An Interview With the Man Behind TP Mills – Part 1

THP recently had a chance to sit down and chat with the man that is currently behind one of the most legendary names in the world of putters and that is David Mills from TP Mills. What started out to be a quick interview, turned into an hour long conversation filled with some incredible insight into the world of putters, TP MIlls as a brand and what the future holds for the company. In the first installment, we discuss everything from how David got started making golf equipment to what his favorite style is.

THP: Can you tell us how you got started in the business of creating putters?

David Mills: Well, it was a long time ago and my dad used to be in his shop and I would come in there and help out cleaning up and sweeping. With so much dust and steel flying around he put a pretty good influence on keeping things clean and in its place. We had a machine in the shop, a little manual machine, I called it a mini machine but it’s what he made his hosels on and he allowed me to play with it some. He would oversee me and I had never taken a machine shop course but he kind of showed me the ins and outs and watched me play around with some steel and turn it down. I tried to make a hosel but I didn’t do much of a good job. That’s kind of how I got started. Then when he was away, so to speak, I would kind of sneak in there and play around a little bit, within limits.

In 10th grade, somewhere around there, he used to set all of the necks on his putters by hand and he used a settling torch to do it. I watched him open up the torch and light it, and I was fascinated by how he would adjust this knob and that knob. I asked if I could do it and he said “nah you better not, you might have an accident” So I watched him until I couldn’t stand it and when he left one time I thought “I am going to crank this thing up. I may blow up but I am going to try.” So I turned this knob and that knob, and to be honest with you I didn’t know what I was doing, and I lit it and ‘Kabam’ it lit up and shot about a foot out and scared me absolutely to death. I twisted and turned it and got it back down to where it looked reasonable and I guess once I did that I was OK. I started to think I could handle some of this stuff. And it progressed and then he allowed me to start doing some other things with the golf clubs. We used to hand file all the faces , there weren’t really many CNC’s in those days, so he showed me how to file in 2 directions to get a really super flat face. All of his original stuff is hand filed, you will see file marks on the face. That was when he had hand stamped them and then have to file them flat. The cross was put in one stamp at a time, and I really started doing a lot of that stuff and how to do it and how to sit on the face and look proper. I would do toplines, I would start grinding a little on the tops and at that point I was really catching on to what he was doing. Then I went to school, went to college, and then halfway through college he was awfully busy and I had a choice of going for job interviews or helping him and I said “heck, I think I just start helping him some.”

I got my degree and then went to work for him as kind of an employee and that’s kind of how it got started.

THP: The TP Mills brand went away for a while, what was the reason for that from your standpoint and when did it really start becoming huge again in the eyes of collectors, tour players and golfers everywhere?

DM: One thing he, my dad, focused on when he retired from Spalding was the custom business and he really preferred the custom end of it. We never advertised, people probably can’t believe that, but in the history of our company we have never had any kind of a commercial, or paid any players or done anything, it’s all been word of mouth. And through that he had built up a big list of customers that wanted his handmade clubs. He couldn’t care less about a production line. He had won most of the events on the tour and majors but he didn’t care about going out there. He was just interested in making clubs one at a time for the customers.

I guess by doing that you do lose your visibility on the tour where you lose it to various media related interviews and things like that but to be honest, he couldn’t have cared less. He had done all that stuff, that stuff he did won what he wanted to win and all that. I think that right there kind of dropped the visibility down somewhat. Although, he always stayed busy and of course he had me helping him.

As I progressed I said, “Hey, I think a [limited] production line is something that we need to do.” And then I started those avenues again and he said go ahead and give it a shot if you want to, but he wasn’t really in it. Like I said, he had won all he needed or wanted to win and had so many accomplishments in designing of the golf putter that he was content and just wanted to take it easy and enjoy his retirement. And that’s where I started to get more involved in it. Then Mizuno, back in the late 1990s, was interested in the putter line and things kind of came together there and I guess it started picking back up and going.

THP: When you basically took over and became the lead designer of the TP Mills line, what thoughts did you have as far as making sure you stayed true to the line in a traditional sense?

