An Interview with the Man Behind TP Mills – Part 2

In the first part of the interview with legendary putter creator David Mills, THP discussed the history of the brand, where it went for a while, and how it is back to creating some of the finest looking flat sticks that are being made today. In part 2 of this special interview, THP and David discuss finishes, milling, putter fitting and so much more. In case you missed part 1, you can find it by clicking here.

THP: Two questions that come up a lot are geared towards finishes. Unique and different types of finishes of putters are extremely personal and it seems to be a trending thing nowadays versus the past when you really only had a slightly darker finish, chrome and maybe satin. Now it seems to be a very personal thing with all kinds of different torching and styles, even white, what do you think of the different finishes of putters and how do you find a happy medium to offer consumers?

DM: I’ll tell you, that’s a great question, and let me preface by telling you how the finishes came about and how putter finishes came about. Back in the day when Karsten [Solheim] and my dad made the clubs the putters weren’t pretty, they weren’t made to be pretty they were made to function. You couldn’t get someone to give you a nickel for something that looked good, they wanted it to work. As my dad became more famous in his hand made clubs and really became internationally known, the Japanese at that time were golf crazy. This was probably back in the late 60s and they wanted to order clubs from him but they wanted the clubs to be beautiful and look like jewelry.

So he came up with the hand polishing and the black oxide and from there they gave input. They wanted it to be a piece of jewelry for them so that’s where all that originated from. Him satisfying the Japanese. Of course no one had ever seen putters that looked like that, and that’s kind of how the whole thing started. People would look at them and say “this is not a $30 club anymore this is a $300, $400, $500 club.” And I think Golf Digest has credited him with being the first to take a $35 golf club, through his engineering abilities and aesthetics, and turn it into a $500 or $1000 golf club. He turned the cheapest club in the bag to probably the most expensive club in the bag.

As far as the finishes that I use, I only use what I have available in my shop. There are other types of finishes you can put on a golf club and this is still evolving. I know other people in the putter business are always working on a different look, a different coating, a little more durable. Generally, when you go with something that makes the club more durable it doesn’t quite have the aesthetic look that you look for and I think that is the big battle right now between some of your big putter makers who are trying to make something that is durable but looks really good. I think that is the latest thing going on as far as that.

The finishes I prefer, I prefer clean finishes that aren’t too off the wall. I do a satin here with my beat blaster, I do the black oxide satin or the stainless steel satin and some people like the nice beautiful look of that. I do torches here, and I have been doing that for a while and there is somewhat of an art to doing that. It’s almost like baking a cake, if it comes up too hot too quick it will burn the cake. You have to know how to get it to the right temperature and then let that temperature gradually build to turn that club into the color you want. Finishes are a big part of putters now and they didn’t used to be. But finishes catch people’s attention. They catch the eye of the buyer and right away that is a good thing. Although I am somewhat limited by what I can do here the finishes are important. Look at the Ghost putter, the white putter, it’s ironic when I saw this putter because my father was the first to do the black putter. No one had seen anything like it and now you have a white putter and there is no telling what is next.

THP: What was the reason putter manufacturers experimented with inserts and what are your thoughts from a manufacturing standpoint on using an insert in a putter.

DM: To be honest with you, inserts were done back in the 60s, I think George Low was one of the first to do them. So it’s nothing revolutionary around the corner. Inserts were primarily done to sell golf clubs, just as most things are done to sell. Inserts were done to sell the golf club, and even up until recently to sell the golf club.

Is an insert an advantage or a disadvantage? An insert, for the most part, can be a disadvantage to the golf putter and I will tell you why. When you put an insert in a golf club you are changing the structure of the face. Now if you put it in there correctly and the insert has certain strength to it, for lack of a better word, then it doesn’t hurt or improve the club. An insert can give you a different feel, but with the advent of the insert, I think Odyssey started the thing, and then everybody had to have it. That was the thing, to have some kind of insert. Well, manufacturers started putting inserts into clubs that were softer than the metal around it and they would spin it as ‘what great feel this has’ and then a guy would say “gosh, I can hardly even feel that it’s so soft.” But if you think about that, that’s actually a bad thing. When you get to where you can’t feel the ball coming off the face you lose your feel. There again, they took it to the extreme of that. If you think about, you are driving down the road in your car you don’t want to feel any bumps, you want it to be a smooth ride. So you have a lot of rubber between you and the road, the tire has a lot of rubber to make it a smooth ride, but you don’t feel things, you don’t feel the bumps. Great players and great drivers of open wheeled cars, like Tiger Woods in golf or Crenshaw, they want to feel everything. That is how they play, they play by feel, they have to feel everything.

