CHICHESTER, England - Of all the worshippers at the shrine of Harvey Penick there is none so devoted and grateful for his teachings than a 63-year-old former Royal Navy captain.
Jimmy Mearns had never heard of the legendary American golf guru when embarking on NATO service to Norfolk, Va. His appointment as executive assistant to the Supreme Allied Commander Atlantic initially allowed the dapper little Englishman no time to think about, let alone play, golf.
But in what free time he was later to enjoy Mearns became acquainted with the gospel according to Penick that spread from Austin, Texas, throughout the golfing world. Penick was a club professional for over 50 years and the author of the famous Little Red Golf Book, a unique blend of practical tips and parables. Penick's thesis on club making sparked a positive reaction in Mearns' leisure moments from being a top brass supply officer.
This was accelerated when Mearns came into possession of a custom-made set of clubs. Although an indifferent golfer, he quickly appreciated the difference. It occured to him that making clubs himself might prove a worthwhile hobby as retirement lay only two years ahead.
"My interest was stirred and I went to see George Walker who had a great reputation in customised club making. As a matter of fact I still play with the clubs I had in Virginia," he explained.
"George Walker became my mentor and I went, at his suggestion, to GolfWorks in Ohio who used to make clubs for Jack Nicklaus. Also I picked up further knowledge at another establishment, this time in Newark, N.J., and there was no looking back. I had resolved to be a club maker.
"When it was time to return to the UK I bought some technical equipment and also had a five-berth yacht that I had bought in the States shipped over to England together with my car. I had no doubt about the future as what impressed me most was learning that one in three clubs was custom built. That trend had to spread to the UK."
Today the boom in sales of distance-enhancing clubs means a work-round-the-clock routine for Mearns. Instead of four gold-braided rings on his sleeve he wears the overalls of an artisan and his extraordinary one-man business is swamped by orders.
In order to cope with orders he starts each day just after dawn in a converted cow shed. While giants of the golf business dominate the market, Mearns' cottage industry has more customers than he can shake a stick at.
His lovingly assembled clubs go to clients in no fewer than 26 countries and that includes America where he was first bitten by the DIY bug over a decade ago.
Out of the navy he set up just outside Chichester in West Sussex, England, and only a stone's throw from the sea where he relaxes in his yacht. Jimmy's starting-up outlay of £10,000 was bolstered by his navy pension.
The idea of importing heads and shafts from the United States took off, especially those with the Harvey Penick signature. Just like a gentleman's bespoke tailor or bootmaker, Mearns developed a solid client base.
He rendered personal service at a time when club professionals couldn't spare the time and every customer who stepped through the door of Grampian Golf Works was assured of a dossier.
A questionnaire for those seeking to improve their game with Mearns' clubs includes facts like flight pattern, fingertips-to-floor measurement, hand size, lie angle and swing speed. The data is all calculated by machines and the amount of detail Mearns needs before drawing up an individual profile is staggering. But when the bill arrives it is money well spent.
He recently introduced a 78 year old to the latest model. "He was frightened to death when he saw how far the ball went," beamed Mearns. Another satisfied caller was a 92-year-old woman.
Not only elderly folk are on the order book. There is Tiger Tom, a 2-year-old who sleeps with a seven iron instead of a teddy bear. And Matthew Draper, a cousin of Mearns, was the world's youngest achiever of a hole in one aged 5 years, seven months, using a club made by the master craftsman.
All this and as much work as he can handle does not prevent Mearns from doing repairs to both modern and antique clubs. He even has a tatty old set that once belonged to Lord Kitchener, commander-in-chief of the British army who was drowned in the Great War.
You would not expect a former captain who once instructed cadets at Dartmouth naval college to skimp on any project. Shortly after returning from America he picked-up further expertise at Golf Smith in Cambridge, but readily admits he owes everything to knowledge gained in America and studying Harvey Penick in particular.
"It is quite simple really. I buy components in the U.S. and send them back as complete clubs and sets. Callaways and such like have never heard of me. But, like them, I am very much into hot-face woods technology. Hot-faced drivers are even hotter now than when I set out and balls are very much better which explains the greater distances being achieved.
"The new technology can be likened to a trampolining effect. It is the difference between hitting the ball with a cricket bat or a baseball bat or a tennis racquet. The increased length comes from the flex torque of the shaft and the degree of elasticity of the club face.
"We are in a different game from a few years ago and the handicap golfers wants to hit the ball further and this is being done. What I do is entirely complementary to what the professional does. For the most part he hasn't got the equipment or time and inclination.
"As soon as I get a professional in my workshop, and a few do come for a look, he feels very uncomfortable as he soon realises there is a little bit more to golf clubs than he might have thought. Young pros are not getting detailed technical work on clubs because their bosses don't and that is due to the time factor.
"A customer of mine can take his time and even book a local bed and breakfast for two or three days while I attend to his needs. As the accommodation is on the coast it can also mean a short break."
The name of Mearns is not entirely unknown in the United States. He is a member of several important bodies like the Professional Clubmakers of America and, in 1998, he won a special award presented by the Golf Clubmaker's Association.
Is the old salt making a fortune?
"No. I make pin money. It is all I need because I have my navy pension. It is more than a hobby, of course. I couldn't pay the rent on my workshop by just restoring antique clubs. Let's just say I make enough to keep me in beer and sandwiches and sail my yacht.
"Now and again I pootle single-handed round the south coast and I also like cooking. Sometimes I play golf with Meg, my wife, who is a proper golfing nut. But mostly I'm at my bench.
"Had I built the business up I could have had 20 employees, but that wasn't my aim. I'm happy, but don't ask me what the future holds in the game. Where will the constantly improving new technology end, you ask?
"The sky's the limit. All the latest clubs, mine included, are approved by the authorities here and in America so there is no telling what lengths can be achieved - no telling at all. Harvey Penick had it about right when he said, "If you play poorly one day, forget it. If you play poorly the next time out, review your fundamentals of grip, stance, aim and ball position. Most mistakes are made before the club is swung. If you play poorly for a third time in a row, go see your professional.'"
"Well, I'm a professional clubmaker, maybe not in the big league, but it does help to shop around and I'm open all hours just like old Harvey was."
August 20, 2004
From high-tech gadgets to clever, low-tech stocking stuffers, more great gift ideas have come across my desk this season than in the past five years combined. If you can't find something above for every golfer on your list, I'm going to chalk it up to Grinchiness.
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