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Whistling Past the Graveyard

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Every workplace has a new guy. On the club production line at Louisville Golf, it’s Gerard Just. With only 41 years at the company, he’s the low man on the persimmon totem pole. Don’t get me wrong—Gerard is fitting in great. He really seems to have a knack for this work. But Robert, Andy and Tim all have him outranked in seniority, and the prospects of that changing don’t look good. It’s been more than 30 years since they’ve hired someone new to work on the production line.

“We still make Gerard clean the bathrooms,” joked Robert Just, a 44-year veteran of Louisville Golf who also happens to be Gerard’s older brother. For more than four decades, they’ve worked together at this hickory and persimmon golf club manufacturing plant that was started in 1974 by yet another Just brother, Elmore, back when the NBA and the ABA had just merged and a show called “Family Feud” was set to debut. In that time they’ve had the rare experience of watching their family business go through its entire life cycle, from “innovative” to “successful” to “stale” to “obsolete” and eventually reemerging with the coveted “vintage” label.

There are a million logical reasons why Louisville Golf—a small, low-tech, do-it-by-hand factory in suburban Kentucky—shouldn’t exist. It just doesn’t make sense. The employees, for one, are an anomaly. People simply don’t watch eight U.S. presidents come and go from behind the same antique Italian lathe. And even if you could convince a new craftsman to stay in the sweaty, taxing conditions long enough to learn the nuances of making everything by hand, who would buy his product? Even the most advanced clubs produced by Louisville Golf were outdated 30 years ago.

But Louisville Golf exists. It sits in a nondescript warehouse space on Watterson Trail just east of downtown. It’s not the original building, but it’s pretty damn close to the original staff. Like their office space, the staff has scaled up when necessary (they had more than 100 on the production staff in the early 1980s) and, eventually, been pared down to the bare essentials over the last 45 years. Remarkably, what’s left isn’t a bitter group of old men desperate to prove the world is changing for the worse. It’s a band of incredibly warm, problem-solving artisans—they describe themselves as “self-taught engineers with sixth-grade educations”—doing work that makes them truly happy. When I suggested visiting them on a Friday, unaware the shop was open only Monday through Thursday, they insisted on opening up and working a full day. Why not? Louisville Golf is their life in every best sense of the word. 

You can see the excitement when Robert explains the origin story behind a piece of machinery that’s been on the line for as long as he has or when Gerard speaks reverentially about a beautiful piece of persimmon—one of literally millions he’s put out—he came across a few weeks ago that had the most beautiful grain pattern and tiger-like stripes you’ve ever seen.

“People always talk about waking up and dreading going to work,” said Robert, who is proud to call Louisville Golf the only full-time job he’s ever had. “I love going to work. I know I’m going to be there with my friends. I know I’m going to do stuff I enjoy and I’m very capable at. I just love it.”

*

It is no exaggeration to say Louisville Golf got its start in the back of a Kentucky garbage truck. A man walking past happened to notice a few stray golf clubs resting on a pile of trash and wisely snatched them up to take home to his six kids, a pack that included five high-energy boys. It was the second-oldest son, Elmore, who immediately realized the door the clubs had opened.

There would be no Louisville Golf without Elmore Just. From the sounds of it, there wasn’t much done at all in the neighborhood of Shively without Elmore’s influence. The stories his surviving brothers tell in the back of the sweaty Louisville Golf factory make him sound like the pied piper of suburban Kentucky.

Elmore got his start in the neighborhood as a golf course architect of sorts, designing a three-hole course that spanned the baseball diamond and football field of Butler High School.

“He had us dig little holes and put green-bean cans in the ground for our cups,” said Robert, still laughing at the memory half a century later. “I don’t think Butler High School was aware they also had a golf course on the property.”

