Strokes Gained; The Story of my Iceberg

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From the Editor: Strokes Gained and my friend Neal Rohrbach.

There are occurrences in life when you are gifted opportunities to do something for the betterment of others. And not just yourself. I believe it happens much more than we realize. Keeping a blind eye works for some and it’s worked for me for many years. However, I’m trying to make a change and do more to help more. At least when I can and when those opportunities arise.  

Recently a close friend of mine has gone through an incredibly rough patch in his life. It tears me up inside to know one of my closest friends is struggling to keep it together. Thankfully, his will to survive and battle on has overtaken his desire to leave it all behind. Neal, the man behind Strokes Gained, reached out to me a few weeks back and asked if I’d like to share his story. I gladly accepted, my only stipulation was that it had to be in his words.

There are some amazing people in this world. Not nearly enough of us care to see what’s going on behind the curtain. Present company included. We miss how the lives of these artists, creators, and craftsman are affected not only by our words but by our dollars as well. I too have battled with mental issues and It has taken me a long time to accept who I am and how I need to deal with my issues. It was the words of encouragement I received from my friends and family that meant the most to me and is why I agreed to help get this story out. I know the love from his supporters and friends will come back to Neal ten times over. I hope you enjoy his story. It’s honest, it’s real and it’s powerful.

-Mathew

A more in-depth look into the Strokes Gained story

By Neal Rohrbach 

There’s the familiar analogy of success, especially entrepreneurial success, being like an iceberg.

What everyone sees on and above the surface is the success, profit, fist bumps and dreams come true. What they don’t understand is what lies below the surface, the pain, the literal blood, sweat and tears; long nights, early mornings, and the nights that the shop lights never turn off at all.

They don’t see the toll taken on the mind, on the body, on the families, on friendships and other relationships. They don’t see the sleepless nights because of workload or because you’re counting bills, deadlines, or mistakes instead of sheep once your head hits the pillow.

I wanted to share my journey, what’s gone into a Strokes Gained putter or wedge. The ups, the downs, and a no-frills look behind the curtain at an entrepreneur, especially in the golf industry, while at the same time debunking the myths out there on the real value of a putter.

Where I’ve come from in order to get to where I am now.

I’ve always been a creative, hands-on guy. I didn’t “go without” growing up or at least didn’t realize it. But I certainly knew I didn’t have the newest, latest and greatest. Early on in my life, I learned that you’d appreciate what you earn the most, but also that if you didn’t fix it yourself, it probably wouldn’t get fixed. I remember how special it was to get to “eat out” and be waited on at sit down restaurant.

Once a month my family would go to Josh’s. Where the fried chicken and mashed potatoes were something, most of my friends took for granted, but not me. I looked forward to it.

My memories of that time are so vivid. I still recall the first pair of brand new, name brand, tennis shoes my parents bought me. I was in 8th grade. They were white high tops, with green trim and a navy blue Nike swoosh. I’m not doing this to tell a rag to riches story. I didn’t start in rags, and I’m certainly nowhere near riches, not monetarily at least.

My desire to create started at home.

I found my passion for building, creating and inventing at a young age. Always eager to learn, I was researching in the times of the Dewey decimal system there was no google. I learned to weld on tractors and mowers, and I learned to repair, tweak and customize golf clubs in my dad’s shop.

Strokes Gained

Just like most of the things in my closet, my golf clubs were hand-me-downs too. They needed new grips or needed adjusting to fit my height and swing. So we worked on our golf clubs in Dad’s shop.

I got reasonably good at the game, focused on that, competed in high school and picked the college the furthest South that wanted me to me to play golf for them. I had to choose a major while I was there too, and went with graphic design, which certainly fed the creative within me. The first putter I designed went into production as part of a freelance gig I took in 2001.

My Golf life after college.

