Bob Bettinardi must not have been watching “American Chopper” the night his 5-year-old daughter came in to ask about Spiderman. The famed putter-maker is hard to distract when his favorite sprocket-heads are trading jibes and custom-building motorcycles on cable.
The girl, Brigitte, wanted dad to make her “a Spiderman putter.” She already had the pajamas and the backpack, now she was after something more original. Soon enough a $300 titanium milling bit, guided by one of Bettinardi Golf’s $350,000 computer-milling machines, was etching an artful web pattern on a carbon steel block. And perhaps carving itself a niche in putter history.
Like all custom Bettinardis, the “Spiderman” took several weeks of milling, plating, paint-fill and finishing to complete. Its production run was highly limited. The results, time has shown, were spectacular. Brigitte got her birthday putter and the remainder became available to collectors, one of whom parted with $12,000 several years ago to acquire it, a price said to be the highest ever for a non-antique putter.
If you happen to catch the Bettinardi bug but can’t afford a Spiderman, you could drop down to about $5,000 for a super-limited Ryder Cup 2006 putter, the first model to use Bettinardi’s proprietary “nano-engraving” process. For about half that amount you could be the proud owner of a .44 Magnum heel-toe style putter, one of 444 produced back in the late 1990s. (“I wanted to do something special for my 44th birthday,” admits its author.)
The authorized sources of these flashy flatsticks is either www.rjbcollector.com or www.BettinardiLtd.com. The original online storefront for Bettinardi’s handiwork was www.tksputters.com, hosted back in the day by Bettinardi acolyte Todd Schumacher. A PGA professional who first visited Bettinardi headquarters in Tinley Park, Ill., nine years ago, Schumacher was soon buying and selling custom Bettinardi putters with an eye toward promotion and some side profit. Inspired by the beauty and playability of the product, Schumacher became a sort of Ambroise Vollard to Bettinardi’s Paul Cézanne—in other words, a dealer whose convictions and enthusiasm vastly widened his chosen artist’s audience. He estimates having sold several thousand Bettinardis around the world, some 900 of them to a single collector in California.
In a parallel golf universe there are Bettinardi flatsticks you and I can readily acquire, for a price closer to $250. Under a long-term agreement Bettinardi designed and built putters for Mizuno Golf that remain available. Performance of the Mizuno Bettinardis is on par with the Bettinardi collectibles, the price variance all due to scarcity of the custom product. A top-selling Mizuno Bettinardi putter has been the C03 co-designed (and played on tour) by a former Bettinardi factory rat, Luke Donald. While majoring in art and playing on the golf team at Northwestern, Donald would often stop by to talk about design and metallurgy with Bettinardi. The best-known Bettinardi story on the pro tours involves Jim Furyk, who won the 2003 U.S. Open at Olympia Fields using a Bettinardi-Hogan Baby Ben that he first laid eyes several days before the championship began.
Faced with the unexpected news of a USGA ban on the Dogleg Right putter he had been using all season, Furyk began practicing with the Baby Ben on Monday of Open week. Impressed with the putter’s look and feel, he put it in his bag. In round one he took just 25 putts in crafting a 67, then holed every putt he needed en route to what remains his only major title.
In an industry long plagued by counterfeiting and knockoff product, no one even tries to fake a Bettinardi. And while he is proud of the decorative flourishes that distinguish his product and contribute to its cult aura, Bettinardi sees his task this way: “We’re trying to build a precision instrument to perform a precision task.” A devoted golfer who took up the game after completing his degree at Milwaukee School of Engineering and then joining his father’s business, Bettinardi pursues ever-tighter tolerances as a righteous goal. His original “honeycombing” process and now nano-engraving are both discoveris borne of the quest for absolute face flatness.
Investment casting, the standard means of putter-making, has always struck Bettinardi as an inferior approach rife with flaws and inconsistencies. Another fault Bettinardi sees with casting is geographical—it all takes place in large-scale Asian supplier factories, far from his watchful eye and far from the skilled craftsmen of Tinley Park. Like his red-white-and-blue counterparts in that bike shop on “American Choppers,” Bettinardi has a deep faith in what determined American workers can do with quality steel, the best machinery and a little bit of attitude. With a Bettinardi putter in hand, the discerning golfer has faith that he can make a few birdies.