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Sunday, May 31, 2009

Succeeding At Ping - Part 2 of 4

This series looks at what's next for Ping Golf as the company celebrates it's fiftieth anniversary this year.

As with any family business, Ping's path hasn't always been smooth. Karsten Solheim, who suffered from Parkinson's disease and died at age 88 in 2000, was a brilliant engineer, but his management style evokes mixed reviews from family members and longtime employees. "Karsten's Way," the name of a street on the company campus, also describes the man's strong grip on the corporation's direction.
"Growing up, I was told there was the right way, the wrong way and Karsten's way," says John's youngest son, David, 28, who works in corporate communications. "Whenever you start up your own company, you can tell people the way you want things done. It's been a while since he was here, but that idea has not left the place."
"Part of the Karsten way is doing things right because it's the right thing to do, not necessarily the right business thing to do," says Stacey Solheim Pawels, Karsten's granddaughter and John's niece, who is vice president and corporate secretary.
Karsten's way brooked no opposition, whether from within the company, the family or the powers-that-be in the golf world. In 1961, he created another revolutionary product, the cavity-back iron. The initial primitive version became the Ping Eye2, a forgiving, game-enhancing club that, along with an innovative custom-fitting system, gave Ping a commanding 40% of the market for irons in the 1980s. The clubs also caused immense trouble for the company and the family. In 1988, the United States Golf Association ruled that the clubs didn't conform to the rules of the game. The next year, the PGA Tour announced they would ban the clubs, too. A long legal battle ensued.

That battle was a source of friction between John and his father.
"The USGA thing really strained our relationship," John says. "I wanted to get it over with because it was draining him so much."
Karsten also refused to introduce any new irons until the suit was settled. In 1990, the USGA settled by approving the old clubs while Ping agreed to design changes for new ones. The PGA Tour suit wasn't resolved (with acceptance of the design) until four years later. While Ping litigated, the rest of the industry moved forward technologically, beating Ping to market with lucrative metal and titanium woods.

The relationship between the two men had always been somewhat problematic. Even when he was making clubs as a teenager, John writhed under his father's management. One early issue was money:
"There was a shopping center that came into the area and I went there and applied for a job. It was only after that that I got paid [for working in the family business]," he recalls. "I got $2.50 a putter, but if I needed help to get the job done, I had to pay the employees out of my own pocket. I had some of my high school friends helping."
The real internal battles came when it was time for Karsten to step aside.
"My dad didn't want to let go," John says. "He would never talk about not being there. That made the planning pretty difficult."
It was even more difficult when Karsten became ill.
"When the Parkinson's started to get to him, I realized I needed to step in," John explains. "I discussed it with him, but he didn't want to do that [step down]. Finally, before a board meeting, I told him I wanted to nominate him for chairman, which we'd never had before, and he would nominate me for president. He had a few words in private with my mother, and that's the way it happened."
John later learned that his father had made the decision to turn over voting control of the company stock to him some time earlier but kept it secret as he held on to the bitter end. His two older brothers were co-executive vice presidents until they retired.

This article appeared in Family Business Magazine, Summer 2008

Dave Donelson, author of Heart of Diamonds a about in the

Friday, May 29, 2009

A Golfer Who Entertains and Inspires

Golf is a game of great stories, but few are as inspirational as that of Dennis Walters, a paraplegic for 35 years who hasn't let his disability keep him off the golf course or away from the microphone where he encourages audiences all over the country to "follow your dream."

I had to the pleasure of watching Walters in action as he put on a humorous, uplifting program for two groups of kids, members, and the media at GlenArbor Golf Club in Bedford Hills. I've seen trick shot demonstrations before, of course, but never one in which the golfer is paralyzed from the waist down. Walters sits on a custom-built golf cart with a swivel seat, yet still belts shot after shot right down the middle of the fairway with everything from a fishing rod to a cell phone.

In between shots, he delivers his message of hope and determination, telling how he overcame the accident that left him paralyzed and kept him off the PGA Tour in 1974. "Everybody needs a dream," he says. When Walters isn't performing, he plays golf several times a week at his home course, hitting full shots from his cart and using crutches to putt one-handed.

Also on the program--and a big hit with kids and grownups alike--is Walters's dog Bucky, who barks the answers to questions from the audience to open the act. Bucky is a terrier mix Walters got from a rescue group in Florida and trained with the same persistence he displayed in overcoming his disability.

