Most golfers are familiar with the Ping brand of golf equipment, but what most may not know is that the engineer who created the first Ping putters is also the namesake of the LPGA’s most recognizable world-stage event, the Solheim Cup.
Karsten Solheim, founder of Karsten Manufacturing Corporation and the creator of Ping golf clubs, wanted to create a professional women’s competition unlike any other that fostered a friendly rivalry across the Atlantic with sponsorship by his Phoenix-based company.
His dream became the Solheim Cup — a biennial international team competition between the top women players from Europe and the United States.
And the 16th staging of that event will take golf’s center stage this week on the PGA Centenary Course at Gleneagles in Perthshire, Scotland. Team USA enters the 2019 event with a 10-5-0 all-time lead in the female team-format event modeled after the PGA’s Ryder Cup.
But while today’s competition is predictably intense and home-side fan support always boisterous, Solheim’s interest in establishing what would become such a high-profile event was merely an extension of the interest and support he always gave women’s golf. That support started with his days as a humble golf club innovator creating putters at home in his garage and continued with Karsten Manufacturing as a golf club empire in the world of sports equipment.
The mechanical engineer with his trademark white goatee would show up at professional tournaments in the 1960s, urging touring pros to give his unconventional putters a try. He named his clubs PING because of the pinging sound the club made whenever a ball was struck.
Solheim got his putters into the hands of PGA Tour players, including Julius Boros, who won the 1967 Phoenix Open with one of his clubs. He also sought out LPGA Tour players to play with his clubs, promising scientifically-sound performance with his creation. The fatherly designer encouraged the pros to try his putters and made them available to those searching for success on the greens.
As his brand grew, Solheim’s company sponsored male and female touring professionals throughout Europe and the United States. By the 1980s, his “Ping players” regularly won pro tournaments at every level, which helped ramp up the appeal of the unique-looking clubs to the general public.
Solheim also sponsored LPGA Tour events on both coasts, nearly making the Ping brand synonymous with women’s golf by the 1990s. In fact, LPGA Hall of Fame player Annika Sorenstam became the first woman to break 60 in competition with her record score of 59 at the 2001 Standard Register Ping tournament in Phoenix. That event was sponsored by Ping and hosted by Moon Valley Country Club, once owned by Karsten Solheim, who also lived on the course with his longtime wife, Louise.
The Norwegian-born cobbler’s son grew up in Seattle and settled in Phoenix, where his manufacturing company is still headquartered. His children and grandchildren now run the company, which has donated millions of dollars to build golf courses at Oklahoma State University and at Arizona State University, winner of seven NCAA Division I Women’s Golf Championships
Karsten Solheim died in 2000 at age 88, but his family’s company has continued to support women’s golf and the Solheim Cup. Ping is also still a sponsor of top male and female professionals around the world, including the PGA’s Bubba Watson and the LPGA’s Brooke Henderson.
“Simply put, without the vision of Karsten and Louise Solheim, women’s golf would not be where it is today,” said LPGA Commissioner Mike Whan. “From the Solheim Cup to supporting women’s golf at all levels, the Solheims have always led the way.”
Truly, the Solheim Cup has come a long way from its inaugural staging in 1990 at Lake Nona Golf Club in Orlando, FL. That year, the top eight European and U.S. players squared off in the first event, not fully understanding what it would become.
The team size expanded to 10 players per side in 1992, with 12 players on each team starting in 1996. And as team composition changed, so did support by other regional and global sponsors affiliated with the LPGA and the Ladies European Tour.
Television coverage also expanded, along with more robust marketing and worldwide media coverage. In less than a decade, the Solheim Cup had morphed into one of the largest-profile events in sports.
“We can’t possibly thank the Solheim family enough for promoting these amazing athletes and providing such an extraordinary platform as the Solheim Cup,” added Whan.
And while none of the 12 team members of this year’s winning side will take home a winner’s prize check, what they will leave with is a celebration of international pride.
That, and an opportunity to participate in a legacy left behind by a determined engineer who just wanted everybody to play better golf.