I’ve followed Tom Slighter of Slighter Golf for a long time, all the way back to the days when I consulted to Jim Von Lossow of Von’s Golf. Back then, I was very impressed by the purposeful look of Slighter’s early putters.
A while back, while researching new putter companies, I happened across the Slighter Golf website again and realized that the guy who had been a relative newcomer way back when had become one of the stallworts of the independent putter craft.
And here I emphasize the word craft. CNC and 3D printing are amazing and I am glad I live in a world where they exist and help make our lives easier. But, craft is as important as programing. Tom Slighter is a man with the rare ability to take an idea and make it real and to give it a kind of soul.
The putters Slighter Golf makes are more than mere tools or products. Rather, they’re invested with something of the man himself and that’s what appeals to me about Slighter Golf. I want to thank Tom and his entire team for being so generous with their time.
Paul Cervantes Back when you started out there weren’t many small putter companies in the US or anywhere for that matter. What made you decide to make your own putters?
Tom Slighter I first began changing grips and shafts on my own clubs in 1990. Later that year I began repairing golf clubs for local clubs in Salem, Oregon for several years. I was able to repair golf clubs for pay and free golf. I was working for State Farm insurance at the time and in 1998, I transferred to Seattle, WA. The golf courses in that area already had golf club repair shops so I did not pursue club repair. I had about 30 putters of my own that I decided to sell and pay off some debt from the move. I used eBay to sell my putters and after selling all of them I realized there might be a market to refinish putters and sell them on eBay.
I began refinishing putters in 1999 and used eBay to sell the putters I had refinished. I didn’t notice any one else refinishing putters at that time so I received numerous requests for refinishing work. After working on hundreds of putters and slowly building up my shop with equipment I decided to design my own putter. I looked all over the Seattle area for a machinist to help me make my putter. After being turned down multiple times, I found a machinist who had a small machine shop in Arlington, Washington who was willing to assist me.
I spent a year prototyping a design and after many attempts we made my first putter I named the Seattle. I manufactured twenty-seven Seattle putters and listed one on eBay in September 2002. I was very nervous that it would not sell and be embarrassed. To my surprise it did sell and in fact I sold out of the rest of the Seattle putters shortly thereafter. I then designed the Tacoma, Bellevue, etc. I purchased my first knee mill and started to learn how to use it. I watched my machinist and practiced frequently. I continued to develop my skills on the milling machine and became fairly proficient. I began building a good size shop with all the necessary equipment to specifically work on putters. I had become nearly a completely self-sufficient machine shop that strictly was for building putters. I could see that building and refinishing putters was beginning to be fairly lucrative. I applied for my business license under Slighter Golf, developed a website and was off and running.
Paul Cervantes These days there are a whole slew of New Kids on the Block making putters, companies like Brandon Matthew, Logan Olson’s Olson Manufacturing & Tyson Lamb are a few that come to mind. In some ways, it seems like it must have gotten easier for a new company to get started (because of CNC, 3D printing and the like). Are you glad you got your start when you did or would you rather get a putter company off the ground today (assuming you were twenty years younger)?
Tom Slighter I have noticed over the last 10 years there have been quite a few new and very talented putter designers. Some are very gifted and may very well be the leaders in the industry. The CNC process is pretty much the same, but the machines have more memory, newer programs and capabilities. I never did learn to program however I wish that I had. I was too busy making putters to really dive into that aspect. There are many great programmers, but I believe they should learn how to build a putter from the bottom up by hand. Very few of those individuals are still around. In my opinion, watching a craftsman build a putter from a solid block of steel using a knee mill is fun to see. I am very proud to have started when I did many years ago, when there were only a few of us putter makers. Even then, it was a very difficult market to break into with so many trusted putter makers already on the market.
Paul Cervantes I mentioned earier that I consulted to Jim Von Lossow (founder of Von’s Golf) when he was still making putters back in the 90s. At the time keeping up with production was an ongoing challenge for his company. As back order and lead times got longer customers got impatient. What are lead times like for a new Slighter putter? Is it a challenge to keep up or do you and your team have it down?
Tom Slighter Jim Von Lossow is a pioneer in his own right. I remember meeting him in the early 2000s. He was very well known in the Seattle area for club repair, fitting and putter design. I, unfortunately, did not chat much with Jim about his line of putters but I am sure he struggled with keeping up with demand and dealing with the reliability of machinists. My early years, I was always backed up with orders. I remember being ninety putters behind and fulfilling orders as quickly and efficiently as I could. I was always up front with my customers on lead-time and followed up with progress updates. I would not sell a putter to anyone who paid more for a rush order. It was not fair to my other customers. I have a wonderful team today that can typically produce a custom putter in two weeks or less.
