This is a story about a putter junkie. It’s an affliction to which many of us can relate. It’s 1996, and Nick Venson is 13-years old.
Like many kids his age, Nick is into collecting baseball cards and stickers, but there’s one item which has his undivided attention. Remember the 1992 cult classic Wayne’s World and Wayne’s obsession with a certain ‘64 Pre-CBS Fender Stratocaster? That bit is responsible for the memorable quote, “It will be mine – Oh yes, it will be mine.”
Nick’s Stratocaster was a Scotty Cameron Santa Fe putter with a gun blue finish. Objectively, it was well out of Nick’s reach, but that didn’t stop him doing odd-jobs around the house and neighborhood with the hope of scrapping enough cash together to buy it. It was a white-whale obsession with a much happier ending.
Taking possession of something he wanted so badly was a little surreal. He’d never experienced something like it before, and it ignited a passion in Nick, the full measure of which he couldn’t comprehend. All he knew was he wanted to learn anything and everything he could about Scotty Cameron and his putters.
The more he studied, the more invested he became – not just in the physical collection, but to the nuances of each putter; the history, design, specific details, and finishes. Why were some bumpers more rounded? What was the ideal geometric relationship between the flange and bumper? What role did sole draft play? Nick may not have been as precise with the lingo at the time, but these were the questions which kept him up at night. The more he learned, the more understood just how much more there was to discover.
His next putter was another Cameron – a Newport Tei3. Venson refinished it look like the Pro Platinum Plus VJ Singh used in winning the 1998 PGA Championship. It wasn’t long before he borrowed $500 from his parents, who rightfully questioned his sanity, to purchase another rare Cameron putter. Nick Venson had a disease, and the only cure – or at least the only treatment – was more Cameron.
Collecting can be an addictive pursuit, but for Venson, it became more than a hobby. When he studied putters, he didn’t acquire information as much as he absorbed it. Venson didn’t memorize release dates and model types to show off to friends or impress anyone – it was a byproduct of an organic devotion. The information just stuck with him.
By the time Venson could legally drive, he was more than just a putter gearhead. He’d become entirely captivated by the game of golf, and for less than $300, he could play as much golf at the local course as daylight would allow. His parents would drop him off in the morning and pick him up for dinner, and in-between Venson and his buddies rarely played fewer than 36 holes, and any downtime was quickly filled with putting and chipping contests for candy bars or a couple of bucks, and always bragging rights.
Venson gained a reputation as the kid who’d always show up with something new and crazy in his bag. It might be a new putter or the distinct purple and yellow UST Pro Force V2 shaft. It was kind of a big deal at the time.
In his book Outliers, Malcolm Gladwell references a “10,000-hour rule” (roughly 3.5 years of a full-time job) as the amount of intentional practice necessary to master any domain. Seinfeld references notwithstanding, it’s likely Venson exceeded this number well before his high school graduation. He was every bit an expert on all things Scotty Cameron, but few realized the depth of Venson’s knowledge, including himself.
The internet was expanding, and with it, chatrooms and blogs were emerging. And while the structure now seems as outdated as an @aol email address, Bill Vogeney had started a collector’s group on Yahoo as a virtual meeting place for Cameron enthusiasts. Through this medium, Venson was able to collect, learn, and conduct business without anyone ever questioning his age. This level of anonymity allowed Venson to operate based on the merits of his knowledge. “I was fairly well spoken and didn’t really carry myself like a typical teenager,” recounts Venson. He could have been 14, 34, or 64 and no one would be any the wiser.
Venson continued to amass an encyclopedic knowledge of Scotty Cameron putters as well as the economic dynamics present in a collector-based market. For example, he noticed some of the Cameron Classics models were very popular in Japan (where people would readily pay far more than face value) but in short supply. Conversely, several models were readily available stateside and presented an easy profit opportunity.
The money he made flipping putters was quickly reinvested in – you guessed it – more putters. It was a strategy straight out of Warren Buffet’s playbook. Venson’s world, apart from basic required attention to schoolwork – was dedicated to growing his collection. His status in the semi-virtual online world of Cameron collectors was close to that of a deity.
SHOULD I STAY?
The putter world was fun, but it didn’t exactly scream career path, so Nick enrolled in college. Like many kids his age, he understood the theoretical value of advanced degree but didn’t have a specific idea as to what he’d do with one. He continued his side business of buying and selling putters, and in 2005, the man himself, Scotty Cameron, asked Nick to join him in California to start Art of Putters, a concierge service and outlet for rare, collectible and tour-issued Cameron putters. Nick dropped out of college and headed west to put his Master’s degree in Scotty Cameron to good use. According to Venson, in 2005 there were three people who rightfully claim to be the foremost authority on high-end, collectible Cameron putters. “It was Bill Vogeney, Scotty Cameron, and myself. That’s it.”
