Welcome back to another installment of History’s Mystery. Think of this as MyGolfSpy’s WABAC Machine for golf. And we think you’ll enjoy speaking today’s installment as much as we did writing it.
If you’re a sports fan of a certain age, there are moments that will be forever lodged in your hippocampus. Take February 22 nd, 1980, for instance. Or January 12 th, 1969. Or a personal favorite, October 27 th, 2004.
For golf fanatics, that day was April 13 th, 1986.
That was the day Jack Nicklaus gave us the thrill of a lifetime with a final round 65 to win his sixth green coat and his 18 th and most implausible major.
And he did it with, at the time, was about the funkiest searching putter you’d ever seen.
This is the story of that putter which, next to Calamity Jane, might be the most famous flatstick of the 20 th Century.
And according to the man who designed it, it was all a complete accident.
Clay Long& The MacGregor ZT Response
“Like a lot of things in R& D, it started out as one thing and then changed as we worked on it, ” says legendary golf-club decorator Clay Long of his most famous creation, the MacGregor ZT Response.
Long wasn’t a legend at the time, though. A 1975 Ole Miss mechanical engineering graduate, Long began his vocation at MacGregor in 1980 as a manufacturing engineer. By 1983 he moved into product development, ultimately becoming Vice President of R& D.
In the mid-’8 0s, MacGregor was in trouble. Jack was the primary owner, but the company was a losing proposition. And its putter business was barely an afterthought. In 1985 MacGregor sold all of 1,200 putters.
Long, ever the tinkerer, expend that springtime working on his latest side project: a “corrective putter” to help golfers line up their putter better.
“We did some research on putter alignment employing a laser, ” Long tells MyGolfSpy. “And this was back when we had a laser about the dimensions of the a shoebox. We found that people, pro or not, didn’t aim very accurately. But they were relatively consistent.”
So, Long and his crew designed a putter with an angled face, either open or closed depending on your aiming tendency. It would help you point the putter in the right direction.
“To do that, we had to build a putter where the topline overhung the face, ” says Long. “You couldn’t determine the face, but under the topline, the face would be open or closed. You would buy a putter based on how you tested.”
To do that, nonetheless, the overhang had to be tall enough so you wouldn’t hit the ball with it. To do that, the putter face had to be big.
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It Worked, But …
Long and his squad utilized CNC milling to make up some prototypes, with MacGregor’s Smoothie putter( an Anser lookalike) serving as the model.
“The face had to be like 32 percent taller to keep the overhang out of the way, ” says Long. “We were just scaling up and made this big, oversized aluminum putter to test the concept.
“That’s how the thing get big-hearted. It didn’t start out as an oversized high-pitched inertia putter. We simply needed it to be deep so the overhang wouldn’t hit the ball.”
Long’s team experimented the putters, and they did exactly as Long had hoped. It looked like MacGregor had something pretty unique- and sellable- on their hands. Then the USGA stepped in.
“The USGA said it was non-conforming because the face has to be flat, ” says Long. “It can’t have this thing sticking out on top of the face. So, we were just like aww man, all the present working and they shot us down. All this work and then, poof.”
As with any good story, this is where fate gives a hand.
“Is This Is a Joke? ”
By 1985, Slotline was selling something called the Inertial Putter. It was a simple die-cast design with produce weights in the heel and toe. It wasn’t oversized, but its MOI was better than anything else at the time.
“We thought maybe we could sell this putter on inertia, ” says Long. “It had way more inertia than the Inertial because it was so big-hearted. We were selling no putters, so there’s wasn’t much risk in something kind of off the wall.”
During MacGregor’s June 1985 sales meeting, R& D invited Jack to check out a new robot they developed to sand lumber brains. Fate, and the layout of MacGregor’s R& D laboratory, forced the group to take a fortuitous path.
“We ambled right by my bureau, and I reached down and grabbed one of the putter prototypes and said to Jack,’ take a look at this.’
“He picked it up, looked at it, looked back at me, and said,’ Is this a joke? ’ That was his comment.’ Is this a joke? ’ I said no and dropped a ball down- we had astroturf for carpet- and had him try it. He reached a couple, set the putter down and said “send me a couple. I’ll try them.’”
