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The Good Life

The Putter King

For more than 30 years, Scotty Cameron has been turning hunks of steel into some of the world’s finest putters
By Jeff Williams | From Animal House, January/February 2018
The Putter King

Scotty Cameron couldn’t be more hands on. The legendary putter maker is an inventor, a designer, a machinist, an artisan and a promoter, deeply involved in every detail of the process of creating what are now the most famous putters on the planet. He does it by hand, always has and always will, building an international reputation on the success of his flatsticks.

But on this sunny Southern California day at his studio in San Marcos, California, he has something a little different to show for his hands-on approach. After the introductory handshake in the lobby of his headquarters, he points to an upper front tooth that is now rather like a fang.

“I was hand-stamping a putter last night and a shard flew off and broke my tooth,” he says. “I need to go to the dentist later. Going to a show in Japan on Friday. Need to look my best.”

He would soon be off to the Hamamatsu Seaside Golf Resort in Japan for the annual Scotty Cameron Museum & Gallery Festival, a testimony to the appeal of his putters and the appeal of the man. You’ve reached cult status when you have your own museum and gallery in Japan. The man and his putters had to look their best. And that’s the key for Cameron, who is as much an artist as he is technician. His brand is built around precisely milled putters, some of which retail for thousands of dollars.

When it comes to putters and putting, Cameron is everywhere. His putters are in the hands of some of the most visible and successful players on the PGA Tour. Justin Thomas, Jordan Spieth and Rickie Fowler are among the game’s elite who wield his handcrafted putters with great success. Three of the four majors in 2017 were won with his putters. David Duval shot a 59 with one. Bernhard Langer won the 1993 Masters with one. 

And, of course, there’s Tiger Woods. He achieved monumental success with Scotty Cameron putters, dropping long putts again and again during his dominant run in the late 1990s and early 2000s, pushing the Scotty Cameron brand to the top of the heap in the process.

So what is it about Cameron, and this extraordinary success he has created from humble hunks of metal? 

“I think more than anything, the putters you use from Scotty come from love,” says David Duval, a onetime No. 1 player and the winner of the 2001 U.S. Open. “Come from a love of the game, a love of having a golfer have a ball that’s perfectly struck.”

That, says Cameron, is what it’s all about: Love of the game, love of the pursuit of perfection. In a soft, deliberate, measured voice, the putter maestro speaks about the pursuit of truth. The truth about the putting stroke, the truth about the bedeviling implement itself, truth about the science that goes into the art of putting.

Cameron was introduced to club tinkering by his father when he was just a boy growing up in Southern California. While his dad was more into classic clubs, the swinging implements, young Cameron took to putters, the club that gets the ball in the hole. 

“My father was an insurance investigator, a one or two handicap, and he liked to tinker on clubs and we had a workshop in the garage,” says Cameron, sitting in the high-performance studio of his complex in San Marcos, California. “He loved persimmon woods, old Tommy Armour deep-faced drivers. When I was 11, Ram-Zebra came out with a cool putter with interchangeable weights, the grip and the head cover matched the grip. As my father liked woods, I took a liking to putters.” 

The pursuit of the perfect putter, says the 55-year-old, is attributable directly to his dying father. 

“As my father was ailing, I remember one of the nights he said, ‘stick with the game of golf. I think you have a future,’ ” says Cameron. “He died when I was 13. I continued to make putters in my garage through high school and early parts of college. I would make them for my buddies on the mini-tours.”

Cameron has come a long way from that garage. Today he has a facility in San Marcos where his artisans handcraft all of his custom models, as well as two foundries where he oversees the more mass-produced putters that go out with the Titleist brand, all bearing the Scotty Cameron name. The more mass-produced putters still can cost you $300. The custom putters can go for as much as $14,000.

Cameron’s pursuit of putting perfection is a long, complex undertaking, stemming in no small part from his thoughts about becoming a pro golfer in the early 1980s. He determined he wasn’t good enough—and as much as anything, putting was holding him back. The essential question was, why would that be? 

“I was always intrigued with how the putter swung,” says Cameron. “You’ve heard all the stories—it should be square to square, there is an arc to it, what’s the truth? There’s loft to it. Didn’t make any sense to have any loft, you want it along the ground, you don’t want it in the air. What’s true?”

The journey to answering this question was long, but was fueled by his undying passion for the putter. It ultimately led to the conclusion that the purest putter was made of the purest material and that hand milling a putter out of a piece of steel rather than casting a putter out of molten metal would produce the purest contact, the truest roll. It took years (and more than a few bucks) for him to figure it all out, to convince the best players in the world that what he had discovered was true. It also took him stints with several different club and putter companies, Maxfli, Ray Cook, Mizuno, Cleveland. All the while he was inspired by iconic putter maker T.P. Mills, who hand-milled his putters.

Cameron eventually was able to put together an elaborate high-speed camera with a computer-driven system that would show him precisely what happens when the putter hit the ball, and, ultimately, what type of putter was best for each individual player. 

