December 21, 2009

Wedge Man

Above all, the groove rule means wedges, and the name most associated with wedges belongs to Bob Vokey, a 70-year-old eager to greet the challenge

Master Craftsman: "Voke," as he is known to friends, including many tour pros who swear by his designs, is still striving to make the perfect wedge.

Master Craftsman: "Voke," as he is known to friends, including many tour pros who swear by his designs, is still striving to make the perfect wedge.

He never saw this coming, the Vokey brand, but then how could he? Prognostication has never been a strong suit. When he was shown a metal driver for the first time, he sneered. A driving-range club, he called it. Graphite shafts? Not a chance. Titanium clubheads? Too expensive.

"So how'd I do?" asks Bob Vokey, a graduate of the old school, mocking himself needlessly. Really, how could he have seen anything, least of all the future, through protective shop glasses, with his head down and his nose always to the grindstone, giving life to a cliché?

Vokey, 70, is standing in the hub of his universe, the shop floor at Titleist's club facility in Carlsbad, Calif. His gravelly voice is barely audible above the din -- the sound track for his life story, which has played out largely in machine shops. He is surrounded by wedges, hundreds of them, each one bearing his name. Vokey calls them Titleist wedges, golfers call them Vokeys, and reconciling the distinction has been disquieting for him.

A PGA Tour caddie recently asked whether Vokey thought about the fact that when he dies his name will live on? "I've thought about the dying part," Vokey says softly, his trademark ebullience momentarily retreating. In fall 2008, when cancer claimed one of his kidneys, it wasn't his immortality that he was considering.

Only after surgeons had restored his health would he reluctantly begin to recognize and appreciate what his handiwork has accomplished -- turning this native Canadian, the humble son of a tool-and-dye maker, into one of the game's first (or last) names in wedges.

What's in a name, anyway? He is more familiarly known as "Voke" to those with whom he is close, including a large number of PGA Tour players, most of whom have at one time or another relied on his skill at a grinding wheel to fine-tune their scoring clubs. "You're looking good, Voke," Tiger Woods said to him earlier this year, setting him up for a punch line. "I sure hope I have your body at 96."

Around the PGA Tour, Vokey is more popular than a courtesy car. "He's just a lovable guy," Zach Johnson says. "I've got uncles, and he's just like another uncle."

Vokey has an eye for detail and an obsession with getting it right that may or may not require a defibrillator in the event someone thinks he doesn't. Johnson recalls missing the cut at the Zurich Classic in 2006, then moving on to the Wachovia Championship, where he encountered a visibly flustered Vokey with some new wedges for him. Turns out, according to Johnson, that the Darrell Survey recorded his playing another wedge brand and got it wrong.

"I almost had a heart attack," Vokey says.

He's a perfectionist, says friend and former Titleist tour representative Steve Mata, who once asked a similarly possessed actor, Clint Eastwood, what he thought was the best movie he ever made. "I haven't done it yet," Eastwood replied.

"That's the same with Voke," Mata says. "There's nothing good enough for him. He hasn't come out with a perfect wedge yet, in his mind."

Vokey's disciples might argue otherwise, among them Steve Stricker, who has been using the same Vokey design since 2000.

"He really listens to the player," Stricker says. "That's a big key. He listens and will make whatever club you want." He'll listen for hours, if necessary, often in a practice bunker, as he's been known to do with short-game virtuoso Brad Faxon.

For Vokey, better to err on the side of discontent to fend off complacency, not that his upbringing would ever allow him to lay down on the job. His late father Walter's admonitions still resonate, more than a half century later. When he was knocked to the ice in a youth hockey game, for instance, he heard Walter's voice bellow: "Get your freakin' ass up, Vokey. Get back in the game." "I didn't realize until many years later that my dad was teaching me that in life, if you get knocked down, you get right back up," Vokey says.

Walter provided his son a summer job at his machine shop in Montreal and gave him the grunt work, his idea of a stay-in-school campaign. Vokey wanted to quit, but an exhaustive summer heightened the appeal of a classroom, while imbuing in him a work ethic that promised prosperity in due time.

Vokey's father had a passion for golf that Bob did not yet share. He preferred football instead, even playing professionally in 1964, as a punter for the Quebec Rifles of the ­United Football League. When the league folded, Vokey chose to follow a French-Canadian siren with whom he was smitten to Southern California, using his job with a telephone company (he was a PBX phone installer) as his passport to the United States and eventually to citizenship.

