Karsten Solheim changed golf equipment forever — and he changed me too

February 6, 2011

Were he alive, Karsten Solheim would turn 100 this year. My memories of him date back more than 30 years and my awareness of his products closer to 50. I can’t say we were close. Unless you had a Ping man on your shirt or your last name was Solheim, you weren’t going to get close to the man who invented the Ping putter, founded Ping golf and had a profound effect on me and many others.

Back in the ’50s, when I started investigating golf clubs as a college player, equipment had one basic identity. Irons were forged, hand-ground and chrome-plated. Design differences were there to please the eye rather than alter function. The good woods were artworks made of persimmon; no two played the same. The industry itself, though, had a sameness, dominated by well-dressed folks with winning personalities and stylish golf swings.

Karsten was not part of that group. He was an engineer at a GE plant in Redwood City, Calif., when he started making putters in his garage in 1959. Later he moved his large family and growing business to Phoenix. He was Norwegian by birth, short in stature and had a pointy beard. You could just see him struggling over a shot on the golf course and thinking not about the swing that produced the shot but the club that produced the shot. That’s how he designed, and that’s how I did too.

A half century ago, real golfers only played forged clubs. Cast clubs had a harsh feel and an ugly look and they performed inconsistently. Karsten’s cast irons may not have been described as beautiful, but they produced great shots and were definitely consistent. His odd-looking Ping Eye irons, with their tumble finish—no chrome!—were slow to catch on, but by the ’80s they dominated the market. In his mind it was performance that made clubs beautiful, not the other way around. He validated the process of investment casting, which paved the way for the innovations golfers enjoy today. As the casting technology improved, club designers could pinpoint weight distribution, resulting in a new level of product excellence.

Karsten’s innovations opened the door for Ely Callaway and his Big Bertha driver, for Gary Adams and his “woods” made from stainless steel, for Tom Crow and his Baffler and for work that I did too. The days of persimmon woods that looked identical but played differently were over.

Late one night in the mid-’90s, I sat in a little office at my home in Texas, sketching a design for a golf club. As a custom fitter then, I needed something to improve ball flight, specifically for long second shots. I wasn’t thinking specifically of Karsten, but I know his influence was present as the design unfolded. The club was the Tight Lies. The curvature of the sole was similar to the sole of the Ping iron. It had a tumble finish, just like the Pings, and I remember thinking, If a tumble finish is good enough for Karsten, it’s good enough for me. The Tight Lies was a strange-looking club, but I wasn’t worried as long as it performed. That was the ultimate lesson of Karsten.

I spoke to Karsten a few times at the annual PGA Merchandise Show. He wasn’t outgoing. He was almost secretive. (Today we’d call him a techie.) I was always surprised and flattered when he would invite me to visit his operation in Phoenix, although I never went. We weren’t the well-dressed folks with winning personalities and beautiful swings. He was doing his thing, and I was doing mine.

Karsten is, as he should be, in the World Golf Hall of Fame. If I were starting a golf equipment hall of fame, he’d be my first inductee. Sure, some of his ideas didn’t catch on, like the multicolored golf ball. But he did a lot of things right.

So here’s to you, Karsten. Happy 100th. Your influence lives on.±

Barney Adams is the founder and chairman of the board of Adams Golf.