Elmore got a better piece of land for his next design: a nine-hole par-3 course on the banks of the Ohio River. The neighborhood boys had a campsite down by the river and Elmore thought it would be the perfect place for a golf course. Some of the holes may have been only 20 yards and some required players to tee off from the planks of a dock, but Elmore took the competition seriously. When he felt the players needed work on their long games, they’d turn to the river and fire shots at the passing barges, all falling silent and waiting to hear the clanging of a balata ricocheting inside an empty steel hull before falling over with laughter.

“He was absolutely golf-consumed,” Robert said. “He made everybody turn in their score on that little pitch-and-putt and he kept their averages and he even put out a little newsletter with results and stories about how everyone was playing. And we only had one club, so you had to learn how to hit all these different shots with it. People still talk about that little makeshift golf league and how fun it was.”

After high school, Elmore played golf at Bellarmine College (now Bellarmine University) in Louisville, helping lead the team to an NCAA championship. Robert and family friend Andy Clark—two of the four remaining members of the Louisville Golf production team—also played at Bellarmine.

When it came time to get a job after school, Elmore landed at the Louisville powerhouse Hillerich & Bradsby, the company responsible for making the Louisville Slugger baseball bats. (No, it’s not a coincidence that one of the few remaining wooden club manufacturers is based in Louisville.) At the time, H&B was also manufacturing golf clubs, and Elmore was excited to get involved.

“In this area, if you played golf, you played H&B,” Robert said. “That was everything. Those were the best clubs around.”

Elmore met Steve Taylor at H&B. When it became clear, as it often does to young employees, that Elmore and Taylor had more answers than questions for their superiors, they struck out on their own. After a short stint making clubs in the backyard of a “cantankerous” man named Earl Gordon, Elmore and Taylor decided to bet on themselves and founded Louisville Golf.

“The thing to know about this place,” Robert said, smiling, “and I mean this with love, is that this is not like…a real company. Elmore was just making it up as he went. He didn’t have any formal training. There were no job descriptions. There were not really any rules. We were all just kind of our own quality-control person. If you messed up, you heard about it and you never made that mistake again.”

When Louisville Golf needed a workforce, Elmore looked to those closest to him. The boys in the back of the shop estimated that four out of every five people who worked there were either family or someone who had grown up in the neighborhood with the Just brothers. Elmore was a more gifted salesman than golfer and he sold all of them on joining the team.

“Our older brother, Ron, had a really nice, well-paying job,” Robert said. “Our other brother, Michael, was a teacher. Elmore convinced both of them to come work here.”

There was never an ad in a paper or a job posting. To hear the staff talk about it, it was more about helping out a member of the community or adding someone with a good sense of humor than it was about filling a hole on the line. Brothers, misfits, whole families: They all joined the team. Some were hired and fired and rehired three times or more.

When Clark was playing golf at Bellarmine, Elmore offered him part-time hours between practice and school. He started that fall and never left.

“You were coming out of high school or college and you saw this place and your mind started going,” Clark said. “You’d start thinking, ‘One day I’ll be making clubs for Jack Nicklaus.’ You felt like you’d have a story to tell.”

Of course, the everyday moments offered chances to rack up plenty of other stories. Those were less about legacies and brushes with famous golfers and more about late-night softball games and strip clubs and Christmas parties. The time they greased up all the screwdriver handles and the time they put a snake in Greg Prater’s lunch box. There were countless stories about hunting trips and the time they accidentally doubled up an order of Hogan Apex 4-woods.

“Guess what everyone got for Christmas that year,” Clark said.

As hard as it is for some to imagine working on the same assembly line for 40 years, it makes quick, plain sense when you see it in action. Spend five minutes walking around the shop and watching the crew work and you can feel the camaraderie and family in the air the same way you can smell the burning hickory of a shaft that just came off the lathe. It smells like a Shively campsite; all that’s missing is the passing barges and the quantity of laughter.

