Niche Companies and Garage Tinkerers – The Third Tier

In Part 2 of this Series we covered the first two tiers of golf club design R&D – the major OEMS and the identity companies. Now we turn our sights to the third tier, the small niche companies and “garage tinkerers”, who almost exclusively deal in the underserved short game area of clubmaking: wedges and putters.

The short game clubs have always been the most interesting design challenge to me – their design performance objectives are so different from those for irons and woods. In fact, the short game clubs are actually more demanding in their breadth of design and the enormous variety of situational challenges where they must perform well – and their impact to your game is nearly twice that of your woods and irons combined!

Yet the short game segment remains largely unexplored with much REAL design work, because development there is no better than a tertiary R&D priority in even the largest OEM golf companies.

Exposed

So… I’m calling BS right here, right now, regarding the golf club design merit of practically all of the smaller boutique CNC milled putter guys and wedge custom grinders – I call them “garage tinkerers” – you guys know who you are.

Few really even know much at all about the designs they are copying, but they have excellent websites with some good techno-babble going and compelling price-equated-with-performance marketing working… there are even some “media darlings” emerging in this group.  

Anyone can put up a website these days with good-looking photography, make specious product claims, and proclaim himself a “master club designer”. Who is checking for real performance and product integrity? What, pray tell, are they checking? Who is measuring performance with meaningful performance parameters?  

These little guys rarely deliver to you a better performing golf club that will give you lower scores, because they in fact know very little about golf club design.  

Heresy, you say? Did he really say that? Absolutely. 

All Bark, No Bite

wedge-grind

It seems most golf club design expertise is now proclaimed far too prematurely (with media accolades, “certificates”, and “master” designations), and in the absence of meaningful assessments for design goodness, we golfers pretty much fall for it.

BUT . . . are you going to spend $500 on a new pimped-out customized CNC milled putter with your initials on it and then admit to your buddies (or your wife who still does not know you bought it) that you liked your old cheaper mallet putter from the big OEM because it seemed to work better? Well, you do look like a “player” at the club now… and your handicap is only about 2 shots higher – it’s probably the greens…

These smaller companies tend to be more about copying old designs and adding fitting and customization offerings than anything else – suggesting to you that many of the design possibilities for short game clubs are really just “personal preference” things – or worse that short game design is a settled matter and is therefore of little significance to you (read instead 2/3 of YOUR GAME!)  

They will also try to pass themselves off as manufacturing excellence leaders, when in fact most do not even understand the basics of golf club manufacturing. What they REALLY have is access to a CNC milling machine or a grinding wheel and a passion for being in golf.

YouTube tutorials are fine for learning furniture re-finishing, but they are a poor substitute for learning the manufacturing of golf clubs in a proper professional setting.  

Let me illustrate my point with a few design issues.  

CASE ONE – PUTTER DESIGN:  

MOI

long-hosel-putter

It is well-accepted conventional wisdom (and indeed correct) that higher MOI putter designs provide greater stability on off-center hits for improved preservation of both direction and energy transferred (line and speed in a putter). This keeps some of your putting mistakes still on line well enough and with correct speed enough to be holed instead of becoming misses. It logically follows then that the more a designer can increase the MOI in one of his putters, the better it will perform (and ultimately produce lower scores for you the user).  

Why then would ANY supposedly knowledgeable putter designer intentionally position club head mass high, forward, and near the center of the club with a hosel construction, when the mass instead needs to be located low, rearward, and maximized in the heel and toe for better MOI performance? Why waste 10-15% of the mass available in a normal 350 grams head weight (and the attendant MOI) with the construction of a HOSEL, when this connection can be accomplished through a relatively weightless bore and shaft attachment?  

A knowledgeable club designer interested in advancing the state of the art by giving you better performing products would not. So, one might deduce that putters with hosel constructions come from putter designers who have NOT yet given very much thought to the essential performance attributes of their product designs.  

Grooved Face

Putter Grooves

Grooved face treatments on putters are alleged to create improved putting accuracy with earlier ball over-spin (ergo, less skidding) off of a putter’s face – another conventional wisdom. Grooves will in fact greatly affect the sound and perceived softness of impact, as will excessively deep CNC face-milling cuts, and they may have some undetermined effect on energy transfer.  

Actually, friction between the ball and some other surface (read “the green” and not the putter clubface with practically NO loft) are what causes over-spin with a putt, so where is the testing on spin rates that confirms this? Where is proof of the “cause and effect” relationship between grooved putter faces and over-spin?  Where are the data even to prove earlier over-spin improves accuracy?  

If it really made a difference, no one would play anything BUT grooved faces competitively, and the performance improvement would be obvious to all of us with lower scores and handicaps and finite quantitative measurements – so, where is the data…?

