A Conversation with Tom Slighter of Slighter Golf

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 it’s 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.

My name is Mike Place.  I have over 30 years of machining experience. Although I do not golf on a regular basis, I admire the same high standards golfers expect.  Whether it is a simple adjustment, small modification, or a complete refinishing, I get satisfaction out of applying my same high standards to working on putters; I come to appreciate them for what they are and how important they are to our customers.  
Working with Tom Slighter has been a great experience on all levels.  I have learned so many things about the sport.  I get excited every time I see a new putter come in.  It is an opportunity for me to  use my many years of machining in ways I never thought I would.  Thanks so much to our customers for trusting in Slighter Golf.  Thanks to customer feedback I have come to learn just how important a putter is.
My name is Will Borg.  I have been a machinist for over 15 years.  I have always liked working with metals, whether it is welding, milling, or fabricating.  “To make something that didn’t exist into something that someone can enjoy is very rewarding.”  I have been lucky enough to have worked with Tom and learn from one of the best, and learning all the fine details that go into building high end putters.
Mike Place & Will Borg of Slighter Golf
I’m Jason Smith. I’ve had the pleasure of Tom’s acquaintance for more than 12 years. Since our introduction, I have been extremely enthused to work with Tom designing, machining putters and the occasional day on the course. I have a real passion for golf, I grew up on a golf course and have been playing since I was a little boy. These days, I enjoy the game with my entire family, especially my son Preston. Preston played varsity golf on the local high school golf team. Anytime we want to test out a new prototype, Preston quickly volunteers to take on the task. 
Along with golf, I’m passionate about manufacturing, specifically designing and producing product. I’ve had the pleasure of designing product used all over the world and beyond, from the bottom of the ocean to outer space. It’s nice to see literally millions of components in use, designed with my team, but nothing is more satisfying than playing a game with something so innocent as a high-quality putter co-designed and CNC machined with Tom Slighter. Being 50 years old, I havemade an enormous circle of friends and resources throughout my life. That being said, I hold very few on a throne as high as I hold Tom Slighter, when it comes to excellence as a human being. I am truly grateful to be working along side of him, I look forward to many more years.
I thoroughly enjoy my family time especially now that I have more time with my wife, Bonnie.  I cannot thank my family enough for being there for me in so many meaningful ways.  I used to work 7 days a week for a combined 70 hours at my day job and the putter business for 18 years.  I embraced every minute developing my putter business through the ups and downs.  I met so many interesting people along the way that I would not exchange for the world.  
 Partnering up with my dear friend, Jason Smith has allowed me, for the most part to retire from the putter business. I am now able to golf twice a week, snorkel, fish, work out in the gym, hang out with Bonnie at the beach, basically
enjoy a whole different period of my life. 
 Jason is a very gifted and brilliant machinist, incredible business entrepreneur, and down right kind hearted individual. It is an honor to work with Jason and his team.  Working with Mike Place and Will Borg who are gifted machinists in their own right have honed 
their skills to that of the golf industry.  They have increased the skillset of Slighter Golf to an entirely different level.  
Amy Reems, our office manager, Sarah Clogston, our office assistant and Justin Crawford, our consultant have a passion for our business and provide incredible service to our customers. I am truly honored to have the opportunity of working with each 
one of them in our effort to meet the needs of our customers.  

Thank you so very much.
A Conversation with Tom Slighter of Slighter Golf

An Interview with Carter Penley of Penley Sports

Penley with logo

Readers who are familiar with my writing know of my fascination and respect for US manufacturers of, well, pretty much anything. The commercial forces of the day seem destined to make the US ever more of a consumer and ever less of a builder every year. Those who continue to choose to make their products in the US are now a hardy few who must enjoy the manufacturing equivalent of swimming upstream,

Carter Penley of Penley Sports is a guy like that. He and his company are dedicated to producing their product one at a time, right here in Southern California. Not only that, but Carter is on the production floor every day, ensuring that each shaft meets both his design and manufacturing criteria. It’s also interesting to me that Penley places a good deal of his design focus on amateur players rather than tour pros. Aren’t the pros good enough? Don’t they enjoy the lion’s share of the benefits of most technological advancements anyway? I’m truly honored that a true legend in the golf industry has taken the time and expended the effort of an interview.