“You read books and everybody has a different story. You needed the facts about what the ball has to do, what the truth is about the putting stroke,” says Cameron. “So I ended up developing a system of high-speed video to find out what I was after—what the golfer did to the putter and what the putter did to the ball. It was absolutely amazing, the findings, what truly happened.”

Among his surprising findings, he discovered that there really needs to be loft on a putter—ideally four degrees—so the golf ball doesn’t get stuck in the grass on initial contact, which would delay and corrupt its roll. Developing this system helped Cameron figure out what was awry in his own putting.

“When I had a new putter I made for myself I putted great for about two weeks. Then I’d start analyzing it, what I didn’t like about it,” he says. Then his advantage became a disadvantage. “I would always say how could I get the ugly out? Was it too big? Was it too shallow? And start thinking so much about the putter, then I would start to putt poorly. I would give them away to friends. I would analyze everything to the hilt instead of working on putting. It wasn’t until I built my first studio and could answer all my questions that I have now become a good putter.”

Today, Cameron is a two-handicap who plays upwards of three times a week, with Wednesday rounds dedicated to testing different putters and grips. 

Cameron established his own company to produce his putters in the early ’90s and combed the PGA Tour to find players who would use them and buy into his story. He got a big break when Bernhard Langer used one of  Cameron’s putters to win the 1993 Masters. 

The Scotty Cameron Futura.
The Scotty Cameron Futura.

To make converts, Cameron also took a close look at the putters made by an industry legend. “Karsten Solheim [the founder of Ping] made phenomenal putters,” says Cameron. Pings were cast, made from molten metal, unlike Cameron’s putters that were milled from solid metal. “When you liquefy the metal, when it cools down, sometimes air pockets don’t escape,” claims Cameron. “They have craters, from the air pockets settling in. I took a Ping putter, doing it for Payne Stewart, he wanted the face milled—cutting the face flat. Doing that to some of the Ping putters I found there is a porosity, air pockets throughout the face.”

Cameron’s method was different. “My deal was by taking a block of steel and milling the putter out of that block you can have no pin holes, no air pockets, no voids in the face area,” he says. “That was more my spiel, spreading the word [that] we can make it truer, more pure, control the weight. To mill it from a block of steel is very expensive.”

It was his association with noted teacher and television commentator Peter Kostis, and his association with Tiger Woods’ childhood coach John Anselmo, that eventually catapulted him into the putter stratosphere.

“Scotty had a garage operation at the beginning of his career,” says Kostis. “He produced quality products. T.P. Mills did garage putters that were hand-milled and customized. Scotty was duplicating what T.P. Mills was doing. T.P was close to retirement. The putters that both of those guys made were highly sought after, highly customized to the individual and I liked the products that Scotty made.”

At the 1993 Western Open, Kostis and Cameron were having a chat, one that would turn Cameron’s career on a decidedly upward climb.

“I’ve been involved with Titleist for quite some time and I realized they were expanding into the club business and all they had was the old Bulls-Eye putter,” says Kostis. “So they desperately needed a fresh line of putters and Scotty desperately needed some financial backing and business acumen if he was going to get bigger. He was okay running a small business, but he wasn’t good running a big business. I thought the two would be a perfect marriage.”

Kostis mentioned Cameron to Wally Uihlein, president and CEO of Titleist parent Acushnet Co., who met Cameron and forged a deal. “I’m still waiting for a nice Latour or nice bottle of wine from Scotty for this,” jokes Kostis, “but he’s slow to pay.”

Uihlein draws a great distinction between putters and other golf clubs. “Putters are not golf clubs,” he says. “Putters are ball ‘on the ground,’ whereas golf clubs are ball ‘in the air.’ ”

Uihlein, who is retiring in January, had much to do with expanding the Cameron brand, and was a driving force in Cameron’s patenting of his high-speed video system and many other elements of the design and build process of his putters.  

“If you look back at those putters that have had any sustained traction,” says Uihlein, “they were originated and first brought to market by the individual who inspired the product. Putters are less a laboratory invention but more a performance and artistic work of inspiration. We recognize this product category reality, and it was this appreciation for the putter category as an independent entity that contributed to Scotty being comfortable with the association with Titleist.”

And putters are highly personal. It’s Cameron’s deep personal connection to the putter that Uihlein sees as the key to his extraordinary success.

Uihlein’s deal with Cameron was a major step in his rise to stardom, but it was Uihlein’s signing of the wunderkind, Tiger Woods, to play and endorse Titleist products, that sent Cameron through the roof. 

When Cameron was trying to become a pro golfer (he went to Orange Coast College but never graduated) he took some lessons from John Anselmo, who at the time was teaching the young Woods. Cameron played at the Navy Golf Course in Los Alamitos, and he would see Tiger, who was about nine years old at the time, playing with his father Earl. “I would get a lesson from John and I would see Tiger and say hello,” says Cameron.

That hello would eventually turn into getting a Scotty Cameron putter into Woods’ incredibly talented hands when he was a junior. After a sensational amateur career in which Woods used several Cameron putters, he turned pro in 1996 after his second year at Stanford and he signed with Titleist. At the Las Vegas Invitational that fall, Cameron arrived with a battery of different putters, knowing by this time that Woods was extremely finicky about his flatsticks and had a keen sense of its feel and weight. Using one of them, Woods won his first professional tournament—the 1996 Las Vegas Invitational—in a playoff with Davis Love.

