SAN DIEGO, Calif. (Oct 25, 2010) -- They are as unglamorous as they are useful.
Like tires on a car, golf grips mean everything to performance. They are a player’s connection to the instrument of the sport. Without them, it’s like riding on the rims.
Yet a golfer might spend a thousand dollars on a set of clubs and years down the line let the grips wear to a shiny baldness.
“Golf grips have been an afterthought or far too long,” said Bob Lamkin, who could be counted as an authority of the subject.
The name might ring a bell. Lamkin is the third-generation CEO of Lamkin Corporation, which has been producing only golf grips for 85 years, longer than anybody.
Lamkin makes more than 20 million grips per year at its plants in Tijuana and China, and San Diego has been home to the corporate office since the Lamkins moved the operations from Chicago in 1986.
Bob Lamkin is passionate about grips, and he thinks more golfers should be. It’s more likely that a player will replace an entire set of clubs before he gets around to replacing the grips.
“Grips don’t get the attention or credibility that they should,” he said. “From a performance characteristic, there are so many players who don’t maintain their grips or replace their grips on a consistent basis.
“The killer to the golf swing is tension, and if the grips get slick, are worn out, or are improperly sized, there’s a tendency to increase the tension in the grip.
“It’s relatively inexpensive to change grips, and it’s like putting a new golf club in your hand.”
Coleman Mullin would enthusiastically agree. Mullin is the primary club fitter at the Stadium Golf Center, and he estimated that nine out of 10 golfers that he fits for clubs don’t even consider their grips. “It should be the first thing they think about,” he said.
“I see some grips, the old Green Victory grips, that are literally so thick and hard that it’s tough to even cut them off. It’s like, ‘How do you even play golf with these?’ “
It’s not just about the newness of the grips; it’s about the comfort and feel. Hand sizes – measured from the base of the palm to the tip of the middle finger -- are different, and so some golfers shouldn’t settle for grips off the rack. A smaller hand, for example, requires a grip of smaller circumference. An arthritic golfer, meantime, could use a thicker grip.
There are three major U.S. grip makers, Lamkin, Golf Pride and Winn, and Lamkin alone makes more than 30 different types of grips. They run the gamut, from a leather-like wrap style that has been in use for 15 years to the Performance Plus, which was introduced this year and features a propriety synthetic rubber material developed by the company’s chemists.
Tour players have significant input into Lamkin’s research and development. Bob Lamkin said the latest advancement suggested by the pros is a grip that is less tapered at the bottom, giving the top golfers more control.
The company provides grips for most of the major club manufacturers, and though the labels may say TaylorMade or Callaway or Ping, they are usually Lamkin products.
“We’ve been very successful in establishing ourselves as a source of supply to the manufacturers,” Lamkin, 53, said. “That’s how we have become entrenched in the last 20-plus years.”
There have been numerous critical crossroads in the Lamkin family story.
Lamkin’s grandfather, Elver Lamkin, founded the company in his Chicago garage in 1925 after the company for which he worked, Chicago Rawhide, rejected the idea of making golf grips.
Bob Lamkin Sr. joined his father in the business and likely saved the company in the 1960s, when rubber grips were beginning to overtake leather. Elvin wanted to stick with leather, so Bob Sr. bought a couple of injection mold presses and put them in another warehouse.
“My father’s progressive thinking going into the rubber grip market saved the company,” Bob Lamkin Jr. said.
Bob Jr., who aspired to be in federal law enforcement before joining the Lamkin Company when he was 30, would make his own contribution to progress when he convinced his father, who had his doubts, to build a plant in China in 2000. Today, about 70 percent of the grips are made there because most golf clubs are made there.
Bob Lamkin Sr., 82, lives in San Diego and still speaks to his son often about the business.
“He is the most involved retired guy you’ve ever seen. It’s great,” Bob Jr. said.
Numerous employees among 800 remain from the time the company moved from Chicago, and there’s one very important figure who’s been around for decades: Arnold Palmer.
Palmer has used Lamkin grips for most of his career and for more than 10 years has been the company’s only paid endorser.
“He’s been a wonderful influence, a mentor to me,” Bob Jr. said. “I’ve learned so much from Mr. Palmer. He’s the real deal.”
Bob Jr. recalls their first meeting, at Chicago’s Butler National in the early ‘70s, when his dad asked him to deliver new grips to Palmer during the Western Open. The legend tousled the young Lamkin’s hair and said, “Oh, you’re Bobby’s boy.”
Marveling at the memory with a smile, Bob Jr. said, “Little did I know I’d have this wonderful relationship with Arnold Palmer all these years.”
Bobby's boy has done very well for himself in the family business.
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