Paul Cervantes: When it comes to the golf industry, most players seek the latest in technology. What materials and / or technological innovations do you see on the horizon for premium golf shafts? Will these new materials benefit the average player or will most of the rewards be to the “better” and tour players?

Carter Penley:
Materials are primary to the design of golf shafts as is in all products that incorporate CFE (Carbon Fiber Epoxy) and is the primary driver in the design solution and DSO (Design Service Objective).

Technical innovations not only incorporate materials but require knowledge of and the analysis of the entire lay-up schedule to calculate the compressive/loading strength to perfect the best geometric shape to generate to most efficient load path from tip to butt of the golf shaft.

The advantage of CFE is the freedom of design it affords the composite engineer over metals.

As for on the horizon I am focusing on several design criterion. Number 1 on the list is to incorporate new/exotic materials to enhance playability for all levels of player, 2nd is a quasi-monolithic laminate schedule to advance a more stable performance platform and 3rd is geometry.

As mentioned above my designs tend to lean more toward the average player more than the touring pros. In reality the touring pro being the much better player (usually) is not my first choice for testing because they are so skilled that if there is a problem / defect in a design that in a couple or so hits they will pick up on the problem right away and correct for it and say it plays OK or good, well, that gives me a false positive, therefore I may put into production a less than perfect golf shaft.

In aerospace, testing is performed to fail structures, not to pass them.

Paul Cervantes As a follow up to the first question, how do you equate technological advancements in available materials and innovation to the importance of design and manufacturing precision?

Carter Penley:

As for equating the importance of technological advancements / designs I rate my most critical analysis requirements for me are as follows; laminate schedule analysis represents ~ 50%, materials represent ~30% and ~20% for geometry calculations. Manufacturing processes and fiber alignment although not listed above, to me are critical to the overall analysis for quality and performance of the Penley product(s) and is another reason why I manufacture all my shafts in the USA.

I firmly believe that I need to be in the plant and on the manufacturing floor each and every day to insure all product is manufactured exactly to my design and quality level.

Paul Cervantes: Penley shafts are made in San Diego under your supervision. What are some specific shortcomings that come from overseas manufacture. How much cheaper is it to make shafts offshore?

Carter Penley:

In my opinion the major short comings of overseas manufacturing is control of the manufacturing processes for the Manufacturing Engineer and Quality Assurance Inspector to have the ability to make corrections instantly on the floor during a manufacturing run before hundreds or thousands of bad product is shipped to the customer(s).

Prior to a full production release as a part of my quality assurance program I will, especially for new product, require a 10% pre-production run. The pre-production run is to provide a baseline to verify that the full production run will meet and or exceed all specifications of the shafts physical and mechanical properties. After which all production runs will be subjected to a 10% AQL.

When it comes to the cost of producing product in the US versus offshore it is of course much less expensive for a host of reasons. Primarily are labor cost; particularly in Asia, which I have heard that maybe are as much as 90% less. When NAFTA came along and the large shaft manufacturing companies ran to Mexico, hourly wages were $2-$3/hour and the manufactures on this side of the border just 20 miles north of Mexico were paying $12-$15 / hour.

Secondly the overhead cost are also much less approximately 70% -80% or less than we were paying on this side of the border and the same for facilities and utilities.

Thirdly, last but not least are the state and federal rules, regulations, permits, taxes, fees and a plethora of never ending environmental regulations and won’t even attempt to go into comparing the labor law regulations and conditions! This alone can eat up a good 15% – 20% of your profit compared to off shore companies where most of the above cost is little to non-existent in most overseas countries.

Paul Cervantes: What is your opinion of the practice of many major club manufacturers that install shafts that look like the “retail” version of a shaft but then label it with a “designed for” designation to differentiate it?

