MacGregor: Demise of an American classic
Monday, December 14, 2009
WEB EXCLUSIVE: Looking back: MacGregor’s golf balls
This story originally ran in the Nov. 28 issue of Golfweek
ALBANY, Ga. – Jack Nicklaus can’t forget the sweet sound of persimmon.
For years, whenever he opened a golf course, he hit his ceremonial tee shot with a persimmon driver, autographed the club’s crown and had it mounted in the clubhouse. The gesture showed his sentimental side for when woods were made of wood and the expression “hitting it on the screws” meant something. And it harkened back to his MacGregor days when he underscored the company’s slogan, “The greatest name in golf.” His weapon of choice: the MacGregor Tommy Armour 945.
Remember when woods clinked rather than clanked? Whether they had a warm chestnut, antique cherry or dark pecan finish, wood drivers caused golfers to gush in a way they never would about titanium. Listen to John Cook rhapsodize about his MacGregor M-85 driver:
“She was blond, shallow-faced, with a keyhole insert. The grain was so tight on her. She had a knot right on the tip. That’s how you could tell she was a solid piece of wood.”
MacGregor Golf, which began making clubs in 1897, pioneered many of the advances in golf equipment. Lest anyone forget MacGregor’s prowess as a maker of forged blades, the company passed down from one generation of its heralded craftsmen to the next the proper technique for grinding irons. Starting as a round billet of soft carbon steel, a raw forged iron head went through nearly 50 stages of sculpting before it was crowned with the MacGregor stamp.
There was a time when the MacGregor name carried clout. It said, Byron Nelson once won 11 tournaments in a row with me. It said, Johnny Miller shot a U.S. Open-record 63 with me. It said, 59 major championships were won with me. Its place as part of the very foundation of the sport in this country seemed to be drawn in indelible ink.
Yet golf’s second-oldest brand in the U.S. – after Spalding – is gone as we’ve known it. A year ago, MacGregor mothballed plans to reintroduce a line of VIP irons, began a fire sale of its inventory and sold its intellectual property to Golfsmith in May for $1.75 million. A retail chain buying MacGregor? Not too long ago, such a notion would have been as preposterous as Radio Shack acquiring Sony.
How could MacGregor be reduced to a store’s house brand? Sometimes, success is lost in transition. The brand changed hands many times, with each new owner switching strategies so often that, before long, the innovator became the imposter.
A book could be written on what allowed upstarts Ping, TaylorMade and Callaway to usurp MacGregor’s market share. But before its demise, the company created a legacy that forever would be cherished.
• • •
First, some perspective: MacGregor had the most-played irons and woods on the pro circuit for decades. Think back to the 1975 Masters, when the last four players on the course – Nicklaus, Johnny Miller, Tom Weiskopf and Tom Watson – all carried the Kelly green-and-white MacGregor staff bag. So did Ben Crenshaw, David Graham and later Curtis Strange.
“Forget about my era,” says Weiskopf, who signed with the company in 1964 for $1,500. “Think about the era before us. To be part of that tradition meant you were special.”
It’s a tradition that descends from Armour, The Silver Scot, who stamped the soles of his personal MacGregor woods “L.F.F.,” an abbreviation of his motto: “Let the f---er fly.”
MacGregor signed the fabled trio of Jimmy Demaret, Byron Nelson and Ben Hogan for a combined $5,000, arguably the best bargain in golf history. Demaret joined at the 1937 U.S. Open. On June 1, 1939, Nelson agreed to a handshake deal and grabbed a new set of MacGregors off the rack in Armour’s pro shop. Two weeks later, Nelson won the U.S. Open. The then-unheralded Hogan was the best investment of all.
“He was nearly broke and needed to get to Pinehurst for the (1940) North & South,” Toney Penna recalled years later in the company’s unpublished history, “MacGregor: The First 100 Years.” “I had $500 on me but offered him $250 in case he wanted more. He took the $250 and won the North & South.”
It was Penna, a Tour winner known as “the sweet swinger,” who recruited the greatest names in golf to play under the MacGregor banner. The advisory staff also included future Hall of Fame members Jack Burke Jr., Craig Wood and Louise Suggs.
