A Popular Putter Gets New Life

By: Tony Dear

At the 1983 PGA Merchandise Show in Orlando, Arnold Palmer walked into the main exhibition hall and headed straight for the Slotline booth. Clovis "Duke" Duclos, Slotline's founder, remembers the occasion: "I had set up a putting rug for people to try out our new Inertial putter," he says. "Arnold stayed a long time, and the crowd of his admirers grew very large, watching him putt with the Inertial on the rug. When he left, he took a floor sample and carried it throughout the show as he visited some of his sponsors and other booths. Of course, a ton of people followed him."

Duclos and Palmer never talked about it, but Duclos knew that the King knew he was giving the product a very big endorsement that day. "It was very effective, of course," says Duclos. "That year we took orders for over $300,000. At previous shows, we were lucky to do $20,000. I had commemorative sweaters with a '300 Club' logo made up for my staff."

Duclos and Palmer stayed in touch for a long time, even after Palmer inevitably moved on to other brands. "I estimate I made about two dozens putters for Arnold to mess with," says Duclos. "We were experimenting with different specs: length, lie, weight, loft, etc. I know he appreciated it. We would talk about different ideas all the time."

Palmer used a "BIG MO" model in senior tournaments for many years, but it was the Inertial that gave Slotline its big break. Greatly influenced by Karsten Solheim's design of the Ping Anser, the heel/toe-weighted model took its predecessor's high Moment of Inertia (MOI) to unprecedented heights by positioning heavy lead weights at either end of a lightweight aluminum body. Duclos calculated the Inertial's resistance to twisting - its MOI - was 1.8 times greater than the Anser's and two and a half times greater than that of a typical blade putter. Ads shouting "PUTT 2.5 TIMES BETTER!" began appearing in newspapers around the country.

Duclos, a former flight engineer working on the Skylab and S-IVB (third stage of the Saturn V rocket, responsible for getting the Apollo module from the Earth to the moon) projects at McDonnell Douglas's Huntington Beach plant, had begun his home-based putter operation in 1972. His first product featured a slot (well, more of a notch actually) on the top edge and an alignment line, the idea being that if the line was visible through the notch . . . sorry, slot . . . your eyes were positioned correctly over the ball and the sole of the club lay flush on the ground. Duclos's friends were impressed and a steady trickle of orders came in.

To further finance his burgeoning business, he took out a $30,000 second mortgage on his house and set about making the putter that would one day become the game's second-most popular and reach $16 million in sales.

Three years after establishing his business, Duclos left McDonnell Douglas to make putters full-time. Times were tough at first and he was forced to supplement his meager income with visits to Nevada's blackjack tables. But in 1982, Duclos had his "eureka" moment and came out with the Inertial. The initial response to the new putter was terrific. Before long, the company was employing 186 people and big-name professionals, most notably Palmer, were choosing to play Slotline putters without contracts. In 1985 Kathy Baker (now Kathy Guadagnino) shot 8-under-par at Baltusrol Golf Club to win the U.S. Women's Open and give the Inertial its first, and so far only, major championship.

These were heady times for Slotline, which began adding irons and woods to its inventory. Just like the color of the heel and toe weights in the Inertial putter, the Slotline name was gold. Over 12,000 sets of Hammer irons sold in a little over a year and 6,000 sets of metal woods went in the first seven months after their launch. Duclos even took his brand global, building a factory in St. Andrews, Scotland.

The good times lasted throughout the '80s. But the gold started turning green in the new decade when dwindling market share - Odyssey the main culprit - and a failed joint venture with Trinity Golf, maker of the Stiletto line of drivers, combined with several other mishaps and ill-judgments to bring the company down. "The proposed venture with Trinity actually turned into a lawsuit," says Duclos. "Slotline prevailed and I settled for compensation, but too much time had passed without an active presence in the marketplace. By the time all that was over, my age had caught up with me and I chose to retire. Really, in the '90's, things were a mess in all sorts of ways, and I just wasn't able to move the company forward."

It was, to all intents and purposes, drained, depleted, defunct . . . dead, and the Slotline name slept peacefully enough for five years. Then, in January 2005, Firelight Corporation, a media and communications company with offices in Houston and Edmonton, Alberta, that had an exclusive arrangement to produce Butch Harmon instructional videos, acquired the name, patents and trademarks and signed a deal with Duclos for five new putter designs. "My ex-wife really wanted that deal so she could cash out her community-property interests," says Duclos.

