Outside Merion, a golf club manufacturer adapts his father’s legacy to changing world

June 16, 2013

George Izett walked a mile and a half from his family's home to father's workshop on Saturday mornings. The shop used to be in Philadelphia, but George Sr. had strong opinions about commuting — namely, he thought it was a waste of time, something George Sr. never had enough of. When his morning trolley to Philadelphia passed the empty warehouse in an industrial stretch of suburban Haverford near Merion Golf Club, he decided to rent it. That was in 1946, when George Sr. and his partner Wilfred Bailey started Bailey & Izett, manufacturers of George Izett Golf Clubs.

George Jr. was born in 1950. Now 16 years old, he'd been working for his father almost since before he could remember. His father had been one of the first club manufacturers to make cast-iron clubheads, and the casts were made from two pieces of plastic. One piece of white plastic was the front of the club — with etched scoring lines — and the other piece was the back of the club. George's father would drop a pile of plastic molds on the kitchen table for George to glue together with DuPont model cement. The shop, with the smell of recently cut wood and turpentine and its saws and sanding machines, was where George grew up. He was an only child and his mother would drop him at Bailey & Izett when he was just 7 years old. The guys in the shop made his first soapbox car.

Now a teenager, George worked at the shop for real. When he got there on Saturdays, the door would be locked. He'd walk around to the back, where he could see his father, already at work for a couple hours, his thin frame leaning over a lathe. He'd throw a pebble at the window and his father would open the door for him.

His Saturday job was re-gripping clubs. George would tear the old grip off the steel clubshaft, and then wrap a new grip around the club. The grip needs to be perfectly even or the player is likely to hit a poor shot. George had gotten pretty good at the task. But each time he took a finished club into his father, the old man would always adjust the grip a little. Didn't matter how straight it looked to George, his father would always move it. One morning, after George's father adjusted the grip his son had just finished, George went back and then 15 minutes later gave his father the same exact club. His father still moved the grip. "I've figured it out," George told his father. "Doesn't matter what it is, it's never perfect." After that morning, George was allowed to re-grip clubs on his own.

George's father was a quiet man. George could only piece together the facts of his father's life from his mother and his father's infrequent stories. George Sr. had been born in 1906 in Gullane, Scotland, 20 miles east of Edinburgh. As a young adult, George Sr. was an apprentice to Ben Sayers at North Berwick Golf Club, one of Scotland's most famous courses. At North Berwick, George Sr. learned the game by building golf clubs and giving lessons. Later in life he'd tell his son how all the trees in Scotland grew at a 45-degree angle to the ground because the wind never stopping blowing, how the temperature never got about 45 degrees and how it rained every other day. When he was in his early 20s, George Sr. saw an American magazine with a photograph of people playing golf in short sleeves. That's it, he told his mother, I'm going to America.

George Jr. knew about his father and Bobby Jones too. His father came to the United States from Scotland in 1928 and got a job at the Merion Golf Club in Ardmore, Pa., less than a mile from where he would open his shop. He was the club-fitter at Merion and worked for Merion's head pro, George Sayers. In those days, the head pro gave lessons to members and the club-fitter built their clubs.

In 1930, Merion hosted the U.S. Amateur tournament, and Jones was going for the "Grand Slam," which meant he was trying to win the four biggest golf tournaments in the world in a single year: the British Open, the British Amateur, the U.S. Open and the U.S. Amateur. He had already won the first three legs of the "Slam" when he arrived at Merion for the U.S. Amateur. On the first day of competition, he chipped the face of his driver. In 1930, Jones didn't have a Tour equipment van waiting at the driving range to give him a replacement driver designed to his exact specifications. Instead, Jones gave the driver to George Sr. and asked if he could fix it in time for Jones' match the next day. The face of Jones' driver was made from ram's horn, and the next day George Sr. gave Jones his driver back with an exact replica of his original ram's horn face. Jones took the repaired driver to the first tee and went on to win the U.S. Amateur and the Grand Slam. While the composition of golf's Grand Slam has changed — it's now the Masters, the U.S. Open, the British Open, and the PGA Championship — Jones remains the only man to have won it, and he retired from competitive golf right afterward, at age 28.