Nick received an education unlike anything he could have found in a traditional institution of higher learning. He saw the underbelly and experienced the inner workings of an industry which was operating at a fevered pitch. In 2005 Tiger was on a tear. He had rebounded from a two-year major winless drought to capture two majors (The Masters (In YOUR life…) and The Open Championship) and regained his status as the #1 player on the planet. As went Tiger, so too went Scotty Cameron, as there wasn’t a more visible or iconic putter in the world than Wood’s Excalibur – a Scotty Cameron GSS Newport 2.
The market for Cameron collectibles and tour putters was climbing with no limit in site. Cue whatever scene from “Wolf of Wallstreet” seems apropos.
Over the next three years, Venson learned as much as he had in the previous decade – particularly the psychology of collectors and what exactly it was that drove them to spend five-figures on a putter and hundreds more on headcovers, divot tools, and ball markers.
But Nick wasn’t wired for LA, and couldn’t see himself living and raising a family in Southern California. So, in 2008 he went back to his Midwest roots, returning to Chicago with intentions to finish his education and test the job market.
Many will wonder, Why give all of that up to go back to school amidst the worst financial crisis since the Great Depression? For Venson, it was simple. The previous three years answered some questions while creating others which couldn’t be answered by spinning his wheels. Venson is one to follow his intuition, perhaps to the point of being called stubborn at times. After all, that’s how this whole adventure started.
As serendipity would have it, Doug Hartman, who launched TheCameronCollector website, was close with Venson and asked him to spend a little time with Chicago-based putter maker, Bob Bettinardi. A 20-minute conversation turned into a 5-hour brainstorming session, the result of which was a handshake agreement for Venson to serve Bettinardi in the same capacity as he had for Cameron.
In 2008, Bettinardi had just finished an OEM contract to produce putters for Mizuno and wanted to establish his putters as an elite standalone brand. Admittedly, in this space, it was Cameron and everyone else. Bettinardi, like so many other challengers, was mostly an afterthought, but Venson had a roadmap for how to get Bettinardi where he wanted to go. Save for a handful of people still working with Cameron, Venson was quite possibly the only person Bettinardi could have enlisted to help him accomplish what he wanted to.
Over the next nine years, Venson would take on a larger role with Bettinardi than he had with Cameron. He was more involved in design and strategic planning sessions. Much like any other employee, some of his ideas were accepted, while many others were rebuked. There was also a family dynamic for Venson to navigate. In 2013, Bob’s son Sam graduated from college and immediately joined the family business where he now serves as its Executive Vice President.
As an objective reality, this would limit Venson’s potential with Bettinardi, and though he’d been a fundamental part of expanding Bettinardi’s brand and establishing its upper echelon status, he’d always be a bit of an outsider, which wasn’t all bad.
With both Cameron and Bettinardi, Venson was the authorized distributor and not a direct employee. It was a distinction with a difference as he reaped the benefits of inside knowledge and behind the scenes access without expectations of total allegiance. Though he’d hit the ceiling at Bettinardi, Venson understood how rare and special his journey had been.
“I’m exceptionally thankful for everything I learned working with Scotty (Cameron) and Bob (Bettinardi). I wouldn’t be where I am today without them.”
WE GOT NEXT
Venson was an entrepreneur long before he knew what one was. He always wanted to see what was over the next hill. “I hate being told no – and I don’t always listen to what other people tell me…sometimes to my own detriment,” says Venson. But sometimes no serves as a powerful motivator.
Venson had been told by higher-ups at Bettinardi that some of his designs were too edgy and not suitable for “our clientele.” What Venson hoped is the decision-makers would see and trust his designs explicitly because of his expertise and first-hand knowledge of what collectors wanted.
Such instances, while initially frustrating, allowed Venson to come to the realization he wouldn’t know if some of his ideas were any good unless he could test them in the open market where collectors vote with dollars.
It would be a sizeable risk to go out on his own, but in some ways, it was the most logical next step. There wasn’t another Cameron or Bettinardi and frankly even if there was, Venson already had relationships with distributors in Japan and Korea and a cellphone full of contacts for anything else he would need to get up and running. Most importantly, his years of experience had given him his own ideas and a vision.
If he assembled a team, it wouldn’t be a build the plane as you fly it operation. There would be a well-thought-out strategy and an understanding that not everyone would love what he did. Detractors would be seen as a positive indicator that he was on the right track.
Venson would want people to be drawn to the designs and quality of the product, not necessarily his name, so he’d need a creative way to attract people to the brand first – before they found out who was behind it.