Carter Penley:

Decorating shafts specifically for an OEM club company is not unique per se. I have done that for many club companies but my shafts are my designs only, and what you see in that club is the same as all the other shafts I have in my finished goods inventory; the only difference is the shaft they buy from me may have their name on it, but will say “Powered by Penley.” These shafts in our Part Numbering System’ (‘C’ Code) are referred to as private label product. The only difference, if any, is the base coat color and the decoration.

I never sold a private label shaft line to any OEM that said “Designed for or by Ping, Titleist or whomever” that I did not design from the ground up and did not meet my design and engineering standards; that would tarnish my reputation, and would be somewhat duplicitous. My name is worth more to me than the money.

If the original shaft manufacturer did not put their name or mark on the shaft then I would think that the statement “Designed for or by Ping, Titleist or whomever” may indicate that it is different than the original retail product, unless it was actually designed by the “whomever” which in my opinion would be highly improbable.

Obviously the main driving factors for cost are materials and labor. The first item would be CFE. Purchasing a lower grade, reduce the CFE layup schedule per design requirement also resulting in less inspection / QA time.

In my opinion all the above cost saving items are usually done at the expense of performance/quality. But when the question of cost versus performance / quality is broached the general response is: “We make a million clubs a year and if I save one dollar a club that’s another million dollars to our bottom line.” A club builder who worked for a well-known golf component company also added to the statement, “Besides most golfers can’t play good enough to tell the difference anyway.”

Paul Cervantes: Let me extend the question a bit with an example…

Let’s say there’s a shaft you can buy from your local club builder called the “Long & Straight” for $275.

But, when you go to buy a new driver you see one that has a version of the “Long & Straight” installed BUT it also says “designed by ping, titleist, or whomever” that looks like retail version yet the entire driver costs only $299.

So, the questions would be:

1) Are the two shafts really the same or did the shaft manufacturer make two versions of the shaft?

2) If they’re different, how are they different and how do the changes affect performance?

The fear would be that the club company would use the cache of a “$250” shaft to sell their driver yet the actual performance of the shaft would be less since the design and construction are different (lesser) than the retail version.

Or, the retail and “designed by” shafts really are identical which would mean the retail version was wildly overpriced.

Carter Penley: 

To further the thought you are putting forth there are several advantages for the club companies to use a well-known branded shaft. One of which is of perceived quality and or performance which obviously enhances the club companies marketing, promotion and sales success in which the club company can capitalize on the shaft companies claims mentioned above without any consequences of their puffing/hype reflecting on them.

I have seen some extremely high priced golf shafts and this subject has been noted by others (for example, John Muir’s Clubmaker Report Do You Need a $700 Golf Shaft?(4/18/2018) and I’m not sure how they got to that price but maybe they have arrived at that price legitimately, but in my opinion I don’t see how anybody could justify that price. Possibly they know something I don’t?

A second advantage is that the larger offshore shaft companies have is deep pockets and very large marketing budgets and this is not missed by the club companies because they too gain from the benefits of their marketing budgets which basically helps the larger offshore shaft companies close the deal and in some cases consequently eliminating the smaller independent companies.

Third is cost, which should be #1. This is the major item that really contributes to their bottom line and the smaller independent shaft companies take the biggest beating here again when club companies want to cut cost.

My basic business philosophy is not to criticize or make disparaging remarks about my fellow Made in the USA competitors whether it be pricing and or quality / performance of product. But I can give you some input that may influence cost at some shaft companies.

How they apply or place value is their sole decision and in some cases in my opinion they will push the envelope.

  1. Material cost, labor cost and overhead cost are of a few and they come with mark-ups and yield analysis, this is where most cost get inflated.
  2. What price will the customer bear?
  3. Greed.

In my opinion these three items are a few of the major price drivers beyond design and performance criteria; not necessarily in this order.

