Tom Wishon is the most prolific golf club designer in the 500 year history of the game. No other single person has designed as many different clubhead models, invented as many engineering firsts in clubhead technology, along with designed as many shafts and clubmaking technology equipment as has Tom Wishon. He has also written ten books and more than 200 technical articles on golf club performance and clubfitting technology for a wide variety of trade and consumer golf publications. In short, there is no one person in the game of golf who knows more about the design, production and fitting of golf clubs than Tom Wishon.
The Wishon Story
It was in the spring of 1973 that my love affair with golf clubs began. I was enrolled in the PGA of America’s membership training programme and working as an assistant golf professional at the Mill Valley Golf Course under PGA Member Malcolm Brown. Mr Brown paid me the princely salary of $300/month, which even back then was not enough to make ends meet. I needed a way to supplement my income.
Once per week, a representative from Magle’s Golf Club Repair business in South San Francisco would stop by the pro shop to pick up the clubs we had to be repaired and to drop off the clubs from the previous week’s pick up. I had always been good with my hands and with tools so I borrowed some money from my parents, bought the necessary club repair tools and equipment from the Kenneth Smith Golf Company and began to teach myself how to re-shaft, refinish and repair golf clubs.
Soon I had my own little cottage industry repair business going, offering pick up and delivery service to ten golf courses in the North San Francisco Bay Area. The more I worked on golf clubs, the more I wanted to know. I began to phone the various golf club and shaft making companies in the industry, trying to have conversations to ask questions of the people in their product R&D departments. Continually I was rebuffed and rejected in my efforts. Either I was left on hold until I gave up, or was told that the information I sought was “proprietary information that they could not reveal.”
After about the 15th such failed attempt to learn more about the workings of golf clubs, I got mad, slammed the phone down in its cradle and said to myself, “I am going to learn this stuff if I have to do all the work myself and when I do, by gosh I am going to share whatever I know with anyone who is interested.”
Now after 45 years of work, over 350 different clubhead designs, ten books, numerous videos and hundreds of published articles later, I still have a passion to know absolutely everything about golf clubs and a genuine desire to share everything I have learned with anyone who is interested.
You wake up in the morning – what is the driving passion for you?
Now at the age of 67, the driving passion is to get out of bed with a minimum of pain! All kidding aside, I seriously would love to still have a chance to convince more golfers of the tangible benefits of professional custom fitting. Not the garbage slam-bam service offered in the name of fitting by pro shops and retail golf stores. But real fitting, done by an independent custom clubmaker who with his passion and years of study in the field is to a golf club what a tailor is to a suit.
There has been plenty of discussion as to whether the USGA and R&A will move to bifurcation in the equipment arena. What is your take on whether they will or not?
I assume at first you are talking about bifurcation for the golf ball because that is where the media’s coverage of comments by pros such as Tiger and Jack are aimed.
If the ball rule is bifurcated, there would be a great deal of initial attention and analysis over the effect a shorter ball would have on pro events. After a few years, I suspect it would all fade into the background. But there could be issues such as occasional spats at the local level as to which ball should be played in what events, not to mention what about records in golf. Would there be pre- and post-bifurcation record books? But as with everything, the furore typically lasts a short time and then everyone just accepts it and goes on about their business.
Personally, I would be against having different rules for pros and amateurs, or elite vs average players. I realise other sports have split their rules (i.e. wood vs metal bats in baseball). But I feel a bit of the glue that holds this great game together is the simple fact that we all play the same equipment and the same game under the same rules. Call that a traditional attitude if you wish, I accept that.
There has also been a frontal assault from Titleist against Costco and their efforts with the Kirkland golf ball. What is your take on the actions by both companies and what impact that has on golfers? Is all the back and forth merely about self interest tied to their respective efforts?
There are two possible sides to this conflict as I see it. One is the most simple, which is the fact of patent law. If the Kirkland golf ball does in fact violate specific claims of any of the Titleist ball patent(s), then the sales of the Kirkland ball should be stopped and an investigation into potential financial damages due to Titleist would have to be conducted.
On the other hand, it is very well known that large companies have, and will continue to use, the significant power of the cost of litigation as a means of competing with other companies. While Costco is huge and can well afford the cost of a legal defence, the Kirkland ball has to be a very small part of Costco’s revenue. As such, Titleist could just be playing the game to see if they can force the Kirkland ball off the market by using litigation as a tactic to find the limit Costco will go financially to defend a product from which they are not making all that much money.
In the end, today’s golf balls are so close to each other in characteristics and performance that it is almost a joke that there are hundreds to thousands of golf ball patents that have been granted.
