50 years ago Karsten Solheim created the original Anser putter.
And 50 years later, the Anser persists; ubiquitously and largely unchanged.
Compare that to what has transpired in the driver category. We've transitioned from persimmon to steel to titanium and composite. Bigger and lighter, drivers have expanded in volume from the size of some modern hybrids to a robust 460cc. Shapes have been refined from pear to square to triangle and back again. Manufacturers have created resilient faces, slots, adjustable hosels, and movable weights for meaningful mass redistribution.
Even within the confines of the USGA's seemingly ever-narrowing box, driver innovation persists.
But in the putter space we’re fed a steady diet of Anser retread after Anser retread. Toss in a mallet for show, skim mill a new pattern into the face, maybe soften an insert. Keep the story fresh, because at the end of the day that's all there is. The story is 90% of putter innovation. That, and an appeal to the golfer’s aesthetic senses.
Look how pretty. Feel how soft.
Give me a break. What does any of that have to do with performance? Where is the innovation in the putter space?
Did Karsten's original design encroach on the borders of perfection, or have the equipment companies simply stopped trying?
50 years later and putter technologies that quantifiably save and shave strokes are few and far between.
And why is that? For starters…
Most OEM Putters are Terrible
Alright, Terrible is perhaps a bit vague. Do I mean that OEM putters are terrible looking, terrible performing, terribly constructed, or is it a terrible mixture of all of those things?
Maybe terrible isn’t the right word. Uninspired is a bit more on the nose.
From manufacturer to manufacturer, from year to year, the putter offerings du jour are often remakes of the successful designs of the past.
I’m not saying that everything is an Anser clone, though we know there are a whole bunch of those out there. Rather, what I am saying is that innovation in the putter division for many companies is at best stagnant, and at worse, completely non-existent.
There are, of course, exceptions, but for every putter design with new and measurable innovations, such as the PING TR and Evnroll grooves, MLA graphics, and for you old-schoolers, two-ball alignment, we are bombarded with repackaged same old same old putter designs.
Why does a new paint job and the latest hot grip pass for innovation in the putter category?
Could you imagine what the consumer response would be if Callaway’s 2017 XR driver proves to be an XR 16 with green paintfill instead of red? Golfers would lose their minds – and rightfully so.
Yet this is exactly what happens with many OEM putter lines. Where is the actual innovation? Is there a reason why the putter is seemingly an afterthought for many OEMs? Why is design innovation a much more significant component of the other 13 clubs in the bag?
The Tech Is Tapped
Could it be that the putter has already been engineered to its apex? One could explain the lack of innovation by arguing that every putter innovation has already been explored.
I don’t believe that for a second, and I know some R&D guys who don’t either.
The Most Wanted dominance of the PING Ketsch, MLA Tour Classic, and Tour-X Dream, and the data supporting the effectiveness of the Evnroll face tell us that there are still improvements out there to be had.
In this golden age of digital engineering, it’s hard to believe that that the tech is tapped. CAD modeling and modern rapid prototyping technologies should yield some putter designs that build upon, rather than copy, successful past models.
It stands to reason that, as the putter design tools have improved, the products of those tools should be better too.
Could it be that putter innovation takes longer? It took Odyssey several seasons to roll their various innovations into a single product. Versa, TANK, Metal-X, and Cruiser lines eventually became the Versa Works Tank Cruiser line of putters. It’s not that the combination of Odyssey tech didn’t work, but it sure as hell took a long time to arrive.
Productive Failures are too Costly
From a research/science perspective, failure is a critical component of success. By ruling out non-solutions through experimentation, researchers move closer to discovering the actual solutions.
As with any science, the only way that we are going to see new and improved putters is if companies can push the boundaries of design into risky areas, and be supported when those risks hit the marketplace.
Some companies are more willing than others to roll the dice on a new concept. These experimental concepts are critical to advancing putter design, even if the new ideas don’t always pan out.
Cleveland Smart Square wasn’t a universal hit with consumers, but at least it offered up a fresh idea. Even if some consumers panned the idea (consumers often hate unconventional design, and that’s half the problem), it took alignment design into a new arena and invigorated the discussion about what forms effective putter alignments can take.
