Now that the British Open is underway and the dust has settled—sort of—on Tiger Woods’ decision to switch putters, PutterZone.com now takes a closer look at where Woods’ Nike Method putter fits into the larger putting universe.
Specifically, we are delving into the “ultra-premium” putter category to which the Method putter belongs, and pondering what it means in the big picture.
If anyone thinks we are overdoing “the decision” coverage here, we disagree. This is a putter-centric site, and Woods’ switch is the biggest putter-specific news story to ever hit the wires. Of course, there have been bigger developments in the putter world, historically speaking, but in terms of straight news stories, this one has no rival. Fan and media interest in Woods’ new putter isn’t just surging. It’s exploding.
Even before last Thanksgiving, a putter switch by Tiger Woods would have been a big story. After all, he wielded his trusty Scotty Cameron putter for a full decade, sinking numerous epic putts while notching 13 major victories and achieving total tour domination. It wasn’t just a putter. It was a virtual fist pump.
But the story of Tiger Woods’ new putter is even bigger today than it would have been last year. Why? Because of the context: the faltering of Woods’ once unbeatable putting game; his inconsistent return to the tour, at times brilliant, at times maddening; the speculation about how his off-course trials might be impacting his performance…And right in the middle of this Dr. Phil moment he announces a high-profile divorce, not from his wife, but from his Scotty Cameron putter. On the eve of the British Open, no less.
How We Got Here
Today we are going to look at the larger context of this putter, and its place in the growing category of what we call “ultra-premium” putters.
So what is an “ultra-premium” putter? Loosely defined, it’s a putter that is costly to make and that carries a price tag to match—typically $250 and above. The putter is typically CNC milled from a solid block of metal (in contrast to casting, in which molten metal is poured into a mold). The putter may or may not have add-ons, such as a face insert. Milled putters are regarded as offering better feel and higher overall quality (and quality control) compared to cast putters. The milling process and base materials are more expensive compared to casting, hence the heftier price tags on milled putters.
(It should be noted that some putters are “skim milled,” meaning that the putter head is cast, and then an outer part of the head—typically the face—is milled into its final shape. Such putters should not be confused with 100-percent milled putters.)
Ironically, the suddenly sidelined Scotty Cameron is synonymous with the ultra-premium category. He wasn’t alone in making high-quality expensive milled putters ten years ago, but he was the one who broke the category wide open and paved the way for others to follow. And follow they did, because today the category is loaded, if not suffering from an outright glut.
We won’t delve too deeply into the Scotty Cameron story, as it has been told a million times. Suffice it to say, he was adopted by Titleist and became the top name in high-end putters. The widespread success of his putters—both on the tours and at the retail level, not to mention the collectors’ market—became the siren song of almost every major golf equipment manufacturer, particularly over the past three or four years.
There were earlier rumblings—such as the T.P. Mills putters by Mizuno and the Never Compromise Milled Series putters. But the dam didn’t burst until fairly recently.
PING Golf, for example, launched its first milled putter line, the PING Redwoods Series putters, a little over three years ago. At that time, Mizuno was rolling out its new line of milled putters in collaboration with designer Robert Bettinardi. Odyssey wasn’t far behind with its Black Series milled putters. The SeeMore Putter Company was reborn with its mSeries milled putters three years ago. In 2008, TaylorMade unveiled its Kia Ma line of milled putters. Yes! Golf rolled out several 100-percent milled putters. Nickent (now defunct) and Tour Edge Exotics were among the others that dipped their toes in the ultra-premium waters. The number of independent makers of artisan milled putters also grew exponentially.
In other words, the inventory of expensive putters swelled nearly overnight. Some golfers guffawed at the notion of a $300 putter (while rarely blinking at $400 drivers that get used a mere dozen times or so per round). But others went wild for them, and the era of the ultra-premium putter was firmly upon us.
Nike Joins The Fray
And then there was Nike Golf, which joined the fray with its Nike Unitized putters ($250) in late 2006. The Unitized putters were forged and then milled into their final shape, and the heads were laser welded to the shaft and nickel plated as a single unit, with no bonds or joints to interfere with the goal of pure response.
The Nike Unitized putters were met with mixed reviews, and Nike was widely ridiculed on golf message boards for going out on a questionable technological limb, which some viewed as mixing peanut butter with their pure milled chocolate. Nike was already seen by many as an interloper in the golf industry, and particularly in the clubby world of putters, and the Unitized putters were derided by many who felt that the company just didn’t “get it” when it came to high-end putters.
The truth is that the Unitized putters weren’t bad. In fact, they were quite good, especially the blades (some of the mallets tested one’s visual patience). But Nike didn’t help itself by releasing numerous inexpensive putters that were truly weak, undermining its putter credibility. Additionally, the Unitized putters just looked and felt a bit cold. In a category in which a sense of craftsmanship is prized, the Unitized putters seemed to have come straight from the laboratory. The head covers were cheap, too—which is a sin in the ultra-premium category.
We assume that Nike Golf licked its wounds before going back to the drawing board. All was quiet for a while. Then, in early 2009, a mysterious new Nike putter emerged on the PGA Tour. It had a distinctive black groove pattern on the face. Speculation abounded, but Nike’s lips were sealed. What was this putter? The buzz grew when Lucas Glover used the putter to win the U.S. Open, and it reached fever pitch when Stewart Cink wielded it to win the British Open.
The putter was, of course, the Nike Method putter—Nike’s second entry into the ultra-premium category. Again, if you want the full story on the technical aspects of this putter, read yesterday’s piece titled The Nike Method Putter Explained. Compared the Unitized putters, the Method was a significant leap forward. The look was more appealing, if still lacking a little artistry. The technology was more compelling. And the head cover was legitimate. It was, in short, the real deal.
Tiger Woods announced his switch to the Nike Method 001 putter on Tuesday, making this the first time he has put another putter into official play since he started gaming his Scotty Cameron Newport 2 putter in 1999. Woods stated that he feels the Method putter gets the ball rolling more quickly, allowing him to make his natural stroke while compensating for the softer greens at St. Andrews. And so far, so good—he shot five under in today’s first round.
The buzz isn’t just surrounding the Nike Method putter, but also the Scotty Cameron empire, and how it might be impacted by this high-profile news. But let’s not jump to conclusions—for all we know, this could simply be a one-week flirtation with the Method putter, and the Cameron putter could be back in Woods’ bag in a few weeks. If there is a backlash against Scotty Cameron putters, we believe it will be driven more by Cameron hype fatigue than the notion that the designer has suddenly lost his touch. Cameron didn’t wake up on Tuesday morning any less capable than he did the previous day. And he still has “scoreboard” over everyone else.
All in all, we believe that this story is great news for the putter industry, and the ultra-premium category in particular. There have been signs that the category was flagging, with not enough demand to keep pace with the surge in high-priced putters amid an uncertain economy.
Surely, it will be a major boost for sales of the Method putters. But we believe that it will also give the entire category a lift, opening many minds to the fact that paying more for a putter may not be so crazy after all, and that all of this talk about milled putters and putter technology may, in fact, be more method than madness.
P.S. Every tour pro uses basic putter fitting principles to his or her advantage. To get the scoop on putter fitting and how it can shave strokes off your score, check out PutterZone.com’s Ultimate Putter Buyer’s Guide.