February 6, 2010

My Shot: Scotty Cameron

Photographed Oct. 27, 2005, at the Scotty Cameron Putter Studio in San Marcos, Calif.

Photographed Oct. 27, 2005, at the Scotty Cameron Putter Studio in San Marcos, Calif.

Age 43 San Diego, CA

I custom-make three to four putters a year for Tiger. He wants backups. They're almost identical, but because I make them by hand, they aren't exact duplicates. Tiger likes a little dot on top of the putter, which I insert with a drill bit and then fill with paint. One day I get a call from Tiger. He says one of the dots on one of the putters is bigger than the others. I check them, and sure enough he's right — it was too big by an almost immeasurable margin, about the thickness of a piece of paper. It so happens that every drill bit wobbles imperceptibly. I haven't made a putter for him since without that little dot on my mind.

As great as many quality putters were and are, I always thought it odd that the dots or sightlines on top of them weren't always directly above the sweet spot. Golfers who instinctively used the sightline as a guide wound up not getting results from what was actually a great putter.

There are people who aren't sure that Scotty Cameron is a real person. I'd like them to know I'm not a fictitious commercial character like Mr. Clean, but on the other hand I don't want to be a public person. So I convey my presence through my creations.

You don't want your eyes directly over the ball at address. That's a myth. It causes you to align your eyes to the left, and consequently you take the putter back to the outside. Most people stand too far from the ball, which is worse: You naturally look too far to the right, the clubhead is too upright and aimed to the left and you take the putter back to the inside. The perfect setup is one where your eyes are one inch inside the target line when you look down, below the tops of your eyebrows.

I operate in a world about five inches wide and a couple of feet long. That's the size of a putter's path back and through the ball, and when the club contacts the ball that world gets a lot smaller, and very fast. The putter doesn't have a lot of speed when it contacts the ball, but the dynamics of what happens are still much too fast for the naked eye to discern. That's why I use high-speed video.

A large sweet spot will improve the quality of your misses, but no matter how large the sweet spot is, a miss is still a miss. Any time you miss the exact center of the clubface, you're going to lose something. That's why there's a trend among the best putters away from the large, forgiving putters. When a great pro like Phil Mickelson misses from 10 feet, he wants to know immediately if it was his stroke, a misread or if he missed the center of the clubface.

If football is a game of inches, what do you call golf?

Research shows that sound has more to do with feel than feel itself. By far it's the No. 1 source of feedback. I can give you three identical-looking putters with varying face thicknesses so they impart different sounds, and after testing them there's a 99 percent chance you'll tell me one of them is clearly the best in terms of feel. If I gave you a set of earplugs, had you hit putts and then asked which was the putter you loved so much, you wouldn't have a clue.

There's athleticism in putting. There's touch and feel, of course, but where it comes into play is in the ability to adapt. Tiger came to the studio one day. He wasn't happy with his putting. He found his shoulders were aligned a little left of the target, which caused him to take his putter back outside the line or with the face open and then steer it through impact. He couldn't release the putter, or he'd pull the putt to the left. He squared up his shoulders, which is a big adjustment to make. Tiger's first putt after the change missed. The rest were perfect. One putt was all it took for Tiger to adapt to a huge change in his technique. He might be the best athlete I've ever worked with, and I've worked with a lot.

What's the next breakthrough in putters and what we know about putting itself? I'm on the verge of something that will show the player exactly what should happen during the ideal putting stroke, along with clear direction on whether you're achieving it. Is it a putter? A training aid? An analyzing device? I won't elaborate, except to say that it will alter the future of putting and markedly improve the ability of golfers as a whole.

I have a studio, but I don't have an office within the studio. If I need to use the phone, I pick up one in the room I'm in. If I need to write, there's always a desk nearby. When we moved into this studio in 2004, I somehow was given a desk and chair, and it freaked me out. I got rid of them the same day. The worst place for me to be is sitting down anywhere.

Fixing something as basic as your posture has a big trickle-down effect. Watch Ernie Els closely when he comes back from the injury that put him out for the better part of the past year. After coming to the studio he started standing taller. That meant he needed a longer putter, a 36-inch model instead of 35 inches. By switching to a longer shaft, we had to take some weight out of the clubhead to keep the swingweight from being six points higher. For Ernie it feels like the same putter.

The price points on my putters are relatively high, but you aren't just buying performance. You're buying confidence. It's human nature to have greater faith in something you've paid a premium for. On the other hand, the putters I make had better deliver, because if a $5 putter you grab out of a barrel performs better than a putter that costs $275, we both know which one you'll pick.

I don't believe the greatest minds in clubmaking today are any more innovative than the best minds of 40 years ago. Before Karsten Solheim came along, there were blade putters and mallet putters. I can't fathom what went through his mind when he created the Ping Anser putter, which was so radical for its time that players were self-conscious about trying it. Karsten has been gone for some time now, and I can only wonder what he would design today with current technology and materials, high-speed cameras and so on. Picking up where men like Karsten left off is a big challenge.

