As it is with most great works of art, Karsten Solheim’s inspiration for the Ping Anser couldn’t wait to be diagrammed neatly on a clean sheet of paper.
The January 1966 sketch, a blueprint for what would become one of golf’s most copied and influential clubs, came on the dust jacket of a 78-rpm record. The Norwegian-born engineer who worked on jet fighters and missile guidance systems after World War II had a vision of a putter with a distinct offset hosel that allowed an unfettered view of the face, all while giving players the feeling they were pulling through the ball rather than pushing it. The cavity-back head featured perimeter weighting, a low center of gravity and lines parallel to the face to aid golfers in keeping the face square.
Nobody in golf had seen anything like it. Some initially laughed it off, referring to it as a “plumber’s nightmare” given the unprecedented relationship between the crooked hosel and head. But when Solheim quickly made samples and offered them to professionals at that year’s Phoenix Open, it didn’t take long for the brilliance of design to outweigh its kinks. Within two months, Lionel Hebert used an Anser to win the Florida Citrus Open Invitational – the event now known as the Arnold Palmer Invitational – and it opened the floodgates.
George Archer used one to win the 1969 Masters. Gary Player, Tony Jacklin and Gene Littler were early adopters. By the mid-1970s, more than half the putters in play on tour were Ansers. The patent lasted only 17 years, ending in 1984 and opening the market to other companies that would mimic the design, which only proved how groundbreaking the club had been. The Anser itself has been the winningest putter in history, responsible for more than 500 tour victories and 19 men’s majors, but it could be argued that putters directly influenced by the Anser have won at least as many events.
To discuss how the Anser came to be and what it has meant to the game through the past 54 years, Global Golf Post spoke with John Solheim, Karsten Solheim’s son and the current chief executive officer at Ping.
The Anser may have been the most successful model Karsten Solheim designed, but it certainly wasn’t the first. He began playing golf as a 42-year-old in the mid-1950s while employed by General Electric, and he soon discovered that applying scientific principles to the dark art of putting had a positive effect on the greens. Establishing the Ping brand, Solheim’s putters gained great traction. As he tinkered in his Scottsdale, Ariz., garage, his teenage son John helped construct putters and watched the evolution of his dad’s thought process.
JOHN SOLHEIM: A couple of the early putters went well, like the 69 which was known as the hot-dog putter because of its shape. The grinding was a lot more critical on that because the blending of the clear surfaces into the squareness of the toe. The reflection light needed to be right coming across the top. But from that, in the B69 series, he moved more of the weight towards the heel and toe. The BLD and the MLT were out there as well, and he followed that up with the C Cushin and K Cushin putters, which were both quite popular.
Both Jack Nicklaus and Julius Boros were using the C Cushin putter, which had slots in the bottom like the Anser eventually would have. However, Karsten remained unsatisfied with his success. He would drive to any tournament within reasonable range of Arizona, and on one occasion, he went to a California event and noticed a Palmer-designed putter being used widely by the pros. His goal quickly became to find an answer that would be even more popular.
What he put together was an engineering marvel. Solheim had worked with fellow engineers who designed Charles Lindbergh’s Spirit of St. Louis airplane and learned a piece of valuable information that he applied to his latest design: An airplane with wing-tipped tanks became more stable when the tanks were full. Which is to say, adding weight to the outermost edges provides stability, whether it be an airplane or a putter.
And then there was the defining trait, a hosel that helped position the shaft ahead of the ball. Solheim would say repeatedly that pushing a wheelbarrow over a curb is difficult, but pulling it is much easier. The Anser applied the same logic to golf, proving that the face of a putter does not twist as much when a golfer’s hands are ahead of the ball and making a pulling motion.
J.S.: To be able to build the hosel, he made up a jig that would hold it solidly so he could drill and grind it into shape. For the sanding, he would put it up high above where we ground the faces. Basically a pin was coming out and it was loose so you changed the position, but once you got it there, it was held at the right diameter. You would spin the hosel and then move it into a different position to finish the front and back of the face. It was interesting because that part with the hosel was a new procedure we hadn’t used on other putters.
Similar to the way Alice Dye became a driving force behind some of husband Pete Dye’s golf course-design genius, Solheim’s wife, Louise, had a significant hand in what Ping became. When she suggested the name of the new putter should be called the “Answer” given that her husband set out to accomplish just that, he replied that the words would not fit on the back of the putter as he intended. Louise encouraged him to remove the “w” so the name would retain its sound and also fit on the putter head.
J.S.: My mom was awfully good with the English language. She was the business side of the business. She came up with that (name), but she did so much more to make it easy on my dad. He got to do what he wanted, which was to develop new things.
Of course television coverage didn’t have nearly the same clarity as it does now, but the Anser’s iconic design became instantly recognizable and retail sales matched how much the professionals enjoyed using the club. Karsten still worked for General Electric at the time, but Louise convinced him to go into the club-building business full time.
The early editions of the Anser were made out of brass, a remarkably soft metal. Before they took off in popularity, Solheim handed Arnold Palmer one with a caved-in face – someone had dropped it and dented the face without Solheim realizing it. From that point on, he decided to use manganese bronze, a much stronger material. Many players applied lead tape to the back of the clubhead to provide extra weight.
Like most unique inventions in golf, the Anser was not going to be a singular item forever. When Solheim’s patent expired in 1984, notable companies took their best shots at copying it while adding their own flavors to it. If you go into a golf shop today and hold an Odyssey White Hot RX No. 1 or a Scotty Cameron Select Newport 2, it’s clear their DNA and ancestry are inherently tied to the Anser.
If you are watching golf this weekend, it’s likely the winner of the event will be using a putter that evolved from the Anser.
J.S.: It’s the biggest compliment you can have even though it frustrates you. Our patent stood strong for those 17 years, which was a while back then. It bugged you, no question. But that’s the time they gave you.
The Anser did not fade away by any means, although it didn’t maintain nearly the same stranglehold it once had. Tiger Woods used an Anser for his junior and college playing days, and he briefly played an Anser 2 during the 1998 season. There were those who fell in love with it and never left – Scott Verplank used it for 22 consecutive years as a pro. In more recent years, Bubba Watson and Ángel Cabrera have won Masters titles with modern versions of the club.
What other clubs never could mimic is the history. Back in the early ’70s, Karsten Solheim implemented a tradition where each tour winner who used a Ping putter receives a gold putter head to their exact specs while a replica is placed in the vault at the company’s Phoenix headquarters.
Once again, Solheim’s engineering experience led him to this idea. While at General Electric, he designed the cabinet for the company’s first portable television. Solheim designed it so that rabbit-ear antennas could mount to the back of the set, which allowed the television to be tuned more conveniently. General Electric management eventually decided the company wasn’t going to build the rabbit ears, and since it was Solheim’s patent, they recommended a company for him to do business with. However, during a dinner Solheim gave that company the patent.
J.S.: This company thought they would be building 40,000 of these TVs, so it wasn’t that much. Well, after the first million, they gave my dad a golden-plated set of rabbit-ear antennas. After the second million, they gave him another set. So when he wanted to do something nice for players who used his putters, I think he had that in his mind.
Karsten Solheim died in 2000 at age 88, and it’s a testament to his innovative spirit that the Anser continues to inspire so many iterations of his iconic design.
Putting, the game within the beautiful game, was forever changed.
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