Robert Mendralla, golf club designer, dies at 86

By Bob Goldsborough
Published on

Robert Mendralla was a nationally known golf club designer for Chicago-based Wilson Sporting Goods, fashioning clubs for notable golfers and celebrities.

Mendralla worked at Wilson for 57 years, rising from a job performing miscellaneous tasks such as sweeping Wilson's factory to become one of the nation's few designers of forged golf clubs in an industry now dominated by cast, or molded, clubs.

"Bob was a hard worker, and a great guy to work with," said Jim Shenoha, a retired colleague at Wilson. "He was well-known in the industry."

Mendralla, 86, died last month of complications from sepsis, said his wife of 28 years, Carmen. He was a longtime resident of Bloomingdale.

Born and raised in Chicago, Mendralla graduated from Crane Technical High School and began working at Wilson in September 1947 at age 17, with the title of "miscellaneous boy," his wife said with a laugh. In those years, America was baseball-crazed, and Mendralla's first interest was in working in Wilson's baseball division.

Instead, Wilson assigned Mendralla to its golf division, sweeping floors for 50 cents an hour.

"What did I know about golf coming from Chicago?" Mendralla told The Associated Press in 2004. "But they put me in golf and I thought, 'Geez, what a bad break that was.'"

Before long, Mendralla found himself far better suited for designing golf clubs. After serving a two-year stint in the military during the Korean War, Mendralla was asked to oversee raw material and forgings in Wilson's golf division. From there, he started grinding forged irons and ultimately became Wilson's master club maker.

The role meant getting to meet a variety of athletes inside and outside the golf world, including Michael Jordan, Sam Snead, Arnold Palmer, Julius Boros, Ben Crenshaw, Gene Sarazen and Hale Irwin. More important, Mendralla's work, in Wilson's technical center in Rosemont, entailed designing and prototyping golf clubs and then working with professionals to customize clubs for them.

"A pro might want things the average person wouldn't notice," Mendralla told the Tribune in 1995. "Take the appearance of a club. Some players want the top thin enough to shave with."

Generally, Mendralla would make four or five prototypes a year, with one being chosen to be manufactured. By the 1990s, forged clubs began to lose popularity, and cast club sales had been increasing since the 1970s. Many golfers were drawn to cast clubs for their lighter weights and larger "sweet spots."

"Years ago, you couldn't give a player a cast club," Mendralla said in 1995.

Mendralla designed Wilson's Staff Dynapower irons in the 1960s, which were among the most popular irons ever made. Other popular Wilson irons he designed were Wilson's Staff Tour Blades, Staff Fluid Feel Irons, Staff Gooseneck Irons and Staff Progressive Irons.

In 1995, Wilson rolled out another Mendralla-designed line of irons, the Staff RM Irons, which were designed to capture the best of both worlds: popular cast clubs' oversized heads and large sweet spots, but with the classic Staff look. Wilson named the line of irons "RM" in a nod to Mendralla's long service with the company.

"If they ever make a club that makes the ball go straight, I'll be out of a job," Mendralla told the Tribune in 1995. "But ... there is no perfect club."

Mike Boylan, a retired Wilson executive who served as the company's vice president of tour promotion, recalled Mendralla's ability to understand what a professional golfer was looking for, even though Mendralla himself was not an expert golfer.

"They would say, 'Here's what I'm looking for,' and Bob came through every time," Boylan said. "I've never met an individual who had the kind of talent that Bob had. And at the same time, he had no ego. I never saw Bob upset or mad about anything. It was quite a pleasure to work with the man."

Mendralla was a member of the Illinois PGA Hall of Fame and the Professional Clubmakers Society's Hall of Fame.

After retiring from Wilson in 2006, Mendralla spent much time woodworking, his wife said, fashioning pens, wooden bowls and candlesticks.

"He loved working with his hands," she said.

A first marriage ended in divorce. In addition to his wife, he is survived by a daughter, Linda Hodge; a son, Robert Jr.; two stepchildren; 12 grandchildren; four great-grandchildren; and a brother, William.

Services were held.

This article was written by Bob Goldsborough from Chicago Tribune and was legally licensed through the NewsCred publisher network.