Welcome back to another installment of History’s Mysteries. Think of this as MyGolfSpy’s WABAC Machine for golf. And we think you’ll enjoy reading today’s installment as much as we did writing it.
For golf fanatics, that day was April 13, 1986.
That was the day Jack Nicklaus gave us the thrill of a lifetime with a final round 65 to win his sixth green jacket and his 18th and most improbable major.
And he did it with, at the time, was about the funkiest looking putter you’d ever seen.
This is the story of that putter which, next to Calamity Jane, might be the most famous flatstick of the 20th Century.
And according to the man who designed it, it was all a complete accident.
Clay Long and the MacGregor ZT Response
“Like a lot of things in R&D, it started out as one thing and then changed as we worked on it,” says legendary club designer Clay Long of his most famous creation, the MacGregor ZT Response.
Long wasn’t a legend at the time, though. A 1975 Ole Miss mechanical engineering graduate, Long began his career at MacGregor in 1980 as a manufacturing engineer. By 1983, he moved into product development, ultimately becoming vice-president of R&D.
In the mid-’80s, MacGregor was in trouble. Jack was the primary owner but the company was a losing proposition. And its putter business was barely an afterthought. In 1985 MacGregor sold all of 1,200 putters.
Long, ever the tinkerer, spent that spring working on his latest side project: a “corrective putter” to help golfers line up their putter better.
“We did some research on putter alignment using a laser,” Long tells MyGolfSpy. “And this was back when we had a laser about the size of a shoebox. We found that people, pro or not, didn’t aim very accurately. But they were relatively consistent.”
So Long and his team designed a putter with an angled face, either open or closed depending on your aiming tendency. It would help you point the putter in the right direction.
“To do that, we had to build a putter where the topline overhung the face,” says Long. “You couldn’t see the face but, under the topline, the face would be open or closed. You would buy a putter based on how you tested.”
To do that, however, the overhang had to be tall enough so you wouldn’t hit the ball with it. To do that, the putter face had to be big.
It Worked, But …
Long and his team used CNC milling to make up some prototypes with MacGregor’s Smoothie putter (an Anser lookalike) serving as the model.
“The face had to be like 32 percent taller to keep the overhang out of the way,” says Long. “We were just scaling up and made this big, oversized aluminum putter to test the concept.
“That’s how the thing got big. It didn’t start out as an oversized high-inertia putter. We just needed it to be deep so the overhang wouldn’t hit the ball.”
Long’s team tested the putters and they did exactly as Long had hoped. It looked like MacGregor had something pretty unique—and sellable—on their hands. Then the USGA stepped in.
“The USGA said it was non-conforming because the face has to be flat,” says Long. “It can’t have this thing sticking out on top of the face. So we were just like aww man, all this work and they shot us down. All this work and then, poof.”
As with any good story, this is where fate lends a hand.
“Is This Is a Joke?”
By 1985, Slotline was marketing something called the Inertial Putter. It was a simple die-cast design with lead weights in the heel and toe. It wasn’t oversized but its MOI was better than anything else at the time.
“We thought maybe we could sell this putter on inertia,” says Long. “It had way more inertia than the Inertial because it was so big. We were selling no putters so there’s wasn’t much risk in something kind of off the wall.”
During MacGregor’s June 1985 sales meeting, R&D invited Jack to check out a new robot they developed to sand wood heads. Fate, and the layout of MacGregor’s R&D lab, forced the group to take a fortuitous path.
“We walked right by my office and I reached down and grabbed one of the putter prototypes and said to Jack, ‘Take a look at this.’
“He picked it up, looked at it, looked back at me and said, ‘Is this a joke?’ That was his comment. ‘Is this a joke?’ I said no and dropped a ball down—we had Astroturf for carpet—and had him try it. He hit a couple, set the putter down and said, “Send me a couple. I’ll try them.’”
About two weeks later, Long’s phone rings. It’s Jack.
