An Eye for Design
Tom Stites operates under the radar. As one of the few elite
independent golf club designers in the world, he's unknown to
the public but is on every touring pro's A-list. He resists
being compared to Q, the fictitious inventor of James Bond's
ingenious gadgets, because, he says, what he does isn't "nearly
as flashy as that." Anyway, he matches up better with Antonio
At his small company, Impact Golf Technologies, in Fort Worth,
Texas, Stites builds clubs for the game's best players. He
employs computers and high-speed photography to test performance,
and he has the latest production tools. But what he really puts
to use, and what sets his operation apart from others, is
intangible. Stites possesses that most valued skill in club
design: the eye for what tour players like to look at in a golf
"It's hard to describe exactly what having the eye means," says
Mario Cesario, a member of the Professional Clubmakers Society
Hall of Fame. "People in the business, and especially the
players, simply know. It's like a haircut. When we finish our
work, our clubs just look better."
Stites's eye is why Nike Golf recently hired him as lead
consultant for a new line of irons. Over the last several weeks
tour players have tested clubs with the forged-blade design, and
a few pros will likely have them in their bags next year. One of
them could be Tiger Woods, whose successful switch to the Nike
ball in midseason makes it plausible that he could do much the
same thing with his irons.
The 45-year-old Stites, who learned his craft at the feet of Gene
Sheely, Ben Hogan's personal club designer, won't discuss the
Nike project and Woods, but it's likely that he's feeling the way
Stradivari did 300 years ago when Arcangelo Corelli got word to
Cremona that he was looking for a new fiddle. "Tiger and Tom are
a good fit," says Tom Wishon, Golfsmith International's chief
technical officer. "Both are meticulous, artistic and skilled."
Stites has built clubs for dozens of pros, including Jack
Nicklaus and Gary Player. Very simply, pros go to Stites for an
nth degree of customization and quality. Because of tooling costs
and his attention to the smallest details, Stites charges as much
as $20,000 for a set of irons.
"The best way to build an iron for a player is from scratch,"
says Stites. "You determine how a player's club goes into and
through the ground at impact and build the bounce angle and
radius of the sole accordingly. That's the performance part. The
harder part is the aesthetics."
That's because pros often can't explain what they want in a club
until they see it, and then the look they seek may adversely
affect performance. In an iron the desired appearance usually has
to do with the line of the leading edge, the way the heel blends
into the hosel, the thickness of the top line, the shape of the
toe and how all those components blend together. "To me, every
club is like a snowflake, slightly different from every other, so
making a set that flows isn't easy," Stiles says. "It all has to
be right to whoever is standing over the ball."
It's possible that the PGA Tour's evolving economics will create
more demand among top players for the services of independent
designers. With the dramatic increase in prize money, and with
car companies and financial institutions offering big endorsement
fees, players are more likely to pass up an equipment company
contract in favor of playing exactly the clubs they want. Even if
that happens, Stites vows to keep his top-gun operation under the
"The golf nuts already drive us crazy," he says. "Our rule is, if
you aren't carrying a playing card, we can't do anything for
The Alexander Technique
The Answer to A Stress Test
Sometimes the greatest gifts in golf are the ones we give
ourselves. Last week at the PGA Tour's Q school, 39-year-old
Jeff Julian (below) of Norwich, Vt., gave himself back his
career. He did it using an unusual relaxation technique that is
popular with actors and musicians.
Julian was a mini-tour and regional golfer for six years until he
earned his card at Q school and competed on the Tour in 1996.
However, his neck and shoulders were in constant pain; he made
only nine cuts in 26 starts and lost his Tour card.
Back on the Nike tour, the pattern persisted: Julian won one
tournament and missed many cuts. This year he had only a
provisional exemption on the Buy.com tour and won a measly
$2,880. Then a friend introduced Julian to the Alexander
Nearly a century ago British actor F. Matthias Alexander found
that when he recited Shakespeare he experienced stress and lost
his voice. The problem became so acute that Alexander quit the
stage. Seeking answers to his malady, he gradually developed the
therapeutic technique that carries his name. Focusing on the
physiological benefits of a relaxed neck and proper posture when
sitting, standing and walking, the Alexander Technique emphasizes
body over mind as the path to the calm inner state needed to
"I could feel fine and suddenly have neck aches, backaches.
Competition was creating these pains," Julian says. As he
practiced the technique, his neck started to feel better and his
game began to improve.
At PGA West in La Quinta, Calif., last week he reached the final
hole on the final day of Q school after consecutive bogeys at 16
and 17 dropped him to 17 under. The top 35 at 15 under and better
would earn their cards, but at the time Julian figured 16 under
was the magic number. After a poor drive and approach shot on the
par-4 18th, Julian left himself an eight-iron to the green.
Focused, breathing calmly, Julian summoned from his study of the
Alexander Technique a sense of being open to that moment. He
felt his shoulders widen and his arms lengthen. He made a good
swing. The ball landed on the green about 20 feet from the pin.
With two putts for a bogey, Julian rejoined golf's most
exclusive fraternity. --Carl Vigeland
COLOR PHOTO: TOM PENNINGTON A set of the custom-made irons Stites is designing for Nike could end up in Woods's bag in 2001.
COLOR PHOTO: PHELAN M. EBENHACK
COLOR PHOTO: ERIC STRACHAN
COLOR PHOTO: TOM EWART
COLOR PHOTO: ELI REICHMAN
What do these players have in common?