Days start early—4 a.m. early. The factory heats up quickly and workdays are typically completed by the time most of America is taking its lunch break. In the old days, that meant the boys could skip out for an afternoon 18 and an evening full of beer, laughs and sketchy bars before waking up (or staying up) to do it all over again. Today, Clark insisted with a laugh, they mostly just nap.

“People today can’t imagine having the freedom we had then,” Gerard said. “Your kids have something going on, you just say, ‘Hey, I’m going to be off tomorrow’ and you know it’s going to be fine because the pride in the product and the work ethic were so strong with everyone here. My kids now, I ask them if they can make time for something and they say, ‘No, I can’t get off work.’ What a real shame that is.”

The work, although repetitive and seemingly monotonous, appears to be anything but to Robert, Gerard, Tim and Andy. It’s one thing to take pride in a skill you’re born with. It’s another kind of warm, fuzzy feeling altogether when your skill is something you’ve spent 40 years perfecting. For an example, look no further than the way grooves are scored onto the face of a persimmon driver head. Despite his low rank, Gerard takes the lead on this pressure-packed task. 

An ancient-looking dremel tool with a handful of evenly spaced blades whirred alive and Gerard smiled.

“In the old days when a tour or something would come through, I’d go hide in the back so they didn’t make me do this in front of people,” he said. “I’ve gotten pretty good at it now, though.”

Heads are hand-scored by passing the clubface across the dremel blades, requiring Gerard to apply just enough pressure to make the grooves at the correct depth, length and position on the face. Each face needs about three passes across the blades, meaning he has to hit the exact same lines each time. If he misses his mark at all, the head—along with the money and manpower spent cutting it, sanding it, spinning it, sanding it again, soleing it and more—goes in the garbage.

When the company launched, persimmon was in such high demand that Louisville Golf could buy only what suppliers called “useable rejects,” which were riddled with imperfections. It took years before they were able to stock No. 1 grade wood. After the blocks are carved down into clubheads, each needs to be perfected with multiple rounds of meticulous sanding.

“I’ve had the blades catch before and that one cost me 20-some stitches,” Gerard said with another kind of pride—badass injury pride—in his voice. “It took me quite a few years to realize I could reverse one of the blades and make it cut backwards to create enough resistance to make it cut smoothly.”

Those little innovations. The stories, the equipment, the breeze of industrial fans and the low hum of FM radio. The smells—sawdust and rare-wood stains and sweat. It’s all infectious and familiar and comfortable, even after nothing more than a Friday morning spent watching as an interested observer. The line between friends and family has so obviously disappeared at Louisville Golf and you believe them all when they throw out clichés about never working a day in their lives. The joint simplicity and complexity of the work makes life in an office—the conference calls, the cubicles, the small talk, the expense reports—feel like a new-age punishment.

If the shop is nothing more than a big high school like they suggest, it’s no wonder this group of dexterous misfits never wanted shop class to end.

When the new ownership of Louisville Golf took over—more on that in a second—Gerard brought in a photo album to help his new boss get to know the story of his family. It was the people in the background of the photos that stood out the most.

“We’re flipping through that album and all our pictures from home had Louisville Golf people in there too,” he said. “All of them. We went on hunting trips together, vacations, holidays; we knew each other’s kids and wives. We did everything together. This place became our whole lives.”

*

Sitting around a lacquer-stained table in the front of the Louisville Golf factory, I asked three workers with 130 combined years of wooden-club-making experience an unavoidable question: What happened when the first metalwoods were released?

After a collective pause, Clark spoke first.

“The hardest part of metalwoods coming out was telling your friend that you worked with for 10 or 15 years that we don’t need them anymore.” Another pause. “There were a lot of hard feelings that came with that invention.”

During the Louisville Golf heyday, Clark ran a line that came with a staff of 15 people below him. Today, he runs that line and another by himself.

Robert chimed in with a new type of pride we hadn’t seen yet that day. This one was kind of a humble-and-friendly-but-go-to-hell pride.

