You’d be forgiven if the name Kenny Giannini didn’t leap off the page, but in all honesty, he might be one of the more famous putter makers a lot of people have never heard of. Kenny has been making putters for the better part of 35 years for companies like Hogan, Cleveland, Mizuno, and now under his own name. I had some time to catch up with Kenny about his products, what makes them stand out in the marketplace, and also about the launch of his custom line of putters.
Let’s go way back to when this whole thing started. What was that like at the beginning of milled putters? Whose idea was that, and how did that come about?
Well, I was playing golf in Hawaii back in the early eighties and I had been paired with a guy who was the CEO of a company in New York. I was using a TP Mills putter at the time, and this guy I was playing with wanted my putter really bad. So, he kept trying to buy it from me and I said, “No way. It’s not for sale.” He said, “Everything’s for sale.” Finally, I caved and said, “Okay, fine. $5,000.” He wrote me a check right there on the spot. After that, I was sitting on the beach thinking about what had just happened, and I just came to the obvious conclusion that of course there was a market for this. So, I flew back to the mainland and two weeks later I had a prototype together.
Shortly after that, I had a contract with Hogan to do the Apex putters, which was the first milled putter. After that deal kind of went south, Roger Cleveland called me up and asked me to make putters for him. He and I had a lot of success back then, and a lot of guys on Tour were using my putters. Mark O’Meara had one, and he won a Crosby [referring to the Pebble Beach Pro-Am tournament] with it and wound up on the cover of Sports Illustrated.
Nowadays, milled putters are everywhere, but back then being one of the first guys doing it, what was that like? Did it take a lot of trial and error to get it right?
Well, I’m a golfer first and foremost, so I knew what I wanted. I’ve learned a little bit about machining and welding over the years, but I would not classify myself as a machinist. Being a golfer first, though, means I know how putters are supposed to work. When I put a putter on the ground, it better sit dead square. I’m absolutely nuts about that. That’s the most important thing to me. Recently, I met a kid that had just qualified for the [Mackenzie] Tour, and he had had a putter fit for him by a reputable company. He handed it to me, I looked at it, and I said, “Something doesn’t look right.” I got him into one of my putters and the guy goes out, makes 17 putts in a row with my putter and shoots a 61.
So flash forward to today. You now have your own line of putters sold under your own name. The game is totally different nowadays, though, if you will. There are a lot of people doing milled putters now. What do you think sets your products apart from all the other putter guys out there?
Well, the biggest thing is experience. You know, there’s a lot of great putters on the market, but I will say I’ve never paid anyone a nickel to play with one of my putters. Ever. In spite of that, a lot of professionals have wound up playing my putters over the years. I remember there was a huge poster of Arnold Palmer in a golf repair shop I walked into, and when I looked closely at it I realized he was using one of my putters. Obviously, I knew I’d made him some putters back then, but I was surprised to see my putter in the photo. I think a lot of that speaks for itself. I consider myself a pretty low-profile guy. I’m not an egomaniac. My actual cell phone number is right there on my website. You don’t have to go through six secretaries to get to me.
You’ve been playing this game a long time. There’s a lot of buzz nowadays about inserts and milled groove patterns on the face of the putter. They’re said to achieve consistency and improved forward roll. Do these things help or not in your opinion? Why or why not?
To be honest, I don’t really care what everyone else does. I’m my own guy. I do what I think is right, not what everyone else is doing. I personally don’t believe in inserts for a couple of different reasons. The biggest thing for me is that putting is all about feel. That’s why I prefer to use carbon steel and a black oxide finish. The PVD finishes have two coats of nickel under the black, so it completely changes the feel, which is why I went back to black oxide. Black oxide does require some maintenance, but the feel is so much better and you’re getting the exact roll with it. Apart from testing all of the putters we make, I’ve been using the same putter for 33 years. That putter has never had a head cover and it’s never been refinished. It does have a little rust on it, but it feels better and it ultimately rolls putts better. At the end of the day, that’s what matters. When we did putters for Cleveland, we had less than five returned because of rusting due to the black oxide finish. Also, guys nowadays are wanting putters 350 grams and up. The putters we did at Cleveland were 325 grams (+3/-0). Personally, I like it right around 340 grams.
