Few equipment manufacturers, if any, are as closely linked to custom fitting as Ping Golf. Founded in 1959 by Karsten Solheim, the father of the company’s current president and CEO John Solheim, Ping has espoused since its earliest days the virtues of golf clubs built to match a player’s body and swing.
In this exclusive interview, John Solheim discusses how Ping’s custom-fitting techniques have evolved, the role technology plays in fitting PGA Tour players, and how information gathered during fittings shapes Ping products.
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Can you explain to me how your father, Karsten Solheim, first developed a fitting system for Ping equipment?
When he started building clubs, he was trying to find out for himself what the standards were so that he’d be able to manufacture a good set. Back then we didn’t have the Internet, we didn’t have anything. So he felt that the best way was to measure the pros’ clubs.
The first thing that he found out was that they were all over the place, within the sets. No one had a set where the lie angles were the same and the lofts were consistent. It was frustrating to him, so he took a large number of pros that he’d measured and averaging their numbers to see about where they were.
In doing this he discovered that the lie of the club was critical. He’d watch these guys hit these clubs, and he would know that the flatter clubs would hit the ball to the right and the upright clubs would hit the ball to the left. He realized that things needed to be adjusted.
Then, he’d have the pros come in and ask them, ‘What’s your favorite club?’ Based on what they said, he’d tell them how they would hit the rest of the clubs in their set. They’d be shocked and wonder how he would know when he hadn’t seen them hit the set. Many times he adjusted the clubs for his players and then they would go out and win the next week because they’re clubs were consistent.
He came up with the color code so that people could realize whether they needed clubs that were flat or upright. Then he started doing a little bit of advertising, and by the time the Eye2 came out, everybody knew what color they were.
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What type of measurements did he make in order to do the first fittings?
Back then, he was measuring clubs on the top of his table saw, making marks on the table saw for what lofts they were and what lies they were. This was in his garage on 37th Street and Shea in Scottsdale back in the early ’60s.
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In 1964 your father designed a fitting tool and got it patented in 1966. What did it do and how did it work?
Basically, it was a gauge that measured both the loft and the lie of the club. Where the shaft went across the metal bar showed you the loft. The gauge would not hold the club perfectly square, so he had to calculate out what the lofts were from a square perspective, but it was the most convenient way to do it and keep the club on a flat plane.
The bar of the club that he measured the lofts on was angled, and you’d put the butt of the grip against it and there was a basket sort of thing that lined up with the grooves. There was a pointer near the grooves that would then tell you what the loft was. You could read what it was, or, set it and adjust the club to that specification.
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Was it risky in the 1970s to take out full-page, yellow-papered advertisements that promoted the virtues of custom-fit golf equipment instead of a technology or a design innovation?
Karsten had a real question as to whether advertising really did all that much and whether people were really reading that sort of thing. Finally, he put yellow mail-back cards in magazines and then he realized that advertising was really doing something because he got so many of them back. The yellow was his idea because he wanted something that would stand out.
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What was the single most important innovation that has helped golfers get more-effectively fit for their equipment?
Things like Trackman, Foresight or even the early camera machines – getting the reading on spin and things like that, where the ball is going – that’s what makes nFlight (Ping’s proprietary fitting system) work. The guys that are out on the PGA Tour fitting our Tour pros can see with their eyes what’s going on with the ball and things that the average player doesn’t. They can do an awfully good job, but when you get down to the fine-tuning, they can’t truly see what’s going on downrange like Trackman can. A few rpms difference, or a small trajectory difference, can make a big difference to a player.
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Technology has given manufacturers and fitters more information about a player’s swing than ever before. Have the really important things about fitting clubs changed since the 1960s and ’70s?
The fundamentals have remained the same, but I’m not sure we really knew what the fundamentals were back then. You relied on a lot of hitting back then. At one point we had our range [at Ping’s headquarters in Phoenix] completely digitized, with microphones in the ground so when a ball would land we could triangulate it and find out where shots were going. Before that, we were out there with a highly-accurate surveyor’s machine and somebody marked where the balls landed. We were doing that to get the information that we could. Then we got Trackman, and once we proved that it was accurate, Wow! We didn’t need pencils anymore.
Today, fitting is becoming much more of a science, whereas before it was much more of an art.
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Doing so many custom-fittings must give you a treasure-trove of information about golfers in general. Does the process of fitting players to their equipment influence the way that Ping creates new products?
It does influence a lot because we are constantly trying to get the trajectory right and get the spin rate down to where it’s effective at that trajectory. There are still goals, and as technology allows us to make changes in golf clubs, we keep pushing it.
Let’s put it this way, the center of gravity in the G25 driver represents the biggest change from one model to another that we’ve ever had. It’s farther back and lower than anything we’ve ever done. The impetus for that change definitely came from what we’ve learned about the swing from doing so many fittings.