“He says, ‘You know those putters you sent me? Those aren’t half bad.’ I was flabbergasted. To say something nice about a product? Jack never did that. He never changed anything he played anyway but he never said anything nice about a product.
“And to even think about getting that George Low putter out of his hands? That would never have happened. But he says, ‘It’s not half bad.’ I said, ‘Do you think we could make a product out of it?’ And he says, ‘Yeah, I think you could.’”
The Surprise Hit of the PGA Show
After getting the OK from Jack, MacGregor President George Nichols told Long to make up four ZT Response models to be launched at the PGA Merchandise Show in January of ’86.
“We gave away 200 of them at the show,” says Long. “The forecast going into the show was to sell about 6,000 for the year. That was risky considering we only sold 1,200 putters the year before. But we went to the show and booked orders for 5,000.”
About that time, Jack asked to have some of the putters made up in black (the aluminum originals had been silver). Two weeks later, he showsedup on Tour gaming the new ZT Response.
“He’s using it but he’s playing terrible,” remembers Long. “That’s probably one of the reasons he tried in the first place. But whenever he’s on TV, he’s putting with this putter. And leading up to the Masters, we had booked sales for about 20,000 of them.
“Internally, we were like we couldn’t believe we’re selling this many putters. It was doing great.
“And then he wins the Masters.”
What happened next is the stuff of legends.
“It was a moment in golf history,” says Long. “Jack wins and the next day is just nuts. We sold 5,000 more putters by noon, just over the phone. The orders were going through the freaking roof.”
Long remembers being hoarse from screaming and yelling while watching Sunday unfold but later that week he was on a plane to California to get more tooling in place.
“We had to triple up our tooling and the orders just kept rolling in,” he says. “I think we wound up shipping 150,000 putters in ’86. We had orders for more but that was all we could make.”
The MacGregor plant in Albany, Ga., is overgrown with weeds now but Long remembers it as a 250,000 square-foot putter-making machine that year.
“The left half of the plant was where we made irons. We’d polish and grind and do the plating. There would be racks and racks, probably 6,000 irons on the floor at any given time.
“About six weeks after the Masters, all you could see were racks of Response putters. You couldn’t see any irons out there at all. It was just crazy.”
ZT Response: Fate Takes A Left
The ZT Response turned MacGregor around. For the first time in seemingly forever, the bottom-line ink was black, not red.
“I don’t think we fully understood how much the stars had aligned,” says Long. “We weren’t doing much advertising and I told George (Nichols) we couldn’t sell this putter unless we explained it with some ads. So, he agreed to spend $60,000 for 13 weeks of ads in Golfworld, which was the cheapest publication to advertise in.
“As luck would have it, those ads were scheduled to come out in the Masters edition of Golfworld. So Jack wins and the next issue comes out with a full-page, full-color ad with Jack holding up his putter saying, ‘We took the twist out to take strokes off.’ Seriously, you can’t make this stuff up. But, boy, it was fun.”
But twists of fate can turn in any direction at any time. Jack’s golf course design business was in deep trouble in 1986 and he needed cash. To get it, he sold 80 percent of his stake in MacGregor to Amer Sports. And despite the fact MacGregor would eventually sell 350,000 ZT Response putters, Amer had its own ideas.
“I look back on it and think what in the hell were people thinking,” says Long. “We started working on an oversized Response metalwood long before the Big Bertha came out. We could have launched ours in 1988 but we couldn’t sell the vision to upper management.
“Sales often wants to just sell what somebody else is doing well with. But walk in there with a 190cc titanium driver when there are no 190cc titanium drivers on the market? Well, it’s sometimes just hard to get anyone to see it.”
Post ZT Response Missteps
Long readily admits the sudden and incredible success of the ZT Response made his R&D team maybe just a wee bit cocky.
“We thought we got this all figured out now,” he laughs. “So the next product we do will be just like this.”
Spoiler alert: It wasn’t.
