Tag Archives: putter

The Buchanan Putter (Golf, part one)

14 Mar

There are disagreements about when the game now known as golf originated, however, according to the Royal and Ancient Golf Club of St Andrews it started in Scotland in the 1400s. The first time it is documented is in 1457 when an Act of Scottish Parliament bans golf as a hobby because it is a distraction from men practicing archery, which they needed to learn for military purposes. The earliest celebrity to play golf was Mary Queen of Scots, who was criticised for playing golf the day after her husband Darnley was murdered. The game increased in popularity across the rest of the UK once the railways opened up the Scottish highlands to Victoria and Albert and the rest of high society, and the game has since spread across the globe, being particularly popular in the USA. Rules around the game, including what type of clubs and balls could be used, really started to firm up by the 1930s, and these days the game is very strictly regulated, and worth billions of dollars.

Despite being Scottish, Douglas was never into golf. Neither was anyone else in the family, and I can only assume that Douglas first started to look at golf clubs because his patent agent (also called Douglas) liked golf and may have mentioned it at some point. I could be wrong, after all, Douglas was interested in sport generally and did design different tennis rackets, a bicycle frame and a cricket bat, so maybe golf was simply part of that general interest. Anyway, the fact that Douglas didn’t play the game itself meant that he came at it from a completely fresh perspective, and actually looked at golf from a mechanical point of view, i.e. how does the body interact with a golf club? What does a golf club actually DO? Could it do it better?

Douglas’s starting point was the golf putter. The putter is the specialist golf club used for the last few hits to get the ball into the hole after you have got it close as possible with your long distance driver. While you want a driver that will give you speed and distance, you want a putter that will provide accuracy and precision. As the American Golf website puts it, ‘driver for show, putt for dough,’ because putting is often the difference between winning and losing. A classic putter looks something like this:

stock-photo-golf-putter-on-white-background-184893572

Douglas’s first drafts in 1996, of course, looked quite different.

Early putter

It is obviously different in a couple of ways, including the handle which is a fat tube all the way up, and gives it its unusual appearance. Here is the finished Buchanan putter on display at its press launch with Mum (right) and Douglas in the late 1990s:

Golf presentation board group shot

The fat shaft, made of fibreglass, was designed specifically so that the handle forces your hands into holding it in a particular way, meaning that the swing comes from your shoulders rather than your wrists, which is as it should be. It also releases tension, which gets rid of the dreaded golfer ‘yips’, relaxing you into a smoother shot. Finally, the rigid walls of the tube carry the feel of the ball from the gold sweet-spot in the face of the putter up the slim neck all the way to your hands, meaning that, unlike traditional putters that are flexible and padded, you can actually feel the ball, thus leading to increased accuracy. In testing, this putter really worked, and often won blind accuracy tests against hundreds of putters, including tests with the official USA golf body, the US PGA. It also conforms to the R&A‘s very fussy rules of golf, which meant that it could be sold and players could use it in professional games. However, the golf world did not react well to something that didn’t look the way they expected it to look. Take this article, for example:

 

Doug strikes Gold with his tension-free putterDespite the optimistic headline, the very first thing John Newton mentions when he sees the putter is that he thinks it looks like ‘a piece of drainpipe with a clubhead attached’ and says that his ‘reaction was probably similar to everyone first setting eyes on this particular object. It was, shall we say, of amusement.’ He admits, however, that he ‘never got as far as laughing, though, because despite its looks, the putter performed remarkably well.’ The rest of the article talks about how well the putter works, how the science of it is correct and how it really did increase accuracy, but note the ending: ‘The response from people whom I have asked to try the Buchanan putters has been positive, but the one thing they all have commented on has been the unconventional look…. Its’s amazing how golfers seem more worried about what others think of the look of their equipment rather than focusing on its performance.’ And herein lies the rub. Newton is not the only one to feel like this. In this, nicely balanced, article from the FT, the journalist reacts in exactly the same way: ‘The Buchanan putter is, to put it mildly, different. At first glance, it might be taken for an inverted microphone. But looks are not the priority: what matters is the feel.’

Designed for a precision putt

Unfortunately, the golf community in general was not as open-minded as the FT journalist, and the reactions were more as John Newton predicted. Take, for example, this little snippet:

Storm is lowest of the low

Yes, that is a golfer being ridiculed for using Douglas’s putter in public. When Douglas set up his putter company and exhibited at golf exhibitions around the world, he tried to put a positive spin on the putter’s very different look:

Your world as you know it is about to change

But, ultimately, the putter in this iteration was never going to persuade the conservative golf-playing public and they just didn’t sell. He was going to have to come at it from a different angle.