Fifty-seven year old John A. Solheim knows these are difficult times for clubmakers. Neither the economy nor the number of recreational golfers in the United States is growing, and it's not easy to get the eight million or so serious players who do exist to ante up the bucks for a new set of woods or irons.
So how does the chairman and CEO of Phoenix-based Karsten Manufacturing Corporation, maker of Ping golf equipment and one of the premier companies in the game, build his family-owned business? One solution has been the creation of Ping Wrx (pronounced "works"), which offers regular hackers the sort of service and customized options reserved for touring pros.
Wrx, established in 1998 and modeled after similar custom units in the sports-car industry, is a mini design center whose initial mission was to investigate and evaluate new technologies in a faster, freer-thinking way. Its nearly three dozen employees fiddled with different ideas, put together prototypes for testing, and attempted to prove the products' commercial viability. Concepts that didn't make the cut were abandoned, those that did moved into production, like the popular IsoForce putter.
Wrx is also where Ping makes specialized equipment for its 50-plus PGA Tour pros, such as Chris DiMarco, Lee Westwood, and Carin Koch. Here, the company's craftsmen meticulously measure, cut, and grind the clubs these players use in tournaments all over the world.
It didn't take long for Solheim, with the beard, glasses, and deep-thinking air of a professor, to figure out that his company could provide the same things for the average player. "I'm a car nut," he says. "I was touring the BMW facilities in Munich. They have a custom department called BMW Individual where a customer can get almost anything he wants on his car. I thought 'we should apply that to golf clubs.' "
It is important to note that Ping, incorporated by Solheim's late father, Karsten, in 1967, has long made custom clubs. In fact, the company was one of the first to realize the benefits of properly fitted equipment: Every wood or iron sold by one of its 3,500 Ping-affiliated club professionals has already been tailored to the buyer by an exacting process that determines the proper lie, loft, length, and grip. Each carries a serial number that allows Ping to replace or duplicate any club.
While most equipment makers now offer custom club options, few do it as well as Ping. You don't just walk into a pro shop and pick a Ping club off the rack. Rather, you go to a staff club pro with a Ping fitting cart who has been trained to use it. You go through the process of being fitted for clubs, and then Ping builds the set, shipping it out within 48 hours.
Solheim's idea with Wrx was to go one step further. For example, golfers can choose from dozens of shafts produced by ten different manufacturers. That's a radical departure from the days when Karsten limited choices because he held strong beliefs about what component worked best with his clubs. A club pro watches you play, takes your measurements, and looks at where you hold your hands. Then he applies tape to the bottom of a club to find out where your swing hits the ground. "We also provide the highest level of service and have tremendous quality control," adds Solheim. "At Wrx we inspect every club to make sure the shaft flexes are right on and even tailor swing weight to each individual order."
"What Ping has accomplished with Wrx is amazing," says Pete Sanchez, president and chief operating officer of Fujikura Composites, the renowned shaftmaker. "It's an excellent program that gives golfers something they've never had before."
The son of a Norwegian shoemaker who was born before World War I and moved to Seattle as a boy, Karsten developed an early interest in engineering. In 1953, he took a job with General Electric, where he helped develop the cabinet and rabbit-ear antenna for the company's first portable television.
During his tenure at GE, Karsten began fiddling with golf clubs in his spare time. A mediocre player, he was frustrated with his putting and eventually came up with a heel-and-toe balance design that made putters perform better than any other in history. His EYE2 irons are the most successful of all time and still sell some 20 years after their introduction, an unheard of testament to longevity in a golf world where new products are rolled out—and replaced—nearly every year. In addition, Ping was the first to bring out the lob wedge, a standard piece of equipment today. Industry observers estimate that Ping has more than $150 million in revenues a year, and despite its share of misses along the way, it holds a position as one of the game's Big Five equipment makers, along with Acushnet (Titleist, Cobra, and FootJoy brands), Callaway, TaylorMade, and Nike Golf.
Solheim says, "Our goal is to continue to build the very best products, not necessarily to make the most profit, but to be the best and keep Ping a premier brand." He also feels strongly about keeping Ping a family business. "I have a mandate to pass it on to the next generation in the best possible shape."
John K. Solheim, the eldest of Solheim's three sons and the 29-year-old vice president of engineering, appears to be the heir apparent. Like his father, he has grown up in the company and has shown both an aptitude and passion for the family business. "He has fallen into it quite naturally," says Solheim. "But the overall leader for the next generation will not be decided for a while. And I don't plan on stepping down any time soon."
Ping Wrx putters range from $95 to $425; irons, $140 to $190; fairway woods and drivers, $220 to $610. For custom-fitting locations, call 800-474-6434; www.pinggolf.com.
Putting It Together
Golfers participating in Ping's Wrx Select program had better be ready to make decisions: There are hundreds of options when building custom club sets. They not only have to choose the weight, length, and flex of their shafts, but also the composition and the make. Players must also choose from an almost equally vast array of grips. "We give our customers a lot of choices," says Wrx division head John Souza. "If a touring pro can get it, then we want the recreational golfer to be able to get it as well."
Fortunately, Wrx does not send its customers into the world of equipment and technology unattended; one staff technician oversees each set and collaborates closely with the client on all the components. Currently Wrx has more than 200 shaft options from ten different manufacturers. "First, we have to decide whether you want steel or graphite shafts," Souza says. "We use steel in most of our irons because it is historically more consistent. As a rule, steel does not create as much torque, so you get a straighter and tighter shot, which is what you want with clubs that you are using for approach shots."
One of the most popular STEEL SHAFTS is the Rifle from Royal Precision. "It is a very well-known and highly regarded product, mainly because each shaft is frequency-matched," he says. "That means the flex is more or less the same throughout the set, which makes for greater consistency."
GRAPHITE, on the other hand, is lighter and good for players who are perhaps not as strong. Among the most popular is the Aldila Tour Gold, which Rich Beem had in his irons when he won the 2002 PGA Championship. Another favorite is the Speeder from Fujikura. "That one has a cool factor of 9.9," says Souza. "It is a very consistent shaft, used primarily in drivers, and very expensive. A lot of golfers like it not only because it is good but also because it shows that they are willing to spend for the very best."
FLEX is another consideration, the primary options being stiff or regular. "Swing speed is what determines how we go there," Souza says. "Someone who swings a club slower will need more flex, while a golfer with a high swing speed will want something stiffer. Otherwise his club might not catch up with his swing, and that could result in a lot of mishits."
GRIPS are not nearly as complicated, but golfers do have their preferences. "All told, we offer fifty types from five different manufacturers," Souza says. "The two biggest players are Lamkin and Eaton, and most of their products are made of traditional rubber. But a company called Winn has really come on recently because their grips have a softer feel."