The Loop

The King and his clubs: "Like a kid in a candy store"


Bloomberg via Getty Images

September 27, 2016

Arnold Palmer’s history with golf equipment is at once personal and professional. The man’s legendary club workshop at home in Latrobe, Pa., was like a museum to equipment innovation over the last century, and while he remained an inveterate tinkerer on his clubs up to the end of his life, it was no idle hobby. The King and his clubs were at the forefront of the equipment business for the last 50 years.   Palmer, who famously perfected the idea of athletes endorsing products when he and Mark McCormack shook hands on a relationship that would be the foundation for the sports agency International Management Group (IMG), signed his first golf-club deal with Wilson Sporting Goods just after winning the U.S. Amateur in 1954.   While his relationship with Wilson may have resulted in his most notable playing successes, Palmer immediately saw the value and freedom of starting his own equipment company when he founded his own brand in 1963, the Arnold Palmer Golf Company. His name was attached to other brands over the years, but in the course of that time, Palmer’s nature as a tinkerer led to some noteworthy designs.   The Axiom irons of the mid-1980s were a unique investment-cast set that, unlike the popular Ping Eye2 iron of the time, included a small muscle in the back of the cavity. It was Palmer’s way of bridging the gap between the muscleback blades he historically insisted were the best at delivering a powerful-feeling strike and the technology of perimeter weighting.   In the early 1990s, his company introduced a series of clubs under the Peerless name. Those included Peerless Pete, an oversized wooden driver, and the Palmer PHD irons, which featured a wing on the hosel designed to improve the club’s off-center hit stability without having to make the clubhead itself oversized. The company even introduced a gripless titanium driver designed to reduce total club weight by some 50 grams.   Clay Long, the veteran club designer who had worked with Jack Nicklaus at MacGregor in the 1980s, began working with Palmer on woods and irons in the 1990s, and his first meeting with Palmer was at Bay Hill in 1992.


“Several of us from the company, including the president, met and discussed some of the new design directions we were exploring along with some general club product talk,” Long wrote in an email to Golf Digest. “We were all interested in talking clubs and seeing where he was in terms of products for the masses. We had a great discussion and then about 11:45 or so he said, ‘Well boys, it’s time to get some lunch and warm up.’   “What that meant, as it turned out, was it was time to eat and play golf in the Shoot Out at Bay Hill. So my first business meeting included an 18-hole round with Arnold Palmer. Later that evening he and Winnie joined us for dinner in the Bay Hill dining room, and he told some golf stories. I instinctively called him 'Mr. Palmer,' but I can remember any number of times he would look at me during a conversation and say, always in a friendly way, ‘My name is Arnold.’ That was the Arnold Palmer I knew.”   Despite those ideas and his overwhelming success in other commercial ventures as one of golf’s perennially highest-earners off the course, Palmer never really made a success of the equipment business. He lent his name and not an insignificant share of dollars to a company that would be known as ProGroup beginning in 1972. The company struggled and was eventually bailed out by Jack Lupton, a Coca-Cola bottling magnate, USGA executive committee member, founder of The Honors Course and friend of Palmer.   The Arnold Palmer Golf Company actually went public for a time with Lupton as its chairman, and its divisions included Hot Z bags and the Nancy Lopez Golf equipment brand. The company went private in 1999, and he and Palmer decided to liquidate it, saying later, “Everyone involved concluded, though reluctantly, that the prospects for a small equipment company in the increasingly competitive golf industry were not promising.”   Cindy Davis, the former president of Nike Golf and a senior vice president at Golf Channel, served as CEO and president of the Arnold Palmer Golf Company from 1997-2000. She remembers Palmer being intricately involved in products at every stage.    “Arnold was the biggest club tinkerer I've ever known,” she wrote in an email to Golf Digest. “It was not unusual that within 24 hours he had already put his additional ‘touches’ on a new club we had just sent. Typically those ‘touches’—which were actually more like dramatic changes—included lots of lead tape and his own artistic spray painting job. From there, it was a series of different shaft alterations partnered with the always present built-up Lamkin leather grips. Arnold needed monstrous grips for those monstrous hands.   “I have great memories of playing golf with him—his version of club testing—with his bag full of 20-plus clubs. In fact, we always had to have quite a few extra staff bags in inventory as the bag dividers just couldn't take all of the excessive bulk. He'd hit every club multiple times and provided quite a bit of commentary all while constantly unwrapping and rewrapping those leather grips as we walked down the fairway.”    After the liquidation of the Arnold Palmer Golf Company, Palmer signed a deal to endorse Callaway equipment in 2000, the last equipment deal he signed and maintained until his death. Callaway CEO Chip Brewer said, “No one did more to popularize golf in the modern era. ... His charisma, skill and humanity made the masses want to watch and want to play.”   It was with Callaway that Palmer found himself straddling the line between competitive golf and the recreational golfer. It was in the spring-like effect controversy of 2000-2001 that got Palmer caught in the crossfire. He found himself embroiled in a controversy over the company’s ERC II non-conforming driver. Palmer, famously the face of the USGA’s Members Program for years, took the side of Callaway, saying at the time, “I do not believe the ERC II is a threat to the basic nature of the game.” It may not have been, but the public never endorsed the club and in many cases attacked Palmer for his endorsement.   Palmer was famously pressed on his position on Golf Channel’s Golf Talk Live show hosted by Peter Kessler in January 2001. After the show Palmer restated his endorsement of the club for recreational play in a nearly 4,000-word essay that reads like a position paper from a golf think tank. Among its many points was a gentle advocacy for two sets of rules.   “I’m not sure I agree that two sets of rules is the answer,” the paper reads, “but, if moving to more than one set of rules is grounded in common sense and contributes to the growth and popularity of the game, why should we not at least consider it?”   More than a decade later, however, while supporting the USGA’s ban on anchored putting, Palmer remained steadfast that two sets of equipment rules wasn’t the answer. “I don't think that golf has a place for two sets of rules," Palmer told the Associated Press in 2013. “I think one of the reasons that the game has progressed in the way that it has over the years is the fact that the amateurs and the pros all play the same game and they play under the same set of rules. I feel like that is very, very important. It may be the key to the future success of the game of golf, just the fact that there will be one set of rules and we'll all play by them.”   Palmer believed that the game belonged to everyone, and that may have been what fueled his enthusiasm for new equipment. It was a passion that every golfer could identify with, and one they shared with the King.   Said Long, “He was always interested in something new but what he really wanted to do was to hit it and play with it. There was nothing quite like going to the range with Arnold Palmer about to test a new set of “never been hit before” irons. He was like a kid in a candy store.”