first started working with players on tour, they often asked me why their putts reacted in certain ways if they used a club with a higher loft or a different lie. And I didn't always know the answers. So I figured I'd better work some things out. Putting isn't as simple as it seems, and so many different things can affect the way a ball moves."
Uihlein understood what Cameron wanted to do and quickly allocated the money. "Scotty was the first designer to look so closely at what was going on when a putt was made," the Acushnet CEO adds. "There were a lot of assumptions and theories, but no one really knew the facts. Scotty's goal was to get those facts and use them to make better putters. The video equipment allowed him to do that."
At first glance, it's hard to understand why anyone would travel very far to visit Cameron's studio, especially a high-rolling golfer. From the outside of the industrial-style building, one gets no sense of what goes on inside. But touring pros will crawl from Cleveland to Caracas if they think the journey will take a few strokes off their game, and many of them have come to believe a trip to San Marcos will do just that.
"The pros like coming here because we keep things very private and very hidden," Cameron explains. "Only the people who need to know about it know where to come, and no one bothers them. They also like our system and enjoy what they learn here. It helps them understand what they need in a putter and why they need it. It's an educational process of what does happen versus what is supposed to happen, and how shaft angle and ball position as well as lie, loft, and length affect ball performance.
"They also understand that, by having them come here, I can find out what they like and put that in a putter," Cameron continues. "The pros can participate in the manufacturing process and make adjustments of their own on the grinder if they want. Together we can create the ideal putter for each individual, and we can do it all in a place where the players can focus without distraction. And they go away with the confidence, and the equipment, to play as well as they possibly can."
Scotty Cameron's studio is open only to top professional and amateur golfers (and perhaps a few friends and VIPs). But every player who picks up one of his putters benefits from all that goes on there, because the research and development Cameron does with people like Tiger Woods goes into creating the many different models he sells to the rest of the world each year. And that doesn't seem the least bit nuts.
Scotty Cameron putters range from $275 to $395; www.scottycameron.com.
Your Ideal Fit
By producing 27 different putter models in four distinct lines, Scotty Cameron makes sure he has something for every golfer, no matter how well—or often—that person plays. "But it is not as if I have certain models for better players and certain ones for those with higher handicaps," he explains. "I don't match things that way. It is really more a question of personal taste and feel. You have to like what you're looking at and holding when you are putting." His putter lines:
STUDIO DESIGN ($275) Gunmetal-blueputters with soft, flowing lines. They combine an elegant, old-fashioned appearance with high-tech engineering.
STUDIO STAINLESS ($390) The latest addition to the Cameron collection, these use 303 stainless steel, the softest available. This makes for such a smooth, pleasing sound on impact that you want to shut your eyes and listen as you hit the ball.
PRO PLATINUM ($275) Made of carbon steel with a micro nickel-plating finish to prevent rust. It has more of a boxy look, which Cameron calls "semi-mechanical."
MILL SPEC ($275) As an extension of the Pro Platinum line, Cameron is customizing putters for lie (from two degrees flat to two degrees upright) and length (from 33 to 36 inches). Putters are very rarely customized, so this is a big step in the industry; once again Cameron is way ahead of the game. "Over the past seven years we have worked hard to determine what the average player and touring pro need in their putters, and a good fit is extremely important," he says. "We're getting started with that now, and we should be doing more next year so our customers get the look, feel, and size they want."
On the Ball: The Latest Pro V1
No sooner was the Pro V1 introduced than it became the biggest golf product of 2001. A three-piece, solid-core ball from Titleist, it managed to snag golf's Holy Grail: maximum distance plus superior feel. Dozens of PGA touring pros switched to it, and amateur players followed in droves, at times creating intense supply shortages, wildly inflated prices, and near buying frenzies at local pro shops.
Pro V1 balls won 32 PGA Tour events last year, the nearest competitor only six. All the top amateur players used the Pro V1 to win the biggest events in their circuits. Even among the crowd I run with, at the first tee before a weekend game, the typical question "What ball are you playing?" became instead "What number Pro V1 are you playing?" By the end of 2001, it had captured an astounding 29 percent of the $283 million on-course ball market.
Titleist was caught off guard by the ball's sudden success and scrambled all year to meet demand and increase production. Meanwhile, that success was completely altering the golf-ball business, forcing all the major competitors, such as Maxfli, Spalding, Callaway, and Nike, to respond. In the face of this kind of hype, players wondered what the company was going to do next.
The answer came at the 2002 PGA Merchandise Show in Orlando, Florida, the massive late-January gathering of the golf trade, when Titleist unveiled its latest premium ball offerings. Among them was the Improved Pro V1, designed to replace the original. According to George Sine, vice president of golf-ball marketing and strategic planning for the Acushnet Co., Titleist's parent, changes made in the core composition enable the ball to fly even farther than its predecessor while maintaining the same soft feel and remarkably deft performance around the green. Here are my reactions to playing with the new introductions:
IMPROVED PRO V1 ($54/dozen) I switched to the original Pro V1 the first time I hit it because I found it went farther than anything else I had ever used, yet still felt good when I chipped, putted, or used any of my short irons. I ended up taking one less club on my irons shots, meaning that the ball added about ten yards to my game. And it always seemed to land soft on the greens. So when I heard Titleist was replacing it with the Improved Pro V1, I was worried the new ball wouldn't be as good. After playing with it, however, I found the Improved hit slightly farther than the original—yet I did not notice any falloff in the way it played into and around the greens. I recommend it.
PRO V1 STAR ($54/dozen) Unlike the Improved, the V1 Star has a dual rubber core, giving it four pieces rather than three. It is designed specifically for very good players with high club speeds who found that the original Pro V1spun too much, with balls frequently coming right off greens when approach shots landed. Though I'm a five handicap, I am still not good enough to play this ball. I do not get the distance that I do with the other Pro V1s, and the ball flight is a little too low.
John Steinbreder most recently wrote on the Kohler courses for Departures.