Handcrafted custom putters made in the USA? Yes. Please.

Introducing Neal Rohrbach, Co-Founder of Strokes Gained Customs. A Valdosta, GA based putter studio, Strokes Gained Customs has been delivering high-quality handmade putters for years.

This comes as no surprise after getting a chance to talk with Neal. He is a Swiss Army Knife of an entrepreneur. The man can do it all. Don’t believe me. Read on to see his incredible background in his interview.

Since starting G&E, it is fascinating to see a commonality in many golf start-ups. That is Mini Tour experience.

For those who do not know much about life on the Mini Tours, its a grind. Something where you work harder than most anyone you know and probably make the least. It requires incredible hustle with many holding a job to help fund their pursuit.

I have noticed though that this struggle tends to breed creativity. Inspiration to find new ways to make a buck to continue chasing your dream.

Neal shares this background that many can relate to. To help support their passion for golf, Neal and his friend Jimmy Bales, originally started Strokes Gained Customs by customizing and restoring putters. After two years, they decided that it was time to have a flat stick with their name on it.

The result is one absolutely beautiful putter line that any golfer can appreciate. Strokes Gained Customs hand milled putters have a look and feel that few can compete with.

That hustler’s mentality that Mini Tour life gave Neal continues to course through his veins to this day. Strokes Gained is not his only job as he works full-time outside of the putter studio. And with a crazy schedule like that, he still keeps his priorities straight always making sure to put his family first.

It was a pleasure to have a chance to interview Neal and talk about his life with golf. He is a gentleman with wisdom learned through years of elevating his craft. Here is what he had to say:

It is great to have the opportunity to interview you, Neal! Thanks for taking the time to do this. Can you please provide us with a little background on yourself?

I grew up in Jefferson City, MO, played college golf at the Savannah College of Art and Design (I picked the school the furthest South that wanted me to play golf for them) where I majored in Graphic Design. I fell in love with the South and never moved back “home.” I now call Valdosta, GA home, where I live with my wife Ashley and our three kids, Drake, Audrey and Weston. I’ve been an entrepreneur for years, am a marketing zealot, creative cracker-jack and social media fiend. I’ve won several National awards including a Telly Award as executive producer for a television show pilot, a Gold MARCOM award for social media campaigns, a Platinum MARCOM Award for New Product Launch (Strokes Gained Putters) and an American Business Award for branded entertainment. My very first job was golf course maintenance, which was one my favorites and I’ve worked primarily in marketing in the outdoor industries (boats, guides/outfitters, outdoor television, golf) and as the EVP of a technology company. I also co-founded an online collaborative tool for small businesses that was featured in Businessweek as a “must have” tool for small businesses alongside Twitter and Facebook. I think I’ve rambled on this first question more than adequately, haha. 

When did you first start playing golf and did you always know you wanted to have a career in the game?

I first started playing golf shortly after I could walk, competitively as a junior, through high school and college with a brief stint on the Hooters Tour. I was ate up with golf from a very early age, and the golf course was my babysitter in the summers. My parents would drop my sister and me off at the pool with our golf clubs while they played 18 holes with their friends. We’d usually swim for 30 or 45 minutes and spend the rest of the time on the practice green trying to beat each other in chipping and putting competitions. When I got a little older, my parents would drop my best friend and I off at the golf course on their way to work, and pick us up before dark. It was typical for us to walk 36 holes a day along with range time and putting drills.  From a very young age I dreamed of being a professional golfer, once I got to college I realized how difficult that was going to be, and Monday qualifying into a few mini-tour events was very humbling. I didn’t have the bankroll to make it. I wasn’t a natural talent, I needed to work very hard at my game, but I had to work between tournaments. In fact, the first professional tournament I Monday qualified for, I had to drive back home Monday night, pour concrete on Tuesday and Wednesday and show back up Thursday morning just in time for my tee time. It was then when I realized that if I wanted a career in golf, it was going to have to utilize my natural talents in marketing and creativity. It was almost another 10 years before I was able to put it together, but I learned a lot about business and myself along the way, which helped make Strokes Gained a success from the get-go.

Where did the idea to start your own putter company derive from?

Initially, my buddy Jimmy Bales and I got started in the golf industry customizing and restoring putters. In the very beginning, we started the business just to fund our own golf addictions, generating some extra money for equipment and greens fees. We did that for about 2 years, expanded into rare, exotic and collectible putters, and finally decided it was time to have a putter with our brand on it. What we learned about the industry in the first couple years we were able to apply towards our own line, primarily the appreciation and demand for hand craftsmanship.

How did you learn to create these beautiful putters?

It was really guess and test, teaching myself on the grinder and with a hammer and stamps. Spent a lot of time researching and experimenting, and had a few mentors along the way. I’ve got quite a pile of scrap metal from these experiments, but that’s part of getting to the beautiful end product we have today. Growing up my dad and I worked on our own golf equipment, kind of like the cars I drove in college, if I couldn’t fix them, they didn’t get fixed. We re-shafted, re-gripped and adjusted clubs. I’ve always enjoyed doing things with my hands and have had an eye for design.

What makes your putters unique?

The handcraftsmanship is what makes our putters unique, that along with every component being made in the USA, including the shaft, the grip, and headcover. Several hours of hands-on work goes into each putter, hand softening, vertical milling the faces, alignment aids and tour dots, hand stamping, hand finishing and hand painting. And they’re not merely a work of art, they roll the ball great too! When speaking to a potential customer at a demo day, if they’re not sold on the value of the handcraftsmanship and Made in USA mission, their skepticism is obliterated when they roll the rock.

