T.J. Auclair is a Senior Interactive Producer for PGA.com and has covered professional golf since 1998, traveling to over 60 major championships. You can follow him on Twitter, @tjauclair.
Handmade putters like you've never seen before
Every now and again we stumble upon people and companies in golf that you may not have yet heard of, but should.
And that's the basis for this introduction to Kenneth "Lump" Uselton, owner of a business based out of Nashville, Tenn., called, "Xenon Golf Company."
Xenon specializes in handcrafted putters. Like other boutique putter makers we've profiled in this space -- LaMont Mann's MannKrafted and Low Tide, among them -- Xenon's creations aren't merely putters. They're truly works of art.
"Currently I make mostly handmades," explained Uselton, a married father of three and a 17-year cancer survivor. "I do have some designs that I run blank heads at the CNC shop. I have about 10 unique designs that I would like to make available as CNC blanks and the customer can personalize them. There are many more stuck in my head too."
Those ideas stuck in Uselton's head are often brought to life in a 12'x20' portable building/shed he purchased in 2006. The small building resides in his back yard and has become affectionately known as, "The Old Puttershack."
"I set it up in my back yard to use as my workshop for refinishing old irons and building clubs," Uselton explained. "In 2007, I decided that I would start accumulating the equipment I needed to teach myself how to make putters from a block of material. I found a 40-year-old 1/3" hp Rusnok mini-milling machine in February 2008 from an inquiry on Ebay, a nice used tig welder and the accumulation started. If you walk into the 'Puttershack' today, you will see an encirclement of equipment for the entire process. In this shop I do the machine work, the welding, grinding, stamping, finishing -- everything is done by me. It's taken me almost 6 years to get to the point where I know that my work is now to the level I dreamt of when I started."
Before it became his career, Uselton started putting clubs together in 1986 at the age of 17, trying -- like many golfers -- to find something that would better suit his game.
During the early 1990s before golf really became "cool" for all ages, there was a vintage PING putter craze. Karsten Solheim, the late founder of PING, was a pioneer in putter design. Like many, Uselton wanted to get his hands on Solheim's designs.
"When the vintage Ping putter craze blew up in the early 1990s, I came obsessed with PING putters because Karsten was such a design genius and everything he did looked different," Uselton said. "While dragging around a set of old Northwestern blades growing up, I always drooled over the PING irons for sale in the pro shops around town."
What was once a hobby recently turned into an occupation that remains a passion for Uselton. You see Uselton worked in a plastic plant from 1991 until the plant closed its doors in February 2012. At that job, Uselton says he worked 12-hour shifts, seven days a week every two weeks. He then spent many of his off days refinishing clubs and building sets.
He meddled for years with milled putters in the Puttershack, an art that was accelerated and skills that were honed in the mid-2000s when Uselton started to appreciate the creations of masters of the milling method -- names like Mills, Bettinardi and Cameron.
Beautiful as those works were then and are even today, it's the price point that was discouraging to Uselton.
"A normal guy like me had no desire to spend a huge amount on a milled putter," he said.
It's that "normal guy" mantra that separates Uselton from others. For less than $300 -- pretty much the starting point for most high-end putters you'll find in a golf store -- Uselton can make you a one-of-a-kind.
"The goal is to have my own functional designs, nothing radical looking but more traditional and offer them at a fair price with multiple metal choices and personalization choices," Uselton told us. "All I ask from customers is not to expect a copy of someone else's ideas. My putters start at $259 fully customized and personalized. My order forms state: 'Please do not ask for rude or offensive stampings or similar markings of other putter makers.'"
Uselton’s order form reads like an a la carte menu. The options seem endless. Customers can choose lie, length, loft, head weight, neck design and so much more. Xenon putters can be 100 percent personalized by the customer from the head design, the neck, the shaft and the grip to the stamping, the finish and the sightlines or dots. Seriously. Uselton will literally tell you, "Give it some thought and get back to me. Tell me exactly what you want."
And then, he brings your imagination – no matter how wild – to life.
Uselton's putters aren't the same, old, boring, cookie-cutter designs you find in the box stores. To the contrary, many of his shapes and designs are the kind you never even knew existed. The head shapes and neck designs are sure to be conversational pieces amongst your foursome.
Uselton also offers accessories. Things like guitar-pick shaped ball markers and guitar-shaped bag tags, almost as a nod to the city where he creates his designs – Nashville, “The Music City.”
From start to finish, Uselton estimates it’s between 4-5 weeks before the putter you dreamed up is in your hands.
“I can't believe that I have gotten to this point to be able to take a raw piece of metal, machine it, shape it, stamp it, finish it, weld it, paint it and assemble it -- all without relying on anyone else,” Uselton said. “When people entrust you to create their ‘dream’ putter, I feel an obligation to them to get it dead on.”
If you’d like to view samples of Uselton’s impressive body of work, you can click here to visit the Xenon Golf Company Facebook page. You can also give him a follow on Twitter, @xenongolf, where he posts pictures of completed projects.
And if you’re interested in getting your very own Xenon Golf Company putter, email Uselton at firstname.lastname@example.org. He can answer any questions you have to get the process started.
Follow T.J. Auclair on Twitter, @tjauclair.