In 1999, with Woods sputtering in the putting statistics, Cameron built a Newport 2 putter early in the week of the Byron Nelson Classic. A FedEx truck was waiting at the door for Cameron to finish it, which included a last-minute weight adjustment that required drilling two small holes into it to reduce its weight and filling those holes with red machinist ink, which in itself became part of the Cameron esthetic. Woods shot 61 in the opening round but couldn’t keep the run going and finished seventh. 

This model would become the basis for the Newport 2 putter that Woods used to such dramatic success. Right after the tournament, Cameron provided him with another one, made with pure German stainless steel. Woods wielded it for 11 years, winning 63 PGA Tour victories, 13 major championships and cashing checks for $87 million.

“Tiger is a genius athlete,” says Cameron. “He would come in at least twice a year and he knew something was off, but he couldn’t pinpoint it.” That’s where Cameron’s video system came in. Woods would look over his putts, again and again. “He would look on the screen and say ‘That’s it,’ ” says Cameron. “Within 15 minutes he could fix it with one stroke.”

It didn’t hurt business that there were a million camera views of Woods putting beautifully with the Scotty Cameron stamping in full focus. One of those viewers watching was a kid in Dallas named Jordan Spieth.

“For me, I was a huge Scotty Cameron putter fan well before I was able to get any,” says Spieth. “Back before I was 10 years old I would be with all the juniors at the club I grew up at and we would look online at pictures of Tour players with their Scotty Camerons and their head covers, Tiger being the most famous one.”

As Spieth’s accomplishments as a junior player accrued, he came to the attention of Cameron and his staff, and visited the Cameron operation when he was 15. His teenage signature is there today on a series of autograph boards in the Cameron studio along with many of the game’s greats. 

Cameron’s Newport Putters.
Cameron’s Newport Putters.

“I was nervous going in,” says Spieth, who was awed by the high-tech lesson he received while testing putters. “I was hitting with a putter I liked that was rolling the best and they said ‘it is yours, let’s go stamp it.’ ”

Spieth didn’t meet with Cameron on that first visit, but he felt his presence. “I was told that Scotty was in a window watching me putt and that made me nervous right there,” says Spieth, who met Cameron himself on his second visit. “He watched a lot of putts, didn’t say much, asking me how I liked my putter. I wasn’t even in college yet and I was getting to meet this guy I looked up to, admired for what guys were able to do with his putters over the years.”

Spieth still has that first putter, and used  a Scotty Cameron models to win a Masters and U.S. Open in 2015 and the British Open in 2017. He has a story about one of them that went missing.

“In late 2015 I see online there is a putter of mine for sale going for something like $8,000 on Ebay,” says Spieth. “They said it was one I used to win a tournament, which wasn’t accurate. I sit there and think, these [Scotty Cameron] guys have done so much for me and they might think I sold this to a shop. I found out where the shop was.” Spieth found the number and called the shop, via Facetime, demanding to know how they ended up with one of his putters. It turns out it was taken from a wall where he had hung some of his putters as art.  “Someone who had been over to the place I lived where I hung all these putters up on a wall…It was the friend of one of my roommates. I called him, it was a big ordeal.”

Spieth then called Cameron to explain. “I was really nervous,” he says, and he began apologizing. But Cameron was understanding. “Do you know how many of my putters are for sale online?”

Spieth remembers Cameron telling him. “I know you are not struggling for five grand. Don’t think for a second I thought that was your fault.”

Justin Thomas is both friend and rival of Spieth and also a Cameron putter user. His player-of-the-year 2017 season was accomplished using a Scotty Cameron Futura putter developed for him at the start of the year. Thomas shot a 59 in winning the Hawaiian Open and won his first major championship, the PGA.

Unlike Spieth, Thomas was not working well with the Newport model. “He came in here and said I’m having trouble with alignment. We had a new mallet out—the Futura— because it’s sort of futuristic looking,” says Cameron. “We could see with his Newport style he didn’t line it up very well. When he got something bigger with more definite lines, the difference was dramatic.”

Cameron’s philosophy has been to get his putters in the hands of the best players, and with their success, success trickles down to him—though it has been more of a torrent than a trickle. At the Scotty Cameron retail gallery in Encinitas, California the average Joe looking for way-above-average gear can have his stroke analyzed with a high-speed camera system just like the pros and have a putter custom made to his specifications. Replicas of Spieth’s or Rickie Fowler’s putters will set you back around $8,500. 

Golfers can also custom design their own putter on the Scotty Cameron website, which allows a highly detailed process and access to the full range of his cult-status flatsticks. “Once a week we offer, online, eight putters that sell from $2,500 to $14,000,” says Cameron. “We sell them in eight minutes.”

Cameron continues to hone the craft that has served him well for more than 30 years, milling himself a dream career out of a block of steel. 

Jeff Williams is a Cigar Aficionado contributing editor. 


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