By BOB HARIG, Times Staff Writer
Many top pros use Bobby Grace's putters with success - and without endorsement fees, the ultimate tribute.
CLEARWATER - Amid the clutter of prototype putters - the various composite materials that go into making them, the machines that form them and the people who operate the machines - are the real signs of success.
They are photographs of some of the most famous golfers in the world, sprinkled about a modest office.
There is Annika Sorenstam and Nick Price and Vijay Singh and Retief Goosen. There could be dozens, perhaps hundreds, more.
At one time or another, just about everyone who is anyone in golf has at least experimented with a Bobby Grace putter. Many have used them in competition. Several have won combined millions of dollars with them, the ultimate endorsement.
"That tells us everything," Grace said. "And when we can say we are the leader in the industry for putters being used by players not being paid, that is actually the coolest thing. And they are successful with it. They've won about $32-million in prize money in the past 20 months."
Grace, 45, is a St. Petersburg native who has had a whirlwind career in the golf club business, finally landing at MacGregor Golf. He is the vice president of putter research and development.
This followed stints making putters in his garage and trying to get PGA Tour players to take a look, a relationship with the Cobra Golf Co. that saw him bought out, a restart of his own company and now his role with MacGregor.
All along, Grace has shown an ability to figure out what works best in putter technology - and deliver.
"You have to have an eye for what might appeal to someone," said Bob Evans, MacGregor's director of tour operations. "I think Bobby has always gone for what functions the best, what rolls the ball the best. What goes in the hole with the fewest number of strokes. Players go for the fact that it makes the most putts."
Grace grew up in St. Petersburg and joined the family real estate business after high school. A fine amateur golfer, his interest in the game grew through a collection of antique clubs, which he began selling and trading.
Over time, it became more than a hobby, a strong enough lure that Grace got into designing putters himself. But it was far from easy.
Grace made putters by hand in his garage, then would go to PGA Tour events, hoping players would try them. Grace would make 20 putters a month, doing almost all the work himself. He managed to get some interest from Japan and sold 10 a month for $400 apiece. That enabled him to get out onto the PGA Tour and hope for the best "until the money ran out."
The best way club manufacturers have found to push their products is to get professionals to use them. The average golfer sees what the pros are playing and wants to play the same thing.
"It's the whole game," Grace said. "It always will be the whole game. For me, it means even more when they are using it by choice (instead of being paid to do so). Because they want to get a better reward by playing with it. When I started, I didn't have a choice. I didn't have a dime. There was no pay program for me. I couldn't keep up."
Grace started designing putters on his own in the early 1990s, then got a break when Nick Price became interested. Grace had been trying for a year to get Price to try one of his putters, and finally succeed in 1994 - right after Price won the British Open.
Price put one of Grace's "Fat Lady Swings" mallet putters in play and went on to win the PGA Championship.
That putter became so popular that Grace had to go from making them in his garage to mass production in a 5,000-square-foot building in St. Petersburg. He had 27,000 orders within two weeks.
Suddenly, Grace was scrambling for workers to fill orders. Within seven months, Grace had to move to a 15,000-square foot building. Soon, he had other models - the "Cute Kid," the "Little Man" and the "Pipsqueek." Sorenstam used a Grace putter to win the 1996 U.S. Women's Open. At that point, his company was selling more than $6-million worth of putters per year.
By 1997, Grace began to field offers for his company and eventually signed a 10-year deal with Cobra. He would design putters with the name "Bobby Grace by Cobra." The arrangement lasted just two years, with Cobra buying out his contract. Grace took a few years away but got the putter bug again. By 2002, he had met Evans, who had previously owned the Chicago Golf company. They went back on tour and started selling putters again.
This time, Grace didn't have to wait long for a company to come calling. MacGregor hired him and Evans.
Among those who have at least experimented with the Grace putters are Singh and Goosen - even though both players now are under contract to other companies. Fred Funk used a Grace model when he won the Players Championship earlier this year.
Others who have used the putters include Billy Mayfair, Stephen Ames, Bart Bryant, Jesper Parnevik, Robert Allenby, Steve Flesch, Jose Maria Olazabal and Hank Kuehne.
Grace remembers the 1992 U.S. Open at Pebble Beach, where Scott Simpson used one of his putters and shot a third-round 68. It was as if Grace himself had won the tournament.
"I was nobody. I was a kid in a garage sweating with steel all over me. Grinding away," Grace said. "And he got one of my hand made putters earlier that year ... and to see it in play at the U.S. Open, shooting 68 at Pebble Beach. Wow."