Heavy Hitters

| RL Magazine |

Growing up in the north Phoenix enclave of Moon Valley, it’s almost heresy to play with anything but Ping golf clubs. In fact, the formerly Karsten Solheim–owned Moon Valley Country Club, where my friends and I practically lived as kids, was nothing short of a testament to the Ping empire, which was launched in the mid-1960s shortly after Solheim, then a forty-two-year-old General Electric engineer, was invited to play his first round of golf and soon discovered he couldn’t putt. Blaming the equipment for his failings, he returned to his garage and emerged in 1967 with the first perimeter-weighted putter which created a “ping” when the ball hit the sweet spot. More than two thousand Tours wins later, it stands as the first time David truly triumphed over the Goliaths in the wrench race.

Fast-forward four decades, and I’m standing on a putting green in north Scottsdale, an hour’s drive east of Moon Valley, with the man who may be the new David—or Solheimian mad scientist—of golf, Steve Boccieri. With one long, smooth stroke of his inimitable Heavy Putter (forced by the four-hundred-gram head and two-hundred-gram steel weight plugged into the butt of the shaft), I sink a winding fifteen-footer from the fringe. It’s my first putt of the day.

“I couldn’t have replicated that better if I tried,” says Boccieri, a nasally Brooklyn-born nuclear engineer, who grew up on the links as an eight-year-old “trunk slammer,” waking up at four in the morning to score a tee time at Bethpage with his father.

“It was the kiss of death,” he says jokingly about his childhood hobby that later became an obsession. In the nineties, he tells me, he fell in with a traveling foursome that was “like a marriage.” What began with trips to Pebble Beach and the Robert Trent Jones Golf Trail evolved into Boccieri’s converting the twenty-five-hundred-square-foot basement of his Westchester home into a workshop that “looked like Ping Labs.”

“The most erratic thing in golf is the swing,” says Boccieri, who was working as a pipe-stress analyst (which, he notes, was “great for understanding shafts”) at the Indian Point Energy Center at the time. “The reason [golfers] are inconsistent is not that they don’t play a lot,” he explains. “It’s that they’re ill fit.” In order to eradicate those inconsistencies in his own game, he spent $50,000 on shafts and $100,000 on machining equipment and club-building apparatuses, and he dismantled every new item that came on the market.

“It was completely selfish,” he admits. “I was looking for the magic bullet.” He thought he “could find the answer” to elevate his one-two handicap game onto the Senior Tour. While that pipe dream didn’t pan out, he was determined at the very least to do something with all the clubs he’d purchased. In 1994 Engineered Golf was born, and Boccieri converted his solarium into a driving range.

“My wife went crazy,” he says of his custom-fitting studio, where he continued his obsessive testing of center of gravity, moment of inertia, head weights, and balance points, which he soon learned were the key to making a swing consistent. “When you have a low balance point,” says Boccieri, teetering one of my Ping Eye 2s on his index finger to demonstrate the principle, “you can’t take a long stroke because you can’t control it. With a higher balance point, you take a longer, smoother stroke.”

Sure enough, his engineered clubs attracted word-of-mouth clients, including the “animals” of the Re/Max World Long Drive Championship who enlisted Boccieri to back-weight their drivers. Figuring the principle could work for his own putting game, the nuclear engineer started wrapping his Ping Zing putter with lead tape. The “aha! moment” didn’t happen, however, until 2004 when he bought a 430-gram belly putter from a friend, shortened it to the standard length, and dropped a steel weight into the shaft. “At first I thought, ‘This is going to be way too heavy,’” he recalls, before his first stroke. “I couldn’t believe a 430-gram putter could feel that light.” The following year he launched the Heavy Putter to great fanfare at the PGA Merchandise Show, quickly signing endorsement deals with Mark Lye of the Golf Channel and PGA up-and-comer Troy Matteson.

My own “aha! moment” continues apace on the putting green, as I go on to tap in dozens of three-, five-, and ten-footers, while my father, a lifelong Ping man himself, quickly follows suit. “This thing is like a fencing sword,” Boccieri says jokingly, swinging my father’s battle-worn Bulls Eye putter. “Try this,” he says, handing over the 750-gram mid-weight putter that resembles Ping’s best-selling Anser, but with a much higher center of gravity to reduce wrist play. My father goes on to sink three twenty-footers in a row, then hits one in, two long and two wide, with his own. “That’s the perfect example of inconsistency,” says Boccieri.