“I have never hit a metalwood in my life,” he said with a whiff of defiance. “I remember when they first came out, my impression was that metalwoods were junk. They were driving-range clubs because driving ranges have the worst hackers in the world. When they first came out, the faces were collapsing. The ball would dent the top of the club. It was awful.”

Needless to say, the quality improved quickly.

“I don’t know how true it is, but they used to say that when the aerospace industry started laying off all these engineers,” Clark said, “these guys had to find a niche and they found it by creating these big, light, forgiving golf clubs and they were off and running.”

Elmore tried his best to hold off the titanium revolution. He wrote a book about the perks of persimmon and he filed magazine articles attempting to poke holes in tests declaring metalwoods superior. He harped continuously on the same points you hear TV commentators throw out during telecasts today: The faces of these metalwoods may be more forgiving, but they eliminate the art from the game. The ability to work and shape the ball was disappearing as quickly as market share.

As the bottom fell out of the persimmon market, the toughest thing to keep up with was a dwindling supply of parts. As specialized distributors watched their orders fade away, many had to make the eventual phone call to Louisville Golf explaining that they couldn’t stay open just to supply them, and only them, with the stain or whipping they had grown accustomed to using. 

As metalwoods entered a period of marketing bonanza and reached critical mass in the early ’90s, Louisville Golf and other persimmon manufacturers felt the equal and opposite reaction. The guys remember a story about one of their persimmon suppliers’ orders drying up so quickly that they simply walked away and left the woodpiles to rot.

As the orders left and the staff was whittled down, Elmore did everything he could to keep his train on the tracks. They started making persimmon putters and other novelties, but the saving grace came when he decided to get into the business of reproducing hickory golf clubs. The hobby has since become the main staple of the Louisville Golf business.

“Everybody had hickory clubs laying around,” Clark said. “Their grandfather’s or whatever. But then the value of those originals got so high that people didn’t want to take them out and break them. So then there was a market for the reproductions that we do.”

Giving the company a hickory lifeline would turn out to be Elmore’s last gift to Louisville Golf and his family of friends. He passed away—on a golf course—in 2001.

The heir to the Louisville Golf throne was Michael, the brother Elmore had convinced to quit his teaching job decades earlier.

“Michael knew a little bit about how to use the computer, so we all called him Bill Gates,” Robert said. “But things stayed pretty much the same.”

Michael helped push Louisville Golf further into the world of hickory. He was a self-proclaimed student of the game, encouraging the team to make more and more reproductions of significant clubs from golf history.

“He was great about that,” Robert said. “Some of our putters are things that we started making because someone won a tournament with it decades ago.”

Even with the golf world’s tiny hickory resurgence gaining popularity, Michael’s long-term goals for the company remained simple and practical.

“I think his mindset was that we were getting smaller and smaller and there wasn’t much we could do,” Gerard said of his second brother/boss. “We were just going to make it to retirement and then close up. He just wanted to keep the company going until the junior person could retire.”

Michael died late in 2016. It wasn’t sudden, but there wasn’t enough time for a well-thought-out plan, either. It was through hickory golf that Louisville Golf found the person willing to fight to help the company survive into the next generation.

Jeremy Wright never got to meet Michael Just in person, but the mutual friends they shared through hickory golf assured each side that Jeremy was the man for the job. This wasn’t an insignificant detail, considering Michael had already rejected three other interested parties, including Elmore’s own son.

Wright and his wife bought the company, inheriting the four production staffers and the office manager, Nancy Silk, a 37-year veteran of Louisville Golf who isn’t a member of the Just family, but might as well be. She also serves as the company’s unofficial historian.

“This isn’t going to shock you,” Robert said with a smile, “but we aren’t really much for change around here. But when I met Jeremy I sensed he was somebody that was on the same page. I would go tell him historical golf things and he’d finish my sentences even though he’s young enough to be our kid.”