Unfortunately, Firelight failed to resurrect the brand with any great success, leaving the way clear for Dynamic Brands of Richmond, Va., to purchase it in September 2007. Established three years previously, Dynamic Brands owned various other golf manufacturers - Bag Boy, Datrek, AMF, Devant and Burton among them. It was also the parent company of four leading child-stroller makers, BabyJogger.

Having been made aware that one, two, three or even four models just wouldn't cut it in today's overcrowded putter market, Chad Lehr, Slotline's new product manager, spent 15 months preparing a new line in preparation for the 2009 PGA Merchandise Show in Orlando. A 22-year veteran of the golf industry, Lehr had cut the grass at various golf courses and spent many years in retail, worked for the Hogan Company and in R&D for three shaft manufacturers: Rifle, True Temper and FST, before landing at Slotline where, as he puts it, he is now in control of new putters from "soup to nuts."

Amid considerable excitement, not to say nostalgia, Slotline's rebirth in Florida saw 14 new Chad Lehr designs in three separate families: SL-700 (219.95), SL-500 (179.95) and SS-300 (119.95). The four SL-500 series models were modeled very closely on the original Inertial but now featured Winn grips, milled heads built from 6061 aluminum (used in the manufacture of aircraft wings and fuselages, bicycle frames, yachts, food and beverage cans) and, in the case of the SL-582F, 206 grams of tungsten blend in the heel and toe, producing a relatively heavy putterhead of 340g.

"The response to all our models was very positive," says Lehr. "I had countless people come up to me and say how good it was to see Slotline back. Most mentioned they still had an original Inertial somewhere in their garage and added that it was the best putter they ever owned. I showed visitors to the booth the benefit of high MOI by hitting two balls simultaneously. They would both run straight and almost exactly the same distance as each other, proving even off-center hits produced a consistent roll."

Duclos was on hand and came away very impressed. "I so appreciate the bonding of the principles of high MOI to these beautiful new models," he said. "I know from experience the design discipline required, and it has been done in spades. These new models deliver the best feel and performance possible."

That was before the introduction of the SSi-600 Series ($179.95), which became available November 1, 2009, and may well be Slotline's best putter yet. The first Slotline to feature an insert, the three SSi-600 models are cast and milled from a 304 stainless steel body and possess 15g tungsten weights in the heel and toe. The insert is milled from the same 6061 aluminum that forms the body of the SL-700 and SL-500 Series.

With its tin/nickel non-glare plated finish, the SSi-600 family definitely looks as far removed from the Inertial as anything Lehr has produced. But the Duclos stamp is still clearly visible with the slot-and-line alignment system, multi-material construction and emphasis on high MOI.

Lehr is quick, in fact, to acknowledge the genius of Clovis Duclos and maintains a close professional relationship with the man who, he says, prefers No Limit Texas Hold'em to building putters these days. "Duke laid such a wonderful foundation," says Lehr. "He sought to improve upon Karsten Solheim's perimeter-weighted putters, creating clubs with the highest MOI of their time. Offering only a modern version of the original Inertial wouldn't have made sense, however, as it would have got lost in the shuffle. But it's fair to say all of our current models are inspired by Duke's work."

In turn, Duclos is flattered by Lehr's praise and happy to pass on his wisdom from time to time. "My role today is simply that of an observer," he says. "I am very pleased that Chad and Dynamic Brands are resurrecting the brand I created. I really hope they are successful. They have given me much credit as a pioneer, and I appreciate that very much."

Not half as much as golfers around the world appreciate Clovis Duclos for making the tantalizingly tricky art of putting a little bit easier.

Tony Dear is an Englishman living in Bellingham, Wash. In the early 1990s he was a member of the Liverpool University golf team which played its home matches at Royal Liverpool GC. Easy access to Hoylake made it increasingly difficult for him to focus on Politics (his chosen major) and, after dropping out, he ended up teaching golf at a club just south of London where he also made a futile attempt at becoming a "player." He moved into writing when it became abundantly clear he had no business playing the game for a living. A one-time golf correspondent of the New York Sun, Tony is a member of the Golf Writers Association of America, the Pacific Northwest Golf Media Association and the Golf Travel Writers Association. In 2009, Tony won first place for Editorial/Opinion in the ING Media Awards for Cybergolf. The article (http://www.cybergolf.com/golf_newsa_euros_take_on_the_2008_ryder_cup_matches) that impressed the judges was the one about Europe's Ryder Cup team and Captain Nick Faldo's decision to pick Paul Casey and Ian Poulter rather than Darren Clarke.