New Golf Scandal in the Groove
Last week, with longtime rumors of Lady Gaga's gender issues safely put to rest thanks to her costume at the Grammys, Americans who can't get enough of a good celebrity scandal were fascinated to find the once gentlemanly world of professional golf rocked by a second major brouhaha in nearly as many months.
This time around, there was no late-night breaking glass or emotionally wounded waitresses breaking their silence on "The Today Show."
Veteran Tour player Scott McCarron merely called colleague Phil Mickelson, the world's No. 2 ranked player, a "cheater" because he had placed a controversial 20-year-old Ping wedge with illegal U-grooves in his bag at the Farmers Insurance Open.
The United States Golf Association (meeting here this weekend) banned the use of this particular club's U-shaped grooves back in 1990, citing the unfair advantage such grooves provide in producing a higher spin rate on shots. In a settlement with the Phoenix-based manufacturer in 1993, however, the governing body of golf agreed to allow Ping clubs made before 1990 to be used legally in competition. The concern was that players who'd won tournaments using the nonconforming clubs might also have to forfeit their wins.
Since that time, most PGA Tour players have happily used conforming V-groove clubs. But Mickelson - the world's No. 1 player in Tiger Woods' unavoidable absence - has been an outspoken critic of the USGA since it decided last year to ban the use of all U-shaped grooves in competition except for the grandfathered Pings.
Mickelson, who represents Callaway Golf on Tour, put an old Ping Eye2 wedge with the offending grooves in his bag, he says, to illustrate his acute dissatisfaction with the USGA's inconsistent rulings on the issue. For the record, the USGA recently banned a set of Callaway irons that technically conformed to the idle groove rule but produced a spin rate deemed too high.
Confused? I was. That's why I went to see Gunther Fuhrmannek, hoping to learn what all the fuss is about.
The American Dream
Chances are pretty good you've never heard of Gunther Furhmannek, who is a genial, silver-haired 78-year-old who sings in the Redeemer Lutheran Church senior choir.
If life were a wee bit more fair than it is, Gunther might well be a household name across the fruited plain, or at least in golf superstores everywhere.
He is, after all, something of walking model of the American dream. Gunther grew up in a small town in Prussian East Germany and migrated to this country in early 1958. Looking for a better life with his brother Eric, he settled into a small town in Minnesota, where he used his advanced engineering training to make a name for himself in the industrial manufacturing business.
He designed and made everything from newfangled car-top carriers to innovative industrial space heaters - most of which, he allows, he probably should have patented.
In time, he also got interested in playing golf and even altered a set of traditional Haig Ultra clubs to make one of the first sets of perimeter-weighted irons anyone had ever seen.
More relative to the cheater scandal of the moment, Gunther became a pioneering clubmaker who attracted the attention of one Karsten Solheim, the founder of the company that eventually sued the USGA over the U-groove flap 20 years ago.
After Solheim came to Minnesota to meet him, Gunther agreed to relocate to Phoenix and help set up Solheim's new clubmaking operation. Before this, Solheim was known exclusively for producing his strikingly different Ping putters from his own garage.
"We shook hands on the deal," says Gunther, "and I begin to work on the first Ping clubs." Among other things, Solheim promised him a healthy percentage of sales if the new clubs were a hit.
"I probably should have gotten it in a contract," Gunther says. "But my word was my word, and I believed his was, too."
Nevertheless, using some of his own ideas, Gunther produced the company's first master molds for a set of Ping irons, hired the machinists and trained the production people to make the company's first line of investment-cast stainless steel, perimeter-weighted golf clubs. The first set of clubs, which had traditional V-grooves, came off the production line in 1968 and were a modest success, launching Ping into the competitive equipment marketplace in a much broader way.
Square Versus Round
"This is the very first set of Pings ever made," Gunther said with his pleasant German accent the other afternoon as we sat in his kitchen on Juniper Lane in Pinehurst. He handed me a 4-iron that looked simple and old-fashioned compared with the flashy clubs of today. But it was unmistakably a Ping golf club, bearing all the pioneering touches the company became famous for.
Hoping to expand upon Ping's early success, Gunther says, Solheim asked him to create wider square-shaped grooves with rounded edges in future Ping clubs to provide better traction and a higher spin ratio that would please golfers of every skill level.
"The issue was never the shape of the grooves," Gunther patiently explained to me, showing me the face of his pioneering Ping iron. "It was the distance of the spacing between the grooves that was really the concern of the USGA - then and now."