About two weeks later Long’s phone echoes and it’s Jack.
“He says,’ you know those putters you transmitted me? Those aren’t half bad.’ I was flabbergasted, ” insists Long. “To say something nice about a product? Jack never did that. He never modified anything he played anyway, but he never said anything nice about a product.
“And to even think about get that George Low putter out of his hands? That would never happening here. But he says,’ it’s not half bad.’ I said do you think we could make a product out of it? And he says’ yeah, I think you could.’”
The Surprise Hit of the PGA Show
After getting the okay from Jack, MacGregor president George Nichols told Long to make up four ZT Response frameworks set to begin at the PGA Show in January of ’8 6.
“We devoted away 200 of them at the prove, ” says Long. “The forecast going into the show was to sell about 6,000 for the year. That was risky considering we only sold 1,200 putters the year before. But we went to the show and booked orders for 5,000. ”
About that time, Jack asked to have some of the putters to be made up in black( the aluminum originals had been silver ). Two weeks later, he shows up on Tour gaming the new ZT Response.
“He’s using it, but he’s playing horrible, ” recollects Long. “That’s probably one of the reasons he tried in the first place. But whenever he’s on Tv, he’s putting with this putter. And leading up to the Masters, “weve had” booked marketings for about 20,000 of them.
“Internally, we were like we couldn’t believe we’re selling this many putters. It was doing great.
“And then he wins the Masters.”
“Maybe…..Yes SIR !”
What happened next is the stuff of legends.
“It was a moment in golf history ,” says Long.” Jack wins, and the next day is just nuts. We sold 5,000 more putters by midday, only over the phone. The orderings were going through the freaking roof.”
Long recollects being hoarse from screaming and wailing while watching Sunday unfold, but later that week he was on a plane to California to get more tooling in place.
“We had to triple up our tooling, and the orderings just deterred rolling in, ” he says.” I think we wound up shipping 150,000 putters in ’8 6. We had orderings for more, but that was all we could make.”
The MacGregor plant in Albany, Georgia is overgrown with weeds now. but Long remembers it as a 250,000 square paw putter-making machine that year.
“The left half of the flower was where we shaped irons. We’d polish and grind and do the plating. There would be racks and racks, probably 6,000 irons on the storey at any given time.
“About six weeks after the Captain, all “youve seen” were racks of Response putters. You couldn’t meet any cast-irons out there at all. It was just crazy .”
ZT Response: Fate Takes A Left
The ZT Response turned MacGregor around. For the first time in apparently forever, the bottom line ink was black instead of red.
“I don’t think we fully understood how much the stars had aligned, ” says Long. “We weren’t doing much advertising and I told George( Nichols) we couldn’t sell this putter unless we clarified it with some ads. So, he agreed to spend $60,000 for 13 weeks of ads in Golfworld, which was the cheapest publication to advertise in.
“As luck would have it, those ads were scheduled to come out in the Masters edition of Golfworld. So, Jack wins, and the next issue comes out with a full-page, full-color ad with Jack holding up his putter saying’ we took the twisting out to take strokes off.’ Seriously, you can’t make this stuff up. But son, it was fun.”
But twists of fate can turn in any direction at any time. Jack’s golf course design business was in deep trouble in 1986, and he needed cash. To get wise, he sold 80 percent of his stake in MacGregor to Amer Sports. And despite the fact MacGregor would eventually sell 350,000 ZT Response putters, Amer had its own ideas.
“I look back on it and think what in the inferno were people guessing, ” says Long. “We started working on an oversized Response metal timber long before the Big Bertha came out. We could have launched ours in 1988, but we couldn’t sell the vision to upper management.
“Sales often wants to merely sell what somebody else is doing well with. But walk in there with a 190 cc titanium driver when there is a lack of 190 cc titanium motorists on world markets? Well, it’s sometimes just hard to get anyone to see it.”
Post ZT Response Missteps
Long readily admits the sudden and incredible success of the ZT Response built his R& D squad maybe just a wee bit cocky.
“We thought we got this all figured out now, ” he chuckles. “So, the next product we do is likely to be just like this.”