It has been suggested by a few people that one way for the ruling bodies to make the game more challenging at the highest level is to reconsider the 14-club limit rule. Some have suggested bringing the number down to 10. Do you see that happening, or are the ruling bodies petrified in having legal action taken against them for doing so?
I cannot imagine that the USGA or R&A would choose to pursue a change in the rules to reduce the maximum number of clubs a golfer can use. If they think using fewer clubs could ensure that even par wins the US Open every year, I think the USGA would be falling into the same trap that lured them into thinking a new scoreline configuration would put a more severe penalty on hitting shots into the rough.
If the USGA or R&A took 4 clubs from the bag of each pro, the pros’ uncanny skills would take over and nothing would change - other than the caddies would probably be happy to be carrying around 3-4 fewer pounds on their backs!
Besides, proof of this has happened before. In the 1913 US Open, Englishman Ted Ray used only 7 clubs to Harry Vardon’s 15 and Francis Ouimet’s 12 clubs and ended up in a 3-way tie for the championship.
In the last year or so there has also been movement by Bob Parsons and his company PXG. A number of players - both on the PGA TOUR and LPGA - have opted to use the clubs in competition. The claim from the company is that the materials used and the processes followed are far beyond that of any other equipment company. What is your take on that claim and what the staying power of the company looks like?
In the case of PXG, the owner has some pretty deep pockets. So deep that if he so chooses he could keep them going for a long time even in the face of an on going negative cash flow and red ink on the bottom line.
The only unique thing PXG has done is to limit their distribution and stay away from the traditional golf retail outlets. This is done strictly to protect their high price point for image sake because every golf company that sells their clubs through all the usual retail outlets does eventually have to accept the practice of discounting by the retailers to enhance sales.
PXG wants to use a higher price point with distribution exclusivity to enhance their image. Whether they can make money with that approach remains to be seen because they do have very significant marketing expenses, what with all the tour player endorsement contracts coupled with TV, print and online advertising.
Curious to know: do you ever envision the powers-that-be at Augusta National ever mandating a specific golf ball used only at the Masters competition?
I doubt that very seriously. While the Masters has modified their golf course to increase the length of holes, they do not seem to care if the winning score is even par or 20 under par. Their goal is to present their course in perfect condition each year and to have an exciting competition. As such I doubt we will ever see anything like a specific ball to be used in the Masters.
You have been an advocate for quite some time on golfers getting fitted properly for clubs. What would you say the percentage is of those golfers who have done so?
We first have to clarify the definition for what is fitting, and what is REAL fitting. There is a huge difference in this, believe me. There are 12 key fitting specifications for each of the 13 woods and irons in the bag, 6 for a putter.
You can change one thing in golf unilaterally - what would it be, and why?
To get rid of the distance part of the penalty for lost ball or out of bounds in the rules of golf. It is absolutely ridiculous and a hindrance to fast play to force a golfer to walk back to the location from which the errant shot was hit to re-play the shot. A lost ball should be played like an unplayable ball while OB should be played like a lateral hazard in the rules.
The major golf organisations - R&A, USGA, PGA TOUR, European Tour, PGA of America, LPGA - are all seeking ways to attract new players especially among millennials, women and minorities. In a previous interview you mentioned, “We have no new blood coming along to pump new life into the commerce of the game.” If you could advise them, what would you suggest be done to change the direction of those who are not opting to play the game?
I honestly do not know if there is anything that can attract millennials in enough numbers to ensure the well being of the game into the future. I think golf is just going to have to learn to live with a smaller participation rate until a generation comes along that is somehow attracted to the positives that the game has to offer.
The main complaints I hear from millennials about golf are: (1) it takes too long to play; (2) it takes too long to get good enough to enjoy the game; (3) there isn’t enough instant gratification in the game: (4) it’s my father’s or grandfather’s game, not mine.
The only current aspect of golf millennials could embrace is the business model of the Top Golf driving ranges. Flashing lights, a party atmosphere, rewards for hitting a shot better than the others in their group, all within an hour and they can still keep accessing their mobile devices. That’s not exactly real golf and never will be. Golf is heading into a serious drop in participation which will steadily thin out the number of courses and the business of golf for a long time.
Since the start of any new year generally involves predictions of some sort, how about you provide a few of yours regarding the broader equipment industry in the year ahead?
2018 will see more cleverly embellished marketing claims made by the big companies desperate for revenue, which will fool non-technically aware golfers into buying equipment no better for their game than what has been available for more than a decade. Although I hope there will be a few more golfers who have the courage and the due diligence to look for a better way and able to find an experienced, knowledgeable custom clubmaker who can spend the time and make the effort to see the golfer ends up with the best custom fit possible. So the golfer has the best chance to play to the best of his/her ability and to benefit more when taking lessons.
For more info go to: www.wishongolf.com