The engineering-driven PING putter powerhouse has had some design missteps in recent years. Do you remember IN Series putters? You know, the ones with all of the holes cut through the head? If you’ve forgotten, that’s OK; PING is probably happier that way. But what if the failure of that line was the key to developing the TR Groove technology? I can’t connect those particular dots, but what if?
That’s all Scientific Method 101, and in theory, that should be the driving force for new product production, but the reality for many companies is that failed designs are costly. While the engineer may view a failed innovation as one step closer to success, the shareholders and CEO will probably not share that optimism while the bottom line plummets. Profit over progress may trump trial and error.
Marketing Is King
What if you could keep a product basically the same, rebrand it, and keep making money? Do you think that sounds like a recipe that management and shareholders would approve of?
Sadly, it seems like that is exactly what’s at the core of the design plan for some OEM putter design teams.
One can argue that marketing is a, or perhaps THE, driving force for all golf products, and, big surprise, that marketing may not always have the interests of the golf consumer in mind.
You can likely come up with some examples where the product hype outpaces the product performance, but let’s look at a recent example from the putter corral.
Just a few weeks ago, TaylorMade announced their new TP Collection of putters. Consumer confusion likely begins right away with the name. Historically, TaylorMade has reserved the TP notation for their high-end gear. This time, though, it’s relatively low-end putters get the TP moniker.
Maybe that means that inexpensive putters built to high-end specs?
The description of TP Milled line is ripe with the requisite putter buzzwords: milled, 303 Stainless, Classically Designed, and so on.
If one weren’t paying close attention – and TaylorMade must hope you aren’t- it would be easy enough to arrange the words in such a way as to find quality and innovation where none exists.
Are these fully milled from 303 stainless? Nope. They are skim-milled. The head is cast, then the face and only the face is milled. It’s not a terrible manufacturing strategy. It’s significantly cheaper than milling the full head, but it’s hardly innovative.
Cleveland does the same thing with its Classic line, which is how it’s able to sell what has become one of the best budget priced putters in golf for $99.
The problem with the TP Classic is that skim milling and 303 Stainless Steel have absolutely nothing to do with the effectiveness of the putter.
Promoting milling and metal seems like marketing folly when you are going to hit the putt with the PureRoll insert anyway. You could argue that the entire strategy diminishes the value of an insert that TaylorMade pros have won millions of dollars with on tour.
Additionally, though perhaps unintentional, attaching TP and milled together in the marketing could confuse consumers. TP Mills is revered as one of the all-time great putter designers, and is, to the best of my knowledge, in no way connected to the manufacture of the TP Milled line. Was this an oversight on TaylorMade’s part or is the company hoping golfers will subconsciously connect their skim-milled, cast offering with the great TP Mills putters?
This is but one example where marketing has outpaced innovation and performance, but you can likely come up with multiple other examples of OEM putter recycling.
Is This Your Fault?
It’s easy to throw fist-shaking blame at the big golf companies, but aren’t they just responding to market demands? Could it be that the golf consumer is more likely to buy a putter that looks like other putters that he or she has purchased in the past (even the ones that stopped working)?
Scotty Cameron gets criticized for releasing the same models year after year. By now, there must be a staggering number of Newport and Newport 2s in play. Is this because Scotty is telling the golfer that these are the models that they must play, or instead, are golfers telling Scotty to make these models because they want to buy them?
Put yourself in Cameron’s blazer. What would you do if you sold millions of Newports and caught hell when you released something bold like the Futura X? Selling in abundance while not riling up the consumer seems like a rational plan, especially when it ensures an annual profit as well.
We can complain all we want about the new Cameron & Crown line of putters being nothing but short putters with new paint, and that’s essentially what they are, but if the golf consumer buys them, then we too must shoulder the blame for their creation.
So What Does the Golf Consumer Really Need, or Want?
Do golfers really want the OEMs to produce putters that improve their games, or do they want a putter that is familiar, and comfortable? Is the golf consumer really open to any innovative putter design, or will any such designs be dismissed immediately when it doesn’t fit inside our narrow comfort zones?
OEMs can’t shoulder all of the blame if the consumer is driving the marketplace, but manufacturers could also try a little harder to produce better putters, or at least market the putters with a little more responsibility. If not, it won’t be long before someone other than Titleist rolls out their line of Scottish Cameroon putters.