I don’t want my putter to be a billboard. I don’t want the golfer to look at all the alignment lines on the putter going back. He’d better be looking at the ball. You know, less is more sometimes. I can make my putter look any way I want. I don’t want anything to distract the player. That’s also why I like finishes that will not reflect the sunlight back into your eyes.
Golfers today think nothing of buying a $600 driver and then going and putting a $350 aftermarket shaft in it, but they’ll only hit that club 14 times each round. It won’t take that many strokes off their game. A great amateur golfer uses the putter 36 times. That’s how you take strokes off your game. The putter is the club you want to invest in.
“Soft Scooped Face” is something I see a lot on your webpage. Tell me about the tech going on there with your putters.
I originally did that a long time ago and then pulled it away. There’s a cutout on the bottom of the putter. The whole logic is to keep the face of the putter square at impact regardless of where you hit it on the face (towards the toe or the heel). It basically moves mass out to the toe and the heel.
Where do most of your inspiration come from when you’re generating new products? Current customer feedback? What your competitors are doing? What’s out on Tour?
Most of the time, I do it on my own. I can honestly say that I’ve never had a putter that hasn’t sold, and I’m very grateful for that. You know, I’m a golfer first, so I develop my products based on what golfers need. That being said, I’ve had some happy accidents where I was making something else and the machine accidentally cut too much off and I wound up thinking, “Wow, does this look good!” Like I said earlier, though, my putters have won a lot of money, so that speaks for itself I think. I’m proud of the work I’ve done. I will also say that I listen to my customers regardless if they’re a 20-handicap or a plus-six. That customer feedback is incredibly important to developing a great product.
So if I’m not mistaken, the big news is that Giannini is now launching a line of custom putters. Tell me about the possibilities lying under the surface and how to partake should one desire.
Yes, we are launching a line of custom putters now to go along with what I call my Legacy line of products. I have eight heads available in the custom shop. You can call up and say, “I want head No. 3 and I want a plumber’s neck hosel welded onto the head 1.9 inches from the center of the putter,” for example. It just helps tremendously that if you have something very specific in mind, you go to the website (http://www.gianninigolf.com), call me directly at 817-304-3717, and you will know exactly what you’re going to get.
Even if it’s something not listed on the website, I want to be able to talk to you and get you exactly what you want. I don’t want unhappy customers. Even if you want a PVD finish or a specific, heavy head weight, I’ll do it regardless of what I prefer. And by the way, I can honestly say I put my hands on every putter that comes through our shop.
I would also encourage people to stay tuned to our website, as we will continue to add more products to the Legacy lineup and more options to the custom shop as well. We intend to be very active on the website in the near future.
Kenny Giannini custom putter
Kenny Giannini custom putter
Kenny Giannini custom putter
Kenny Giannini putting the finishing touches on one of his putters. Photo credit: Kristy-Lynn Polowich
Kenny Giannini custom putters
Kenny Giannini blade putter in action on the course.
Kenny Giannini mallet style putter with soft scooped face technology.
The Jamaica Golf Experience
I love Jamaica. I have been to the island for several trips with my family and the feeling I get every time I think about a next visit is always exciting. On past trips, I have made Jamaican friends that I will remember for the rest of my life. The people there are so happy and good. One Love. The “no problem ‘mon'” culture just becomes a part of you when you’re there, creating a special atmosphere that lets you escape it all. I keep Red Stripe beer in my fridge at home in Fort Worth, Texas, all year — a reminder of the island I love with every sip. So when I received an invitation to play in The Jamaica Pro-Am, I was quick to accept.
The Jamaica Pro-Am (aka Annie’s Revenge — more on that later) is an annual tournament held each year in Montego Bay, Jamaica. Four-man teams constructed of three amateurs and one PGA Professional, the tournament is typically played on three of Jamaica’s finest golf courses — Half Moon, Cinnamon Hill, and White Witch. I attended this year’s tournament as a playing observer, confined to the “media team” and partaking in the festivities. Ya’mon.
The tournament field gets to stay at the beautiful Iberostar Grand Rose Hotel, conveniently located near all three courses and more importantly, right on the beach. The hotel is indeed grand and all-inclusive, providing guests with a wristband that gets you whatever you’d like to eat or drink from any of the onsite bars and restaurants — no questions asked. Less than 30 minutes from the airport, if Montego Bay is your desired city for your next Jamaican vacation, I’d imagine this hotel is tough to beat.