Paul Cervantes: Aside from cost, is there any advantage to steel over graphite when it comes to shafts for irons? Do lower swing speeds and high total club weight shift the balance back toward steel at all or should we all be moving toward graphite in all of our clubs?

Carter Penley: 

The short answer is no. There is no reason why a graphite (CFE) iron golf shaft cannot perform as well or better than steel iron shafts.

In the mid-late nineties I observed that many high school and college golf teams and a few PGA players were also playing graphite irons and realized that sometime in the near future that graphite would soon be more popular on the PGA tour and I wanted to get ahead of the curve.

I began a graphite iron design project and designed a set of graphite irons in the late 1990s / early 2000s. The first cut was called the Power Iron System, the Design Solution took ~2 years and ~$200K, and I was now ready to fabricate the first prototype set. The DSO consisted of the following, a full set of iron shafts (1-10) perfectly matched with progressive CPMs, descending torque values, and an internal weighting system that I had to develop that would yield a constant swing weight throughout the entire set no matter whose iron heads you installed and all shafts were precut to length ready to install with no tipping required and came in two weight sets 105g and 115g to start, but the design envelope could accommodate 135 grams plus.

All testing was very encouraging and went well but my partner(s) decided to put the company up for sale against my wishes and without my consent. At that time I pulled the plug on all ongoing projects including the Power Iron System.

Despite all the turmoil I had this burning desire to see how good my theory / design was. I arranged to build two sets for two very well-known PGA tour players both of whom had won major PGA events I believe one had won ~20 major wins the second player had 2 major wins and neither one had played with graphite iron shafts, I believe, but for sure I know that one of them had never played graphite iron shafts. With both playing the ‘Power Iron System’, one won a major event at his second or third event out and the other player won his very first event! So far looks like graphite iron shafts are up to the task!

It is my belief that graphite irons are still a viable design and is on the PGA’s horizon, at least still on my horizon. It also appears that my design was far enough ahead of today’s designs that it still is my opinion they can be successful and I plan to bring the Power Iron System back again?

Paul Cervantes: As a designer, what are you working toward in the next generation of Penley shafts?

Carter Penley:

Currently we are working on the marketing and sales distribution of our latest designs the ET2 Pro-Series, ET3 Quasar, Hybrid HH2, and Platinum Fairway woods. All incorporating the newly developed TBAR™ (Tip to Butt Aspect Ratio) theorem.

TBAR™ algorithm has been 5 years in development primarily a manufacturing process yielding the tightest tolerances in today’s golf shaft design bringing to the golf industry the best performing golf shafts, matched by no other golf shaft manufacturer.

See ‘TBAR™’ white paper on Penley web site Penley Golf Shafts ‘TBAR™, part 1 thru part 6.

T-BAR™ White Paper

Also on the drawing board for the near future are:

Q.M.I.T. (Quasi Monolithic Integrated Technology). My hypotheses is that a common defect in the structural design and physical properties which is inherent in tapered tubes because of the traditional geometric shape of the golf shaft. Basically this fault is more prevalent in drivers and also exist in irons too, creating an uneven offset load path that currently cannot be avoided. This affects all level of players to some degree and often leads to the compounding of their off center ball strikes (miss-hits) and also can cause erratic ball flight which will cause the player to start second guessing their swing technique and or lose confidence in their long/short game. If my working hypotheses is correct and proves out it will cause a paradigm shift in today’s golf shaft design for years to come!

A second generation project will be under study soon and is referred to as the Black Magic project and basically consist of a combination of exotic materials that exhibit unique micro mechanical property advantages over the more commonly used materials used in today’s golf shaft.

I’m looking at these materials to primarily design the next generation long drive (and future Penley tour level golf shafts) that will have a much more robust load bearing platform to withstand the ultra-high butt to tip load path and radial torque loads generated by today’s top long drive pro. In 2005, Scott Smith set the world record at 539 yards in an official LDA competition using a PENLEY shaft. His record still stands today. Look for 600 yard drives soon!

 

An Interview with Carter Penley of Penley Sports