So if George Sr. didn't want to talk about himself, there were plenty of others who would talk for him. Newspaper reporters wrote about his repair of Jones' driver at the Amateur — even Jones asked George Sr. to build two replicas of his winning driver — and Sam Snead gave credit for many of his 82 PGA Tour victory to the Izett driver he bought from a friend for $5.50 in 1936. The heavier club allowed him to control his powerful swing, Snead said, and for more than 20 years he wouldn't let anyone touch his Izett driver.

"Once, in San Francisco when my back was turned, a local pro drove off the tee with the club," Snead wrote in his book The Education of a Golfer. "I all but blasted him off the course when I found out. That's how I felt about that stick."

Back then, word of mouth was the main currency in the golf business, and George Jr. said his father's reputation was built on testimonies like Snead's and Jones'.

"He was just a damned good craftsman," George Jr. said. "He did all the rough sanding, he did all the loft, he did the roll and the bulge — the things that mattered. Others did the final sanding and the staining and the weighing and stringing and turning the neck down, but the critical parts of it, that it was drilled right and sat square and at the right lie, that was what he did and did well."

In the early 1930s, George Sr. left Merion and became the head pro at Seaview Country Club in Atlantic City, while his reputation as a club maker continued to grow. In 1942, he left to serve in World War II (another subject he didn't talk about with his son), and when he returned, he stopped working as a teaching pro to focus on making golf clubs. Playing golf remained a passion and George Sr. was an excellent player. When George Jr. got old enough to play himself, he knew could see his father two places: the shop or the golf course. His father never came to a baseball game, but if George asked his dad to play golf, his father would take him out to Rolling Green Country Club in nearby Springfield and they'd play in the evening until it got dark.

One day, about a year after the morning when George was finally allowed to re-grip clubs on his own, his father asked him a question.

"Do you think you might want to do this someday?"

"This" was the clubs, the shop, this life. A large club manufacturer was interested in buying the business.

"Yeah, I guess," the 17-year-old said.

"OK, then I'm not going to sell it," his father said.

In 1969, George Jr. was drafted and went to Vietnam. He came back in July 1971, just a month after Lee Trevino won the U.S. Open at Merion. (Arnold Palmer had stopped in Bailey & Izett that week and walked out with a half-dozen clubs.) The Monday after the Fourth of July, George Jr. started work at Bailey & Izett in a position he knew very well: his father's apprentice.

The persimmon club made George Izett Golf Clubs famous. In addition to touring pros like Snead and Palmer, John F. Kennedy played with Izett clubs. So did Dwight Eisenhower and Jackie Gleason. The club started as a model in George Sr.'s shop. He would design the clubhead, its size and shape, and then bring the model to a steel mill, which would cast the master model. This model, which weighed about 10 pounds, would go to the sawmill. At the sawmill, workers attached the model to a tracing machine and used that to cut the club out of a persimmon log.

Persimmon was used for golf clubs because of its strength. It was stronger than maple, and George Sr. would only get his persimmon wood from a sawmill in Memphis. Persimmon trees grow from Florida to Virginia, but the densest wood comes from persimmons that grow in the swampy soil around Memphis. A black mark in a piece of persimmon wood isn't a blemish; fruit trees burn carbon as they grow and those black marks are carbon marks, a sign of strength. A quality cherry coffee table will have black flecks in it for the same reason.

George Sr. only used one particular sawmill because that mill gave the persimmon enough time to dry out before the workers cut the clubheads. When the wooden clubheads arrived in Haverford from Memphis, they still wouldn't be dry enough. Father and son would rub the clubheads with linseed oil and turpentine and then put them in a burlap sack. Then they put the sack back in the box that had arrived from Memphis and left them there for another year. Only then was the wood dry enough to start making a golf club.

When building a club for a customer, George Sr. would drill a hole from the top of the clubhead halfway down. That hole always went straight down. Then the he would drill a hole from the bottom of the club up. The location of this hole would depend on the customer. If George Sr. was building a club for a short player, then the hole would be drilled more toward the toe of the club so that the club could be level with the ground at address. If George Sr. was building a club for a player who had problems slicing the ball to the right, the hole would be closer to the heel — or the part of the clubhead closest to the golfer — to help the golfer close the clubface when hitting the ball and cure his slice.