Spoiler alert: it wasn’t.
“One of my biggest tragedies was the RPM cast-irons, which came out right after the Response putter, ” says Long. “It was supposed to be a PING Eye 2 killer.”
RPM was a cavity back iron with seven unique patents. It featured complicated intend features, progressive blade placement and parabolic grooves. MacGregor decided to cast RPM in manganese bronze, the same material as the PING Anser putter.
“We cast some CG-1 800 cast-irons in manganese bronze to test the concept, ” says Long. “The CG-1 800 was a stainless-steel iron, but we just applied the molds. Everything came out fine.”
One small problem: the gate where the metal flows in for a stainless-steel casting is on the toe. But given the nature of the alloy, the gate for the RPM molds was on the heel, just below the borehole.
“We didn’t test for that. We didn’t know sufficient to even be worried about it, ” says Long. “Turns out, when the metal cools it shrinks under the gate and left a little crystalline void right there. So, every 20 th club or so, when you went to set the loft and lie, the chief would break off. Or sometimes when you were hitting it the head would just fly off.”
Amer and Who’s On First?
Even even though it is had the hottest thing in golf in the Response, Amer was cool to the concept of extending the line.
“We had just put out the LT Response, and I remember sitting in a meeting with the president and the sales and marketing people, ” says Long. “When we came back putters “theyre saying”‘ the work requires a brand-new putter concept.’
“I looked over and said’ Let me get this straight-from-the-shoulder. We have a unique putter designing that’s unlike anything else on the market, and we have the greatest player that’s ever picked up a stick employing it, and you need a new abstraction? Do I have that right? ’”
During Long’s 12 -year tenure at MacGregor, the company went through six different presidents.
“It was like’ Who’s On First’ every two years, ” he says. “And that was one of my frustrations and why I eventually left. You’d come up with a product. They’d sell it for a year and say’ alright, gives people a new one.’ I said male, I don’t have a bottomless pit of ideas.”
Long may not have had a bottomless pit of notions, but he still had plenty in the cistern. Before leaving MacGregor in 1992, he helped develop the Muirfield metal woods, the first metal woods Jack used in competition. Curtis Strange had the Muirfields in the bag when he won his second straight US Open in 1989.
Long likewise finally did get that cast titanium motorist out with the MacGregor T9 20. It was the first club design to use computer analysis, but it came out two years after the Big Bertha. Hardly anyone noticed it.
Still Busy After All These Years
After leaving MacGregor, Long went to work for Arnold Palmer and developed by PHD Hosel Weighted iron, a designing later licensed by Cobra and used in the King Cobra II cast-irons and lumbers. He joined Cobra in ’9 7 and developed the Gravity Back irons, and later worked on titanium metal wood development for Titleist.
More recently, Long had his hands in TaylorMade’s Ardmore putter line and he designed TaylorMade’s Milled Grind and High Toe wedges. Today he’s semi-retired at 69 but still maintains a handicap of +1.7.” I’ve shot my age 19 days ,” he chuckles.” Unfortunately, it gets easier to do as day goes by very .”
Most days you’ll find Long tinkering in his store in Carlsbad, working on his own line of stunning limited edition milled putters and wedges through his corporation, Plus 2 International and his website, rollyourball.com.
But after all these years when Long talks about MacGregor, which he does often and gladly, he still refers to the company as we. He proudly bleeds green and white.
“We had the first casting titanium motorist of any major manufacturer at MacGregor, ” he says. “We did it first.”
“But, ” he laments, “we didn’t sell my shares very well.”
And now in his fifth decade in the industry and with his many attainments, you’d feel Long would get a little tired of talking about that damn putter from 35 years ago.
You’d be wrong.
“It’s what I’m truly known for because it was such a bizarro occurrence, ” says Long. “There have been people who’ve designed products that have sold way more parts and constructed route more fund than the ZT Response putter. But still, each year when the Masters rolls around, people want to talk about it.”
In our previous segment, The Demise of MacGregor Golf, we said the label the label dead and interred. Nonetheless, since book, we’re hearing a whispering of a intimate of a rumor telling us there may be life in the old-time label yet. Stay tuned…
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