Nick Price knows a good putter when he gets his hands on one, and he clearly enjoyed his honeymoon with the Fat Lady Swings. Price, who won the 1994 PGA championship by six strokes right after he started using the club, held up the trophy and said, "If Bobby Grace [the club's designer] were here right now, I'd kiss him."
Price proved you can make a lot of money using a putter, but there wasn't always a lot of money to be made building them. Most golfers are more concerned about being the last person in the group to hit their second shot, which is why so many have the latest titanium-headed, graphite-shafted driver in the same bag as a putter they bought at a yard sale and declared magic after rolling in one 30-footer.
So manufacturers tended to build drivers for dough and putters as an afterthought.
Space-age technology has caught up with the most beloved/maligned of clubs, however, and the industry is now flexing its considerable research-and-development and marketing arms to come out with the latest and greatest.
Callaway, which has revolutionized and dominated the market on woods without so much as killing a single tree, recently paid Armour Golf $130 million for Odyssey, the putter that produced the most victories on all four U.S.-based professional tours (PGA, LPGA, Senior PGA and Nike) in 1996 and '97.
The newest spin on putters is the face insert, popularized by Odyssey, which has been building clubs with high-tech polymer inserts since its inception in 1990. The softer material creates a softer feel when the ball comes off the putter face, and many golfers swear it gives them a better touch on the greens.
TearDrop Golf is making some inroads with its putters with convex faces that are supposed to reduce skid and backspin. And everyone knows it's all about overspin.
Six players at last month's South Florida Classic Nike Tour stop used TearDrop putters.
At the PGA's Phoenix Open last month, 51 pros were using Titleist putters, 30 Odyssey and 29 Ping. The three combined for 110 of the 132 players entered.
But scientific advancements seldom come cheap and all this new roll control is expensive. Three-figure prices are common.
The Scotty Cameron Titleist putter Tiger Woods used to win the Masters retails for about $240. Maruman's new Majesty putter-- with a "Liquidmetal" insert made of titanium and zirconium--is majestically priced at $1,000. Grace, having joined forces with Cobra Golf, makes a custom putter that sells for $1,400.
Karsten Solheim, whose company name, Ping, was derived from the noise one of his earliest putters made when striking the ball, is credited with revolutionizing the golf club industry with his radical-looking, perimeter-weighted irons.
Actually, the idea behind the design of the Ping irons was a direct extension of his earlier heel-and-toe balanced putters. Solheim built the first putters in his garage in Redwood City, Calif.
On Jan. 14, 1966, he drew the design of the Anser model--which since has been used to win more professional tournaments than any putter in history--on the dust jacket of a phonograph record.
"It was very extreme looking, way before it's time," said Dan Kubica, director of club development at Karsten Manufacturing. "There were a lot of blade putters back then, some mallets. But it was the feel of the putter, the way it lined up so well and, of course, the balance that made it so popular."
Now, any time a golfer wins a pro event with a Ping putter, Solheim has two gold-plated versions of the putter made with the player's name and the event etched on the face. One goes to the player, one goes into the "vault" (a closet adjacent to Solheim's office), which has become a veritable Ft. Knox with more than 1,700 putters.
Only Solheim has more than Seve Ballesteros, who has 44 gold- plated Ansers.
What Solheim's putters had that the blades and mallets of the time didn't was a higher moment of inertia, which in duffer's terms means the putter resists twisting when the ball is mis-hit. Without the twist, the ball tends to roll almost the same distance as if it were struck right in the sweet spot. And everyone knows putting is all about speed and distance.
A few holdouts prefer tradition to technology, most notably Ben Crenshaw, considered by many to have the best putting stroke ever.
Crenshaw has always used a blade putter, leaving many to wonder how good he'd be on the greens if he took advantage of advances in putter design.
But all good putters aren't pros.
Golf magazine surveyed the 163 finalists--67 amateurs, 60 playing pros, 36 club pros--who made it to the inaugural Compaq World Putting Championships last year. Finalists making it through qualifying tournaments entered by thousands included 13-year-old Derek Penman of Salt Lake City, who made the final cut by beating more than a dozen touring pros.