The real truth is contrary – the sooner a ball begins making contact with the imperfections on the green surface, the sooner it can be knocked off line by one of those imperfections . . . and the sooner too the ball will actually go into an over-spin condition – but due to FRICTION with the putting surface and NOT due to impact with grooves on the minimum loft putter club face.  

The Truth About Putters

cnc-putter-mill

So, I would say to you that customized contemporary CNC-milled copies of 50 year old “blade-style” designs will ALWAYS be poor performers against a modern high MOI, no hosel, face-balanced, mallet design – like you see now becoming ubiquitous in professional golf. Mallets will always perform better than blade style putters. It is physics.

Why then would the big putter companies not make anything but these high MOI face-balanced mallets? There are at least two distressing reasons: 1) for some, they sadly do not know much more about putter design than the player-consumers who buy their products, and 2) for others, rather than go to the trouble of developing measurable performance and technology benefits, they just strive for a “variety” of offerings to suit any consumer’s supposed personal preference – it is much easier, and their sales there compared to woods and irons are quite small (so the status quo seems fine).

And, what authority is objectively and quantitatively measuring the performance of these products anyway? How many “STARS” or “Gold Medals” did your putter get?  A little sarcasm here regarding the shallowness of media reviews.  

Another huge problem here is that much of this customization in short game clubs from the “garage tinkerers” goes far beyond consumer preference – it reaches deeply into design attributes that greatly affect performance! Think about that… what looks cool to your eye might actually be detracting from the performance of your putter.  

CASE TWO – WEDGE DESIGN:  

 

The “wedge grinders” would have you believe the basic design attributes of wedges are so well settled that they can “fit” a sole “grind” choice to your swing, and you will be armed with the best short game equipment possible for your game. Did you ever read the shallow explanations of what these “grinds” are allegedly doing for you?  

Bounce

What happens when that meticulously fitted high-bounce “digger grind” of yours encounters the need to play a lob shot from a tight lie? Or how about a bunker explosion from firm sand? We are not playing Bridge here, so you cannot just “pass” instead of playing that particular shot!  

What if Control and Situational Versatility were really the design attributes of paramount importance for a wedge – instead of sole grinds or player fitting?  

Shafts

And how about shafts for wedges? What really are the correct design characteristics of a shaft for wedge play? Multiple choice . . . should it be: 1) shaft design set-matched to your irons, or 2) shaft design customized for your full swing impact vectors, or 3) shaft design optimized for the situational demands of short game play? (Hint: the correct answer for all of us is ALWAYS 3.)

And those are just a few easy to follow examples.

“Sir, can I see some ID”

We hear regularly about or “Master Club Designers” and “Certified Fitters”… where do these guys get these credentials? Does the golf media anoint them in some secret ceremony at the Orlando Golf Show each year? Is there some exclusive school in New England they attend? Or do they create their certifications with graphics packages on their laptops?

Is “craftsmanship” then really the answer? Or is it at best only a PART of the “manufacturing execution” answer? How about the other two “legs” of the stool example – design and fitting? Should we not resolve the many very basic unanswered golf club DESIGN problems FIRST, before proceeding to ANY next questions regarding the issues of manufacturing execution or fitting?

The real truth (but apparently less than obvious) is that at some point the performance goodness of a golf club design will absolutely affect your score – either positively or negatively! It will manifest itself with a putt that drops in the side of the hole instead of lipping out – or a fairway hit instead of missed in the rough – or a green hit instead of a buried lie in a bunker – or a wedge shot you cannot even contemplate playing because of the limitations of your custom sole “grind”.  

These situations take part in driving your score. The damage to your score is greatly mitigated by better golf club designs, but you generally do not know when these scoring situations develop (positively or negatively) as a result of golf club design – you just suffer the consequences, add one to your score, and play on.

Clearly, golf club design objectives should differ enormously for the different product categories. Yet, the industry cannot even agree on basic performance measurement criteria, much less design objectives!  

Where’s the Data

How does one measure the performance of a wedge or putter anyway? Is it the extent of its decoration? Better FEEL? What is FEEL anyway? How does FEEL translate into lower scores? How do you measure it? Is it about excessive spin (until we suck the ball back off the green) or lowered ball flight (until we finally are hitting it knee-high bullets)? Both excessive spin and lower ball flight actually complicate distance control and predictability enormously! Ever “lag pennies” with high spin and lower flight as a kid? How many pennies did you get home with?  

Balls thrown by hand to a target instinctively have a high trajectory and NO spin – does that suggest anything?

And how do we measure performance for putters? By how quickly they roll the ball? By how much decoration they have? By how much of their construction is CNC-milled?  

It is instead quantitative measurements of “proximity to the hole with first attempts from a variety of shot-making situations” that will tell us all we really need to know about performance for BOTH short game clubs – wedges and putters.

So, I’m calling BS on the design credibility of the great majority of these niche and “garage tinkerer” guys! You should too, as the consumer who is overpaying for this under-designed techno-babble.  
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