We did a lot of work for Wilson Golf in the 1980’s. In addition to making their Pro Line Staff clubs, we were also making up to 800 clubs per day for other Wilson brands. Our primary contact with Wilson was a gentleman named Larry Bobka. He was a plus 2 handicap and handled the pro line of golf clubs for Wilson. Larry told some interesting stories about his dealings with a few of the tour pros.
One story was when Wilson signed Nick Faldo to play their Staff clubs. Nick had previously played Mizuno equipment. Wilson Staff players were required to play Wilson clubs and the company had a room set up with their finest equipment, ranging from the current models to some of the vintage Staff irons. Nick couldn’t find a single club in the room to his liking. They showed him club after club, model after model, but he didn’t like any of them. They eventually went back into the factory where they had one of the iron polishers grind on the clubs following Nick’s instructions. What they ended up with was an iron that looked just like a Mizuno. Nick was a tough guy to fit.
Shortly after that, Wilson signed Payne Stewart. After the experience with Faldo, everyone was anxious about how the fitting session would go with Payne. They take Payne into the room and ask him what type of clubs he would like to play. Payne walks over to a set of irons and says, “ these will do”. Larry and the Wilson guys are taken aback. They’ve never had a tour pro accept equipment so easily. They thought this is going to be a piece of cake.
Things didn’t go so smoothly when selecting woods. The driver that Payne chose to play was the original Wilson Whale. This was a very large head that was made from wood. It was actually a model that was meant for the Wilson commercial grade line and was never intended to be a pro line club. Wilson tried to explain this to Payne, but he didn’t want to hear it. He wanted to play this big headed driver and Wilson finally conceded.
The team at the Louisville Golf would closely follow Payne’s progress on the tour. We were making all the Whale clubs for Wilson, and if Payne won a tournament it meant more orders and more work for them. The Louisville Golf office staff would look through the ads in the Golf Magazines to see how Wilson would advertise the Whale. We never found a single ad for the Whale driver. There would be an ad congratulating Payne Stewart for winning with the Fire Stick Graphite shaft, which was the shaft in his driver. Or there was an ad congratulating Payne for his win with the Wilson Ultra irons, but never a Whale driver. We couldn’t believe it. What was going on?
We asked Larry, our Wilson contact, why they weren’t promoting the Whale driver. Larry said there was some internal friction in the company concerning the Whale driver. Most products are developed by the Research & Development division and then presented to the Sales & Marketing people. The Whale driver was developed by a group of Sales guys who frequented a bar or pub named the Whale in River Grove where the home office of Wilson was located. They even stamped the same image of a whale that was the logo of the bar on the sole plate of the head. As long as this was a commercial grade club like it was intended, everything was fine. But when Payne Stewart selected the Whale for his driver, it moved it up to the Pro Line category. And for whatever reason the marketing people would not support the club. We could only imagine how many Whales they could have sold with marketing support.
I think Wilson missed a huge opportunity with the Whale driver. It was the first oversize driver on the market at a whopping 250 ccs. It was introduced in 1987, four years before the introduction of the Big Bertha driver, which had a volume of 190 ccs. One of the most popular players on tour was playing it, and actually won the 1989 PGA Championship with the Whale Driver. Wilson simply refused to promoted the club.
After the then unknown John Daly won the 1991 PGA Championship, he was signed an endorsement deal with Wilson. Daly had played with a driver made from a plastic material called Lauramid. The people at Wilson wanted to promote a driver made from Lauramid trying to make the connection between the long hitting Daly and the Lauramid material. The Big Bertha driver was successfully introduced the same year and large headed drivers where the rage in the golf community.
As a result, Wilson asked us to make a Whale driver out of the Lauramid material. This was an impossible task. The original Whale was made from Maple wood that was laminated in thin veneer sheets to give it strength. It was necessary to make the club from this material to keep it light enough to be useable for a golf head. The Lauramid material was very dense and heavy. Anything larger than a small shallow faced driver would be too heavy. They had us jumping through hoops trying to find a way to make the driver large enough while making it light. It couldn’t be done.
Finally we received a call from Wilson telling us to abandon the Lauramid project. They had developed a new large head called the Killer Whale. It was a large head made from aluminum that John Daly was going to play. The writing was on the wall for us….we weren’t going to be making anymore wooden whales for Wilson.