For George Sr., and later his son, the most difficult part of making a golf club was that even though the sawmill was working with a steel model, the clubheads would never be exactly the same. Nothing was ever perfect. Getting the club right involved sanding the clubhead, setting it down on the ground, seeing how it looked and then sanding it down again until it looked perfect, and even George Jr.'s work had to pass the father's exacting judgment.

"Not bad, I got a f—ing 'not bad,'" George Jr. would mutter after a word of praise from his father.

Four years after George Jr. joined his father's business, TaylorMade introduced the Pittsburgh Persimmon, golf's first steel-headed wood. Like many industry-changing developments, the steel-headed wood was not an instant success when it debuted in 1975. Golfers didn't think they looked like proper clubs, in the same way golfers in the 1930s said they'd never replace their hickory shafts with steel shafts. When George Sr. died in 1980 at age 74, Bailey & Izett were still turning out new persimmon woods and replacing old ones, but George Jr. started seeing more metal woods coming in for repair. In 1981, Rod Streck became the first player to win a PGA Tour event using metal clubs, and by 1985, George could see plainly that the wood orders were starting to taper off. Stand-bys in the club-manufacturing business started to fail: Rawlings, out of business; Spalding, out of business; Tony Pena, out of business; Hogan, out of business; Lynx, out of business.

Marketing and branding overtook the word-of-mouth reputation that Izett used to attract customers. George used to sell a persimmon driver for $40 plus $3 more for a leather grip; TaylorMade's R1 Super TP driver sells today for $700.

"At one point, nobody cared what brand of shoes you had on," he said. "Your mother didn't care what brand of pocketbook she had. I don't know when all this logo stuff became so important — the Gucci pocketbook with the red and greens stripe, you had to have one. If you made x amount of money, you had to buy a Mercedes, you had to have the star on the hood. You can't wear Mizuno sneakers, you have to wear Nike."

Bailey & Izett is the oldest family-owned club manufacturer in the United States, but today the company focuses mainly on fitting golf clubs for customers, not building them. "When my father ran the company, we were 99 percent wholesale and 1 percent retail," George said. "Now we're 99 percent retail and 1 percent wholesale."

Instead of building a club from scratch, Izett now measures a golfer's swing and then constructs a set of clubs customized for that player. This process is called club-fitting and has become common in the industry, although the Izett fitting is unusual in its length. A standard club-fitting takes about 15 minutes, while an Izett fitting take two hours. He sees himself like a tailor. No matter who makes the suit, the tailor is the one who nips and tucks, and makes the sleeves just right, and pulls it in at your shoulders. "That's what we do," George said. "We try to fit you better than anyone else."

The club-making business is just too expensive for a small business, he said. Just the die alone for Nike's new titanium driver would cost $75,000, George said. "Do you know how many drivers I'd have to sell to break even?" From a profit standpoint, George said the company does about the same as it did in the persimmon days, but that the business is a much smaller operation. While the shop employed 13 workers in the persimmon days, Izett has just four employees now.

"The whole world has changed so much," he said. "The other way was so labor-intensive."

George has a son and daughter, but he's never encouraged either of them to take up the family business. His son is a construction engineer in Phoenix, and his daughter is a conference director at the YMCA. When George retires, his partner Michael Morrison, a club-fitter in his late 40s, will likely take over the business. George said he does miss the satisfaction of crafting something with his hands, but he's pleased that the company has found a niche in club-fitting, which continues his father's tradition of craftsmanship and building a club that matches a customer's game. Although he added that he's sure someone would disagree.

"My father would be rolling over in his grave, puffing his pipe," George said.

He still has a drawer full of old persimmon heads in the shop. In the same way people have become interested in artisanal food and vinyl records, some golfers have become classic club enthusiasts and hold tournaments that require pre-1975 equipment or even old hickory shafts, like George Sr. used to make in 1930s. The main barrier to playing with vintage equipment is the modern golf ball, which is too hard for woods and ruins them over time. George has heard about some guy who is starting to produce the old gutta-percha rubber balls that don't damage wooden clubs. So he'll be ready to make a classic George Izett wood as soon as someone asks him, although he doesn't wholly share the enthusiasm for vintage golf clubs.

"You forget how long it takes you," he said. "How many hours it takes to make a wooden wood."

Contact Izett Golf for a club-fitting at IzettGolf.com.