There was plenty of corny humor in the show, along with a few golf tips and some spectacular shots including one off the face of his assistant's wrist watch and another through a sheet of flaming newspaper. The highlight of the program, though, came at the end when Walters said, "Never let anyone tell you that you can't do something. Because you can."

Dave Donelson, author of Heart of Diamonds a about in the

A Sound Swing

Ever wondered how Darth Vader hones his golf swing? Probably the same way Vijay Singh works on his, with the Sonic Golf S1 swing trainer. Old Darth would feel right at home with the high-tech marvel--it converts the player's swing into audio feedback that sounds exactly like a light saber. Vijay, who would probably wear a black helmet and cape to the course if he thought it would cut a stroke off his score, was an early adapter, using the device to create a more consistent tempo for his swing.

Dr. Robert Grober, inventor of the system, says that's what a good golf swing is all about--tempo. Solid takeaways, smooth transitions at the top, and acceleration through the ball all occur when the player's motion is rhythmic and fluid. The device he created provides biofeedback to help you find that rhythm and build it into your muscle memory.

The system begins with a sensor inserted inside the shaft of your club fitted with a custom Golf Pride grip. Your swing motion is transmitted wirelessly to a belt-worn receiver that converts it to continuous musical tones you hear on a headset as you swing. Slow swings produce a low pitch and quiet tones while fast ones increase the pitch and volume. The idea is to build a relaxed move that produces maximum speed at the bottom of the swing arc.

The demo I saw was impressive. Players with jerky, stiff swings created some terrible noise. Those who swung from the top invariably decelerated at the point of impact despite their efforts to muscle the ball down the fairway. Only a smooth, rhythmic swing produced pleasing harmonic sounds from beginning to end. This video has a good explanation by Grober.

Grober, by the way, knows whereof he speaks on both the golf swing and biofeedback. He's the Frederick Phineas Rose Professor of Applied Physics at Yale University in New Haven, Conn.

Dave Donelson, author of Heart of Diamonds a about in the

Sunday, May 24, 2009

Succeeding At Ping - Part 1 of 4

This series looks at what's next for Ping Golf as the company celebrates it's fiftieth anniversary this year.

Ping Golf has revolutionized not just an industry but also a sport played by nearly 29 million Americans. The innovative product designs of company founder Karsten Solheim made a difficult game easier -- and a lot more fun -- for golfers at all levels. His sons, especially CEO John Solheim, honed a business model that set standards for the industry. Today, the third generation is getting ready to assume the mantle of leadership while fourth-generation Solheims will be coming along soon. They are inheriting a $300 million operation with 1,000 employees, about 850 of whom work at the main campus in Phoenix, Ariz.

It all started with Karsten Solheim's obsession with the game, which he didn't take up until age 42 while still an engineer at General Electric. He began experimenting with clubs and patented his first product -- a putter that on contact with a ball made the distinctive sound that gave the company its name -- in 1959. Production took place in the garage and was literally a family affair. John Solheim was 13 at the time. "When we started, I drilled the holes in the putters where the shaft went," John recalls. "My brother Allan was putting the grips on. It was fun."

That first putter's heel and toe weighting helped the player keep it on line. It evolved into the Anser model, which featured several other advancements.
"If you look at nearly every putter on the market today, they're all descended from the Ping Anser," says John Buczek, head golf professional at the fabled Winged Foot Golf Club in Mamaroneck, N.Y., and PGA National Merchandiser of the Year for 2006. "It's amazing what they've done in the golfing world since Karsten developed the original Ping putter in his garage," Buczek says. "They've been leaders in putters, in irons, and even in golf bags."
The first major tournament win for the company came in 1969, when George Archer used an Anser Putter to win the Masters. Every time a tour player wins an event using a Ping putter, a gold one is inscribed and given to the player and a duplicate is placed in the company vault to commemorate the occasion; more than 2,300 of them are there today. Angel Cabrerra, the 2007 U.S. Open and 2009 Masters winner, uses Ping clubs as does the world's leading female player, Lorena Ochoa. The company sponsors the Solheim Cup, the premier international event for women pro golfers.

This article appeared in Family Business Magazine, Summer 2008

Dave Donelson, author of Heart of Diamonds a about in the

Friday, May 22, 2009

North Shore The Way Tilly Made It

One of the finest examples of a well-preserved Tillinghast course is North Shore Country Club's 6,365-yard layout in Glen Head, NY. In fact, the entire club is much like a place where time stopped in 1915, with a creaky, sprawling clubhouse with grand views of Long Island Sound, a lawn dotted with Adirondack chairs under hundred-year-old trees, and a staff that's as relaxed and welcoming as any you'll find anywhere.