When you first started out, what were some of the biggest struggles you faced when building your business and how did you overcome them?

Honestly, the biggest struggle I faced when building the business was time. Strokes Gained unfortunately isn’t my only gig, and my top two priorities aren’t business related at all. Faith and family come before marketing or putters. I’m not going to swing a hammer or mix paint on Sunday and I’m not missing a little league game or dance recital for a putter fitting. I had to find a good balance between work and home life. I’ve gotten my kids involved, letting them help paint putters or just hang out and talk about life while cutting shafts and throwing on grips. My wife always reminds me, “it’s ok if you don’t get everything done you’d like to today, give it your best and the rest will be there tomorrow.” It took me a long time to get the workaholic out of my system, but now that my priorities are straight I don’t lose any sleep over unfinished putters.

The other big struggle was meeting demand. Early on I bit off more than I could chew in terms of production for both new orders as well as restoration and customization, which we still do. I overcame that by being honest with myself and honest with my customers. I saw first hand in the business world how detrimental overpromising and under delivering could be for a brand and made it my mission to do just the opposite. I’m upfront with potential customers on the timeline between starting production and getting it in their bag, and they appreciate that. I also keep them updated during the process, and always ship a putter with an extra gift or some Strokes Gained swag.

Did you always plan on creating an apparel and accessories line or did that come with developing the business?

I definitely planned on creating apparel and accessories lines from the beginning. We don’t merely sell a product, we sell a lifestyle. It’s good branding, and if you do it right, you get paid for advertising, rather than spending on advertising. Killer t-shirts are walking billboards and conversation-starting headcovers generate some of the hottest leads we get.

What does the day to day look like at SGC?

The day to day really varies. Some days its email and phone call heavy, others it’s a lot of time spent tinkering in the shop. I’m answering emails and messages on social media around the clock, trying to keep our social media content fresh, and business development projects rolling. I typically don’t have my hands on putters or mock-up customers’ putters on the computer until after the kids hit the hay, and of course, there’s all the business upkeep of shipping, accounting, licenses, certificates, etc.

Have you been able to take some of the lessons learned as a professional golfer and implement them into your business an entrepreneur?

Like professional golf, entrepreneurship requires dedication, decisiveness, and big-picture thinking. You’ve got to keep at it, work harder every day, and if you want to be successful, “good enough” isn’t good enough. The right club to hit is always the club in your hand, trust your gut and execute. Same with business, like when we decided to exhibit again at the demo day at the PGA Show this coming August, we trust our gut and execute. Design kick-butt collateral, build the best putters we’ve ever stamped our name on and get that sales pitch as enthusiastic and passionate as we are when we’re talking about our kids. You can’t let one bad shot ruin a round. Look at the big picture, take one shot at a time, and make sure the next shot is on point. In business, you can’t let one bad decision, one disgruntled customer, or one bump in the road effect everything moving forward. Recover, learn from it, move ahead stronger than ever.

Who has been your greatest inspiration?

Hands down, my greatest inspiration has been Bob Vokey. Some might be surprised to hear that it’s a wedge guy, but he’s my biggest inspiration nonetheless. I had the opportunity to spend a morning with him, working on my wedge game, and he was the most down to Earth, honest, funny and approachable person I’ve ever met in the golf industry. I’ve met several other club designers and manufacturers, etc. and he is my inspiration. I dream of one day putting my equipment in the hands of tour pros, just as he has, and I want to be as approachable as he is. Zero ego. Just loving the game and trying to make as big of an impact on it as I can. I’m not looking for fame and fortune, or even much of a spotlight, I want my putters to do the talking. I want to be respected by my peers, my customers, and the industry and do it with as much class as he does.

What have been some of your failures, and what have you learned from them?

My attorney advised me not to answer this question… haha. Here’s what I will share…
My biggest failure has to be scaling too quickly, opening the putter studio before I was really ready, offering too many options, committing to too large of orders, etc. and it was lessons learned. You can’t bite off more than you can chew, and I learned to take a slower approach to expanding. That’s true in any business, don’t open a second location before you’re ready, don’t put all your marbles in one basket, and while entrepreneurship is all about risk and reward, it doesn’t hurt to have a conservative bone or two in your body. What I am most proud of in this failure, is that I adapted, took the necessary steps and made the changes needed to avoid crippling the company. Another failure has been trying to do too much by myself, and I still need to take some steps moving forward to combat that. I have a lot of people in my life willing to help, my business partner, great friends, even my wife, and kids. It’s ok to ask for help, and odds are you’ll learn from those who are willing to help. I’m making it my goal to open up and hand off some aspects of the business and teach what I can as well.  

What are your goals for your business and yourself into the future?

My #1 goal is to make Strokes Gained successful enough that it can fund a golf-related non-profit, or make a substantial difference in one that’s already up and running. Sure, I’d like to make an impact in the game of golf, but ultimately I’d like to be able to play a role in improving others’ quality of life through the game of golf. I am an entrepreneur at heart, and I doubt that Strokes Gained Customs will be my last start-up business, but I know I want to stay active in this industry and hope to build a company my family can get involved in if they share the same passions. I’m not going to push golf on any of them, but we’ve sure been having a good time playing the game and tinkering with flat sticks thus far!