Welcome back, fellow Golf Spies, to another edition of History’s Mysteries. This week, our traipse back in time delves into the real story of the best-selling iron in golf history, the PING Eye 2.
Conventional wisdom says the PING Eye 2 was a revolutionary breakthrough in golf club design. Karsten Solheim, many say, cracked the forgiveness code when the PING Eye 2 hit the streets in 1982. Further, the pundits say Karsten revolutionized iron spin when he invented square, or U-shaped, grooves. What’s more, those grooves were such a competitive advantage that both the USGA and the PGA TOUR banned the Eye 2 for spinning the ball too much.
Friends, none of that conventional wisdom is true.
The PING Eye 2 was simply the culmination of two decades worth of research, development and good old-fashioned innovative engineering. The fact that it became the top-selling iron in golf history, not to mention a legendary icon, is simply the result of a perfect storm.
So let’s fire up the Hot Tub Time Machine and set a course for 1961. That’s when the PING Eye 2 story really begins.
History’s Mysteries: The PING Eye 2 Back Story
The PING Eye 2 was officially released in the fall of 1982. It followed the original Eye, which was launched in 1978, and the PING Karsten irons, which were launched in 1969. But the PING Eye 2 DNA actually traces back to 1961 and Karsten’s first iron set, the PING 69.
Karsten Solheim started making putters in his garage in 1959 with the crazy idea that a perimeter-weighted putter wouldn’t twist as much if you didn’t hit the center of the face. By 1961, he was thinking about how perimeter weighting would work with irons. He had become friendly with Ted Woolley, owner of Golfcraft, which at the time was one of the largest golf club manufacturers in the world (and would eventually be acquired by Acushnet). Karsten explained his ideas for a golf club and Woolley generously supplied Karsten with enough unfinished forged club heads to make 100 sets of irons.
Karsten drilled and milled out a pair of linear cavities: a shorter, smaller one close to the sole and a wider, longer one higher up. The result? The first perimeter-weighted iron.
“Karsten’s thing was that he viewed the golf club as being like a tennis racket,” PING company historian Rob Griffin tells MyGolfSpy. “He wanted the weight around the perimeter.”
The original PING 69 irons and their successors, the 69 Ballnamics and the Anser irons, were all forged and were the opposite of what was being sold at the time. Conventional forged irons, such as the Wilson DynaPower, featured extra mass behind the hitting area, not less. But Karsten was convinced his crude first efforts at perimeter weighting would make it easier for the average golfer to hit a straight shot.
The Karsten Irons
The first PING iron to actually look like what we think of now as a PING iron was the Karsten I. It launched just one month after man landed on the moon and looked like something Neil Armstrong used to dig up some moon dust.
“Karsten didn’t care,” says Griffin. “He wasn’t looking for beauty. He was looking for function.”
It’s impossible to overstate how radical the first Karsten iron (the K-I, as it was known) truly was. Its hollowed-out cavity created exaggerated perimeter weighting. The toe itself sloped sharply to the heel and it had a very generous offset. Most importantly, it was an investment-cast iron made from the same 17-4 stainless steel being used in the aerospace industry.
In And The Putter Went…PING, an exhaustive history of PING, author Jeffrey Ellis writes that club pros were not fans.
“Send me a dozen putters,” Ellis quotes one pro as saying. “But keep those ugly irons out of my shop.”
“That’s the worst-looking golf club ever made,” said another.
Looks aside, it just worked. The perimeter weighting did its job and off-center hits were still long. And the lower center of gravity, thanks to the hollowed-out cavity, produced higher launch angles and, ultimately, more distance. The K- I earned its first PGA TOUR win in 1970 and, as more golfers tried them and liked them, the better looking they got.
Karsten updated the line throughout the 1970s, adding the K-II, K-III and K-IV irons. By that time, the investment-casting thing was catching on.
“You can reproduce the same exact club head time after time,” explains Griffin. “Karsten was an engineer who worked in aerospace. His standards for quality were at the highest level. Investment casting allows you to make exact copies after exact copies.”
Eye For an Eye 2
Between putters and the Karsten irons and woods, PING was starting to move. By the end of the ‘70s, the company compound had grown to more than 75,000 square feet over 15 acres, with more than 300 employees. And, in 1978, PING gave us the Eye.
The original Eye was more compact than the Karsten irons. The cavity was reengineered to look like an eye and more weight was moved to the perimeter. Additionally, the Eye featured progressive hosel offset and sole contours throughout the set.
The Eye was current through the fall of 1982 until PING introduced the Eye 2 in a tiny ad in Golf World magazine.
