Talking Points A Plenty

Today, PING unveiled their new Heppler putter line and to say there is a lot going on is an understatement. It’s pretty rare to see a putter release from any company contain so many design twists and turns. Some of those elements are obvious while others, though significant, require a closer look.

This putter release reads like a script for a TV drama. You have immediate intrigue with the unfamiliar Heppler name, obvious plot elements with the copper and black color scheme, and then the big technology twist once you notice that PING’s characteristic TR grooves are nowhere to be found. Such a stunning reveal!

As you can see, we have all kinds of things to talk about. It probably makes the most sense to start with the name.

Heppler: Not a What, but a Who

Rick Heppler (1949 – 2013) was one of PING’s original employees. In 1966, before PING was even incorporated, Rick began working for John Solheim (current PING Chairman & CEO) building golf clubs in the Solheim family’s garage. During his tenure, he managed numerous departments within PING. He also served in the U.S. Army Reserve. – PING Facebook post, 2013

I admit that when I first saw the name, I misread it as “Helper.” I even went as far in my internal monologue to say, “What a great name to let golfers know that this putter is here to help.”

And, yes, I frequently daydream about putter things. After being married for almost 25 years, my wife has learned that asking me what I am thinking about will frequently lead to disappointing answers about Ansers.

As you now know from the quote above, Heppler is not referring to some scientific concept, e.g., the “Heppler Effect.” However, that path of erroneous thinking does get us to the solution. You may know of the Doppler effect, but did you know that Doppler was a person? As was Heppler.

During his career at PING, Heppler worked in about every job that was available: manufacturing, marketing, and more. He was a good friend of the Solheim family and it is such a classic PING thing to pay homage to him.

Copper Next To Black, Friend of Jack

No, that’s not really how the coral snake rhyme goes and, seriously, who is going to get close enough to a possibly venomous snake to look at its banding pattern? The snake’s color pattern is bold so as to deliver a strong message of potential danger, i.e., don’t get closer to look more carefully.

The Heppler line’s bold copper and black look will surely grab coral snake-like attention in the putter corral but these colors are intended to be welcoming, not warning. Why these colors? Very simply, PING’s research determined that customers liked the copper color the best.

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An important point about the coloring is that these are just that, colors. The copper and black tones are not associated with specific metals, meaning that the copper is copper paint, not copper metal. These putters are steel and aluminum (more on that later) but the copper and black colors do not associate with either of those metals. On some putters, the copper color is steel, on others aluminum. Putter head design dictates the metals and the colors are added after.

For example, on the new version of the Ketsch, the black area is aluminum, with steel being copper colored. On the Anser 2, both the copper and the black parts of the putter are steel. The coloring is cosmetic.

One thing that I couldn’t help associating with some of the Heppler putters is their parallels with the now-abandoned Odyssey Versa color system. A few of these putters, like the Anser 2 and ZB3, have their colored sections perpendicular to the target line, like Versa did, and could provide added, probably unintended, alignment assistance. Versa similarities disappear once you get into the larger mallet putters.

New Metals and Methods

Most consumers won’t realize, and likely wouldn’t care anyway, that the Heppler putters are the first line built using PING’s new aluminum pressure-casting system. If materials are not your bag, feel free to scroll forward, but the story here is actually pretty cool, and very classic PING.

The advantage of pressure casting is we can achieve highly precise design details while allowing our engineers much greater freedom to position weight where it benefits the putter’s performance the most. As a result, we improved the performance of existing models and developed two entirely new designs. -John Solheim

Engineering drives equipment at PING. That statement has been validated over the years in everything from drivers to putters. Most consumers won’t know it but manufacturing these putters was only possible after PING developed a whole new pressure-casting system for making aluminum putter heads. Most of the aluminum putters we have seen in the marketplace, not just from PING, are milled 6061 aluminum. For all designs, incorporating aluminum expands putter design possibilities but the fact that aluminum needed to be milled made the process slow and costly.

PING’s new aluminum system is mold-based, with liquid aluminum filling a mold, much like how cast steel putters are manufactured. PING definitely spent a bunch of money on R&D for this system but the end product/putter can be made faster and at a lower cost than a milled aluminum putter. In ballpark numbers, the new casting system can produce a putter head about every 20 seconds, whereas fully milling a putter from an aluminum billet could take well over thirty minutes.

So far, PING has not found any significant property differences in the milled vs. cast aluminum and they are very excited about the design avenues  this new production method opens up. Incorporation of aluminum gives designers a greater range of possibilities in terms of manipulating MOI and center of gravity characteristics.

PING has been making innovative products for 50 years with cast steel, so it will be interesting to see how cast aluminum changes their design landscape.

Improved Adjustable Shaft

With last year’s Sigma 2 line, PING introduced a completely new take on their adjustable putter shaft. PING has offered an adjustable shaft for a number of years but the big silver locking ring was ugly, a pain to use, and never really caught on.

The Sigma 2 adjustment system was pretty revolutionary, providing significant length adjustment possibility with all of the adjustment apparatus hidden under the grip area. One little turn of a wrench in the grip hole was all it took to dial in the correct length. It was a great boon for golf shops as well as they no longer needed to stock multiple lengths of a given putter.

Feedback on that shaft was positive in terms of adjustment but some found the shaft to play a little soft. To address this, PING has developed a new version of the adjustable shaft. All of the mechanisms are still out of view but by altering some of the carbon fiber elements, PING has come up with a new adjustable shaft that is stiffer and also looks to have improved durability.