After graduating from college, I attended the school of hard knocks trying to compete in golf at the professional level. I’d never been a “natural” talent, I had to put the sweat equity into my game, and I didn’t have deep enough pockets even for the mini-tours. I’d Monday qualify, drive home that night, pour concrete Tuesday and Wednesday, and then get back to the tournament with just enough time to get in a few swings before my tee time.

I was handling shovel loads of dirt when I should have been swinging a golf club. I don’t regret giving it a go; I’ll never have the “what if” lingering in the back of my mind, and I turned back to the corporate world. For the first several years I bounced from job to job in art, design, marketing, sales, etc. and discovered that in addition to that creative spirit, there lie within an entrepreneurial spirit as well.

I was still tinkering with golf clubs, customizing my own, schooling myself on swing weight, the center of gravity, the moment of inertia, bounce, grinds, leading edge, etc. I was able to make a club my own, and build clubs for others that fit them as well.

That’s when I took the next step, getting into customizing those custom clubs further by refinishing, paint filling the engraving and hand stamping nicknames, initials or slogans into putters and wedges.

The birth of Strokes Gained.

I started Strokes Gained working on the “other guys'” clubs, and one early morning, before I turned the lights off in the shop to catch a nap before my day job, I took one more look around before turning out the lights, and realized, I’ve got every tool and every bit of club knowledge to do my own thing.

With a design background, CAD experience, and craftsmanship all in my toolbox, I launched Strokes Gained’s line of putters.

Most pioneers blaze a brand-new trail, but I set out to refine the pathways long forgotten in an industry where no one batted an eye at overseas outsourcing and mass production. I’ve dedicated my journey to revitalizing the American Craftsman, in a sport dominated by those doing just the opposite.

We don’t merely build handcrafted putters here in South Georgia; we also source 100% of our materials here in the U.S. of A. as well: Pittsburgh steel, shafts made in Alabama, grips made in Texas or Arizona, and head covers sewn together in New Mexico. Our heads are milled on a five-axis CNC from a block of carbon steel, then we hand mill the face and alignment aids.

There isn’t a Strokes Gained putter out there that’s been engraved. Every letter or symbol is hand stamped. The putter head hand softened, hand finished via oxide bath, quenched in motor oil, or nickel plated. Then they are tig welded when a different neck better suits our customer. The first couple of years, we probably sold two dozen of our putters. Later I became familiar with the slogan “Hard luck is still luck.

The TRUE cost of American Craftsmanship

The buzz online about the cost of putters merely discusses raw costs of materials, overseas production, or outsourcing milled heads ready for a shaft, grip, and head cover.

What they didn’t factor in was every other dollar spent, or the value in the hours of the few out there putting in the blue-collar labor. I don’t have a full-blown machine shop where I can do other jobs to pay off the equipment.

I’m not one who has deep pockets either. I can’t lease enough time on a CNC to spit out and sit on 100, 200 or 1,000 heads to get that cost down. I’m ordering 6-12 heads at a time. Price goes up. We work solely in carbon steel and sell a few raw heads each year, but most are quenched, coated or plated. There’s no talk about the equipment and materials needed there.

The raw cost of shafts, grips, and head covers are discussed in these “what does your putter really cost” articles, but how about the hours of concepts and design work, or digitizing the artwork for embroidery, etc.

I don’t pay myself a dime for hours worked and pour every bit of profit back into the company. I do so to order a few more of this or that. Expand my accessory lineup, buy new parts, tools, stamps, paint, etc. as they get used up or worn out.

Value is more than shafts and steel.

I often get asked what makes my putters so valuable.

Answering that question starts by knowing where the money goes. How about the loft and lie machine, my vertical mill, grinders, belt sanders, tape, grip solvent, shipping supplies, and other tools? Those are all tools of the trade needed to create. And I don’t recall a truck coming by and just dropping it all off at my shop. Or the hours of marketing, business development, PR, customer service, keeping up with the books, trademarks, taxes, transaction fees, web hosting, online store fees, etc.

