Wilson trying to change direction again
Bob Mendralla enjoys getting behind the grinding wheel with an iron in his hand and letting the sparks fly, crafting another club for Wilson Golf at its technical center in Chicago.
Even after 57 years, the job never gets old.
Mendralla still has a backup set of irons that he made for Vijay Singh, ready to be shipped when the Fijian left for another equipment company five years ago. He also made the last set of Wilson Staff irons for Arnold Palmer.
The players Mendralla has worked with over the years reads like a roster from the Hall of Fame.
He traded jokes with Sam Snead. He relaxed with Julius Boros. Gene Sarazen thought so much of him that he brought Mendralla to the Masters one year. Mendralla spent hours of give-and-take with a fresh face out of college, Hale Irwin, making his clubs for two dozen years and three U.S. Open titles.
``Firstly, Bob is a friend as much as anything,'' Irwin said. ``He's a very competent technician as it relates to golf equipment, and he's recognized as one of the best in the business. He stood head-and-shoulders above others. I felt fortunate to have him by my side.''
Not a bad career for someone who was crestfallen when Wilson put him to work in the golf division.
Mendralla was 17, fresh out of high school and looking for part-time work doing even the most menial tasks. He lived in the neighborhood where Wilson Sporting Goods was located and heard they were hiring kids for 50 cents an hour.
His dream was to get into the baseball division. It was 1947, just two years removed from when the Chicago Cubs won the National League pennant, a mere 39 years since they were World Series champions.
``I went there with hopes of working in baseball,'' Mendralla said. ``What did I know about golf coming from Chicago? But they put me in golf and I thought, 'Geez, what a bad break that was.'''
He started out sweeping floors. When he returned from a two-year stint in the military, he was put in charge of raw material and forgings. Before long, he was taught to grind the forged irons and he eventually became the master clubmaker at Wilson Golf.
The culmination of his amazing career was last year when Mendralla, who turned 75 on Tuesday, became only the 25th person inducted into the Professional Clubmakers Society Hall of Fame, joining the likes of Old Tom Morris, Willie Park Jr., and longtime Hogan clubmaker Gene Sheeley.
And he's still going strong.
The company is going back to its roots by reviving its Wilson Staff brand and preparing for one of its largest launches ever, everything from drivers to irons to wedges to putters to golf balls.
Mendralla, longtime head of the Research and Development division at Wilson, was largely responsible for the three models of irons -- Fi5 (forged iron), Di5 (distance iron, slightly oversized) and Pi5 (performance iron with an undercut cavity back).
``We've put quite a few things in front of Bob,'' said Angus Moir, global business director of Wilson Golf. ``You can't buy that length of service and expertise. He knows what a golf club should look like. He was one of the guys on the Wilson staff when it was the top company in the world. And he's pleased to see us back as Wilson Staff.''
Wilson is at an important crossroads.
For years, it was among the top golf equipment companies in the world, especially with its Wilson Staff irons. Two-time U.S. Open champion Andy North honed his game on those irons, along with Irwin, Bernhard Langer, Johnny Miller and the late Payne Stewart. Women who use the clubs included some of the best who ever played, from Babe Zaharias to Patty Berg, from Mickey Wright to Kathy Whitworth.
``Our reputation was real strong with the Wilson Staff line through the '60s, '70s and '80s,'' Mendralla said. ``We had some of the best players, and that was the club you played on tour. If you wanted to be playing top-of-the-line equipment, you were playing Wilson Staff.
``Now we're getting back to it, and it's the right direction to go.''
Moir said Wilson got hung up on technology, allowing that to steer its promotional campaign away from a brand that had built up so much heritage through the years.
Wilson came up with an iron called ``Fat Shaft,'' a driver it referred to as ``Deep Red'' and a ball that was built around catchy phrases such as ``Smart-Core'' and ``i-wound.''
``We have a cherished brand we kind of left under a stone for many years because we were focusing so hard on technologies,'' Moir said. ``That brand has so much history, and it still resonates with consumers.''
Wilson also wants to have a stronger presence on the PGA Tour. It shifted its marketing strategy in 2000 to align itself with club professionals, believing they had a more direct impact at the point of sale. But its history is having a world-class lineup of tour players endorsing its products.
Now, the two most prominent players at Wilson are Padraig Harrington and Jesper Parnevik.
``Over time, we want to get a stronger presence on tour,'' Moir said. ``The tour is an important part of the overall strategy. In the last 50 or 60 years, we had a lot of great players who used Wilson Staff. But we've got to get the financial house in order first.''
As Wilson goes through more changes -- in branding and marketing strategy -- the constant has been Mendralla.
He never dreamed he would stay with Wilson for nearly 60 years, or that a teenager who only wanted to help make Wilson's baseball gloves would be a master clubmaker who got equipment into the hands of some of golf's bests.
Looking back, Mendralla wouldn't change a thing.
He is just as excited about the new irons as he was the popular DynaPower series from the late '60s.
``Golf never gets boring,'' Mendralla said. ``It changes by the year, and by the day. And every time you think you've just hit a home run, you've got to hit another one.''
Mendralla will never get baseball out of his vernacular. But he continues to forge a career making golf clubs.
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