My favorite product of all time is probably the Schwinn Sting-Ray bicycles from the mid-'60s up through the '70s. There's one sitting at the top of the stairs in my studio, a Pea Picker model that has several gears, shock absorbers, stick shift and fat rear tire. I never tire of looking at it. The craftsmanship, style, durability and functionality of these things blow my mind to this day. It's a genius work of art, but at the same time, when I look at it I think of how Schwinn fell from No. 1 in the industry to merely one of many companies.

Scotty Cameron

er faith in something you've

paid a premium for. On the

other hand, the putters I make

had better deliver.'

Is my Newport putter a takeoff on the Ping Anser? Of course it is. Is the American Classic similar to the Bulls Eye? Certainly. But is it wrong to take off on their original designs and try to make them better? Absolutely not. Schwinn didn't invent the bicycle, but I dare you to call the Grey Ghost model a knockoff. My approach to putter design is the same.

One day I saw a pair of wild-looking golf shoes left over from the early '70s. They were high-top shoes, similar in design to basketball shoes, only leather and designed for golf. Since they were in good condition, I put them in the lobby of our studio as a lark. When Lanny Wadkins, Tom Kite and other players from that era came through the front doors and saw them, they stopped in their tracks. They fawned over the shoes and reminisced about the bell-bottom slacks, wide belts, bat-wing collars, shoes with buckles and so on from the old days. These crazy shoes, which I paid $1 for, provided a portal to a great time in their lives. It reinforced how a simple physical object can touch something deep within a person. When I design a putter, I want it to evoke something, so that through it the golfer can feel a connection of some kind. That's what art does.

There's a restaurant near my office called Nacho's Taco Shop. It's a small place but wildly popular. There's a line out the door at lunch, and I've ordered takeout there for Hal Sutton, Robert Gamez, Mark O'Meara and many others. Now, the owner could open five franchises tomorrow and be very successful, but he refuses to do that. He dominates his niche in the marketplace, he's the best at what he does and he has control over every facet of the operation. Could I branch off into wedges and drivers? I suppose I could, but Nacho's Taco Shop is a breathing example of why I should stay focused on what I know best.

I designed some headcovers to be circulated on the PGA Tour only. Some of my other headcovers had been embroidered with a circle-"C", but to make sure the tour-only headcovers didn't get placed in the wrong box when we shipped them, I rather quickly substituted a letter "T" inside the circle. Shortly thereafter the Titleist tour rep, Larry Watson, phoned to say the circle-T headcovers were in unusually large demand. He called again a week later to say the headcovers now were so popular they were getting stolen. We found a price that the market would bear and started selling them. They're a big hit. Sometimes you get lucky.

Closed minds lead to closed opportunities.

I've heard the notion that there's too much weight given to putting, that it accounts for too many of the strokes in a round of golf. Gene Sarazen tried enlarging the hole one time, and someone even suggested that a putt count as only half a stroke. But count me with those who think the balance is just right. It's working out well for me.

I wish croquet-style putting were allowed. I suspect it would make putting marginally easier, because you'd see the line the way you see things in everyday life.

When Phil Mickelson turned pro, he used a blade putter that would close to the left when he placed it on the ground at address. Most putters are like that; they rotate to the left because of the way the sole is ground. To get the face square, Phil would forward press before the stroke. But the forward press decreased the loft of the putter. So he switched to a putter with more loft. When Phil changed his stroke by getting rid of the forward press, it meant he didn't need the extra loft anymore, so he switched putters. But the style of putter wasn't for him, so he switched again, to the model he has now. It's a blade putter I made for him, one with the sole milled in such a way that the face doesn't close to the left when you set it down at address. Phil's evolution is very typical. Most of the changes a golfer makes with his stroke are a result of the putter, not your technique.

It's fun to be creative. There's a putter named Double Trouble. It's a two-player model consisting of a symmetrical clubhead with two shafts emanating from the heel and toe, so two people facing each other are controlling the same putter. I invented it as a team-building exercise for meetings and conferences. The challenge is to see how many 20-foot putts the two players can hole in two minutes. After each putt the players are required to switch sides, so they hit the same number of putts left- and right-handed. The players have to be on the same page in terms of rhythm, tempo and timing to putt the ball toward the hole. It's fun to do, hysterical to watch and emphasizes the importance of having two minds think as one.

We do a nice business in refinishing putters even though I'll only refinish Scotty Cameron putters. When one comes in — the one I'm holding seems to have been fished out of a lake — I can instantly tell exactly when it was made, due to a dot, a line, a certain leather grip or type of finish. My memory is very selective; I've been known to forget my phone number. But hand me a putter I made for Lee Trevino five years ago, and I'll tell you everything about it.