By the 1950s, Penna had risen to chief designer. He was taught the basics; the rest he invented. His creations such as the Eye-O-Matic, a two-colored fiber insert that pointed out the club’s sweet spot, and the four-way roll face helped the average golfer hit the ball better.
Some of his innovations became industry standards. For instance, Penna’s MT irons from 1950 were compact blades with an unusually wide top line that were shallow from top to bottom. Penna lowered the center of gravity and put 1 degree less loft on each club, predating by some 30 years what would become common practice.
The MT’s wild popularity spurred MacGregor to shelve its tennis business to create more space for club production. Business flourished in the 1940s and ’50s.
Some observers point to MacGregor’s sale in 1958 to bowling behemoth Brunswick Corp. – whose golf-crazed president decided to diversify the company’s holdings – as the beginning of the end for MacGregor. The best move made during Brunswick’s decadelong ownership of MacGregor was signing Nicklaus after a heated bidding war. First Flight Golf, an upstart company, offered Nicklaus a then-unheard-of $100,000 contract.
“Don’t lose him,” MacGregor’s president ordered, matching the offer.
But the signing of Nicklaus, the face of the company for more than three decades, only masked MacGregor’s long slide into oblivion.
• • •
On any given day Jack Wullkotte locks himself in his Lake Park, Fla.-workshop, where he sanded the persimmon woods that he made for Nicklaus’ ceremonial shots. Wullkotte, who turned 80 last month, is one of the oldest living links to MacGregor’s heyday. He was there 60 years ago when they wheeled Hogan around the plant after his car accident.
Wullkotte joined MacGregor in 1947 and is part of an illustrious lineage of precision club shapers. They had to be; they were working for a finicky and demanding bunch, the kind who could discern a single-layer difference of masking tape under their grips.
“There was always this DNA on how to make an iron going all the way back to the beginning of the company,” says Jim Bode, MacGregor’s former vice president of research and design and a 25-year company employee.
Wullkotte has served as Nicklaus’ personal clubmaker and repairman since the day Nicklaus broke a 6-iron at the 1963 Greater Jacksonville Open. Their pairing now is a part of lore: Nicklaus’ pilot flew the club to MacGregor’s custom shop in Cincinnati for emergency surgery, but it was closed for the week. Wullkotte was the only employee who hadn’t yet left for vacation, and he negotiated a full day’s pay for an hour’s worth of work. His next paycheck bulged with an extra $32.
“That’s what I got, $4 an hour,” Wullkotte says. “It was a coup for me.”
In 1967, Wullkotte left MacGregor after 20 years to join Penna, who had begun his own equipment company with the financial backing of Perry Como, Bing Crosby and Bob Hope. At the ’64 Masters, MacGregor gave Penna a proper send-off, hailing his achievements and presenting him a golf club engraved with a number: 17,936,732. It signified the quantity of clubs made during his tenure.
Without Penna’s ingenuity and the loss of much of its skilled labor – resulting from the company’s move to Albany, Ga. – MacGregor began suffering from a noticeable decline in product quality.
No one was more distressed by the slide than Nicklaus. In 1974, Nicklaus personally employed Wullkotte to oversee MacGregor’s operations. Wullkotte remembers Nicklaus reading the riot act to the staff: “Nicklaus said, ‘You people are building the worst golf clubs. I’m embarrassed to go into pro shops and see my name on this stuff.’ ”
From that day forward, every club had to pass Wullkotte’s inspection. Nicklaus also hired Tour player David Graham as his chief designer. Graham followed Armour and Penna in the company’s tradition of “player-craftsman.” With a sense of awe undiminished with passing years, Weiskopf maintains he never met a pro who knew more about club design than Graham.
“He could bend your clubs in a doorjamb,” Weiskopf says.
If Graham’s success as a player is overlooked, his abilities as a club designer largely have been forgotten. He and Nicklaus co-designed the VIP irons, which Graham used in winning the 1979 PGA Championship. The tandem also created the Jack Nicklaus Limited Edition irons, which Graham used in his 1981 U.S. Open victory. (Nicklaus won the 1980 U.S. Open and PGA with prototypes of the Limited Edition.) There may never be another major winner who designs his own clubs.
Throughout the company’s history, MacGregor’s custom shop housed the best grinders such as Will Sime, John Huggins and Ernest Airy, who crafted clubs for Hogan, Nelson and Demaret. But none compared with Art Emerson.