But the course is the gem. The rolling hills, steep fairways, and tricky greens demand strategic shot selection. There is a great variety of holes, too, nearly all of which are just about as Tilly designed them.

Of particular interest is the par five third hole, which is only 470 yards but demands a perfect approach to its long, narrow green. Miss just slightly, though, and you'll find your ball in one of the long, narrow bunkers surrounding it.

North Shore has a fine history, too, having hosted the U.S. Amateur, the Long Island Amateur, MGA Open, and MGA Senior as well as several Women's Amateur tournaments. When North Shore co-hosted the 1920 U.S. Amateur Championship, Bobby Jones, Chick Evens, and Fred Wright stode the fairways along with Britain's Lor charles Hope and Cyril Tolley. It wouldn't take much imagination to see them there out of the corner of your eye today.

Dave Donelson, author of Heart of Diamonds a about in the

Tuesday, May 5, 2009

USGA Softens Bethpage for US Open

This year's U.S. Open at Bethpage Black may be played on a kinder, gentler course, according to comments I heard during yesterday's presentation by Mike Davis, USGA Senior Director of Rules and Competitions. Players and casual fans should love the result but I'm not so sure it's going to uphold the U.S. Open tradition of being the toughest tournament of the year.

Numerous changes in the set up for the Black Course will be made for this year's event, with most of them making it easier than it played in 2002 when Tiger Woods won his second Open trophy. The course has been lengthened by 212 yards through the addition of several new tees, but Davis said it wasn't likely it will play the full 7,426 yards at any time since the USGA plans to move the tee markers from day to day--in some cases by as much as 100 yards--to encourage more "risk and reward" scenarios.

Another major change will be the use of graduated rough, which was introduced to the U.S. Open at Winged Foot in 2006. An intermediate swath of short rough--well under two inches--will line each fairway. The first cut, which will generally be around 2 and 1/2 inches deep, will extend some 20 feet on either side of that, with the more punitive 4- to 6-inch shag coming further out. The purpose is to give the players at least a shot at the green if they miss the fairway. During the press conference, Tiger Woods remarked
"In 2002, if you hit the ball in the rough, majority of the time, you could not get to the green. You had to lay up and try and make par with the wedge game. The graduated rough, I'm sure you could get some balls to the green...."
On top of the shorter rough, the fairways themselves are going to be wider than 2002, averaging 29 yards.

The lengthening of several holes is intended to bring more of Tillinghast's bunkers into play, but that remains to be seen. Even from the new tee on the ninth hole, it's only 285 to carry the bunkers at the dog leg. That may be a mighty blow for Rocco Mediate, but I suspect you'll see plenty of three woods off the tee there to keep from blowing through the fairway.

The seventh hole has a new tee, too, making it the longest par four in U.S. Open history at 525 yards (it typically plays as a par 5). The cross bunker should still be easily carried off the tee, however, and the USGA, in keeping with its apparent newly-found love for birdies, is widening the fairway on the hole substantially to encourage players to fade one around the dogleg so they can short-iron their approach into the green.

A subtle but significant change in the way the course plays from day to day throughout the tournament will also make it easier, at least in my opinion. In past years, the USGA toughened the course as the week progressed, letting the rough grow, the greens harden, and often raising the speed of the greens on Saturday and Sunday. This year, the goal is to keep conditions the same throughout the week, grooming the rough daily depending on the weather and maintaining a speedy 14 on the Stimpmeter for the duration. That means the players will have to make fewer adjustments from day to day in their putting stroke and, given the relatively non-severe contours of most of the Black course's greens, they should be sinking more putts on Sunday since they'll have had three days of consistent practice.

There are a few changes that should make a difference, notably on two of the par threes. The green on the eighth hole has been brought down to the pond, making for some interesting pin placements. The hole itself will play anywhere from 135 to 230 yards, depending on the tee location, which will be adjusted to encourage players to take the risk. The fourteenth green has also been enlarged (although not expressly for the tournament). Davis said,
"we have got three great hole locations that we never had in 2002, two in the back tier, and in the front there's a front left lobe that is really dynamic that will be probably a pitching wedge, but a tough one, at that."
The USGA's goal with all these changes, at least according to the official line, is to give the players a fair test of golf, rewarding good shots and punishing bad ones. It appears to me that the real goal this year is to give the fans a scoring spectacular. Not a birdie fest necessarily, but a tournament with plenty of fireworks to give the always-vocal NY fans something to scream about.

Dave Donelson, author of Heart of Diamonds a about in the