"Square" or U-grooves, as some called them, shortened the distance between grooves on the hitting surface of the club face. This provided for increased traction on the ball and a larger number of grooves, preventing balls from "sliding" up the face of the club, the way V-grooves allow them to do. The sum effect is to produce a ball spinning at a higher rate, allowing players to stop balls at a desired place on the green with increased accuracy.
"Because they put increased spin on the ball, such grooves also provide much better spin from the rough, too," Gunther explained.
He said he considered making the U-grooves Karsten Solheim wanted but at the end of the day decided, as the USGA would eventually do, that such grooves constituted an unfair advantage for whomever was using them. Gunther figured the clubs would be ruled nonconforming and therefore unusable in competition. So he refused to make them.
He left Ping a short time later. One of the men he trained, however, brought out the retooled Ping golf club with controversial U-grooves. They quickly became a major success for the company.
'I Can Sleep at Night'
Gunther returned to Minnesota and started his own golf equipment company, called American Precision Golf. Among other things, he developed design concepts for frequency-matched shafts and radically redistributed weight for putters, drivers and metalwoods - features he believes other pioneers, like Gary Adams of Taylormade, Eli Callaway of Callaway Golf and Barney Adams of Adams Golf, eventually incorporated into the development of their best-selling golf clubs.
Gary Adams is considered the father of the modern metal -driver, Callaway the creator of the revolutionary Big Bertha -driver, and Barney Adams the innovative mind behind the best-selling Tight Lies fairway wood phenomenon.
"Perhaps I should not have been so willing to share my ideas so freely," Gunther said with a gentle smile when I asked him if he benefited financially from any of the ideas that revolutionized the game beginning about 25 years ago. "Maybe if I had not shared my ideas with other people, I would be known the way they are. But I have no regrets. Everything I did with honesty and integrity. I can sleep at night."
Ironically, when the U-groove debated intensified in the early 1990s, it was Gunther Durhmannek that the PGA Tour and USGA called upon as an expert witness on the matter of U-groove unfairness. By then, Gunther and his wife and two children were living in Pinehurst, where Gunther owned and ran his company in a state-of-the-art club testing and fitting facility - and driving range - about where the Chamber of Commerce building sits today on U.S. 15-501.
He flew with his first set of Pings to PGA headquarters in Florida to show the technical staff why U-grooves produced enhanced spin rates. This was followed by a second trip to Cleveland to meet with experts from the USGA.
A short time later, the governing body of American golf banned the use of U-grooves in competition, prompting a lawsuit from Karsten Solheim that wasn't settled until 1993. That settlement provided a "loophole" allowing Ping's initially banned U-groove clubs made before 1990 to be used in play.
All Is Forgiven
"The whole thing is a fight about unfair advantage and money," Gunther helpfully explained to my scandal-dizzy brain. "There is no question the Ping Eye2 wedge performs better in terms of spin, particular from the rough. And, technically speaking, there is no rule that prohibits Phil Mickelson from using this club. So in that regard he is not a cheater. The only question some will ask is this - is it the right thing to do in a game where, under the rules, a player's skill rather than his equipment is supposed to be the deciding factor?"
Walking me to his front door, Gunther Fuhrmannek, a delightful man who at the very least is somehow responsible for the fabulously engineered golf clubs waiting in the garage of millions of ordinary Americans for the return of spring, smiled and assured me that the latest accusations of "cheaters" on the PGA Tour would soon vanish.
"They all do," he said with philosophical shrug.
Sure enough, not one day later, Phil Mickelson showed up to begin his defense of the Northern Telecom Open title at Riviera Country Club in Los Angeles and announced that his "point" had been made to the USGA. The Ping Eye2 wedge was out of his bag, and his conforming Callaway wedge was back.
Wearing a lime-green outfit that generated some unflattering comments from some reporters, Lefty announced that Scott McCarron had apologized for calling him a "cheater" and all was well in golf again. The gossip blogs fell as silent as Tiger's limo driver.
Leaving me to wonder: Did I miss something really important here? Was this much ado about nothing, or simply an artful spin move about money? To make matters worse, now comes word that Tiger and Elin have reconciled and he may report back to work as soon as next week. How utterly unshocking. A celebrity blogger's living nightmare.
Whichever it is, in the wake of golf's big scandals involving the No. 1 and No. 2 players, all I can say is, thank goodness the winter Olympics are about to begin. There's bound to be a nice juicy scandal that will keep us all tuning in for a few days.
Luckily, word just broke that Lady Gaga plans to have speed-skater Apolo Ohno's love child immediately after the Vancouver Olympics. Or maybe it's the other way around.
In any case, whichever it is, please don't say you read it here first.
Jim Dodson, editor of PineStraw magazine and Sunday essayist for The Pilot, can be reached by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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