If you could have anyone in the world make you a set of irons,
whom would you choose? Most of us would probably select Karsten
Solheim or Ely Callaway or maybe Roger Cleveland. But when Jack
Nicklaus, Greg Norman and Arnold Palmer, along with a slew of
other name players, were given that choice, they picked Don White.
If you've never heard of White, you're not alone. He's one of
the best-kept secrets in golf. White, 45, began hand-grinding
irons for the MacGregor Golf Company 25 years ago and is now the
most highly admired artisan in the industry. Using only a lathe,
White is able to transform nine chunks of steel into the
best-looking, softest-feeling, most evenly balanced set of
forged irons money can buy.
White's virtuosity (he's also adept at sculpting the master
models that are used for the mass production of irons and at
touching up investment cast irons) has made him neither rich nor
famous, but his work is revered by club designers and the
players who use his blades. In addition to Nicklaus, Norman and
Palmer, players such as John Cook, Steve Stricker and Tom
Weiskopf carry White grinds, while Amy Alcott, Paul Azinger, Ben
Crenshaw, Tom Lehman, Nancy Lopez, Larry Mize, Chi Chi Rodriguez
and Curtis Strange, among others, used them before signing
endorsement deals with rival manufacturers. "Don has a gift from
God," says Rodriguez, who used White-ground MacGregors from 1988
until 1993, when he signed a seven-figure deal with Callaway.
"It's what the greats like Ruth, Picasso and Mozart all
had--genius. Don's genius is in his hands."
Irons ground by White have won 11 major championships, including
this double grand slam--a pair of Masters by Nicklaus, two U.S.
Opens by Strange, a couple of British Opens by Norman, and PGAs
by Azinger and David Graham. Today only a handful of pros use
White's irons, but not because more don't want to. "A ton of
guys on Tour have told me they'd love to use Donny's sticks, but
contractually they can't," says Cook, who in 1994 joined the
MacGregor staff largely because he was determined to play clubs
made by White.
Some players are so high-powered that they can play the clubs
they prefer regardless of an affiliation with a manufacturer.
Nicklaus (Nicklaus Golf), Norman (Cobra) and Palmer (Arnold
Palmer Golf) fall into that category. "Don's the best; he's a
great artisan," says Tom Crow, Cobra's chief of design, who in
1991 hired White to grind irons for Norman and stamp the Cobra
name on them. Cobra doesn't make forged blades, but the Shark
refuses to play with anything else.
Growing up on a cotton plantation in Leary, Ga., only 24 miles
west of Albany, where he now works and lives, White knew nothing
about golf. "I'd seen a putter, I think, and a driver, too," he
says, "but I had no idea what they were used for."
Along with his four brothers and two sisters, White was raised
in a three-room house by his maternal grandparents. His
grandfather, Joe (Doc) White, was a field hand. Roselle, his
grandmother, also worked in the fields. Don has happy memories
of those hardscrabble days. Money was tight, but not as tight as
his family. Don's eyes tear up when he tells how he used to
cuddle on Roselle's lap and listen to her read from the Bible.
He says his grandfather "gave me my art sense. He could make
something beautiful out of nothing." An expert craftsman, Joe
White had a small work shed where he built wagons, furniture and
toys. Don was usually at his side.
In 1968, having graduated from high school, White was uncertain
about what to do next. He was a good student but didn't have the
money to go to college. Instead he took a job as a welder for
the Lilliston Corp. and moved in with his wife-to-be, Marion.
Life was good. Too good. White was more interested in partying
than in work, and in 1970 he lost his job. Fortunately, a short
time later MacGregor moved part of its production facilities
from Cincinnati to Albany. A friend told White about possible
job openings, and he soon had a position polishing and grinding
iron heads in the company's prestigious custom-club department.
Other companies, such as Hogan and Wilson, also have storied
traditions in forged irons, but no one matched MacGregor during
the heyday of the forged club, from the mid-1930s to the
mid-'70s. MacGregor recruited toolmakers from around the country
to grind its clubs. At the same time, Toney Penna, a Tour player
turned club designer who represented the company on the circuit,
recruited a glittering and enormous staff of pros that included
Tommy Armour, Jimmy Demaret, Byron Nelson, Louise Suggs, Craig
Wood and even Ben Hogan, who played MacGregors until he started
his own equipment company in 1953.
Working for such a company rejuvenated White. For the first time
since leaving his grandparents, he was happy. "I was raised from
the dead," he says. "All the shapes and styles, the different
cuts we had to do, the challenge excited me."
White's supervisor was Art Emerson, one of the best grinders in
the business. Early on Emerson recognized White's gift and,
unbeknownst to White, began to groom him as his successor by
giving him more and more responsibility. By 1980 White was
handling all of the important orders, including those from
Nicklaus, a MacGregor staff member from 1962 until 1992. "I
always told Donny, 'It's the little things that make a great
iron,'" says Emerson, 74, who retired in 1987 after 37 years at
MacGregor. "I'd tell him, 'Nobody has ever reached perfection,
but that shouldn't stop you from trying.'"
Perfection for most amateurs usually comes in the form of a
forgiving cast iron. The best players still prefer forgings even
though, according to White, it is becoming difficult to find a
well-made forged iron these days. "I don't know how most of the
stuff for sale can be used," says White. "Even lots of Tour guys
don't know it, but they're playing with junk."