The first night of the tournament is the welcome dinner and reception on the beach. A full Jamaican buffet complete with jerk chicken and pork, beef patties, fried plantains, rice and peas, and cabbage. A true taste of the Caribbean, accompanied of course with whatever rum drink your heart desires. Appleton is the island favorite, and it mixes well with pretty much everything when you’re toes are in the sand. There was a live reggae band playing the Bob Marley songs everyone knows.
While the festivities were for the tournament participants, there was still plenty of activity and vibe for the other hotel guests. This is Jamaica. There was music and fun all around the hotel every moment of this trip. No worries, everything is irie. I have a real love for the island. The people are kind, the food is fantastic, and the waters are the finest in the world.
Day One: Half Moon Golf Club
Quite understandably, Jamaica has been hit hard by COVID-19, with tourism taking a substantial dip in the past year and a half. The golf has seen a dip in numbers as a result, but the courses are in gorgeous shape with foot and cart traffic just now picking back up.
Half Moon was designed by Robert Trent Jones, Sr. and it opened in 1962. The course rests between the Blue Mountains and the sea, playing a mostly flat 7,120 yards from the back tees. Half Moon does offer several tee box options and could be played as short as 5,032 yards, making it a pleasant resort course, should that be your speed.
The course is beautiful and very well maintained. The greens were a bit shaggy, but luscious, playing at a slower pace than I am used to. I am not sure if that is by design or a side effect of the pandemic, as I do know the Jamaican golf courses have been short-staffed and without the usual supplies this past season. That appears to be a thing of the past, however, as the course looks to have turned a corner.
Most fairways are lined by palm trees, adding something to avoid off the tee, but there is enough space between each trunk to give you a full swing if you do miss left or right. The coconuts that drop, luckily, are loose impediments.
Half Moon is a resort course through and through. There are elements of character and excitement, but it mostly just provides a beautiful and benign setting for fun island golf. The fairways are dressed with multiple well-placed bunkers which provide the only designed protection against low scores. The driver could be used on virtually every non-par 3, but the course is better suited to be thought around and played to avoid the sand.
Built on a retired sugar cane estate, the other real hazard (water doesn’t come into play much at all) is the coastal winds that pick up mid-morning each day. With little besides the coconut trees to protect your ball from gusts, the wind becomes a real challenge on this bow-tie routed design. Holes into the wind were a beast, and when we finally turned with the wind at our back, it was time for a Red Stripe and a sigh of relief.
Those winds are a big reason why this tournament is called “Annie’s Revenge.” Named after Annie Palmer, the White Witch of Rose Hall, the namesake is one of Jamaica’s most famous local legends. Rose Hall’s Great House, just down the road towards Cinnamon Hill Golf Course, was home to Palmer, a Haitian-born white woman who grew up studying voodoo and witchcraft. Thus the nickname, the White Witch. She moved to Jamaica when she married John Palmer, the owner of Rose Hall, and unfortunately, her practice of dark magic proved too powerful for those around her. Legend tells she murdered her husband (and two more after that) along with many of her slaves. She herself was eventually killed, but to this day, the locals claim to have witnessed Palmer’s ghost riding her horse around the Jamaican plantations.
The strong coastal winds are Annie’s Revenge on any golfer trying to enjoy the land she once owned. They got the best of me a time or two.
Days Two and Three: Cinnamon Hill
Both Cinnamon Hill and White Witch Golf Course are members of the Rose Hall family. Typically, in the “Annie’s Revenge” tournament format, the courses are played once each in the three-day event. However, White Witch is currently closed due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Its owners made the financial decision to proceed through these tough times with only one course due to the limited play and the costs of upkeep. While disappointed to not play White Witch, playing Cinnamon Hill twice instead more than satisfied my appetite for Jamaican golf. This is my favorite course on the island.
Cinnamon Hill was designed by Rick Baril and opened in 1969. It was later renovated and redesigned by Robert von Hagge. The greens here were much quicker than those at Half Moon, which I certainly appreciated. The two nines of Cinnamon Hill play in complementing contrast to one another, with the front providing low coastal play while the back nine rises into the tropical Blue Mountains.