So inserts has progressed to such a stage where they got soft, mushy, and you could put your thumb in them and some people would try to spin that as a selling point, but anytime you can stick your thumbnail into something and you can see it when you pull it out, you know that can’t be very good because it created inconsistency. So whatever you put on the face of a golf club, a putter, you want that to be as consistent as possible so when you hit a ball off of it you are going to get a consistent reaction. Inserts do change the feel of things, but that is not necessarily good because it changes the feel.

THP: Milling the face of the putter is extremely popular now, what are your thoughts on milling in general and the different mills that we see that supposedly have a technological advantage?

DM: When you are talking about milling you are basically talking about a surface miller that goes across the face of the club and depending on how fast you move across that surface or how the miller skips across that face will give you a variety of different face looks. But that is 90% cosmetic. There is nothing wrong with that. It gives the putter a unique look, it makes it stand out more, but as far as helping you make putts it simply doesn’t do that.

People like the course mill, I have done that myself, and boy it really looks good and distinctive, but if you go back to common sense you have a striking surface the more undulations and things you have on that surface, the more opportunity that ball, however minute, to not roll as good as if the surface was smooth. That is not rocket science, that is common sense, but having said that, a different milling on a face is certainly attractive, it looks good, it’s unique, especially if the manufacturer comes up with maybe a little different angle to do it, or different tool to do it with, but as far as helping the ball putt better, it really doesn’t and that’s just the truth.

THP: There are so many different metals used to make a putter. Do you have a favorite and if so why?

DM: There are certainly different metals, and I am just speaking for myself, but the advantage of the different metals are the corrosion resistance due to the elements. The different materials of putters, to be honest with you, yes you can go to some exotic metals and that would have to do with the density, or lack thereof the metal itself, and you could putt with it and it could give you a little different feel. But more than anything, the overriding factor, the feel of the putter, will be the face, that is number 1. How thick that face is, the thicker the face when you hit a ball with it the more solid it feels. It isn’t like anything else. When you mill a big pocket in the back of the putter where your face becomes thinner, and by that I mean the striking surface vs the back wall of the pocket, the thinner that surface gets, that area gets, the more you get of that little ting putt. That doesn’t mean it’s any less solid as long as everything else is balanced right, it just means you put a little different sound and a little different feel. That is certainly relative in how the club feels, more so, then the metal that you are using.

The shaft and the grip play as big a role as anything in how that ball is going to feel when you hit it, more so, probably, then the different type of metal that you are using. But there again, you can use some extreme stuff and probably can get a little different feel but the majority of it ‘hey I am making this out of German Steel’ or ‘I’m making this out of copper,’ or ‘I’m making this out of an aluminum mixture.’ It’s certainly different, but as far as the hit of the ball, it more so depends on the thickness of the striking surface that you are hitting and the combination of the type of grip that you are using. If you have a big grip in your hand, you are not going to feel as much as if you have a real thin grip. That doesn’t make it better or worse, it just makes it a little different. The shaft flex, if it’s a soft shaft then you can really feel the headwork in the stroke unlike if it’s a firm shaft where you get more like a rocker type effect. So the metals are another selling point for golf putters, and I think they look fantastic with some of the different stuff people are doing, but as far as how the ball rolls and feels, that will have more to do with the engineering of the head itself versus the metal it’s made of.

THP: What are your thoughts on putter fitting and how it helps the consumer find a putter and stick with it?

DM: Great question. Fittings, and this goes back to TP, he was probably the first to do that. He would have individuals come into his shop and be personally fit. His philosophy was that he wanted the putter to fit you versus you trying to fit the club. He would relate it to a suit of clothes. A tailored suit fits you much better than a suit off the rack. I can still remember him saying that. He was exactly right. The evolution of putter fitting has really come a long way from what he used to do at his shop where he would get you a club of different lengths and he would drop a ball on a concrete floor and he would have you set up to it and hit. He had done it so long he could visually look at it and say “OK, your hands are low we need to make them a little flatter,” or “you need a little more offset on this,” or “the type of stroke you have, you need less offset.” The technology and availability to get fit for a putter now is really great from just about everybody. From the putting machines they have to fitting studios, there is nothing wrong with that. Anything like that which can fit you better to the club, I think that is great.

