It’s the 4th of July, and it’s time for Americans to celebrate the US of A. Cookouts, fireworks and maybe a round of Red, White and Blue golf are all on the agenda.
Today’s story reflects today's America in many ways: some of you will love it, some will hate it, and some will be firmly in the middle.
Several weeks ago we ran an article on club design and Chinese manufacturing. Many of you lamented the disappearance of actual “Made-in-the-USA” golf clubs. Well, Happy July 4th, because we found a company resurrecting the lost art of American-made irons, forged in the USA by American workers using certified USA steel.
It’s a long and winding road of a story; resurrecting a lost industry, an unusual go-to-market plan and a reality that many of us will never even see, let alone try one. It's a polarizing story that starts with a love of classic, forged muscle-back irons.
With that, please meet Christopher Griffin and P53.
The Lost Legacy
Christopher Griffin says Ben Hogan inspired his quest to resurrect the great American iron.
“I wanted a product that, if Mr. Hogan walked into a room and every iron on the planet were laid out on a table, he’d walk over to the P53 and say ‘I choose this one.’”
Griffin is a careful and reticent sort. You won’t find much in the golf media about him or P53, and the company's very nature is antithetical to ads, social media, online reviews or hashtags. Griffin is a venture capitalist who knows money, where to find it and what to do with it. He also holds graduate degrees in literature and philosophic humanities as well as business, and is the only golf exec I know who studied Latin for six years.
“People who forgo the aesthetic in this game are missing something,” Griffin tells MyGolfSpy. “For me, the equipment I use is an integral part of the experience. I think the industry walked away from that. I don’t blame them, but I wanted to bring back an iron that was a joy to look at, a joy to handle and an absolute joy to play.”
Griffin traveled a long, arduous road to make P53 a reality. He's an industry outsider, and his journey started during his days with Microsoft as a 26-handicapper hacking around the Jackson Park Golf Course in Seattle, and a fortuitous visit to a golf shop on Aurora Avenue.
For The Love Of Blades
“The first iron that inspired me was a set of Hogan PC blades, the ’86-’87 models,” says Griffin. “At that point, I was playing cavity-backed whatevers, under the assumption those were what I needed, and I was awful."
Griffin saw the Hogan's, bought them and $89 later a 26 gaming blades never looked back.
“The immediate affinity, I can’t even describe how powerful it was,” Griffin says. “It was a completely aesthetic attraction at first, but the performance was no different than playing cavity backs. Everyone said I should be playing Big Bertha’s or whatever, but there was an aesthetic component I kept hammering on. I eventually got better than those players who said I should be playing game-improvement gear.”
If you're a regular MyGolfSpy reader, you know our feelings on performance versus aesthetics. Ironically, MyGolfSpy plays a key role in the P53 story, as we inadvertently introduced Griffin to club designer Jeff Sheets.
“I discovered Jeff through a MyGolfSpy article on his design of the ’99 Hogan Apex irons,” says Griffin. “The hair on the back of my neck stood up as we started talking because I realized he had designed nearly every club in my bag - Wilson woods, an old MacGregor putter, and the ’99 Hogans. His eye contributed to the design of all the clubs I had intuitively gravitated toward.”
“So I engaged him to work on these design ideas I had for not only reclaiming the lost legacy of great American production, but also creating an iron that was iconic in its own right. It couldn’t just look good, it had to play as well or better than anything on the market.” - Christopher Griffin
Griffin and Sheets officially partnered in 2013. The P53 name honors the 60th anniversary of Hogan’s 1953 season, which also plays a key role in P53’s business model, as we’ll learn later.
With a designer on board, the next step was daunting: finding a way to make P53 in the U.S.
The Manhattan Project
It’s been nearly two decades since we’ve seen forged club heads mass-produced here in the U.S. The economics of Asian manufacturing prompted OEMs to look to the Far East, but Griffin committed to American manufacturing as early as 2010.
“Just like when I started playing vintage blades, people thought I was insane,” says Griffin. "We literally had to reinvent an industry."
