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Made in America

We started the year with our annual trip to golf's January jamboree in Florida. But this year, we went beyond Orlando in search of a more authentic American golf experience. Jon Davie reports from a big country.

Made in America

Each January, the global golf industry gathers in Florida for the PGA Show.

Some 30,000 middle-aged men in khaki chinos and athleisure quarter zips descend on the Orange County Convention Center in Orlando to buy, sell, eat, drink, hit balls and network. The big brands spend millions of dollars on carefully choreographed product launches, while smooth-talking salesmen with perfect teeth write up orders on tablet computers.

Walking around the miles and miles of exhibitors at this year’s show, it seems like the golf industry is in rude health. The PGA Tour and LIV might be engaged in mortal battle for the soul of the professional game, but the business of golf has no time for such distractions. Golf’s in a great place. Playing numbers are healthy, and everyone is signed up to the same plan. Bigger is better. Hit it further. More tech. Follow the data. Play what the pros play. Just sign here and golfing nirvana is just around the corner.

And who can blame them? It works. As golfers, we’re easy prey for the marketeers. Who doesn’t want to hit it like Rory? Who doesn’t want to drop $799 on a new driver that will add 15 yards even on off-centre hits? After all, it’s much easier than spending time down the range learning how to find the middle of the club face.

But after a few days, the Orlando experience starts to wear a bit thin. Your body starts to crave some proper nutrition, after a diet of fast-food breakfasts and boozy steak dinners that leaves you feeling bloated and lethargic.

And the version of golf presented at the PGA Show is a bit like fast food. At first, it feels great. You get on a plane at dreary Heathrow and arrive to blue skies and friendly faces. Everything at the show is shiny and new, and you want to gorge yourself. But after a couple of days, it leaves you feeling unsatisfied, craving more nourishing fare, and looking for something more substantial.

This year, however, our American adventure started a thousand miles away from Orlando, behind an unmarked door in Texas, where we found an altogether different version of golf on the menu.

The Leonard Golf Links is a public driving range in Fort Worth. Between 2002 and 2016, it was also home to Nike Golf, and the sportswear giant's R&D facility known as The Oven.

The practice facilities and the associated buildings were constructed by Marty Leonard, daughter of the famed Texas retail magnate Marvin Leonard. Mr Leonard was a huge figure in Texas golf - a friend and mentor to Ben Hogan, and the founding father of Colonial Country Club and Shady Oaks, as well as Starr Hollow, a private course located an hour or so west of Fort Worth. His daughter Marty was a pretty handy amateur player back in the day, and Leonard Golf Links is one of many gifts that the family have given to grassroots golf in the state.

The grass range, putting greens and short-game area were quiet when we arrived on a cold, windy and wet Monday in January. But behind that unmarked door was a welcome so warm as to instantly banish thoughts of jetlag or homesickness.

This is the home of P53: Authentic. American. Irons. P53 Irons is a golf company built on a very different vision of the game. And the tall, softly-spoken gentleman who welcomed us into the building was Christopher Griffin, the founder of P53 and a man on a mission.

Christopher cuts a very different figure to the industry crowd in Orlando. He bought his first clubs from a second-hand shop in Seattle, where he was running a startup portfolio for Microsoft. Like many of us, he soon found himself addicted to the feeling of a perfectly-struck iron – a feeling that only grew when he traded his cavity back irons for a used set of Hogan PC blades.

He started to collect vintage clubs and found himself particularly drawn to Ben Hogan’s life story – his struggle from childhood poverty, his dedication to the game, his incredible comeback from a terrible car accident, and the perseverance that defined every aspect of his life.

Painting of Ben Hogan at Colonial Country Club

Oil painting of Ben Hogan at Colonial Country Club, Fort Worth, Texas

Collecting memorabilia is one thing, but Christopher Griffin is not a man to do things by halves. After leaving Microsoft, he moved back to Texas – inspired by the story of a man he would come to know through the many stories he heard from people who really knew him.