“He could grind a club and never make sparks,” Graham says.
MacGregor wooed Emerson back from Penna’s shop in 1971 to open a custom-design department in Albany. Upon his return to the company, Emerson sat in the lobby filling out paperwork with another new hire, a 20-year-old dressed in a polka-dot shirt who didn’t know a golf club from a hood ornament. Emerson quickly recognized that the young man had a gift, a touch that couldn’t be taught. Emerson embraced “polka dot” as his apprentice, staying after hours to pass along all that he knew. The pupil soon surpassed the teacher.
“Polka dot” is Don White, now 58, the last in the line of MacGregor craftsmen. The world’s best players traveled to see him in the sleepy Southern town of Albany – self-proclaimed quail hunting capital of the world – and White answered their every request.
Chi Chi Rodriguez regularly flew his jet there from Puerto Rico and once sent his pilot solo to pick up a completed set. Ray Floyd asked for a slight rocker at the heel and toe. Weiskopf requested zero bounce on his irons. Crenshaw simply wanted “the Nicklaus grind.” White would grind irons used to win 13 majors.
“I do it by eyesight,” White says.
It’s an explanation that Rodriguez insists grossly understates White’s talent. Observing him at work, Rodriguez says, “was like watching Leonardo da Vinci paint the Sistine Chapel, or Hogan practice.
“They are artists.”
When Rodriguez left MacGregor in 1993 to join Callaway, he told White, “Come with me,” and offered personally to pay him a salary of $100,000. But White, a confirmed son of the South, declined.
• • •
All the craftsmen in the world, however, couldn’t have saved MacGregor.
But with their help, the company kept pace with its rivals into the early 1980s, when a staff of more than 400 worked at The MacGregor Center, a 300,000-square-foot mill house on Slappey Boulevard. It ran at full tilt – three shifts per day, six days per week – making persimmon woods and forged irons. But by the late ’90s, a seismic shift in the marketplace had a profound impact on MacGregor. Club production had moved to Asia in an effort to drive down labor costs. The result? MacGregor scaled back to a site one-tenth the size of its previous headquarters.
The industry’s move overseas was preceded by three of the most important golf-club innovations of the past 40 years: the advent of investment-cast irons, metal drivers and oversized titanium drivers.
MacGregor fumbled all three.
Cast irons did away with the need for forging or expert grinding. MacGregor resisted the new production method because it was bent on retaining tradition in design and materials. It took MacGregor until 1974 to finally introduce a cast set, five years after Ping debuted its K-1 irons and after every other major company had produced a cast model.
Likewise, MacGregor refused to acknowledge the metalwoods revolution. In 1988, metal drivers outnumbered persimmon woods for the first time on the PGA Tour, ending MacGregor’s stranglehold on the driver count. During a nine-month span in 1989, MacGregor’s woods production plummeted from 1,200 per day to 50 per week. Soon after, one of its core products became extinct.
Even when MacGregor moved swiftly to capitalize on the coming titanium trend, it suffered a demoralizing defeat. In 1992, MacGregor released the T-920, America’s first cast titanium-headed driver, but it never made inroads against Callaway’s stainless-steel Big Bertha, which ruled the day. Fast-forward to 1995 when Callaway followed with the launch of its Great Big Bertha titanium driver. It sold more than 250,000 units in its first year.
In contrast, the T-920 sold 2,500.
“Callaway signed an exclusive deal with Ruger (foundry) and bought all the raw titanium they could get in the country,” says Bode, the former MacGregor VP. “Next thing you know, Callaway has invented titanium drivers. What do you do? You just grin and bear it.”
MacGregor scored its final hit in 1986 with the ZT Response, an unconventional, oversized putter designed by Clay Long, which became an overnight sensation when Nicklaus used it to win the Masters that year. The company took 5,000 orders for it the Monday morning after his victory and sold 350,000 units before discontinuing the model.
Nicklaus, who gained a controlling stake in the company in 1979, sold 80 percent of his interest for a reported $30 million in 1986. Frustrated with the company’s direction, he dumped the rest in 1992 and formed his own equipment company under the Nicklaus name. Longtime company insiders believe Nicklaus was the last owner to net a profit out of MacGregor.
