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Little Shop Of Hope

Phillys Izett Golf, the oldest continuous (custom-clubfitting company in the( U.S., has both a rich history and a( state-of-the-art knack for helping golfers.

George Izett in his shop

George G. Izett (right) and partner Mike Morrison maintain the attention to detail Izett's dad was famous for.

March 17, 2014

The year was 1937, and Sam Snead couldn't find a fairway. A siege of the lefts had him shadowed by despair. Henry Picard, Snead's fellow Hall-of-Famer-to-be, understood these things. Watching The Slammer struggle on the range at the Los Angeles Open, he stepped in.

"I've got an Izett driver in my car that might be the answer for you," advised Pic, and if the clubcrafted by George Izett, a transplanted Scot who'd set up shop around Philadelphiafit, he'd make Sam a deal. The stiffness of the shaft and the heaviness of the head were precise remedies for Snead's fast hands and rocket-like movement.

It was love at first swing.

Snead didn't win that week, but he did a week later in Oakland, and again at the Bing Crosby. By then, Snead would have handed Picard the keys to his treasury; Picard accepted the $5.50 he'd paid Izett and called it square. For more than 20 years Snead and that 8-degree driver were inseparable; no nick, crack, bruiseor contract with Wilsoncould come between them. Together, they won three Masters, three PGA Championships, a British Open and pretty much everything else.

"That No. 1 wood," Snead later wrote, "was the single greatest discovery I ever made in golf and put me on the road to happy times." Amazingly, so many decades later, that roadat the junction of history and hope a mere traffic light from Merion GCstill leads directly to Izett's door.

As a golfer, I can be accused of many things, but a handle on the equipment I manhandle is not one of them. I cling to my old Hogans like Scrooge, my woods and hybrids are a hodgepodge, and while I once went through a formal fitting, it was 15 minutes out of a cart from a manufacturer's rep who promised Valhalla if I switched to his wares. I didn't.

But a couple of recent encounters with rental clubs suggested I might be missing something. I sought counsel from a trusted Solon in my regular foursome. He never hesitated. "Izett's," he assured me. "They'll fix you." Izett's?

"But they've been around forever," I demurred. "Aren't they, well, old school?" He smiled. "You have no idea."

In my trips around the neighborhood, how many times had I passed the unobtrusive stucco building with frosted windows and the "George Izett Custom Golf Clubs" sign out front? But without truly understanding what the Izett name has signified for more than 80 years, the door was just another door. Until I opened it.

And stepped backward and forward through time.

Dizzyingly.

Near the entrance, there is a display of finished woodswood woodsso polished I need sunglasses. Around a corner, bins of latent persimmon heads, likely never to be shaped. And there, a box of what may be the last extant ram's-horn insertslike the one Izett used to repair Bobby Jones' driver on the eve of the 1930 U.S. Amateuron the planet. And over there, remnants of the wee steel mill once used for casting irons. And there, a bag room of the latest modelsfrom the '30s and '40s. And down there, implements ancient and modern awaiting new life, because over there, on walnut tables that Izett and his partner Wilfred Bailey schlepped to Ardmore in 1946 from their previous shop on Philadelphia's Chestnut Street, are the well-worn vises, drills, protractors and punches of a clubmaker's craft.

All of that spoke of permanence, tradition and even wisdom passed on, but there was more. In another room, the latest graphite shaftsall makes, all modelshang on a wall beside a practice net and a computer connected to two clubs (driver and 5-iron) that comprise a piece of equipment made years ago by True Temper. It's called the Shaft Lab, and for the next several hours, I'm its rat.

Every year about 400 golfers from national champions (Jay Sigel) to dubs (me) come to Izett's, anointed by Golf Digest as one of the 100 best clubfitters in the land, to be assessed, counseled, nursed and tweaked in search of the right equipment. The $150 soup-to-nuts core fitting for driver through putter takes between two-and-a-half and four hours and is unlike most in the world of demo days, fitting carts and launch monitors. Like Izett's, the Shaft Lab is old school, but if the longest continuously running, family-operated clubmaker in the nation stakes its very good name on it, I'll at least pay attention.

"To stay alive," says 63-year-old George G. Izett, son of the founder who took over after his father, George M., died in 1980, "we've had to keep reinventing ourselves."

Spanning the era from hickory to Aldila, George M. Izett was a whiz at reinvention. Born in 1906, he learned his trade at North Berwick under Ben Sayers, one of the game's premier clubmakers, before sailing to America in 1928 to work for Ben's son, George, the head pro at Merion. By 1933 Izett was head pro at Seaview GC on the New Jersey shore. Two years later, he opened Izett Hand Made Golf Clubs in Haverford, tooling lines of implements for Wanamaker's department store and area pro shopslike Picard's at Hershey. After Wanamaker's (Rodman Wanamaker was instrumental in starting the PGA Championship, whose trophy bears his name) opted out of the wholesale golf business, Izett teamed with Bailey, the manager of Wanamaker's sporting goods department, to form Bailey & Izett in 1941 with a shop in Philadelphia's Center City. In 1946 Izett found the building in Ardmore not far from his home; the company has been there ever since.

Lean as a whippet and exacting as a saber's edge, Izett wrapped himself in the game's thrall. "Dad was lucky," says his son. "His work was his passion and his passion was his hobby." A solid player, he wasn't much for small talk. He was a master of his craft who let the quality of his work speak for him.

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