The man behind Ping’s S56

The Ping S56 iron

The Ping S56 iron

LAKESIDE, Calif. – The Industry Cup wasn’t the Bay Hill Classic, a PGA Tour event he won back in 1983, but it was enough to add some excitement to Mike Nicolette’s golf life.

After his team lost, a determined Nicolette said “We’ll be back,” sounding a little bit like Arnold Schwarzenegger but looking decidedly un-Terminator-like.

OK, Nicolette is 53, an age somewhat beyond the limits of brash physical boasting. “I would like to win this event,” he said, “and it will be fun to give it another try.”

Ping’s four-man team finished fourth in the Industry Cup, behind two separate teams from Callaway and one from TaylorMade. The 36-hole event was played here Oct. 23-24 at Barona Creek Golf Club.

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Mike Nicolette

Nicolette’s last full year on the Tour was 1988. Since then, he has established himself as one of the best club designers in golf.

I admire the versatility of players who use their tournament experience and competitive instincts to create golf clubs. Gene Sarazen, who conceived the modern sand wedge, is probably the most famous player turned club inventor. Ben Hogan started his own golf company and was active in club design. Toney Penna was at the helm of a highly regarded golf club company that carried his name. Arnold Palmer rented his name to a clubmaker, although Palmer was never involved on a daily basis. Jack Nicklaus still has a golf club company. David Graham, a two-time major champion, was a trusted golf club advisor to both MacGregor and Callaway.

There have been many others, too, so Nicolette is not exactly exploring new territory.

He is, however, doing his job very well. Case in point: Ping’s new S56 iron.

Ping started its S series with S59 in late 2004. It has gradually moved down, one number at a time, to S56. From my perspective, that’s 16-under-par on a par-72 course.

Nicolette loves talking about the S56. That’s because he spent so much time fine-tuning the iron. He knows every curve. He knows the distribution of every gram of weight. We might as well call this iron the Nicolette.

But Ping doesn’t work that way. Ping employees operate quietly and conservatively behind the scenes. Karsten Solheim, Ping’s founder, is the one and only person whose name has been widely associated with Ping products and designs.

One thing is certain about the S56: This iron has absolutely, conclusively showed that the best modern golfers do not necessarily play with forged irons. The S56 is made of 17-4 stainless steel.

Sure, some golfers say that forged irons have superior feel. At the same time, I have observed several blind tests in which most players were unable to distinguish between forged and cast irons.

The debut of the S56 this year has been spectacular. This is a player’s club – compact blade, thin top line, narrow sole – and it benefits from modern technology with a pocket cavity that enhances the performance of the longer irons in the set.

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Louis Oosthuizen

The irons were unveiled at the 2010 U.S. Open, and Frenchman Gregory Havret immediately put them in his bag and finished second, one stroke behind winner Graeme McDowell.

When Louis Oosthiuzen surprised the world by winning the next major, the British Open, he was using S56 irons.

Miguel Angel Jimenez won the French Open with S56 irons in his bag. If that weren’t enough, he later added an S56 win in the Omega European Masters and then he was a member of the winning European Ryder Cup team.

Arjun Atwal used the irons for the first time in Monday qualifying for the Wyndham Championship. He then captured the tournament.

In a week with two simultaneous PGA Tour events, the WGC-Bridgestone Invitational and the Turning Stone Resort Championship, the two players who emerged as champions both had S56 irons in their bags (Hunter Mahan at Bridgestone and Bill Lunde at Turning Stone).

There have been other victories around the world, and there will be more.

One point here is that the S56 is a great iron, but a larger point is that many golf clubs today are a marvelous combination of modern science and old-fashioned ingenuity and creativity.

A number of companies sell excellent clubs, and we the amateur golfers of the world are the beneficiaries. Modern woods and irons come to us from the hands and minds of gifted club designers like Mike Nicolette.

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