Griffin says finding forging houses in the U.S. wasn't particularly hard, but finding one to make golf irons the way he and Sheets wanted was a different story.
“We found a family-owned partner for forgings – they do terrific work,” says Griffin, who won’t divulge the company name, but adds making irons the way P53 wanted requires more than just getting someone to stamp them out.
“Finding somebody equally intrigued with the opportunity to try this was the real key. To get the tolerances we wanted and the quirky proprietary production protocols we wanted was unusual.”
P53 designs and owns all of the tooling used to forge its irons, and its providers certify all components used are U.S. made. “We do the same thing with all of our machining services, coining services, specific heat treatments that are unique to us – that’s all done in the U.S.”
In addition, P53's steel billets are certified from the mills as U.S. production.
Finding chrome plating services using hexavalent chromium, a known carcinogen, proved even more difficult due to EPA regulations.
“It was a challenge, but again, commitment and not quitting go a long way,” says Griffin. “We do a traditional copper underlayment and a double-nickel process with a hexavalent chromium finish, like the true classic irons. You haven’t seen that in 20 years. We dug deep, and sourced partners grandfathered to use hexavalent chromium.”
Despite the challenges, Griffin is certain other companies will follow his Made-In-America footsteps.
“People don’t realize what a significant set of obstacles that represented,” he says. “There’s an obvious reason why no one else does it, but I guaranty people will follow our lead. You’ll see people jump on the bandwagon and try to ride the wings of change, but I hope people will remember who stepped up first.”
P53’s iron offering is called 1/953, again in honor of Ben Hogan’s 1953 season. Specifically, the designation means only 953 sets will be produced, and every one will be a muscle-back blade.
“At my core, I believe the muscle-back iron is an iconic design for a reason,” says Griffin. “Ours looks like a low CG club, but the uniqueness of the design is we actually carry mass high up that club face. There are subtle design features that allow us to maximize mass going into the ball.”
“We actually surprised ourselves when we started seeing this clubhead outperforming irons by major manufacturers specifically designed for distance," he adds. "That was a little shocking. It comes from a combination of a very easy-to-hit muscle-back design with our unique attributes, and a fitting process that can make the difference between an enjoyable golf club and one that’s miserable to hit.”
P53 creates what it calls truly bespoke irons for each client, irons unique to him or her, be they right-handed or left. Griffin is quick to point out there’s a huge difference between bespoke and custom-fit.
“We can make a topline you can shave with, if you want,” he says. “If we have a client coming out of clubs with significant heel relief, they may want to see more heel relief in their P53 irons. If we have someone coming out of a boxier toe, we can adjust toe shape, toe apex, radius on the topline, bevel on the topline, all of those aesthetic components.”
P53 also looks at turf interaction and Trackman data to determine what grinds might benefit each golfer, and any shaft on the planet is an option. A P53 fitting session is, to put it mildly, painstaking.
“We view our clients as members,” says Griffin. “So fitting is an ongoing process. It cracks me up how some companies claiming to sell luxury irons have you in a fitting session one day and hand you a set the next. That’s physically impossible with the level of work we do on our clubs.”
Clients and Memberships
So, would you like to give a P53 a whack or two at a local demo day?
Perhaps a visit to an exclusive private club or Top-100 fitter? No again.
Can you fly down to Fort Worth, Texas to P53’s fitting center (at the old Nike Oven) to try before you buy? Not a chance.
You see, P53 doesn't look for customers, it accepts clients. But to be a client, you first have to be a candidate.
“We’re all about finding the right fit between what we offer and what a player is seeking,” says Griffin. “Either you value it, or you don’t. It’s like a Purdey or a Holland & Holland shotgun - you either value what went into the creation of that product, or you don’t. A Mossberg 500 from Wal-Mart will get the job done.”
Candidates often come from private referral, but you can apply to be a candidate on P53's website. The process starts with Griffin discussing with the candidate what P53 is all about. Sometimes that's as far as it gets.
