When it comes to putters, you have three distinct groups: the it’s all about looks and feel crowd, the it’s Scotty (or Betti) or bust crowd, and the those fancy putters won’t make you putt better, plus they’re too damned expensive crowd.

There’s a small – but growing – fourth crowd: the I get the face whole technology thing, give me more of that crowd.

If you’re a member of groups 3 or 4, Cleveland Golf’s recent release of the Huntington Beach SOFT putter line might just make you want to Twist and Shout like Ferris Bueller. If you’re a proud, card-carrying member of groups 1 or 2, well, ignore technology at your own peril, and if the SOFT line isn’t expensive enough for you, well, Cleveland is sorry.

Groovy Milling

“Our brand name isn’t really set up to compete against a Bettinardi or a Scotty Cameron,” says Zach Oakley, Brand Manager for Cleveland Golf. “So our philosophy is a little bit different. We take a product that’s similar for the most part and target a different market segment.”

For Cleveland, that segment is the $99-to-$159 value/performance putter market. The original Huntington Beach line ($99) and the higher tech TFI 2135 Satin line ($149-$159) both feature milled 304 Stainless Steel faces, solid performance, and excellent value. The new Huntington Beach SOFT line is basically a cross between the two.

In Cleveland-speak, SOFT stands for Speed Optimized Face Technology – a unique, model-specific milling pattern designed to preserve ball speed on slightly off-center hits. It’s Cleveland’s version of what both PING and Evnroll do – use putter face technology to help make sure you get the ball to the hole when you don’t hit it dead center.

“Essentially what SOFT means is as you get out on the toe or heel, the milling pattern becomes less coarse,” says Oakley. “It will actually feel a bit firmer on heel or toe hits in order to get more ball speed, so you won’t leave those putts short.”

This is the same face milling idea Cleveland uses in its TFI 2135 series. In a nutshell, at the sweet spot, you have more groove and less face. As you move away from the sweet spot, you have more face and less groove.

“With a traditional milling pattern, if you catch it on the heel or toe, you’ll likely leave that putt a little short,” says Oakley. “By how much really depends on the MOI and CG properties of that particular putter head.”

As with the TFI 2135 series, each putter head in the Huntington Beach SOFT line will feature unique face milling, based on those MOI and CG properties. The milling pattern on the #11, for example, is different than the milling pattern on the #6, which is different than the milling pattern on the #1. The higher MOI models – specifically the mallets – feature a more gradual milling, while the lower MOI blades have a more aggressive pattern.

Provided your read is correct, does face technology help you get the ball closer to the hole on mishits? It’s something MyGolfSpy has proven repeatedly over the years, but there’s still the notion that looks and feel are the most important – if not the only – attributes that matter in a putter. Oakley, for his part, sees it both ways.

“Certainly looks and feel are among the things you need to consider,” he says. “You need to be committed to the putter you’re playing. It might not be the best setup for you, and you might be missing out on some cool face technologies, but you need to feel confident.”

“That being said, there’s a tradeoff. Face technology can help you improve your performance, especially for an amateur who doesn’t hit the center of the putter face every time. You’ll notice it on short, downhill sliders, because that’s where you need to key in on speed. Catch on the toe a little bit, and you’ll miss low. On long lag putts, if you hit it off the toe or heel, being a foot or two closer might help you 2-putt instead of 3-putt.”

Heel or toe hits with a slow-moving putter head are relative. We’re talking a few millimeters, not a few inches.

Center-Shaft Lover Rejoice

The SOFT line features six models, all slight variations on existing Huntington Beach or TFI models.

“We knew we’d have a lot of similar shapes, so we made some minor changes,” says Oakley. “You’ll notice the #6 has an updated look, a different alignment. The blades have some CG shifts, and we’ve also added a #11 slant neck and a #11 center shaft model.”

The #11 is Cleveland’s take on the popular fang-toothed Odyssey #7, a putter head nearly every OEM, putter specialist, and boutique outfit offers. It’s usually a toe-hang model with high MOI, but the center shaft basically balances the face.

“What a center-shafted putter does is it’s the most face-balanced putter you can get,” says Oakley. “That center of gravity and the shaft angle match up perfectly.”

Other variations: the SOFT #12 is a full mallet head, essentially the same as the TFI 2135 Cerro but without the 2135 alignment aid, while the SOFT #8.5 is a wider blade similar to the Huntington Beach #8, with just a hint of a backside curve.

One obvious question: does the introduction of the Huntington Beach SOFT line mean the end of the standard Huntington Beach line? Oakley says Cleveland isn’t really sure yet.

“The original plan was to phase it out,” he admits. “But it’s been so successful that it’s hard to get away from them. Right now, we’re going to continue to sell the standard Huntington Beach line. A few models will phase out, but a good majority will remain.”

Oakley says there are no plans to add head shapes to the SOFT line, but it’s hard to believe it’s something Cleveland won’t consider doing.

Price and Personalization

One reason Cleveland may want to phase out the original Huntington Beach line is price – those things are a bargain at $99 and may be troublesome competition for the SOFT line, which goes for $129.99.

The extra 30 bucks does get you the updated face technology (which isn’t insubstantial), a nicer paint job (more on that later) and an oversized grip standard (you can custom order a pistol grip if you want). Also, you can custom order for length, loft and lie on Cleveland’s website at no extra charge.

And if you want to spend another $10 bucks, you can jazz up your putter even more with a customized paint job. The Cleveland website lets you customize the paint fill in four different areas (the face logo on the heel, the Cleveland logo on the back, the alignment line and lines/branding on the sole), with 16 different color options.

If you like a dash of color in your putter, it may very well be the best $10 value in golf. For right now, the color personalization option is exclusive to the Huntington Beach SOFT line, but Oakley says if it goes well Cleveland may consider expanding it into the other putter lines.

Positioning

Cleveland’s stance is that any of its putters will perform just as well as your Scotty, your Edel, your Bettinardi or any big-dollar boutique brand you can name, and do it at a fraction of the cost. If you’re in sales and marketing, that’s both a blessing and curse.

“Our sales reps keeping telling us we could be selling these for $200,” says Oakley. “I would argue, though, that a guy walking into a golf shop looking to by a $400 Scotty Cameron is going to buy a Scotty Cameron. He’s not going to be persuaded to spend maybe a quarter or half of what he planned  on something else.”

Just how much of performance difference is there between a mass-produced, Chinese-made 304 stainless steel milled head and a custom-machined, 303 stainless steel head made in the U.S. by Scotty or Bettinardi is an open question. The other open question is will you, as a consumer, actually believe the less expensive putter performs similarly enough to actually buy it?

“Putting is a personal thing, says Oakley. “If you really feel like you’re going to putt better with a Scotty, then you’re probably going to go out and spend $400 to prove it.”

“We’re saying we have a product that’s every bit as good – sure there are material differences – but in terms of feel, you’re not going to be able to tell the difference. We’re targeting the guy who’s not looking to spend $400, who wants something that looks and performs very similarly, but who doesn’t want to commit that $400.”

As mentioned earlier, the Huntington Beach SOFT putter line sells for $129.99 and is available now at retail and on clevelandgolf.com. The $10 personalized paint fill option is only available online.