The new Eye 2 featured a longer blade than the Eye. The face was taller, the topline thinner and the eye-shaped cavity was refined. And the grooves? They were the traditional V-shape in accordance with long-standing USGA guidelines.
In short, the 1982 PING Eye 2 was a noticeable upgrade over the original Eye. But the upgrade was evolutionary, not revolutionary. Nevertheless, it was a huge success. By the following summer, PING’s workforce more than doubled and the plant was pumping out 5,000 golf clubs a day.
Things were good at PING. But everything was about to go U-shaped.
1984 and U-Shaped Grooves
1984 was a memorable year. Michael Jackson’s hair caught fire, Wendy’s asked “Where’s the Beef?” and Wham! asked that you wake me up before you go-go. It was also the year the PING Eye 2 became the PING EYE 2.
As mentioned, the original Eye 2 irons sold from 1982 to 1984 had regular V-shaped grooves. But PING engineers noticed that the USGA had changed its rules for 1984 to allow U-shaped grooves, largely due to the fact that investment casting couldn’t make a true V-shaped groove.
“The bottom of the V would fill in with material,” says Griffin. “You’d basically be left with a U-shape anyway.”
Forged irons had issues with V-grooves, as well. In fact, forged-iron V-grooves would actually have parallel sides for the first 0.003 to 0.005 of an inch, even though the rules didn’t allow it.
Since the USGA changed the rule to allow for a U-shaped groove, Karsten figured he could use it.
“I don’t think he thought the grooves would provide better spin,” explains Griffin. “He just thought it would be better from a manufacturing perspective. We were the first ones on the market with those grooves and people perceived that it made the ball spin better.”
So PING used the new grooves in the updated standard Eye 2 as well as in the new beryllium copper BeCu models. Lost to history, however, was a new patented neck design for the Eye 2 which allowed the head to move at impact and create more backspin.
However, it was those Eye 2 BeCu models that would start causing PING some problems.
For some reason, the new U-shaped grooves on the Eye 2 BeCu models were chewing up balata balls like crazy on Tour. The specs were the same as the standard steel Eye 2 but BeCu models were marring balls while the steel Eye 2 models weren’t.
Titleist found its pros were turning its balatas into shredded wheat each week and asked Karsten if he could do anything. So Karsten added a bit more radius to the edge of the grooves to smooth them out. As a favor. To a competitor.
And that’s when the war started.
The USGA’s new 1984 rule specified that the distance between the edges of adjacent grooves must not be less than three times the width of the groove. The rules, however, didn’t specify how a groove should be measured. The USGA decided to measure the distance between the grooves starting from the end of one radius to the beginning of the next radius. Karsten measured grooves according to prior USGA regulations, from the parallel portion of one groove to the parallel portion of the next one.
“That’s what got under Karsten’s skin,” says Griffin. “He felt they were changing the rules on the fly. And they adopted a way of measuring that Karsten felt had no basis in mechanics, machining or engineering.”
Essentially, the USGA was saying the Eye 2 grooves were too close together because they measured the radius as part of the groove width.
“And the difference was really the thickness of a dollar bill,” says Griffin. “Years of court battles and I don’t know how many hundreds of thousands of dollars spent fighting each other. All over the width of a dollar bill.”
It was, essentially, a pissing contest on how to measure grooves.
Sue Me, Sue You Blues
In short order, the PGA TOUR joined the kerfuffle. After complaints from Tour pros who weren’t using PING, the PGA unilaterally banned U-shaped grooves from competition, claiming extra spin provided an unfair advantage. USGA testing had concluded there was no advantage. But the Tour commissioned its own tests and found that under certain conditions, specifically out of wet, heavy rough, that square grooves did perform slightly better.
But the same test also showed that V-grooves performed better on the fairway in dry conditions.
PING ultimately sued the USGA and the PGA TOUR for $100 million each.
“Karsten wanted to prove himself right and he was defending his honor,” says Griffin. “People were calling our clubs ‘cheaters.’ And you know Karsten, the Christian man of integrity that he was, he just had to stand up for what he thought was right.”
The fight certainly wasn’t hurting sales, however. In 1985, PING was the top-selling iron in golf with an 18-percent market share. By 1988, that jumped to 28 percent. Over that same period, Hogan dropped from a nearly 15 percent share in ’85 to 5.4 in ’88. Wilson dropped from 13.6 percent to just over nine and MacGregor dropped from seven percent to 5.4.
The legal issues certainly didn’t scare off the competition. By 1987, Tommy Armour came out with the iconic 845s irons. A year later, Hogan launched the legendary Edge irons. Both featured perimeter weighting and low CG and both were designed specifically to compete with the PING Eye 2.