Nicklaus, who began playing the company’s clubs when he was 11-years-old, says of MacGregor’s demise: “It’s a shame in many ways. MacGregor was a name and a company that was at the head of the industry for 40 or 50 years. Then things changed.”
In the years that followed, MacGregor chased dollars by selling clubs more suited for value-priced retailers, relinquishing its premium-brand stature. In 1998, the company reversed course yet again under new owner Barry Schneider. A business maverick who transformed his family’s flooring-installation company into a $300 million business, Schneider decided there was only one way to stop the erosion of MacGregor’s reputation. He closed 98 percent of the company’s distribution, mostly low-end retailers, forfeiting millions in revenue.
Schneider tried to rebuild MacGregor by returning it to its forged-blade roots. At the time, he said repeatedly: “I don’t want to be the biggest, just the best.”
One believer in the reclamation was Greg Norman, who went from paid endorser to paying the bills. (Norman long had an affinity for the brand. Even when he was a Cobra spokesman in the ’90s, he had White grind irons for him that were stamped with the Cobra name, White said. The clubs were nicknamed Mac-Cobras.)
“This is by far the biggest business deal I have ever made,” Norman said when he purchased an undisclosed stake in MacGregor in November 2006.
But the audience for classic blades kept shrinking, and Schneider grew impatient.
Seduced by the success of MacGregor’s high-tech metalwoods, designed exclusively for Japanese golfers, Schneider introduced the same product in the U.S. The MacTec woods featured “the high-octane supreme of titanium alloys” and an ultra-thin crown. But it flopped.
By 2008, Schneider was gone, ousted in a company reorganization. Recalling what amounted to be his quixotic effort, he says, “I under-estimated the strength of the existing brands in a consolidating industry.”
Norman assumed the title of board chairman. Employees supported the move, noting Norman’s business track record surpassed his Sunday performances at the majors.
“Everything he touched turned to gold,” White says. “I thought we were going to come back the way we did (under Nicklaus) in the ’80s.”
MacGregor jettisoned MacTec, revived the MT irons and intended to resurrect the VIP line in ’09. Then the economy tanked. The company halted its plans and cut sales jobs. In the clearest signal that Norman had realized the futility of his quest, he signed an endorsement deal with TaylorMade in March.
“The survivors in this game right now . . . are Wall Street brands,” Norman said. “We got out while we could.”
White’s lathe stopped spinning May 29. No one was retained when MacGregor was sold, leaving White two weeks shy of his 38th anniversary at the company. Banished to early retirement, he has fixed his house, fished, and played golf with a handmade set of forged irons engraved “Don O Mite.”
With grace and good humor, White has endured MacGregor’s slow, sorrowful fall. But sometimes he forgets that the clubs he made have been reduced to collectors’ items. The Albany facility where once they were tested is overgrown and unkempt.
On occasion, White still drives to the one constant in his life, the office, for no reason at all.
Some habits are hard to break.
Editor’s note: The MacGregor name, however faded, will live on in a new line of golf equipment to be released from its latest owner, retailer Golfsmith International.
The thought of MacGregor being relegated to a so-called “house brand” is bound to distress loyalists, who fret MacGregor will become a low-cost alternative. Typically, retailers don’t invest as much in R&D as equipment makers and rely heavily on Asian foundries for manufacturing.
David Lowe, a Golfsmith vice president and a former MacGregor ambassador, confirms MacGregor clubs will be made overseas, but adds “it will be much more than people expect.”
He remembers as an assistant golf professional in the early 1980s receiving his first MacGregor staff bag embroidered with his name. “It was one of the best days of my career,” he says.
Golfsmith acquired MacGregor to serve as its flagship brand. It will be sold exclusively in the chain’s 74 stores and Golfsmith’s Web site and catalogs. In Europe, MacGregor will be distributed through various retailers. Golfsmith is reviving some of MacGregor’s storied products: The VIP will be its premium forged offering ($799 steel); the Tourney, a mid-priced cast iron ($599 steel, $699 graphite). Golfsmith plans to unveil the MacGregor brand with bags, balls and accessories this holiday season. The clubs officially will debut in March.
WEB EXCLUSIVE: Looking back: MacGregor’s golf balls