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Precision Play

What does a fast-breaking birdie putt sweeping down the fall line toward the hole have in common with a fourteen-foot-long bomb set loose from an F-14 to zero in on a terrorist's tent in some dusty corner of the world?The simple answer, of course, is that in each case success depends on precision. A facile comparison, perhaps, but just as the player carefully studies the undulating green to avoid the dreaded three-jack, so the bomb will be "smart" enough (one hopes) to avoid the orphanage next door to its intended target.

There is, however, a less-obvious point in common—a forty-four-year-old mechanical engineer named Bob Bettinardi. From his manufacturing facility in Tinley Park, Illinois, Bettinardi's CNC milling machines produce casings for electronic guidance systems, protecting a smart bomb's "brain" with quality-control tolerances set to, well, military precision. Just five feet away from those machines sit several others, dedicated to the products that Bettinardi is much more famous for—namely, some of the most beautiful putters in the world.

To the cognoscenti, the Bettinardi name is synonymous with performance, prestige and price. Since partnering with Ben Hogan in 2003, a retail Bettinardi putter can be had for anywhere from $190 (for the Hawk series) to roughly $500 (for a stainless-steel model)—high end, to be sure, but in the ballpark with top offerings from other major companies. But a visit to the Internet reveals a different story, one of a feverish collector's market where rare Bettinardi Tour prototypes can run upward of $10,000. Then there are the models available exclusively in Japan, the only region excluded from his contract with Hogan. There, Bettinardi putters rank in the top three on the Japanese Tour Darrell Survey, and this is where some of his most creative pieces can be found today.

"I sometimes think they love me in Japan because I have an Italian last name," he laughs. "They associate it with quality: you know, Armani, Maserati . . . Bettinardi."

So what makes a Bettinardi special?For one, each is produced from start to finish in Tinley Park, as Bettinardi refuses to sacrifice quality control for lower labor costs. Another is his penchant for the exotic, creating works of art from materials such as "double-aged" stainless steel, black chrome, gold- and copper-plating, and a bewildering array of finishes and inserts. The third major factor is the process itself. Time is money, as we all know, and it takes twice as long for Bettinardi's CNC (Computer Numerical Control) machines to mill a putter head out of a single piece of steel than it does to make a standard forged putter.

For the most part, the history of golf club design has been marked by near-total anonymity for the innovators who actually dream up the irons, woods, wedges and putters that we swing every day. Very few know the name Coburn Haskell (inventor of the rubber-cored, proto-modern golf ball), much less that of Richard Helmstetter, chief designer of the Callaway Big Bertha. Indeed, dating back to Old Tom Morris, who along with his architectural and playing accomplishments was the foremost club maker of his time, only a handful of designers can be described as celebrities in golf circles. In the modern age, a list of such auteurs might include Karsten Solheim, Bob Vokey, Bobby Grace, Scotty Cameron and Bob Bettinardi.

Bob Bettinardi has been working with metal his entire life. Hanging around his father's machine shop, he grew up making parts and studying the properties and potential of various alloys, so a degree in mechanical engineering from the Milwaukee School of Engineering was a natural move for him. After college he worked for his father for six years before starting his own shop and quickly acquiring the medical, communications and defense contracts that were the focus of his early career.

In December of 1990, though, he had a revelation. Walking into a pro shop, Bettinardi spotted his first milled putter, a Callaway Bobby Jones model. He understood immediately what this implied. For years putters had been almost all cast, meaning that molten metal was simply poured into molds and left to cool, producing results that were often imprecise. Bettinardi bought the putter and began setting his milling machines to a new task.

And the rest is history?Not exactly. "It took me three months to make my first putter," Bettinardi says in his dry Chicagoland accent. "One putter, three months! Trial and error—that was my first foray into the process."

Within a matter of months, though, the quality of his early experiments would land him a contract with Mizuno, where he spent the next few years designing with Scotty Cameron. One of their first breakthroughs, in 1993, was one-piece technology, or milling putters from a single block of metal instead of welding separate pieces together. "Any time you add heat to metal, it distorts it, and I knew we could take it to the next level," says Bettinardi. "People were amazed by one-piece technology. It definitely has a better feel."

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