“If someone spends a ton of money buying golf clubs, only to swap them out every year, that person, at least from my experience, tends to blame his equipment for his failing on the course,” says Griffin. “I’d rather not have that person on my client list because they don’t understand what we’re creating.”
“If someone slings coffee for a living but is a classic blades player and a quality individual I'd love to spend time with on the course, then we’ll figure that out. It’s really about finding the right people who value what we value.”
“I love the guys who play garage sale irons, know their swing and what they’re capable of and stick to it. There’s honor in that. The thing that lacks honor, in my opinion, is when people think they can buy a game by chasing technology. It has nothing to do with your balance sheet and everything to do with what you value aesthetically about the game.” - Christopher Griffin
It would be easy to conclude that P53 is an elitist brand for one-percenters who feel PXG is too common clay. Griffin cops to being elitist, but bristles at P53 being labeled as golf clubs for rich guys.
“We’re definitely product elitists, without apology,” he admits. “I don’t perceive ourselves as elitist in any other fashion. If someone truly wants to become a member of P53 and they value what we value, we’ll figure out a way to make it happen.”
Ask about resale value, however, and you’ll be shown the door almost immediately. Part of the sales agreement prevents selling P53s on the secondary market.
So, How Much?
P53 has tiered product-and-service pricing, with a six-club minimum starting at around $6,000.00. That includes what Griffin calls a world-class, multi-stage fitting at FHQ, its fitting headquarters in Fort Worth.
“Prices go up from there based on the number of irons and array of services,” adds Griffin. “That can include everything from accommodations and flights to additional rounds at private courses and invitation-only experiences we can put together for each client.”
If you’re of a mind that spending PXG money is folly because it won’t make you a better golfer, then six Gs for six irons will probably make you downright apoplectic. You may be surprised, however, to find that Griffin agrees with you.
“I respect that, I absolutely respect that, and I want to go on record about that,” he says. “This is not about creating golf clubs for rich guys. We want you to play the best you can play, whatever that means for you.”
“If you can only afford a cobbled together set from garage sales, that’s fantastic, I look forward to playing with you," says Griffin. "The person I don’t want to play with is the person who buys a new set of clubs every month, blames them for lack of practice or mental strength, and goes on to buy another set. Those are not our clients.”
All-American or Elitist?
No, P53 is not for everyone, a point Griffin makes very clear. However, he also makes clear that since he owns the company, he's always willing to discuss payment terms for anyone truly interested in becoming a member. You don't have to be a rich guy; you just have to be the right guy.
Since it's the 4th of July, you're free to argue P53 is elitist and decidedly un-American, but all that arguing not only means that P53’s aren’t for you, you probably aren’t for P53.
“It requires someone to reframe everything they know about equipment, step back and ask, ‘why am I playing this game?’," says Griffin. “For most people, it’s about comradery and the aesthetic experience. So why wouldn’t you step up to a set of irons that make you happy simply to look at, simply to hold and that you can play better than any other iron you’ve ever played before? Because if you can’t, I won’t let you buy them. Why would I?”
Note Griffin didn't say his irons will make you a better player, only that you can play his irons better than any other iron. If you can't, he won't sell them to you. Griffin chooses his words carefully and makes an important distinction.
For what it's worth, the likelihood of MyGolfSpy ever reviewing P53's is slightly lower than LeBron changing his mind and going back to Cleveland. A head-to-head comparison with the field simply isn't in Griffin's playbook. Neither is market share, growth or industry trends, and there’s a chance once the client list hits 953, that’ll be that, and P53 morphs into experience provider for its 953 clients.
“One of my investors likes to say everyone gets what they want, it’s just how badly do you want it," says Griffin. "People talk about supporting American production, people talk about playing the best they can. People make choices all day long, and if they value something highly enough, they’ll generally be able to acquire to which they aspire, within reason, of course.”
The declaration we celebrate today promises life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. P53 is very much about that pursuit of happiness. If pursuing bespoke, made-in-the-USA, forged muscle-backs makes you happy, then that, in its own way, is uniquely American.