They are the leading money winners in the two years of the World
Golf Championships. Woods has made $4.2 million, Maggert $1.29
million and Clarke $1.22 million.
Do you believe, as commissioner Tim Finchem does, that in 20
years the Tour will have more fans than pro football?
--Based on 8,239 responses to our informal survey
Next question: Which of the four World Golf Championships do you
prefer to watch?
Vote at golfplus.cnnsi.com.
SYNONYMS for a HOT DRIVER
Battle ax, bazooka, big bopper, big gun, big kahuna, big mama,
big stick, bomba stick, fat boy, gas, heater, launcher, rocket
ship, Steely Dan, sweet thing.
The Tour hopes skyrocketing tournament purses will induce top
golfers to play more, but in the past 20 years the opposite has
been the case. Here are the total purses (in millions) and the
average number of starts of the top 10 money winners at
TOTAL PURSE AVG. STARTS
2000 167.0 23.3
1995 62.3 24.0
1990 46.3 23.2
1985 25.3 25.8
1980 13.4 27.4
This season will be remembered as the most momentous in golf
history. In addition to the seismic breakthroughs of Tiger Woods
and Karrie Webb, we were introduced to the Wongluekiet twins,
said goodbye to Jack Nicklaus and saw the USGA and the Royal and
Ancient Golf Club go their separate ways on a critical rules
issue. As good as 2000 was, though, 2001 could be even better.
Casey Wittenburg, Memphis
Casey, 16, was victorious at the American Junior Golf
Association's season-ending Polo Golf Junior Classic, a
138-player event involving stroke and match play. Casey, a
freshman at the Leadbetter Academy in Bradenton, Fla., beat Ryan
Baca, 17, of Sugar Land, Texas, 3 and 2 in the finals at Walt
Disney World Resort's Magnolia Course in Orlando.
Barb Molloy, Naples, Fla.
Molloy, 65, earned her second straight Florida women's senior
match play title, defeating Sharon Gonsalves, 55, of Tampa 5 and
3, at LPGA International in Daytona Beach. The five-time
defending women's champion at Royal Palm Country Club, in Naples,
teamed with Karen Ryan of Titusville to win the '00 Sunshine
Craig Lile, Cape Town, South Africa
Lile, a senior at Arkansas, won two championships this fall and
had a pair of seconds and a fourth in his other three starts.
Lile took the Cleveland Golf Intercollegiate and the Southwest
Missouri State Challenge, by four and five shots, respectively.
In 14 rounds he was 34 under par and had a 69.6 stroke average.
Submit Faces candidates to golfplus.cnnsi.com/faces.
JAIME'S TOP 10
Golfers are inundated with new products at Christmas, so I sifted
through the morass and picked out some items that I believe will
still be valued when next Christmas rolls around.
1. Sun Mountain Speed Cart This sleek three-wheeler rolls over
terrain smoothly to make walking the course less strenuous for
those who drag their bags. Fundamental difference: It's not a
pull cart but a pushcart. A better, if slightly pricey,
mousetrap. $200. To order, call 800-227-9224.
2. Rollrite Training Golf Balls Practice putting with these two
balls, of different weights but both heavier than a regulation
ball, and your flaws will be more obvious. The extra weight makes
solid contact and follow-through imperative. $24.95.
3. Proflex Flexibility System A mainstay in PGA Tour fitness
trailers, this machine facilitates safe, effective and measurable
stretching. A great way to increase your ability to make a
correct swing and also to hold off the effects of aging. Devotee
Tiger Woods maxes out the front straddle setting. $500.
4. Zero Restriction Rain Gloves One of the great golf inventions
of the last decade, these thin woven-cotton gloves get tackier
the wetter they become, letting you swing normally in the rain.
No more ruined rounds when rain makes hands or grips slippery.
$17 a pair.
5. Scrabble Golf Edition The king of board games has been
slightly altered to capture golfers. It provides a list of golf
terms, including ones for which bonus points can be awarded--but
building your own list of slang words makes the game even better.
6. "Golf and the Intelligence of Play" This 50-minute video and
accompanying booklet by sports psychologist Chuck Hogan offer a
superb guide to coaching young golfers in the era of Tiger Woods.
The emphasis is on the role of fun in creating an optimal
environment for learning. $50. 877-529-7529.
7. "Explosive Golf" Here's a book for the golfer who really wants
to improve the physical side of his or her game. Michael Yessis
breaks down the golf swing according to the laws of kinesiology
and biomechanics and prescribes exercises to develop the right
moves. Masters Press, $24.95.
8. "Passion for Golf" This book is a sweet meditation by novelist
Roland Merullo. It's dedicated to the idea that golf offers
"lessons that point us toward a state of inner steadiness and
peace." The Lyons Press, $20.
9. The Club Glove Travel Bag The choice of touring professionals,
it's heavy-duty, with a thoughtful design that allows enough room
for a fully loaded golf bag, shoes and clothing, while its molded
base and in-line-skate wheels make it easy to maneuver. $250.
10. Golf Lesson on a Launch Monitor This computerized device,
which measures swing speed, ball speed, spin rate, launch angle,
swing path and face angle, is the best tool for a golfer to find
out the truth about how he hits the ball and what clubs are best
for him. Approximate price range for an hour session at indoor
testing facilities and pro shops: $50 to $100.
GOLF PLUS will next appear in the Jan. 15, 2001, issue of SPORTS