Hogan was famously obsessive about golf. And it’s not an understatement to say that P53 is a business built with a personal obsession that the Hogan himself would appreciate. Virtually every iron from the major golf brands, as well as every American boutique brand you think you know, is made in Asia, with the lion’s share of heads coming from China. A few brands use Japanese sourcing – but irons forged from a single piece of steel and then shaped by hand are increasingly rare.

Even most top-of-the-range forged irons are shaped via hands-off milling, minimising the need for human talent at the grinding belt. P53 are the only company in the world using their own American-made tooling to forge certified US Steel billets on US soil into irons of their own unique design, ready for hand shaping by real humans, not robots.

Hand shaping is an art that takes years to master. So naturally, Christopher has recruited one of the most respected shapers in the world. Jeff Sheets has spent his whole career working in the golf business. He spent many years travelling the world with the PGA Tour and has made clubs for the winners of over 60 Majors and 24 members of the World Golf Hall of Fame. Every P53 iron Jeff grinds is uniquely hand-shaped for each individual client, so each set truly is one-of-a-kind.

P53 Irons

Every single set of P53 irons is unique

There’s custom fitting and there’s custom fitting. Your local club pro can help you find the right shaft flex, change a grip, or check your loft and lie angles. But a fitting with P53 is a truly holistic experience. The process involves hitting balls, playing golf, eating lunch at the best BBQ restaurant in town, hitting more balls, and talking.

The great players of yesteryear had a genuine dialogue with the craftsmen who made their clubs – the clubmaker was just as important as the caddie or the swing coach. Working directly with an expert like Jeff Sheets opens a window to understanding your relationship with your clubs on a whole new level. What’s your personal preference for topline or toe shape? How does the sole grind affect the way your club interacts with the turf on your home course? What does your perfect blend of form and function look (and feel) like?

Of course, a service like this doesn’t come cheap. Unlike certain other premium golf brands, P53 are not interested in whether you’re a celebrity or a CEO. They treat all of their clients as future friends, regardless of wealth, class, or station. They work with clients on an invitation-only basis and rely on word-of-mouth rather than advertising in golf magazines. And given the work that goes in to each and every set they make, it's hard to argue that they don't offer great value.

Tour players have asked to come through that unmarked door, but P53 aren't really interested in tour players. P53 exists to celebrate the players who make up the heart of the game - the amateur who plays for deeply personal reasons (the word amateur, after all, comes from the Latin amator - one who loves). And anyone following professional golf these days knows that love for the game is not at the top of anyone's agenda. 

It’s the opposite of the mass-production mass-marketing model on display in Orlando. P53 have chosen to prioritise service over scale, and quality over quantity.

Before we left for the airport the following morning, Christopher invited us for breakfast at Colonial Country Club. This grand old golf club was founded by Marvin Leonard in 1936, and has been a regular PGA Tour stop since 1946. Hogan won at Colonial five times, and the club is home to a priceless collection of memorabilia as well as a famous statue of the great man standing guard over the first tee.

As we sat down for breakfast, we were joined by Christopher’s friend and our host, a gentleman named Ben Matheson – 95-years young, and a member of the club for 81 years and counting. Mr Matheson still plays golf regularly and gave us a personal tour of the clubhouse and its famous Hogan Room. He knew Hogan well and oversees the club’s collection – including the original contents of Hogan’s office, saved from the company’s office building, and completely reassembled in the Colonial pro shop.

Mr Ben Matheson at Colonial Country Club in Fort Worth, Texas

Mr Ben Matheson shares a joke with Sounder's James Day at Colonial Country Club

Mr Matheson told us stories of his time with Dan Jenkins, the legendary golf writer and a long-time member of Colonial. He shared stories of playing golf with Lee Trevino, and his happy times living in London nearly half a century ago.

Spending time with these gentlemen, in that setting, was a fitting way to end our Texan journey. It was a timely reminder of where the true spirit of golf resides – not in a convention centre in Florida, and not in the boardrooms of Ponte Vedra or Riyadh.

But in the camaraderie and friendships forged by a shared love of the game.

Learn more about P53 Irons and subscribe to their mailing list.

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