ORLANDO – The golf industry gathered yesterday at the Orange County Convention Center to celebrate 50 years of Ping, a half century that about everyone agrees is highlighted with remarkable innovation, starting with company founder Karsten Solheim.
Karsten’s son, company chairman and chief executive officer John A. Solheim, talked to the crowd about his father and Ping, cut birthday cake and accepted a crystal vase from the PGA of America and called his own son to the podium to be with him.
John K. Solheim is not to be confused with John A. Solheim. Father and son have their own special places in Ping history, with John K., now vice president of engineering, the heir apparent to lead the company into its second 50 years.
“I kind of see my role as making sure we’re here in another 50 years and hopefully, I’m still around to and can be the old guy up there, cutting the cake,” joked John K., 34.
Like John A., the younger Solheim paid his dues working with Karsten. “In high school, my summer job was following him around. That was actually a pretty busy and hard job. He was very active, so it was a lot of work keeping up with him.”
Although he spent time in the Ping engineering department in those summer months, he says he never felt any pressure to become an engineer. It just came naturally before earning a mechanical engineering degree from Arizona State.
“I was always good at math and I just kind of told myself I want to be an engineer and went to college in mechanical engineering and kind of never looked back. It was something I was good at,” he said.
To hear John K. talk, there are definitely influences of past generations as he chats about the importance of business relationships and the company business model. When you have a grandfather and father so prominent, it’s not likely you will stray too far from business philosophies that have worked for so long.
Being one of the longest-running companies in golf means having a wealth of knowledge about what works and what doesn’t work. Technologies come and go in golf, but it’s an advantage when you can call on established wisdom of the past.
“There’s definitely been times when there’s been a product that had a big focus on it from a design perspective and maybe the next time around, we didn’t focus on that aspect as much,” said Solheim, adding that out of sight doesn’t always mean out of mind and that past technology success can always be called on again.
“We’re always learning, we’re always gaining knowledge, so the latest designs are a reflection of what we know at that time and we’re constantly building knowledge,” he said. “The one benefit of being around awhile is we do have a wealth of knowledge and we have seen how far golf clubs have come.”
While John K. is obviously respectful of the company’s past, he is currently writing a new chapter. It’s been hinted that new innovations from Ping aren’t far off and, while nothing has been mentioned specifically, Solheim sees some trends developing.
While Ping’s Advanced Fitting System and nFlight softwear are currently cutting edge, you get the feeling that it won’t stop there.
“One thing we’re really focused on right now is fitting, not only leading in design and that technology aspect, but we realize you can have the greatest designed driver in the world, but if it’s not fit for the individual golfer, they, they’re not going to benefit from all that technology,” he said.
“We’ve spent a lot of time and effort recently bringing the fitting technology up to pace with the design technology that’s already in the equipment, so each golfer, no matter how unique their swing is, they can find a Ping club that’s going to work for their swing.”
With that in mind, another focus may shift towards what exactly is in a golfer’s bag.
“One of the new focuses, from both a fitting and club design perspective, is just the mix of a set,” he said. “When I grew up playing as a kid, you still had a two iron. You had a three wood and a driver and now, thinking about it, for a junior with a slower swing speed, that’s probably the worst set makeup you can have.
“How many fairway woods do you play, what lofts of fairway woods, when do hybrids make sense, how many and what lofts and then, where should your irons start? I see a lot of game improvement coming from getting the best clubs for that individual throughout their set.”
As Ping celebrates its past, it is looking into the future. The ultimate indicator of how well the company’s future leader does will come when the old guy is cutting the birthday cake to celebrate Ping’s 100th anniversary in January, 2059.