DM: That’s a great question and I am not saying the club is all me, but I have been doing this a long time and to be honest with you I knew what made a golf club work. I knew what had to be done in the engineering of the head, where it would perform. Now that doesn’t mean you can’t putt with something that doesn’t perform but I knew where the CG (center of gravity) had to be, I knew how it had to balance. I knew the soft looks that people preferred and how to get those looks and all those small things add together, I think, really helped me say “OK, here is where I want to take this. I want to follow the tradition of the mills.” And having said that, you know, we don’t have the vestment casting procedures and access to all that stuff to make the big mallets anyway. People always ask us “when are you guys going to start making mallets?” And to be honest with you, we just didn’t have the facility to do that. We work with steel and stainless steel and the bigger you make anything out of steel the heavier it’s going to be. So you have to find ways to determine how to make it as big as you can, or more of a mallet type of club, but still keep the weight where it ought to be. That’s a great challenge, I think that’s probably one of the hardest challenges in putter design. Not only to have it look good and perform but also have the weight where it needs to be to be able to putt with it.

THP: You touched on an interesting topic about wanting to stay ‘true to the roots’ and a style of putter. You guys don’t make a ton of different styles, you don’t have 19 different shapes coming out every year. What is it about a certain style that you think stands out, not from a golfing stand point, but from a TP Mills standpoint?

DM: You talked about the different styles of putters, and you know, I don’t want to make a different style of putter unless it is a completely different style putter. I don’t want to shape the toe a little different or make a little thing here and call it another style. I think that’s probably, to some degree, a disservice to the customer. To maybe make a little wrinkle here or there and call it something different, try to spin it as something different, when it’s basically something similar. The styles that we, or I, have tried to come up with have tried to be a unique looking blend of different things that the customer would look at and say “hey that does look good, that is a unique look.” All the while making sure that that putter, the sweet spot, that it performs, is balanced exactly as it should be. When you do that you are not going to come up with 6 brand new models a year. You are going to have a brainstorm once or twice a year or something and say “hey I need to tackle this” and “this is something that hasn’t quite been done before and let’s see if I can make it work.”

The second part of that is us being true to our roots or our tradition. One of the things my dad was most famous for was his club aesthetics. The putters that had come out in his day had no real aesthetics to them. They were basically cast clubs that really didn’t have the softest edges and all that stuff and when he started in this business he really made a point to not only make that club perform but make it as beautiful as you can make it look. Because, there again, in his day, the putter was the cheapest club in the bag. Nobody cared anything about putters, the focus was on persimmon woods and chromed irons and the putter was $30 and you could pick up anything you wanted. They actually had iron shafts cut off for putter shafts. That’s where he made a big difference, in the aesthetics of the club along with the balance, and I have tried to maintain that as far as sticking to roots. I want the club that I make here not only to perform but I want them to look really good. From cambered edged to beautiful blends between the neck and the hosel, no hard edges on the putter if I can help it.

THP: Many people would say that in this day and age things are getting abundant and redundant. What takes a putter like a TP Mills, created by you, and makes it different than another major brand who is putting out a similar shape or something else?

DM: Well, the first part of your question, being there are so many choices, and there are tremendous choices in golf putters these days, and the evolution of putting has changed and continues to change to the belly’s to the long putters. The manufacturers are trying, on their end, they are trying to do anything they can to sell a lot of putters. I guess that is what everyone is trying to do but as far as how you can choose a style, what I try to do is, if you go into a car lot and there are 10 different models of cars you don’t have to be an expert in automobiles to look at that one or two of those cars and say “man, that really looks good, that’s a beautiful shape, I like that.” You don’t have to be a single digit golfer, or you can be a 25 handicapper, but you go into a golf store and look at 100 different putters and you can pick 1 or 2 or 3 out and say “That really catches my eye. That looks good. That looks like it will perform,” and that’s kind of what I try to do with the clubs I make. You go into a shop and look at one of our putters, I want it to look good, I want it to look like it will perform.

THP: Do you have a shape that you personally gravitate towards?

DM: You know what, your website is great, your forum is great, it’s called The Hackers Paradise, and I am not a bad player, but I am like anybody else, if it’ll work I will use it. I tend to like a putter that’s got a pocket in it, I like the weight to be spread around the sweet spot a little bit more to make it a little bit more forgiving because I do tend to hit them off center a little bit.

I am just like anyone else, I will always try something new that I make. That’s the advantage I have where I can make something and then I can take it out and play with it and say “hey does this feel like I thought it would or do I need to tweak this?” I am good about asking a lot of people, I know what I am doing, but I am not afraid to say “what do you think?”

A lot of people, in my business, you try to give them an idea and they are offended by that, thinking that maybe you are trying to, I don’t know, not make them look as good as they should. I’m just the opposite. I enjoy asking as many people as I can who are willing to give me an idea of what they think. I know how to take that information, and what’s not useful and what is useful. The information from players, even poor players, I think, is awfully important because they can give you a different perspective on what they look at when they look at a club.

Stay tuned to THP later in the week when we have the 2nd part of this interview up.

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