Heaps of Heppler Heads

Head selection for a new line must be a fun, but maddening, process at PING. On one hand, you have the perennial favorites that customers want and that you have provide because selling putters is good for a putter-making business.. On the other hand, rolling out the same heads release after release would be stale for consumers and, I’d wager, for putter engineers as well.

The nine heads in the Heppler line are a mix of classics, new takes on classics, and brand-new designs. Though a bit light in the blade department, there really should be a Heppler putter for every golfer’s stroke. There are a couple of models that I find particularly interesting.

Heppler Ketsch

While the Ketsch and I have never really gotten along on the green, watching it dominate Most Wanted testing definitely earns it a badge of honor in my putter hierarchy. The story of the original Ketsch and its descendants was really one of alignment. The Ketsch’s alignment scheme allows most golfers, myself excluded, to aim the putter accurately.

When you look at the bottom of the Ketsch, you can really see what the new materials process has allowed PING to accomplish. The original Ketsch has a centrally located steel sole plate, surrounded by the aluminum body. The Heppler Ketsch is almost the exact opposite. The steel is still down low, helping to keep the center of gravity low, but now it is also toward the perimeter, greatly boosting the MOI.

With the new materials in the Heppler Ketsch, PING has been able to really manipulate MOI values for the Ketsch and other putters. I mean really manipulate them. The Heppler Ketsch has a MOI value that is double the MOI of the Vault 2 Ketsch and 88% higher than the original Most Wanted winning Ketch. So you’ve boosted the forgiveness while retaining the effective targeting system? That seems like a putter worth looking into.

Tomcat 14

PING will typically throw an “out there” design into their releases. That’s actually where the Ketsch came from back in 2014. This time around, that putter is the Tomcat 14. Naturally, parallels will be drawn between this putter and other “Into The Spider-verse” designs, and I see that. However, it shouldn’t be a surprise that PING has some other experimental elements going on with this one as well.

The “14” in the name comes from the 14 alignment dots on the top. When you take out your ruler, you’ll see the lines toward the rear of the putter are closer together than those on the face. Inspiration for this comes from airport runway landing lights where, although they are all equally spaced on the ground, the spacing becomes distorted during takeoff and landing, imparting different targeting visuals to the pilot. Will this help your putting? PING has some eye-tracking data that suggests that it will but how it performs in the wild and how consumers respond to the dots remains to be seen.

The 50/50 steel and aluminum construction on the Tomcat 14 also establishes it as the highest MOI putter in the line, again demonstrating the new design freedoms delivered by the new aluminum casting production methods.

It will be interesting to see how the Tomcat 14 is received by the golf consumer and to see how it performs in the Most Wanted testing. I believe PING shares this curiosity and knows its different appearance can be initially off putting. The scuttlebutt is that most people like it a whole lot more after they actually roll balls with it. Based upon my experiences rolling the Tomcat 14, I think that the scuttlebutt is accurate. “Weird, but works” would be my initial three-word assessment.

Not Very Groovy, Baby

And so we get to the big surprise of the Heppler line: these putters have smooth faces. Yep, there is not a TR groove to be found. The Heppler faces are reminiscent of older PING putter faces from their pre-TR production era. The question, naturally, is why? PING spent a lot of time and money letting us know that the TR grooves were there to help us. And now they are gone?

PING’s motivation behind the new face design was to produce a putter with a firmer feel and a different sound. As soon as you add texture to a putter face, you make it feel softer. Increase the texture and you increase that softness, possibly hitting the point when it is perceived as too soft.

That was the feedback PING was receiving from some of their tour players. They felt they had better control and improved feedback with the flat face. Curious to see if anything was verifiable through experimentation, PING tested the TR-grooved Sigma 2 face vs. the flat face of the Heppler.

PING found the strokes-gained numbers were similar for the two faces, although testers did get their scores in different ways. Players using the Heppler face tended to be more aggressive, resulting in more one-putts but also more three-putts. The Sigma 2 data didn’t produce as many one-putts but the second putt was statistically closer than the flat-faced second putt. Overall, since the results were so similar, it seems a reasonable hypothesis that the Heppler’s  boost in MOI could be compensating for the loss of the Sigma2’s TR grooves.

Short story: both designs seem to work but in different ways and perhaps each best fits a different style of golfer.

A Sigma 2 Complement, not Replacement

The final thing about the new Heppler line, one that makes sense after hearing about the testing vs. the Sigma 2 line, is that the Heppler putters will not be replacing the Sigma 2 putters in the marketplace but rather running parallel to them. This gives the consumer a hard and soft option when it comes to feel.

While this does sound like the PING section of your putter corral will need to be expanded to accommodate so many putters, remember the adjustable shaft allows retailers to carry lots of different models without needing to stock multiple lengths.

My overall feeling about the Heppler is that it is an authentic reflection of PING’s experimental philosophy. With Heppler, PING has produced a whole line of putters based upon brand-new production methods, incorporated multiple materials into new designs, and abandoned a demonstrably effective putter technology in order to try something new. Sum it all up and it sounds like we are all in the middle of the experimental phase of the Scientific Method that we learned back in high school. Let the data collection begin.

You can pre-order the new PING Heppler line in your local shop today with a MSRP of $245 for the Anser 2, ZB3, and Piper C models, and $270 for the others. Click on over to PING to find out more details as well.