Yes, there are putters out there that the raw materials and primary assembly put you under $200 a putter if you’re ordering components in large quantity. So I sell a putter at $799, I’m certainly not putting $600 in my pocket. I’m paying off equipment and materials, paying attorney’s fees, the Secretary of State, business licenses, taxes, my CPA, transaction fees and marketing expenses.

I’ve scrapped a lot of metal. I’ve ruined a lot of heads, broken welds, have had to finish, strip, and refinish a putter several times before it goes out the door. Good enough isn’t good enough! Especially when taking on the challenge of something new like fabricating flow necks, long necks, mid slants, learning to hand soften, etc.

I’ve put in countless hours and wasted material as necessary to make sure it’s perfect.

Quite frankly if you factor in my time away from friends and family, or depriving myself of food and sleep to get your putter out the door, it’s a labor of love that I may have in essence lost money on in the end.

I learned from hindsight in 2016 and 2017. I listened more to my customers than my gut. And I moved too fast in developing new models and opening the putter studio. Both of which were nearly crippling for Strokes Gained. Working an 8-5 and funding Strokes Gained with a separate consulting gig, I put everything I had in one basket.

The putter studio was a dream of mine, come true for a little while. But it soon became a glorified “man cave” sucking my bank accounts dry. Between furnishing it, staffing it, remodeling, stocking it with products the foot traffic waned. Selling t-shirts, hats, and head covers weren’t paying the bills.

I sold a couple of putters out of the studio, but it ended up being something I wasn’t wanting. I’d spend long nights building online orders, experimenting and just hanging out with friends, rolling putts and watching the Golf Channel. So in 2017, I decided to shut it down and moved back into my garage.

My iceberg was slowly starting to melt away.

After losing my primary source of income in January 2018, I was forced to turn this passion into a career. Exhibiting at the PGA Merchandise Show that same month, I stuck to my roots and character and in a sea of baby-faced, white collar execs, working trade show booths with areas more substantial than my own house. I stood in my 10×10, with a beard big enough that you couldn’t tell whether I had a collared shirt on or not, showing off the very products these calloused hands had produced while wiping away gallons of blood, sweat, and tears.

Strokes Gained

It wasn’t an easy decision but I decided to take on a third job. It was designing golf accessories for another manufacturer. Initially, it was a part-time gig but ended up being full-time hours at a mere fraction of the paycheck I recently lost. I was lucky if I got 4 hours of sleep a night for most of the year. If the financial and business stressors weren’t enough, they were often exaggerated by my mental state. I fight an ongoing battle with Major Depression and an anxiety disorder. As some of you are aware, it can be debilitating.

Along with the rest of what you don’t see below the surface. Havoc was taking place in my own family’s household.

I was forced to keep the multiple paychecks coming to support my family.  As the putter and wedge business took off, it quickly turned into 20-hour days. Realizing that my family was missing out on husband and dad time, I changed my schedule. I dedicated from 5 pm until everyone went to bed as family time. I’m by no means trying to make myself a martyr because even that schedule wasn’t for the greater good.

I became disconnected, distant and distracted when it was family time. Thoughts of bills, workload, and turnaround time haunted me. Add in vendor dealings, customer service, public relations, and you can see why my mind was absent. I was there physically, but not mentally. I was fighting through those long nights for my family and not for myself, but it took its toll. Working such ridiculous hours week after week for nearly eight months, at one point even selling my golf clubs to pay bills, I still couldn’t make ends meet.

An avalanche of problems was headed my way.

I ran up a lot of debt when I ventured out into the retail space with the putter studio. But you live, and you learn. Once it got to the point that I had to decide which bills got paid and which ones didn’t, I had to make some changes. We’d already cut back on as much as possible when it came to internet, tv, what we set the thermostat on, etc. The reality hit me, and after months of deliberation, I had to cancel the country club membership finally.