Paul Cervantes What’s your favorite material to work with? And, I mean both from an ease of production perspective and from the perspective of the quality of the resulting putter?
Tom Slighter I enjoy milling carbon steel as it is very soft and cuts like butter; not a fan of welding on carbon because it is so dirty. I love to weld on stainless steel because it so clean to work with. The harder stainless steel metals like 15-5, 17-4, nitronic are difficult to mill and hard on cutters. Copper is like milling gum but easy to stamp. Brass will throw some fine chips and is also easy to stamp but both are just too soft for hosels and do not really offer the best feel. Aluminum is good for larger putters like mallets to keep the weight reasonable; good for inserts and easy to mill.
Paul Cervantes Beyond appearance do you think there’s an actual difference in feel (or sound) between a one-piece head and a putter with a welded hosel? I have a hunch about your answer but I’m very interested to learn what you think.
Tom Slighter I have not noticed any difference in sound or feel between a putter with a welded neck to that of a one-piece putter. If a weld is done correctly, it is very solid.
Paul Cervantes How has your machining equipment and technique evolved over the last couple decades? Do you have any old equipment that you remain dedicated to even though there are newer & better machines out there?
Tom Slighter That is a great question. I have a Sharp TMV-50 Knee mill I purchased new in 2006. I have made countless putters with it and modified hundreds of other putters. I know every inch of that machine and it is definitely my go-to mill. I was lucky to purchase a 1970 Grazziano SAG 12 lathe from a shop that was closing down. The owner had purchased his Grazziano brand new when he started his business in his garage. When I purchased it in 2011 I was the second owner. I have completely enjoyed this lathe ever since. It is an awesome piece of equipment and knowing its past makes it all that much more special. We do have multiple CNC machines for production runs.
Paul Cervantes Tom, this is just me being me and getting in the way of my own interview. I think every putter maker on the planet who makes a Ping Anser variant ought to get out of bed every morning and be thankful that Karsten Solheim was so damn smart. Isn’t it amazing that the essential head shape of the Anser is still as viable as it is? It’s so ubiquitous that putter makers really have to make one, even the young guns and so-called innovators pretty much bow to Redwood City and Phoenix. As an aside I’m always surprised that even though Ping invented the dang thing they’ve nearly forgotten how to make a good one. Sorry, I’m not sure there’s even a question in there but maybe you can help me and tell me your thoughts about Karsten and the Ping Anser and Slighter Golf’s unique spin on it.
Tom Slighter Paul, you have a great understanding of the putter market. I could not agree with you more. PING’s design of the Anser was iconic and in turn was developed into the Anser 2 and Anser 4. Cameron completely redesigned the Anserputters into works of art. He redesigned most of the PING line into works of art. PING had a dynasty in the putter market and in my opinion missed the boat by resting on their laurels. I admire Cameron’s ability to re-invent the wheel so to speak. Genius. When I started out I was intrigued by the old school TaylorMade T.P.A. series. I loved the TaylorMade T.P.A. 8 of the 1980s. I was influenced by their design and incorporated my spin to develop my line.
I did not want to steal an idea but rather take what was already known and make it better. If I could dab into the market that way and gain the trust of my customers anything else I design would be hopefully be accepted. I understood that I was not going to ‘storm’ into the market, but rather work my way in the back door. With that said, it is clear to me that the PING style putters are here to stay in one way shape or form. You can always design a crazy new putter that may flood the market for a while (Cameron Detour is a great example) and then slowly ride off into the sunset. However, I have noticed over the years that customers will fall back on the old classic putters. Re-making them will always be a solid market. PING just hasn’t been able to match anything Cameron has made with respect to the Anser.
Paul Cervantes What’s next for you and your company? Do you want Slighter Golf to evolve into something new over the next decade or are you just happy to keep on keeping on?
Tom Slighter We are steady as she goes at this time. We are looking to expand more in the next year or so. This situation with the pandemic has been interesting to say the least and hopefully when it has settled down more we will begin to develop in areas we have planned. I would also like to say that I don’t do all of this alone and with that in mind I’d like to recognize the rest of my team, Jason Smith, Mike Place & Will Borg.