The romance, incidentally, dissolved, but another soon replaced it. In sunnier climes he developed an affection for golf, though ultimately he concluded he was better at working with clubs than swinging them. His job and he were less chummy; they parted ways soon after a stranger with whom he had struck up a conversation in a bar offered him a shot of wisdom to go with his beer.

"Son," the man said, "if you don't like what you're doing, quit, or you'll never be a success."

In 1976 Vokey opened Bob's Custom Golf Shop in the north San Diego County town of Fallbrook. Four years later, when his business outgrew his space, he moved into a 1,300-square-foot shop in Vista, adjacent to Carlsbad. He eked out a living, partially because the attic in his shop had room for a cot, saving him the cost of an apartment.

Another fledgling business in the area called TaylorMade meanwhile had introduced a newfangled metal driver that had a growing appeal on the PGA Tour. Harry Taylor, a part-time player, was conscripted to start a tour department but lacked a craftsman to build its clubs. By the mid-1980s he found Vokey.

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"Voke was just a fun, good guy right off the bat," Taylor says. "He was a very service-oriented guy. And what a craftsman, a genuine hands-on guy." Vokey was offered the job and was asked when he could start. "How about this afternoon?" he replied.

Vokey's affable nature and expertise quickly earned him the respect of tour players, even the irascible Lee Trevino, who remains among his best friends in golf. Trevino was living in the Palm Springs area then, accessible from San ­Diego County via Highway 74, over the top of the Santa Rosa Mountains. Vokey scheduled a meeting there with Trevino one day and made the drive in his '75 Datsun B210 with nearly 300,000 miles on it.

"How'd you get over the mountain in that thing?" Trevino said when he saw the car.

Vokey was frugal by necessity. When he left TaylorMade and joined a startup, Founders Club, in 1990, he bought a house on the outskirts of the upscale Carlsbad community of Aviara, "the low-rent district," he says. He vowed that once success permitted, he would upgrade to a house in Aviara. Founders Club was a stepping stone only to a new job, not to a new house. When the company failed, his old friend ­Terry McCabe brought him aboard at Titleist to help him with a driver project that eventually became the 975D. ­McCabe turned his attention to wedges and quickly identified Vokey, who collected wedges, as the man for the job.

Two years later, Vokey had a prototype wedge that he showed to Andy Bean, who confiscated it and refused to return it. Bean put it in play at the FedEx St. Jude Classic in 1997, the debut of what eventually would become known as the Vokey wedge.

At that time the success Titleist was having with Scotty Cameron putters -- identifying the craftsman with his product -- convinced the company it should do the same with Vokey and wedges. Vokey was less certain.

"Somebody told me, 'with that trophy comes a lot of dust,' " he says.

The pressure was no match for Vokey's skill and dedication, each contributing to an exceptional run that took only a single detour, when he was diagnosed with cancer. He wondered whether it was not so much a detour as it was a dead end. In Titleist's offices he walks past an enlarged print ad, featuring a photo of himself gazing at a wedge he's holding. "I won't look at it," he says, explaining that the photo was taken shortly after his cancer diagnosis. He considers it a painful reminder of one of the few days he failed to enjoy his work.

Another photo, unframed, tacked to a wall in the shop, is held in higher regard. It shows him standing outside the private plane that Wally Uihlein, CEO and chairman of Titleist's parent, Acushnet, arranged to ferry Vokey home from Cleveland following his cancer surgery. Uihlein had also arranged for Vokey to undergo his surgery at the renowned Cleveland Clinic.

"Wally's the best," Vokey says, his composure wavering momentarily. His gratitude runs deep. He credits Uihlein with providing him a free rein and the requisite tools that allowed his wedge work to flourish. The payoff is that Vokey wedges enjoy a lead in both the marketplace and on the PGA Tour, the consumer ultimately reaping the benefit of Vokey's experience working with tour pros.

Vokey, incidentally, still lives in the same house in "the low-rent district" outside Aviara. The Datsun has been replaced, though it probably would still be serviceable, at least for his short drive to work, a route with a traffic light on which his future depends.

"I want it to be a green light all the time," he says, expressing an anxiousness to get to work. "If I start wishing for the light to turn red, I'll go home."

Vokey isn't the retiring type; work sustains him. His reservoir of energy remains full, too, even in the wake of a cancer scare and new groove rule that has caused a spike in his workload.

"At my age, I figured I was just about done working, but there is still much to do," he said in an interview with golfworld.com earlier this year. "I was ready to ride off into the sunset, but all of a sudden it's a different ball game."

He won't discuss the new rule, but the old punter, still kicking, has new ideas percolating in his head.

"I'm really jazzed," he says animatedly. "Really, really jazzed."