That was difficult, not only because it was literally across the fence in my back yard, but also because it was something I didn’t want to have to take away from my wife and kids. That decision helped, but it didn’t fix the financial burdens and stressors. I was forced to file for Chapter 13 bankruptcy. Simultaneously, my wife and stepchildren packed up and left me.

Whoever said, “Do what you love, and you’ll never work a day in your life.” was full of shit.

I LOVE crafting putters out of my shop, but it’s required a LOT of work, physically and mentally. We’re currently on an uptick. We have taken more orders in the past few months than we did in the first couple of years.

While I named the business and branded our products after a popular statistic on the professional golf tours (rather than stamping my surname on putters and wedges), I have managed to make a name for myself in the golf industry. And doing so while enduring the darkest year of my life. A year in which I lost my family, traded in the truck I’d dreamed of since I was a kid, and put a “For Sale” sign in the front yard of my “forever home.” Solo income, the bankruptcy, in January and February, I found myself back in the same mess I was in six months ago.

I wasn’t in a good place. I took on another opportunity for income, leaving the house before the sun comes up and getting home after the sun goes down. Then I’d hide in my shop, working on putters until I had enough bourbon and enough Xanax in me to finally enter the house that still hasn’t sold, tripping over the memories on the way to bed.

At one rock bottom moment, consumed by guilt, I pressed a Glock .45 to my head and squeezed the trigger. Thankfully it misfired. My time wasn’t up, I got help, and I’ve pushed forward.

My faith has gotten me through this rough time.

I cannot attribute pushing forward to anything other than my faith, my son, my entrepreneurial spirit and my customers. Each of which gives me a reason to continue grinding, sometimes day by day, sometimes just five minutes at a time. I’ve stopped putting in 20-hour days; it’s just not worth it. I’ve got a routine, and it’s no longer as miserable. I’m trying to look at each day that I wake up as proof that I still have a purpose.

It’s still a fight most days to accept the changes, believe in my purpose, and keep grinding, especially when nothing echoes like an empty house. Ironically enough, my wife, who has moved on without me, often told me, “It’ll be there tomorrow, do the best you can today, and that’s enough.” That’s what I’m doing now, managing the heartache, managing the bankruptcy, managing the new day job, and making all the progress I can, one day at a time.

Strokes Gained isn’t just about hammering out putters, wedges, and accessories. I don’t merely invest time in my putters; I invest time in my customers. If you own a Strokes Gained flat stick, I bet you’ve heard part of this story. You’ve listened to some of my Christian testimony, and more often than not, would call me a friend. You’re not going to find that with a major manufacturer, and only from a few of the other boutique companies. Those relationships have played a vital role in why I haven’t given up on Strokes Gained or given up altogether.

To sum up 2018 for Strokes Gained.

Business lulled, business boomed, but my passion for American Made, handcrafted flat sticks has never wavered. There are gallons of blood, sweat (you know how humid it gets in South Georgia?), and tears in a Strokes Gained putter. I’m not living the dream by any means. But my customers affirm on a nearly daily basis that if I keep grinding, there’s a dream out there. And it is attainable.

I always get a good chuckle when a potential customer tells me the actual cost of a boutique putter is between $90 and $120. Because that’s what they’ve read online. I’m hoping that after hearing my story and getting a peek behind the curtain, you’ll find a little more value in a Strokes Gained putter. Maybe with this story, you come to appreciate the craftsmanship even more.

Follow Mathew Wangrycht:

Writer and founder of the golf blog The Breakfast Ball. My wife will tell you I'm obsessed with the game, she's right! It's that obsession which drives me to become a better player and make this site enjoyable for everyone.

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One Response

  1. Frank Dranginis
    | Reply

    It takes a brave man to speak the truth of some of the “rough times “ as we go down the fairway of life. Compelling story- stay strong and good things will happen.
    Now my story of truth – bought a great Strokes Gained putter but in my own time of bad thinking sold it – big mistake and I need to get back on the horse and do a reorder. Neal look for brighter days ahead and my new order

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