In contrast to the other putter artisans, Venson would work to take the human element out of putter creation. So-called handmade putters are fine, but from a design and finishing standpoint, hand-finished putters are imperfect. Certain areas are over-polished, bumpers aren’t geometric reflections of each other, and toplines don’t have a precisely consistent radius. Many of these imperfections go unnoticed by those who don’t care if the torched and hand-bent hosel has exactly ½ a shaft of offset, so long as it is relatively close.
Venson’s objective would be to make a technically perfect putter. Every excruciating detail would be programmed into the CNC machine and what would come out would be a putter void of any inconsistencies or flaws. Every line would be intentional – some to cast shadows at perpendicular angles to achieve a certain look at address, and some to ensure the absence of distracting light, and most importantly the sole draft would be such that the putter would sit perfectly square at address.
Collectors and putter aficionados would be challenged with a question, “What’s more impressive, 5 hours of hand polishing or 50 hours of programming?” What if a CNC mill could be programmed to produce a single-piece 009/Dalehead with a flow neck? Might that reset the expectations of what constitutes exceptional craftsmanship?
The putters wouldn’t be cheap, but exorbitant prices often breed the cultish sycophantic behavior his brand would be positioned to avoid. $300 ball-markers and $5K putters play right into the hands of those who believe loyalty to a single brand is synonymous with true collecting. “I would want to get putters in people’s hands,” says Venson. “Collectors want to be able to collect.”
The lottery concept is fine to drive demand, but collecting isn’t fun when golfers know they have a better chance of getting a sunburn in Siberia than landing a putter.
And It wouldn’t be just about the putters either. Venson would offer headcovers and accessories where he could push boundaries and likely the buttons of those who prefer khaki pants and blue blazers to neon lights and pumped-up kicks. He would pay extra attention to how every item was packaged because those are things collectors care about.
Venson would bring a genuineness back to putter collecting, where people couldn’t buy their way into an inner circle. Sure, there are social hierarchies, but big spenders wouldn’t get favored status or special treatment. The hope would be that collectors would pick and choose based on which pieces spoke to them. Say’s Venson, “I don’t want you to own every one…I want you to get the ones you like.”
Digging deeper into materials and design philosophy; Venson wouldn’t be big on contrived labels (i.e., German Stainless Steel aka GSS) or ornate features such as welded and twisty-necks. He would want there to be an authenticity to the putters which didn’t rely on tricked up marketing pitches, and the look would be distinct and cohesive; he’d skip the gaudy bling of Timascus and Damascus inlays. To Venson, it doesn’t make any sense to pay more to import 303 stainless steel from abroad, when it’s already available in his proverbial backyard. People would want to buy his putters for what they are, not some tricked up idea of what someone else has convinced them to think they are.
On the wall-hanger-gamer spectrum, he wouldn’t be making claims that the putters are universally better for every player or that he was offering some breakthrough technology, but through his attention to detail and design, he could make a putter which might be better for that specific player. Moreover, there’s no way in hell he could go this alone – he’d need a team that was as committed to crazy venture as he was.
Nick would be the visionary, the “hey what about this…” guy with the mentality of a creator who cares more about great ideas than who comes up with them. He’s had ideas stolen, some by people with names more recognizable than his. Venson wouldn’t do the same in return. “That makes me sick,” he says. “I could never take credit for someone else’s idea…”
Venson would take the approach that success would come as a result of a team whose collective strengths would offset his weaknesses. He’d hire someone to handle tour operations, and a facilities engineer to make sure the shop could run efficiently. He’d need someone to handle the day-to-day business operations, and a creative director who would make Nick look at the hundreds of perfectly decent designs he did for Bettinardi and remark, “I’m inadequate. I suck.”
With this team in place, he’d launch the brand at the PGA Merchandise show by renting a small space but stocking it with only a single putter and headcover alongside two attractive ladies serving as booth bookends. If things went really well, he’d sell 1500 putters in the first 9 months and he’d get in the bag of at least one Chicago-area PGA Tour player.
The truth is Nick decided a long time ago what his brand would be, but he never expected it to take off this quickly. Now the mission is to take every element of a putter, from design to delivery, and make it a little better. Precise milling replaces less accurate hand-finishing, and headcovers serve as a canvas for excessive stitch counts and creative expression. His brand is priced comfortably above standard off-the-rack options, but well below anything which would require taking out a second mortgage.
It’s a little bit loud and maybe too in your face for some, but from this day forward, Venson and his team will work to do something different and recapture the lost art of collecting.
Oh yeah, then there’s the name of Venson’s brand. Swag.