Boccieri’s putters helped Matteson win his first PGA tournament and are now carried in three thousand stores. “It improves your speed, and any time you can improve your speed, you're going to make more putts,” Matteson said at the time, though he’s now contractually obligated to use Titleist and Scotty Cameron clubs. While that might seem like a slight, it’s sort of a double endorsement (i.e., the Heavy Putter worked so well that Matteson doesn’t need it anymore). Besides, Boccieri isn’t focusing his business on Tour pros. What he’s really after are the high handicappers like me, or Mark Wahlberg and Penny Hardaway (both are reportedly Boccieri fans), or Jeremy Frost, an amateur duffer who manages a high-end hair salon in West Hollywood. Like Matteson, Frost found the club worked best as a “training” device, the way a fungo bat helps a baseball player’s swing. Last year, Frost says, a friend gave him a Heavy Putter and it had a dramatic effect on his sixteen-handicap game. So dramatic, in fact, that Boccieri and Golf Digest put him in their recent Control Freaks promotion. “Because it’s heavier, it forces you to slow down your putting stroke,” says Frost, who wasn’t paid for the ad and doesn’t even use the putter anymore, though he now boasts a handicap of ten. “I was always rushing the stroke and snapping it through. I think what it’s great for is fixing a broken putting stroke. People go out and spend $300 on a Scotty Cameron putter, and it doesn’t mean [expletive], because they can’t putt right if they’re jerky and rushing their stroke.”

While getting the feel for distance and speed takes time with Heavy Putters, in its ClubTest 2010, Golf Digest rated the Boccieri Mid-Weight Q2-M blade head as “among the top putters tested” and said the Mid-Weight D1-M mallet head was a “top performer on short putts.” Boccieri also has a Lite-Weight Heavy Putter for those looking to transition from standard to back-weighted.

But conquering the green isn’t enough for Boccieri. At this year’s PGA show he introduced his Heavy Wedge range, and at a moment when all the big manufacturers are moving aggressively toward “ultralight” clubs, Boccieri is heading in the opposite direction, with a full set of irons and woods that will debut at next year’s exhibition. “The retail challenge is whether I can prove this will improve your swing,” says Boccieri. To prove it to us, we take a demo set onto the driving range. For comparison, I use my Ping irons, Adams Tight Lies hybrid wood, and Cobra drivers alongside each of Boccieri’s clubs. My father does the same, only with Ping i3 irons and TaylorMade Burner drivers.

When I hit my sticks just right, they send the ball (mostly) where I want them; but when I pick up Boccieri’s clubs, I notice a distinct difference. My distance isn’t as great, but my accuracy is much greater—with fewer scattered shots—and my swing is much more fluid. Where I generally tend to overswing with my clubs, the heavier Boccieri clubs resist such an effort, and my swing plane is markedly prettier and not as whiplike. While my Ping heads feel heavier in comparison, they’re actually much lighter. The swing weight is just thrown off by the low balance point that is compensated for in the extra fifty grams sunk into the Boccieri shaft. Boccieri’s driver wasn’t ready, but the hybrid, three-wood, and five-wood in his bag are nothing short of amazing. I haven’t hit a fairway wood this good in more than a decade, and neither has my father, who also enjoys Boccieri’s three-iron—and he stopped carrying one in his own bag years ago.

“All the manufacturers sell distance, and it’s unfortunate they’re playing the distance game, because golf is not about distance—it’s about consistency,” says Boccieri, noting that the best-selling irons in most stores right now are the TaylorMade Burners, because they give your average duffer an extra twenty yards. “Irons are made for accuracy. They’re not there to hit infinity.” Just after a mini-monsoon soaks us off the course, Boccieri adds one last point before zooming away in his convertible.

“More than 50 percent of the time I get [one of] my clubs in someone’s hands, they tell me [their swing] is better, but I have to get it in their hands,” he says. “I think we’re onto something. I don’t know if we’ll get there, but that’s what makes it interesting.”

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