“We had people taking to that technology right away,” says Griffin. “They recognized Karsten’s genius in terms of club design.”
Settlements and Accommodations
PING’s lawsuit with the USGA carried on until 1990 when the two sides reached a deal. They essentially agreed to split the baby. PING would modify its tooling going forward to reflect the USGA’s method of measuring grooves while the USGA agreed to grandfather in PING Eye 2 irons made from 1984 through 1990 that featured the U-shaped grooves.
Oddly, PING never did settle the issue with the R&A. As far as the Royal and Ancient is concerned, any PING Eye 2 with ‘80s-era U-shaped grooves is still non-conforming.
The lawsuit with the PGA TOUR, however, would linger for another three years. A court did order an injunction against the Tour’s square-groove ban but a trial and a potentially ruinous (for the TOUR) anti-trust ruling were looming.
The two sides finally reached an out-of-court settlement in April 1993. There would be no admission of wrongdoing by either side and U-shaped grooves would remain legal on Tour. And the Tour agreed to pay PING’s legal fees.
“By this time, Karsten was in his late 70s,” says Griffin. “It took his time and energy away from working on new things. We had the best-selling golf club in the world. We couldn’t make them fast enough and we had to deal with all this.”
Despite the energy, effort and money spent, Griffin thinks Karsten, if he had to do it over again, would do it the exact same way.
“I don’t think he ever thought about giving in. He knew he was right and he was going to prove it. And he was right.”
Legacy and Unintended Consequences
Whenever OEMs tell us about their new irons, the conversation always turns to perimeter weighting, CG and forgiveness. It’s all the stuff Karsten was doing dating back to the crude PING 69 irons back in 1961.
“He’d feel like, ‘Of course that’s what they’re talking about. That’s the right way to do it,'” says Griffin. “Karsten really taught the golf club industry how to build the modern golf club.”
And loft-jacking? That’s also a Karsten offshoot. Perimeter weighting and low CG increase the launch angle. allowing designers to strengthen lofts. They still get appropriate launch windows and descent angles plus a buttload more distance.
Back in the ’80s, the PING Eye 2 wrapped all that up into one not-so-lovely package. And golfers bought them like crazy.
The PING-USGA lawsuit, however, did have unintended consequences. Many feel the lawsuit and resulting controversy emasculated the USGA as a rule-making body. The theory is that the USGA became gun-shy and let the industry go wild during the ‘90s and into the new century. By failing to develop new rules and regulations that would limit technological advancement, we’re now faced with calls for a ball rollback and bifurcation of the Rules of Golf.
On the other hand, the PING-USGA issue for the first time brought manufacturers and the game’s rule-making body together and forced cooperation. Back in the ‘60s when Karsten had his first run-in with the USGA over a rules change, he learned about it from the media. As Karsten would find out, the USGA didn’t involve manufacturers in rule-making and didn’t let OEMs know about changes.
The PING lawsuit brought both sides to the table for the first time which would lead to a more collaborative relationship.
PING Eye 2 Postscript
The PING Eye 2 was a marvelous product but was it a breakthrough? Instead, consider it a perfect storm: the culmination of Karsten’s 20 years of work on perimeter weighting, low CG, launch, spin and forgiveness.
In reality, it was a nice upgrade over the original Eye. Circumstances, however, had different plans
The groove controversy pushed the PING Eye 2 into legendary status. And when legend becomes fact, we believe the legend. To this day, people believe the Eye 2 had U-shaped grooves from Day One. But for the first three years, it had V-grooves. People also believe Karsten invented U-shaped grooves but you could say the USGA did. And people swear the Eye 2 was deemed non-conforming because pro golfers were spinning the crap out of the ball. They weren’t. PGA TOUR pros, probably influenced by the USGA groove controversy, may have thought PING players had an unfair advantage. But reality says otherwise.
Mark Calcavecchia unwittingly became the poster boy for the spin controversy. It had to be illegal grooves that allowed Calcavecchia to stop the ball on a dime out of the rough at the ’87 Honda Classic, right? It couldn’t be the fact that he launched the ball higher than everyone else and had a steeper descent angle because he was one of the first pros to use a 60-degree lob wedge on Tour.
And let’s not forget that little neck patent that Karsten added to the 1984 PING Eye 2 models. In reality, that may have had more to do with spin than the shape of the groove.
“Over the nine years of the Eye 2, there were over 200 running changes to the club,” says Griffin. “Karsten was an engineer and was always thinking about a better design.”