Achenbach: Family, innovation drive Ping's evolution
PHOENIX -- Ping the putter was created in 1959 by a onetime shoemaker who never played golf until he was 42. Ping the golf company grew from a cramped little garage in Redwood City, Calif.
From those modest beginnings, a 1961 move to Phoenix catapulted the company into prominence in the game. Today, Ping is an economic pillar in the Valley of the Sun, with a 50-acre campus and nearly 1,000 employees.
In 2011 the company staged a twin celebration: 50 years in Arizona and the 100th anniversary of late founder Karsten Solheim’s birth. Solheim’s story – as well as Ping’s – is a family tale.
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The family business
Family has been the Ping password from Day 1. Suitors who wanted to buy the Solheim-owned and -directed company and take it public were shooed away. Family members were trained tenaciously as Ping dug in for a showdown of ideas and technology, often against bigger rivals.
Karsten Solheim, the brilliant patriarch who died in 2000 at age 88, was a shoemaker turned mechanical engineer turned golf club entrepreneur. Before his life in golf, he helped envision the Fireball fighter plane for Ryan Aeronautical and played a key role in developing the first portable TV and “rabbit ears” antenna for General Electric. He had the gift of design.
Louise Solheim, the calm and sensible matriarch, is widely credited with holding the family and business together. She never allowed golf to overwhelm the charity and religious faith so important to the Solheims. Now 94, she still lives in Phoenix and attends board meetings.
“People would say that Louise was running the company while Karsten was designing the products,” said Jim Hansberger, one of three brothers who started Ram Golf. “She was very highly regarded in the golf community.”
Karsten and Louise had three sons (Louis, Allan and John) and a daughter (Sandra). In their family pursuit of selling golf clubs, Karsten and his sons first built putters and then added irons. Louise was in charge of bookkeeping and shipping, and Sandra assisted.
Today, 11 members of the Solheim family, headed by 66-year-old John, the chief executive officer and Karsten and Louise’s youngest son, work at Ping. As the third generation rises to lead the company, the fourth generation is learning the business. Three of Karsten and Louise’s great-grandchildren work summers at Ping.
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Innovation and persistence
Ping products always have been different – ahead of the curve, many would say. Perimeter weighting, cavity backs, unpolished heads, investment-cast irons, square grooves, bent shafts, the absence of ferrules on irons, lightweight stand bags – the Solheims invented or popularized all of these features.
Bent shafts, which reduced torque, or twisting, were outlawed by the U.S. Golf Association. Ping didn’t fight that decision, but it won a favorable legal settlement in a dispute with the USGA and PGA Tour over square grooves.
The Tour gave Karsten Solheim his initial exposure. He met Ram’s Hansberger while following the Tour, trying to promote Ping putters.
“He was persistent,” Hansberger said. “He didn’t have instant success; he kept plugging away. He would say, ‘Well, this putter will work really great for you,’ and the player would say, ‘Well, thank you very much,’ and that was it. The next week, Karsten would be there again. Finally he wore some of the guys down. When he got a tournament win, all of a sudden they were all listening.”
In the 1962 Cajun Classic, John Barnum became the first player to win with the putter. By the time Julius Boros won the 1967 Phoenix Open and George Archer captured the 1969 Masters – both with Ping putters – the company was gaining widespread visibility.
Putters from that early period were stamped “Scottsdale, Ariz” because Ping used a Scottsdale postal address. Today, a Scottsdale putter can be worth several thousand dollars.
When Jim Colbert built a house at Saddlebrook Resort in Wesley Chapel, Fla., in the 1970s, he paid an unusual tribute to Ping: He laid two Ping irons flat on the ground, crossing and securing them in the middle of the stone walkway outside the front door.
“Ping built this house,” said Colbert, who won eight PGA Tour titles, 20 times on the Champions Tour and was a member of the Ping professional staff. “Karsten is responsible for my success (on the PGA Tour), and I wanted to honor him. Back then, whenever there was some new exciting development in golf clubs, it always seemed like Ping was the company responsible for it. All the guys on the Tour were talking about Ping clubs, whether it was the long irons or the wedges or whatever it was. Karsten just kept coming up with one great idea after another.”
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Designing across platforms
Back at the Ping campus, John talked about his father’s cars. Some – French Citroëns and German BMWs among them – still reside there, an enduring memory of the man and his machinery. John also has a passion for automobiles.
“Lots of fast cars,” he said, ticking off the 1969 Corvette that he bought new, a ’96 Dodge Viper, ’99 Ford Lightning pickup, ’54 Citroen hot rod with a Chevy V-8 engine, ’40 Dodge truck and a ’55 Mercedes-Benz among his favorites.
Those with the gift of design see parallels between cars and golf clubs.
“One of my strongest points,” John said, “is that I can take things from other industries and apply them to golf. It is very important to be observant.”
As Ping enters its second half-century, two key questions arise: When will John retire, and who will assume leadership?
When John replaced his father in 1995, he leapfrogged his two older brothers. Allan supported John all along, but Louis was something of a rival.
“Louis felt that because he was the oldest, he should be taking it over,” John said. “He challenged me a lot, the way I was doing things. Louis and I have the same goals but totally different ways of doing them. I think it’s good to look at things from a different point of view. Eventually, he started supporting me.”
Allan and Louis are retired. The leading candidate to replace John as chairman and CEO is his oldest son, John K. Solheim. In speaking about his son, John was unusually candid.
“Johnny was pushing,” he said. “He thought it was his time and time for me to get out of the way. I didn’t feel that way. I asked myself, ‘What was the best way for him to get training
for the top job in the future?’ I realized that our operation in Japan – to run that and run all of Asia – would be the best place he could be.”
So John K. and his wife, Brooke, and their four children moved to Japan two years ago.
“He is just starting to get results from those two years,” John said. “He is planning his third and fourth years now. It has worked out well.”
Karsten Solheim led Ping into his 80s. John, however, has projected a sense of mystery about his future.
“I’m going to step back gradually, in steps,” Solheim said, “but I won’t say when.”
Regardless, it seems certain that a Solheim will continue to guide golf’s first family of design.