Chesterton Tribune

Patents in hand, production next: Local craftsman says he has built a better putter

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New putter to be launched: Richard Biggs holds one of his Palm Putters, a hand-crafted putter he designed that he said can help golfers significantly improve their putting skills. His family business will launch the putter this weekend at events in Chesterton and Munster.

(Tribune photo by Vicki Urbanik)

 

By VICKI URBANIK

Richard Biggs might best be known for his violin shop in downtown Porter, but he’s about to launch a new product that may seem worlds apart from the fine craft of violin making.

A master luthier and bowmaker, Biggs has invented a golf putter that he said helps remove a series of obstacles that stand in the way of a good putt. He’s received two patents for his Palm Putter, which he hopes will not only open the doors of golf to more people, but will also demonstrate in some small but significant way that the American small business entrepreneur spirit remains the backbone of our country.

“We’ll keep it mom and pop and hopefully we’ll start hiring people ... and we’ll prove that these things can happen,” Biggs said.

Biggs became interested in violin making while a student at the American Academy of Art in Chicago. He went to work for Inland Steel, starting off as a millwright before his promotion to executive level, as a graphic art manager. After retiring from Inland in 1984, he devoted his time to violin making, becoming a master luthier at Kagan & Gaines in Chicago and studying under master Franz Kinberg. For a long time, he had eyed the small brick building in downtown Porter, and when it became available, he set up Biggs Violin Shop in 2001.

About 15 years ago, he switched from violin making to primarily making violin bows, and today he is one of only 200 or so bow makers in the world. As such, he has had to contend with the maddening situation that the best Brazilian wood used in bow making is now illegal to obtain, even though acres upon acres are being destroyed each day for ranching; he also participates in a tree replenishment program in Brazil.

The precision in crafting a bow is intense. One can have one violin and three different bows and produce three different sounds. “The bow’s the boss,” he said.

Which brings us to the putter.

Just as there’s precision in making a violin bow, there’s an exactitude in making a good putt. About five years ago, Biggs grew more and more intrigued as to why seemingly easy putts can be so elusive for so many. “I would watch great golfers miss four foot putts,” he said.

So he began studying putting. And he studied some more. The grip, the bend of the wrists and the elbow, and the line of the club all are critical. If one is off, the whole putt can be wrong.

Biggs eventually designed a putter that simplifies the act of putting, with a ball handle and a cylindrical head. The ball makes it possible to swing the club in a pendulum motion, getting the ball rolling without snubbing the grass. Components are made up of brass, which he notes “rings” better, and the ball is wood, which is natural to the touch. He went through repeated designs “until we got the sound we wanted.”

Just like a bow is to a violinist, a putter needs to give the golfer a good fit, a certain vibration. “It can’t just be static. It’s got to be active,” he said.

When he finally got the design right, he was “thrilled.” The USGA, on the other hand, was not. “They fought me for three years,” he said.

Biggs disagreed with the USGA, but he was determined to get the USGA’s stamp of approval for his putter, even though it was not necessary. He sent the association more than five prototypes, each time adjusting the details to their specifications. Finally, the association deemed that the putter was in compliance -- except for the ball at the top of the shaft. So Biggs offers the putter in two versions -- one with the ball permanently attached, and one that allows the ball to be removed for tournament play. But he also makes it clear that the ball can be reinserted and used as a training aide. Even with the ball off, the putter is “still a better putter,” he said.

Biggs noted that only a sliver of golfers are professionals. And that’s where he feels his putter has a noble purpose: By helping golfers putt better, they will enjoy the game more, and the game as a whole is better off.

Unlike other sports, Biggs notes that amateurs can putt just as well as the pros do. He strongly resents going backwards in the golf world and returning the game to a highly elitist sport. His view is that if technology can help the game and bring in more players, then it should be embraced.

It was, in fact, technology that got Biggs re-interested in golf. After many years of not playing, he one day borrowed a seven iron. He was amazed at how the design of the club had improved over the years. “ I couldn’t believe what happened,” he said. “I thought, my God, I can play golf again. Technology brought me back.” (Incidentally, Biggs said he can no longer swing so he doesn’t play golf. But he does putt.)

His palm putter has another purpose. “We refuse to go to China,” he said. Most golf club manufacturers have “sold out,” and only one company still makes American made clubs. He is adamant that his Palm Putter will always be manufactured at home, with all American made parts. It’s currently manufactured in a small machine shop in Michigan City and assembled in Porter.

For now, the Palm Putter is a small family endeavor, with Biggs serving as CEO and his wife and four children working in other capacities. His dream is to expand the business so that he can branch out by actually hiring paid employees. He’s particularly interested in hiring disabled veterans, giving them solid, well paying work.

He’s not phased by his competition in the golf world. “Our strength is always going to be two things: One, nobody else can ever call theirs a ‘Palm Putter.’” he said. And with a broad smile, he added: “And they won’t be able to say theirs was made entirely in America.”

Official Launch

Biggs will officially launch the Palm Putter this weekend, first at The Brassie in Chesterton from 7 a.m. to noon, followed by a stop on Sunday at Centennial Park in Munster from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. Each Palm Putter costs $250 and comes with a DVD, a removable head, and a counterbalance. Orders placed at the official launches will receive a 10 percent discount. For more information, see www.palmputtergolf.com

 

Posted 7/15/2010