The first time I ever had any dealings with Ping was at the 2005 Open Championship at St Andrew’s. As part of my role at the St Andrews Links Trust, I was responsible for the extension of the practice centre developing the academy.
I was introduced to Dave Fanning, who as the European Marketing Director is the guardian of the Ping brand in Europe and proposed that Ping would like to use one of the teaching studios as their fitting centre in Scotland. We discussed how the operation might work and the costs involved. It very quickly became clear that this would be a great fit.
I have been a Ping advocate ever since loving their brand, clubs, their business model and the interaction I have had with Dave and John Clark. So, when starting the blog, I suggested to Dave I come up to Thonock Park, which used to be called Gainsborough Golf Club, to see the improvements they have made to the Karsten Lakes course and the clubhouse.
John stepped down from his position as Managing Director of Ping Europe at the end of 2020 handing over to Lisa Lovett and I suggested he might like to take me on in the “A round with Niall Challenge”. Being a keen rugby player in his time and still a lover of the game (having been to every World Cup since 2003) and competitive by nature, he jumped at the chance. Playing off 12 we agreed that I would give John 3 shots
Having been given a tour of the newly refurbished fitting centre which I have to say is fantastic. Check out Wayne Riley’s YouTube visit … to see more.
John and I teed off at 4.30 in the afternoon looking forward to a lovely summer’s evening of golf.
John told me that as a young man he was good at maths and thought his vocation would be as an accountant, by fate he was introduced to computer software back in the day and loved how it worked. John, originally from Hartlepool was first employed by an engineering company but got the chance to work for Nike, where he not only learnt about the sports business but also the importance of brand values.
John lived in Portland Oregon for a while but had to return home and 1994 and started working for Ping as the administration manager where he first met Dave Fanning in reception who was also starting his first day as the marketing manager.
As it turned out John could not have joined Ping at a better time, the Founder of the company Karsten Solheim was just about to hand over the reins to his eldest son John. Roy Freeman, who had a great relationship with Karsten, had set up Ping in Europe also decided to step down from his position in 1997 choosing John as his successor.
In the challenge match, I got off to a flyer, being two up after two, with the usual excuses I have heard from my challengers coming to the fore about injuries and not playing much. John then went into overdrive, winning the next four holes and I was pleased to be one down at the turn.
Whilst it is not yet being a Top 100 course, I was pleasantly surprised by the course, which exceeded my expectations. I was enjoying the Neil Coles design and the work that William Swan introduced in 2019 reshaping, improving and reducing the 64 bunkers down to 42.
The Solheim family own and run Ping and John’s first task was to gain the trust of John Solheim, which he did very quickly. Ping are one of the largest employers in the area, employing over 350 people and, like their customers, staff tend to stay with the company for many years.
John highlighted the importance of stability and long-term strategy based on the ethos of the brand. Sometimes we are not the quickest at making decisions and those decisions are not necessarily all financially led like other companies who have public and institutional shareholders to please.
It would seem that this strategy is working, as Ping has been voted best club equipment supplier five times in the last seven years and John counts this as one of his and the team’s major achievements.
John wanted to make sure that his transition over to Lisa was as smooth as possible and had promoted her to General Manager three years before, highlighting the heir apparent. He remains on the board, taking a keen interest in Thonock Park, which Ping owns. In addition, he loves the Solheim Cup and has enjoyed the matches, with his first being 1996 at St Pierre. He is still involved with the Solheim junior match and is pleased that, despite the pandemic, this will go ahead next month.
The start of the back nine saw my game crumble, whilst John, with his course knowledge and controlled fade off the tee, was most consistent. Standing on the 17th tee, I was six down! I managed to win the 17th and just failed to win the 18th, meaning John trashed me five up and became leader of “A Round with Niall Challenge”.
Despite the resounding loss, I thoroughly enjoyed the game and my experience of visiting Thonock Park. I gave my thoughts to John on how I believe the course could be better presented but, overall, if you are thinking of visiting, I can assure you that you will receive great value for money.
The eight newly introduced rooms are excellent, the clubhouse and staff are friendly and attentive and the two courses are different and enjoyable. With help on the attention to detail and presentation, the Karsten Lakes course will move up the rankings quickly.
The true USP is the PING European Fitting Centre and post-Covid a trip to see the factory floor where the clubs are made. 98 % of golfers who come to Gainsborough for a fitting buy a set of clubs and a very high percentage of those remain loyal customers.
I believe this is a testament to John’s leadership and with 2021 seeing Ping’s busiest year ever, thanks to the resurgence of people playing golf, the Ping dynasty is not only booming but in excellent hands.
Until next time