Those are strong words, yet White can back them up. He has that
strong a reputation among clubmakers. For example, Jack
Wullkotte has been Nicklaus's personal club designer since 1964.
For the last 19 years Wullkotte has allowed no one but White to
grind the Golden Bear's irons. "I've been around clubmaking for
50 years," says Wullkotte, "and nobody has a better eye than Don
White. For irons, his opinion is the opinion."
According to White, the most important aspect of making an iron
is getting the correct smearing--the blending of the lines and
protrusions on the club head so that the weighting is even while
the club remains pleasing to the eye. White says irons'
shortcomings are usually on top of the toe, in the heel and in
the slope between the hosel and the topline. The worst built
part of most irons, White says, is the sole. The leading and
back edges of many are not round enough, causing the irons to
dig into the turf instead of sliding over it. "Amateurs don't
look for such things," says White, "but to pros it's the small
things that count."
White tailors his irons to each customer's personal, and often
demanding, specifications. Norman, for instance, likes his irons
with no offset, with the leading edge "killed," or extra
rounded, and the sole slightly cambered from front to back so
that the front edge is higher off the ground than the back edge.
Palmer uses the cast clubs that his company manufactures--after
White has ground down the toe and rounded the sole. "Nicklaus, I
don't see how he plays with his specs," says White. Nicklaus
prefers almost no offset, a flat sole and a straight leading
edge, features that would make most amateurs hit lots of fat
White spends up to three days to finish an important order.
First, the client selects one of MacGregor's raw club heads,
which are made by Cornell Forge in Chicago. Then, after adding a
shaft and grip and checking each head's loft and lie, White
grinds, stamps, polishes and buffs. That he can match every club
in a set is perhaps his greatest talent. "Imagine Rodin making a
single masterpiece," says Clay Long, a prominent club-design
consultant. "Don can give you a set of nine identical
Until 1988 White was paid $10 an hour. His current salary is
$35,000 annually, and he has never received a bonus--not even
for Christmas. "Maybe it hasn't been fair," says Kim Calhoun,
MacGregor's communications manager, "but we've sort of kept
Donny under wraps so nobody steals him away."
A few years ago Callaway and Cobra tried, offering White jobs in
their design departments. He wasn't interested. Slumping profits
had forced MacGregor to lay off everyone in the custom-club
department except White, and he enjoyed having the workshop to
himself. He also prefers living in rural Georgia. "We're a
comfortable country family," says White, who has three
daughters, Jennifer, 20, Madondra, 7, and Alisha, 5. "I'm not
getting rich, but with Marion's work as a substitute teacher we
get along fine."
The only thing that isn't fine is White's own game. He finally
took up golf 10 years ago and expected instant success. He
remains an 18 handicapper. "I found out that it's not so easy to
hit the ball just because it's sitting still," White said
recently after shooting 46 for nine holes at Turner Golf Course
in Albany. "It's got to be technique. Look at Fred Couples. How
does he get such reaction out of the ball? I've got muscles like
him. I'd sure like to find the secret."
White paused, then added, "Maybe I need new irons."
COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY GREG FOSTER [Don White grinding club head]
TWO COLOR PHOTOS: PHOTOGRAPHS BY GREG FOSTER These forged club heads were made by White, who adds signature stamps, like those of Nicklaus and Norman (above), to disguise his handiwork. [Don White holding seven club heads; two signature stamps]
COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY GREG FOSTER Only after 15 years at clubmaking did White try shotmaking. [Don White playing golf]
Modern technology has killed persimmon woods and by the turn of
the century will probably have done the same to balata-covered
balls. Yet forged irons remain unchanged, supported by a small
but faithful group of players: the game's best. Seventeen of the
top 20 players on the Sony World Ranking use forged irons.
Better players prefer forged irons because the heads are softer
than those made by pouring molten metal into a cast and
therefore provide better feel. Because forged club heads are
generally smaller, they offer more accurate feedback on
off-center hits. However, controlling a small head requires a
high degree of skill, and generating club-head speed with the
forgings, which are heavier, takes extra strength, so most
amateurs are better off using cast irons.
"The iron is a feel- and accuracy-oriented club," says Wally
Uihlein, the president of Titleist. "For those qualities nothing
works better than a forging."
Yet nothing is worse for an equipment manufacturer's bottom line
than forged irons, which is why so few companies still make
them. Titleist sells only 200 forged sets a year. At Ram, Hogan
and MacGregor--all holdovers from the era when forged irons were
all that were available--forgings are now a small percentage of
Mizuno is the largest producer of forged irons, and its blades
are the most popular on the Tour. Even with that distinction,
Mizuno barely makes a profit on its forged business.
Why does anyone still make forged irons? Prestige, mainly. Top
players require equipment makers to provide them with clubs that
they will actually use before they sign endorsement deals.
Without being allowed to play forged irons, for example, Tiger
Woods would not have signed with Titleist nor Nick Faldo with
Mizuno. "You keep the better players happy because that's who
everybody else looks up to," says Jackie Tyson, Mizuno's
marketing manager. "People look in better players' bags and want
to know brand names. So as long as people like Faldo want forged
irons, we'll be making them." --R.L.