John Saksun passed away recently.
Most golfers don’t have any idea who he was or what he meant to the game, but those who are insiders remember him.
John arrived in Canada at age 16, escaping the wartime Nazi occupation of his homeland, Czechosolvakia, and acquired a job as a machinist.
He had little formal education due to resettlement, but he did have a gift for dedicated effort and perseverance which led to his achieving a high standard of excellence with precision work.
Saksun’s abilities led him from the manufacturing of tank radar and bomber manufacturing contracts to ultimately forming his own company, Queensway Machine Products Ltd.
In spite of his humble demeanor, he was an outgoing man aided by his large physical size and disarming smile. He gave off an aura of confidence without being arrogant.
Upon a first introduction you quickly knew he loved life and that he was incredibly intelligent, not about to waste his own time or that of others. John Saksun was plainly a gentle giant.
As his business grew, he became interested in playing golf. Its intricacies were a perfect match for his inquisitive mind. Ball flight laws paralleled aeronautics. The golf swing provoked his curiosity and club making and club design were a dream come true with his machinist’s background.
For a while in the late 1960s and early 1970s he dabbled with a variety of experiments and questions without much success.
Basically, information he collected was from old-time club makers who were artisans building clubs by eye, with standards handed down from teacher to apprentice. Shaping club heads/faces, altering lies and lofts, determining roll and bulge were supported by opinions garnered from champion golfers who played by feel and the description they gave to custom club makers.
Clubs were customized totally through player feedback. Until then, there were few custom club making devices used for measuring results other than swing weight, dead weight, lie/loft, grip size and total length, little existed.
John started asking questions and found a great disparity between what club manufacturers thought they knew and what he, as a machinist, could actually measure and prove.
The whole of his talents awakened when the National Golf Club opened in 1975 and he became a member shortly after.
Starting with the head golf professional, Al Balding, here was the best collection of top professionals and skilled amateurs in the country, including George Knudson and Ben Kern.
Where else could a probing, inquiring mind get the answers to his questions? It coincided nicely with the founding of his new golf club manufacturing company, Accuform.
There is a tremendous responsibility on a company in the business of manufacturing airplane parts. he standards are incredibly tight and John carried these forward into the development of his new golf club lines.
Immediately, he encountered a language barrier. Golfers did not speak engineering talk. They spoke in golf terms and therefore could not communicate their thoughts with verifiable accuracy. If a club “looked good” to an experienced eye it was good, but Saksun needed more definitive and quantitative information.
In his machinist’s mind, if it can’t be measured, it can’t be accurately and consistently reproduced. He was a master at it.
As he collected input from the golfers, he took it back to his factory and right-hand man, Ray Summerfeldt, who spoke design as an engineer. Ray determined the golfers only thought they knew certain things but when measured, the golfers were wrong.
For example, John asked everyone who would listen to show him a driver with a “square face.” Inevitably, the face was actually about five to seven degrees open. This look had evolved over about 400 years of club making until it became the accepted standard.
When John showed Ray what was perceived to be a square-faced driver, Ray told him they had better develop new and better ways to measure the club face angles and they did. Based on their findings, a club face that proved to be aligned perpendicular to the target line appeared to the players to be about five degrees closed.
Armed with their new theories, they built several devices for measuring golf clubs and set about manufacturing some of the most accurately designed clubs ever made, namely the Accuform PTM.
When I was the golf director at the Board of Trade Country Club, John was a member. Every day, he had something new, another way of thinking, a theory or even an observation.
In 1992, Davis Love won the Players Championship. Love was an original Accuform player. On the last hole, Davis hit a 197-yard eight iron onto the green. In those days, PGA Tour pros routinely hit an eight iron about 150 to 160 yards.
John asked me what I thought had happened to allow this result.
I said, “It could be a number of factors, including being downwind, adrenalin, the ball landing at 160 and running up 30 yards, a flyer lie, etc.”
John replied “I considered all of those and none of them happened”.
Then, he made a game-changing statement. He said, “He hit a poor shot. He hit the wrong club. Clubs are tools. Each is designed to do a job. Eight irons don’t go 197 yards. Love selected an eight iron, swung it like a driver, covered the required distance and hit a shot that won the tournament.”
Does the end justify the means? If so, why aren’t all irons 40 inches in length? Asking a player to simply blast away, seeking the most yardage with every club? Why be concerned with controlling distance?
Saksun was dumbfounded.
All of his measuring, balancing dedication to building a matched set of tools, each designed to fill a specific need was for no purpose if the best players in the world weren’t going to use them as they were designed to perform.
The artistry, the skill, the imagination and the creativity to play shots as dictated by the lie, the wind, the pin placement, the size of the green, etc. were all compromised by brute strength.
We talked at great length about this ‘new’ style of play which quickly became known as bomb and gouge. It was only one golf shot, but it was the first golf shot under demanding circumstances, where power circumvented all other parts of the equation to an acceptable result.
Another person who built golf clubs with a back ground in design engineering was Karsten Solheim, the founder of PING golf. He honed his skills and brought to the world of golf technological verbiage. He spoke like an engineer which was against the same age old communication skills found in golfers.
Solheim determined that the description of how to manufacture a golf iron as written in the rule book allowed him to change the shape of the grooves in the PING Eye2 irons The USGA disagreed and lawsuits were filed.
Thanks to the work Saksun had performed earlier, Saksun set up methods of measuring the unique grooves and found that PING was in compliance. A viable and acceptable solution was arrived at saving PING hundreds of millions of dollars through a cost effective change.
Golf club design and manufacturing changed because of John Saksun.
The whole industry has been affected greatly by theories and innovations generated within the aerospace field.
John Saksun was at the beginning of a long line of people who influenced golf club design, somebody very few have ever heard of, but those who did know him and work with him realize the game is better for his efforts and contributions.