CHARLOTTE, NORTH CAROLINA | John Gamble’s shop, as familiar to Charlotte-area golfers as Quail Hollow’s famous Green Mile finish, sits in the middle of an aging, one-story strip shopping property long past its glory days on Central Avenue, a traffic-heavy thoroughfare that defines diversity in this city.
Flanked on one side by a small Mexican restaurant and on the other by a café advertising billiards tables on its glass window and just across the street from what had been a cinder-block bar catering to war veterans, stepping into Gamble’s shop is like stepping into a different dimension.
Officially known as John Gamble’s Carolina Golf Mfg., everyone just says they’re going to see John Gamble.
If he can’t fix it, bend it, grind it, re-shaft it or find a replacement, then it can’t be done.
Actually getting to Gamble – a 63-year old in his 39th year as the wizard of repair – means stepping through a glass door with a bell that alerts him to visitors, stepping around the bags stuffed with clubs, walking past the practice net/launch monitor that takes up one corner and, if you get that far, entering the back room so cluttered with golf club stuff (it looks like stuff to the untrained eye) that one wonders whether FEMA should be alerted.
It smells like glue, ground metal, old rubber and gasoline, and it’s aromatherapy for those in need.
Amid the scattered clubs, tools and boxes, there is a rickety wooden stool that might as well be a psychiatrist’s couch the way Gamble has to soothe the worried minds of golfers needing more bounce, an inch trimmed from the shaft of their driver or just something new in which to believe.
“Clubs are so precious to people. If you have their trust and they think you are knowledgeable and care just a little … People get treated so antiseptically. They come here and say, This guy might care a little bit,” says Gamble, leaning against a counter in his workroom, surrounded by the tools of his trade.
Gamble drives approximately 45 minutes each way to his home in Kings Mountain, North Carolina, often six days a week, to the business he inherited from Norman Swenson, a prominent amateur golfer, R&A member and businessman from Charlotte who passed away 11 years ago flying home from an amateur event in Korea.
It started in a house just up the road, moved to its current location a few decades ago and Gamble has no plans to relocate.
“Norman got involved in some other business things and he said when you find something else, just bring me the key,” Gamble says.
“He put a contract together to sell this to me. He said, ‘When I need the money, I’ll come get it.’ He never came to get it. He said, ‘You’ve bought this with your sweat.’ ”
As Gamble is talking, one of his regular customers walks in. The space is like a barbershop, a gathering spot where golf is spoken. The old man wants Gamble to sign off on a couple of wedges he bought. Gamble nods his approval and sends him on his way.
The man, Gamble says, has battled cancer and spent some time in jail and he loves golf clubs.
“He buys clubs every week. He’s already bought three sets of Titleist T300s, and they’ve only been out for a year,” says Gamble, who sells new and used clubs in addition to his repair work.
“Everybody wants to get more distance. Every club is sold on distance. How far does it go? But the game is still a game of position for 90 percent or more of the people who play.” –John Gamble
Shane Wagner is one of Gamble’s regulars. Gamble jokes that Wagner “has a harem of golf clubs in his garage,” and he’s not wrong. Like others, Wagner stops by for more than tweaks to his golf equipment.
“It’s a place of discovery,” Wagner says. “I can spend an hour there and learn more about golf just through the characters who come in than I can learn in any 19th hole or anywhere else.
“Sometimes I take both of my young sons in there just to listen. I say, ‘Let’s go hang out at Gamble’s’ because I know nine times out of 10 I’m going to hear something about golf or life or whatever that I’ve never heard before.”
Another customer arrives and wants Gamble to look at his driver. It has a $350 shaft, but the ferrule is put on incorrectly. Gamble gently shakes his head and promises to fix it.
“We fix clubs. We have used clubs. Part of it is building clubs, but if we did that we’d need a whole new setup and I wouldn’t have as good a time as I do,” Gamble says. “Dealing with the public energizes me. I like talking to people, but they’ll drive you crazy, especially golfers, because they aren’t rational.”
The words are hardly out of his mouth when another regular walks into the back room. He asks Gamble if he can find a 7-wood to match the Cleveland DST Launcher 3-wood and 5-wood he loves. Probably, Gamble tells him.
Gamble is an anomaly, an old-school artisan in a new-age world. He has stayed current with the continuing evolution of equipment and has a wall filled with adapters to fit almost every new club on the market. Surrounded by clubs old enough to have AARP memberships, Gamble appreciates the new technology while understanding what manufacturers are selling.
“Everybody wants to get more distance. Every club is sold on distance. How far does it go? But the game is still a game of position for 90 percent or more of the people who play,” says Gamble, his thick arms crossed across his chest as he leans against a counter.
“But they want to know, ‘Can I hit that pitching wedge farther than Jim and Bob that I play with?’ TaylorMade knows that. Callaway knows that. They all know that.
“It’s a game of skill. It wouldn’t be as great if it wasn’t. But if you tell a guy his grip sucks and he sets up all wrong and you tell him no matter how much he spends on clubs it’s not going to help … but they want you to sell them on that hot face that’s going to go 17 yards longer. That has never changed, whether it was an old persimmon club or the Stealth.”
There is a loft-and-lie machine in front of Gamble, and he knows it the way Elton John knows a piano’s keyboard. It’s what gets the most work. A degree here, a degree there and it can do magic, even if it’s only in a player’s mind.
“Some people just want me to touch their clubs. It’s humbling,” Gamble says. “When people come back in here and watch this hocus pocus, it gives it some legitimacy to them. We give them something positive, a belief. They think, Hey, I’ve got a shot at this game.”
There is a dusty museum-like quality to Gamble’s shop. If you need a Power Pod driver – a round, red driver that looks like a microphone on the end of a stick that was briefly popular years ago – he has one.
Need a persimmon-headed driver rewhipped? Gamble still does that, too.
“Like riding a bike, you never forget how to do it,” he says.
He has sold dozens of sets of classic clubs to a man in Connecticut who has a business called Retro Golf that outfits golfers with sets from the ’70s and ’80s for one-day outings.
Gamble remembers tour player Dave Hill coming into the shop when a seniors event was being played in Charlotte and wanting work done on his clubs. There was so much lead tape Gamble had trouble recognizing the brand and fitting the club into his loft-and-lie machine.
He does remember Hill’s clubs were Hogan Bounce Sole Plus One models from the 1970s. As he tells the story, Gamble steps into a closet and returns with a 5-iron similar to the one that Hill played.
Another customer comes through the front door and is worried the face on his Ping 3-wood has a small crack. Gamble examines it like a doctor examining an X-ray. He runs his hand across the face and can feel the wear on the metal head.
“It’s been hit a lot right there. The face feels a little flat,” Gamble says, confirming the crack. “It’s more of a mileage thing. That club has been hit a lot, and hard.”
Gamble has been a good player himself and knows how the game works. He appreciates high-end club-fitting businesses but wonders whether the investment is worth it to players whose swings are fatally flawed. Gamble play-acts what he sees happening.
“You see a guy grip it like this and pick it up like this,” he says, twisting his upper body, “it never fixes that.”
Many times, it’s just the thought that counts.
“There is a novelty to a new club. You don’t have that library of missed 3-footers with that new putter, but eventually you will,” Gamble says. “There is a shelf life on miracles.”
Another customer comes through the front door.
It’s time for the wizard to get back to work.
Top: Proprietor John Gamble takes a breather among the various clubs and repair components that make his Carolina Golf Mfg. in Charlotte a local institution among golfers. Photo: Ron Green Jr., Global Golf Post
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