The only problem is that there are a lot of consumers, or putters, who don’t know what they want. They are not sure what fits them right. The way I do it here in my shop is I first start with having the person find something that looks good to them. Find out what looks good to your eye and attracts you to that shape. Once we get that then we can discuss the tremendous different options that customer can have from what type of hosel they want on the club to where he wants it located on the club and he can look at different styles. The way I do it is I start with a shape to see what looks good to someone. Then I focus on the different hosels and what they do and how they function on the club and then let them make their choices as to what direction they want to go with that.

THP: Stamping and personalization on putters is so popular right now. Where do you take it with TP Mills and how crazy can people get with the customizations?

DM: There again, back in TP’s days he was the first to ever do that. Back in those days there was nothing on the face of a golf club. When he started with Spalding they said “TP, you need to let these people know who made this club,” and my dad said, “well, nobody knows who I am,” so they said “why don’t you put a mark on the club where people will recognize that mark as your mark,” and that gave him the idea to trademark and come up with the idea of the cross on the face of the club. And that is a trademark that we have and then we did that as an alignment point and then Spalding started to put the TPM on the club and many people will remember the Spalding TPM lines, they were very popular for many years. TPM were his initials but they also stood for Touring Pro Model and that led to him putting his name on the club because they said, “Hey, Mr. Mills, I want you to put your name on these clubs. I want people to know who built these clubs.” That was really never done, nobody had done that before. And then when he started putting his name on the clubs, stamping that there, that really set off the whole personalization thing. Then he started adding initials. He said “hey why don’t we put your initial on the club, it will maybe help people from keeping their clubs from being stolen and then also personalize it.” People were like “Wow! That is fantastic, that has never been done before.”

His personalization was simple, it wasn’t like it is today. As a matter of fact, about as far as he would go would be to put your initial on it and in those days that was great. Now people can do crazy things with stamps and welding on the clubs and all types of stuff. I don’t see anything wrong with that. In any line of work you are in, if you have something that is popular that people like your competitors are going to gravitate to that, that’s just natural. So now, obviously, everybody has stampings and they probably have stamping tables and even wedges are being stamped now. Snow, TP started that, he had what he called snow on clubs because he wanted a little bit of a contrast between the top of the putter and the back of the putter and the white golf ball. So he came up with the idea of putter pokes in the club, and he did it on the face too and that became crazy popular and now people everywhere can have stamps and snow on the club. It’s an evolution of that.

I don’t go to too many websites but people will send me an email with pictures and designs they want stamped and we will do the stamping, and I think it looks pretty good. As long as it doesn’t become so much that it distracts the person from actually making putts, because the whole purpose of all this is to actually make putts. So if it gets tricked out (I think that’s what they call it now) so much you focus more on the putter than actually make the putt then maybe that becomes a little bit of a distraction. It looks awfully good and it’s a great conversation piece but the bottom line is you want to make putts.

THP: Where is TP Mills headed now with the brand?

DM: I do custom work now, and I am sure a lot of people have gotten to doing that type of thing. My goal is to put out a limited production line golf club. I want a limited production line golf club that is second to none in how it performs and its finish. I want it to have the ability to perform. Having said that, there is just no way I could make a lot of them and have that happen. The more you make of anything, your quality is going to suffer a little bit. So my goal for the foreseeable future right now is to proceed with this new Anvil putter line that I have just come up with. And the Anvil comes from the tradition and history of TP Mills’ hand forging. So I am designing the one piece forging and having them machined off the forging, which I think is probably the best way to do it. I know a lot of people probably can’t tell a whole lot of difference, but in my mind I feel it’s the best way to do it. So I will do that and I have been traveling a lot the last 2 or 3 years. The TP Mills brand is known all over the world and I am in the process right now of trying to capitalize on that. By putting a limited production putter in the marketplace that is hopefully well thought of and will be a successful product. I am lucky that right now I have more buyers than I have clubs, so being a one man show, I am trying to get over those hurdles to keep our inventories at the right level. My goal over the next few years is to get this limited production line out and make it worldwide in a very limited manner if I can.

THP wants to thank David Mills for taking the time to chat with us and bring the readers an incredibly informative interview. For more information on the brand, the history and about ordering these fine works of art, check out their website at www.tpmills.com.

Till Next Time

Josh B.

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