“One of my biggest disasters was the RPM irons which came out right after the Response putter,” says Long. “It was supposed to be a PING Eye 2 killer.”
RPM was a cavity-back iron with seven unique patents. It featured complicated design features, progressive blade placement and parabolic grooves. MacGregor decided to cast RPM in manganese bronze, the same material as the PING Anser putter.
“We cast some CG-1800 irons in manganese bronze to test the concept,” says Long. “The CG-1800 was a stainless-steel iron but we just used the molds. Everything came out fine.”
One small problem: the gate where the metal flows in for a stainless-steel casting is on the toe. But due to the nature of the alloy, the gate for the RPM molds was on the heel, just below the borehole.
“We didn’t test for that. We didn’t know enough to even be worried about it,” says Long. “Turns out, when the metal cools, it shrinks under the gate and left a little crystalline void right there. So, every 20th club or so, when you went to set the loft and lie, the head would break off. Or sometimes when you were hitting it, the head would just fly off.”
Amer and Who’s On First?
Even though it had the hottest thing in golf in the Response, Amer was cool to the notion of extending the line.
“We had just put out the LT Response and I remember sitting in a meeting with the president and the sales and marketing guys,” says Long. “When we came to putters, they said, ‘We need a new putter concept.’
“I looked over and said, ‘Let me get this straight. We have a unique putter design that’s unlike anything else on the market and we have the greatest player that’s ever picked up a stick using it and you need a new concept? Do I have that right?’”
During Long’s 12-year tenure at MacGregor, the company went through six different presidents.
“It was like ‘Who’s On First’ every two years,” he says. “And that was one of my frustrations and why I finally left. You’d come up with a product. They’d sell it for a year and say, All right, give me a new one.’ I said, ‘Man, I don’t have a bottomless pit of ideas.’”
Long may not have had a bottomless pit of ideas but he still had plenty in the tank. Before leaving MacGregor in 1992, he helped develop the Muirfield metalwoods, the first metalwoods Jack used in competition. Curtis Strange had the Muirfields in the bag when he won his second straight U.S. Open in 1989.
Long also finally did get that cast titanium driver out with the MacGregor T920. It was the first club design to use computer analysis but it came out two years after the Big Bertha. Hardly anyone noticed it.
Still Busy After All These Years
After leaving MacGregor, Long went to work for Arnold Palmer and developed by PHD Hosel Weighted iron, a design later licensed by COBRA and used in the King COBRA II irons and woods. He joined COBRA in 1997, developed the Gravity Back irons, and later worked on titanium metalwood development for Titleist.
More recently, Long had his hands in TaylorMade’s Ardmore putter line and he designed TaylorMade’s Milled Grind and High Toe wedges. Today, he’s semi-retired at 69 but still maintains a handicap of +1.7. “I’ve shot my age 19 times. Unfortunately, it gets easier to do as time goes by.”
Most days, you’ll find Long tinkering in his shop in Carlsbad, Calif., working on his own line of stunning limited-edition milled putters and wedges through his company, Plus 2 International and his website, rollyourball.com.
But after all these years, when Long talks about MacGregor, which he does often and gladly, he still refers to the company as “we.” He proudly bleeds green and white.
“We had the first cast titanium driver of any major manufacturer at MacGregor,” he says. “We did it first.”
“But,” he laments, “we didn’t sell it very well.”
And now in his fifth decade in the industry and with his many accomplishments, you’d think Long would get a little tired of talking about that damned putter from 35 years ago.
You’d be wrong.
“It’s what I’m really known for because it was such a bizarro event,” says Long. “There have been people who’ve designed products that have sold way more parts and made way more money than the ZT Response putter. But, still, every year when the Masters rolls around, people want to talk about it.”
In our previous segment, The Demise of MacGregor Golf, we declared the brand the brand dead and buried. However, since publication, we’re hearing a whisper of a hint of a rumor telling us there may be life in the old brand yet. Stay tuned …