Wright, a 39-year-old Texas native who was looking to get out of the regulated bureaucracy of medical-device sales, jumped at the opportunity for one reason.

“Passion,” he said quickly when asked what made him uproot himself and his wife 

for Kentucky and the idea of selling hickory golf clubs. “It has to be passion. I don’t know how else you could do it.”

Wright has passion in bunches. He conversationally dropped club model numbers from the 1970s while I pretended I knew what he was talking about. He grew animated explaining why the gear effect of a persimmon driver actually allows a player to hit more fairways with mis-hits than they would with a modern driver. After building his own makeshift clubs with his father at a Golfsmith as a kid, he became fascinated to learn the entire production line, all 200-some jobs of it.

Best of all, he puts his money where his mouth is. He’s a low-single-digit handicapper despite the fact that he plays only hickory clubs.

“I stumbled across hickory clubs online seven or eight years ago and immediately bought a full set. Within a month I had found a tournament to play,” he said. “It’s more interesting than modern golf. The craftsmanship that goes into the clubs is so cool to me. You’re playing with something that was handmade in all aspects. It just connects you to it.”

In his new role, Wright can hear those clubs being handmade in the factory down the hall from his office. He has plans to grow Louisville Golf, to keep expanding its footprint in the hickory market. The goal is to continue appealing to the growing contingent of holdouts and hipsters in golf that is tired of watching even bad players hit 300-yard drives. That group—and Wright is firmly among them—is upset with watching classic courses border on obsolete, and they believe score is irrelevant in comparison with the shotmaking and strategy. There will likely never be a full-blown hickory revolution, but it’s got enough interest to keep the factory rolling.

With more than four decades at the bench, Andy Clark doesn’t need reminders. Louisville Golf is a part of who he is.

Of course, there’s plenty of modernizing to be done in good time. Although the clubs are being made by four guys without computers, there are crucial marketing and digital initiatives that need to take place to get the word out and spread the gospel of hickory golf. Jeremy and his wife, Yinyin—the new Bill and Melinda Gates of Louisville Golf—handle that aspect of it. But don’t expect the guys in the shop to start snapping Instagrams anytime soon. Hell, two of them don’t even own cell phones. The guys on the line talk about how a computer issue can shut down their custom laser engraver for days on end until someone can come fix it. (Yinyin explains with a loving chuckle that the “computer issue” is usually someone minimizing a window and not knowing where it went.)

There are also the morbid realities to consider. Robert and the bare-essentials gang like the gallows joke that under their current setup, they are a heart attack away from shutting down. No one on the line has any illusions of living forever. They are constantly reminded of that fact by the rash of Louisville Golf funerals they attend—the only time they get to see their former co-workers anymore. But they also don’t have any plans to walk away. Jeremy is working quickly to learn the mechanics of daily production, and if the hickory market keeps growing, they might even be able to thaw the 30-year hiring freeze.

“People always ask when I’m going to retire,” Clark said. “I say, ‘Well, as long as I’m healthy, I’m going to keep doing what I’m doing.’ Four days a week is fine with me. I like it when I go to work and I love it when I leave.”

As long as the crew is able and as long as there are orders to fill, they’ll continue to turn out clubs, one by one, hoping to continue their life’s work and preserve the impossibly soft feeling of hitting an elusive wooden sweet spot for another generation.

“When you hit these clubs, you’re able to feel what a good shot really feels like, and that opportunity is disappearing,” Wright said. “And I think you feel like you’ve accomplished a little bit more when you go out and shoot a good round with hickory clubs.”

That sense of accomplishment—that feeling of doing things the hard way just because you believe it’s the better way—is felt long before that club ever reaches a golfer’s hands. It comes built in, another feature meticulously and expertly installed by hand.   

The four remaining members of the Louisville Golf production team—from left, Andy Clark and Tim, Gerard and Robert Just—each have more than 40 years of experience building hickory and persimmon golf clubs.