Tipping out at 6,828 yards, the front nine marches and builds towards the ocean, with two phenomenal holes hugging the coastline. This is unusual for Jamaica, as most of the shore is saved for sandy beaches and rum-flavored sips under thatch umbrellas.
I played Cinnamon Hill with my cart partner, Jason Deegan of GolfPass.com. Our hosts for our rounds at Rose Hall were Keith Stein, the Director of Golf Course Operations for both Cinnamon Hill and White Witch, and Donnie Dawson, the Deputy Director of Tourism for the Jamaica Tourist Board.
Keith is a very good golfer with a smooth swing. He is originally from Toronto but has lived in Jamaica for 30 years. Donnie is a world-class storyteller who grew up in Kingston and has been playing these courses his entire life. It was a real treat to be able to play the course with both fine gentlemen, see how they play each hole, and hear their tales. The best story came on hole four, a 170-yard par 3 over marshy ponds.
As we approached the fourth tee box, Donnie pointed out a concrete wall just behind the markers and informed us that a cemetery lay just beyond. Peering over, we could see the gravestones in this centuries-old burial plot for the family of English poet Elizabeth Barrett Browning. The grass is grown tall because the golf course staff, local Jamaicans, refuse to go inside.
Donnie told us 20 or so years ago, he was playing this course with a caddie named “Teeth,” a moniker he was given based on the looper’s colored and decorated top front teeth. As they approached the fourth tee box, a man was sitting on the concrete wall bordering the cemetery. He tossed Donnie a ball and said “hit this one, mon.” Donnie complied and the three men watched the shot bounce twice and roll directly into the cup. A hole-in-one with accompanied celebration. When they reached the green, Donnie and Teeth looked into the cup to retrieve the ball, and, to their surprise, it had vanished. Disappeared from the hole. They looked to the tee box and the kind stranger on the wall was gone as well. Perhaps a ghost from the ancient graves. Donnie said Teeth, a believer in local legend, took off running and didn’t stop for three miles.
Holes five and six provide tremendous views right along the quietly crashing waves. The par-3 sixth hole, arguably the prettiest hole on the island, is a 178-yard carry over the Caribbean with bailout room to the left. Just a gorgeous hole that I would have been happy to play all day. Cinnamon Hill does not waste their par 3s.
The course is also home to an ancient aqueduct that winds through both the front and back nine. The now-ruins provide an interesting backdrop to island golf, whereas they used to be a working part of the sugar cane plantation and used to grind and transport one of Jamaica’s top export products for commerce.
The back nine brings you up the mountains, with the 17th tee box sitting nearly 400 feet above sea level. What that provides, obviously, is wonderful views of the ocean through and over jungle leaves, along with challenging golf shots. On the fairway of the 14th hole sits one of the few homes on course, but one has some historical value: The Cinnamon Hill Great House was the second home of Johnny Cash and June Carter Cash for 30 years.
The 15th hole is another tremendous par 3 measuring 220 yards from the back but playing much shorter straight down the hill to a large green nestled beneath a waterfall. The waterfall, in case it looks familiar, was the backdrop of a famous scene in “Live and Let Die” — one of the best James Bond films ever made. Ian Fleming, the author of the Bond series, lived and wrote many of the books here on the island at Golden Eye.
Cinnamon Hill takes the driver out of your hand on many holes, forcing you to find the right club on every tee shot. You need to be prepared to hit mid-irons off some par fours as angles are often more important than distance. And with the undulating back nine, distances are sometimes deceiving. Cheers to my caddie for keeping the right club in my hand all trip.
Back to the hotel for the final ceremony and last sleep on the island. The Jamaica Pro-Am is open to anyone willing to pay the entry fee, but if you come to Jamaica for just a family vacation, don’t forget about the golf. Most travelers to Jamaica come for the beaches and the island lifestyle, and they aren’t wrong to do so. But next time you visit, I suggest you bring your clubs, mon.
Club Junkie: Reviewing New Bettinardi BB and Inovai putters!
Bettinardi has new and updated putters for their BB and Inovai putter lines. I have been rolling a ton of putts (indoors, unfortunately) with both the BB-8W and the Inovai Rev 8.0 and they are really solid (read our launch piece here).
BB series is now made from stainless steel and has a new face milling that offers much better feel. The new Inovai 8.0 has a great, toned-down shape with the new Roll Control face for reducing hopping and skidding and producing forward roll.
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