Bob Parsons is a 10-handicap billionaire who couldn’t find clubs that could really improve his game. So he decided to make his own.
He has shrapnel in his arms and legs from a Vietnam trip-wire. He rides a Harley-Davidson, one of 18 motorcycles he owns. He's got piercings, tattoos and his office desk is made from the door of a C-119 military transport aircraft. It's fair to say that Bob Parsons isn't your average golf industry exec.
He's the amboyant founder of PXG – Parsons Xtreme Golf – and his is a real-life rags to riches story. Forbes magazine lists him comfortably inside the world's 300 richest men, with a net worth of $2.7 billion.
He has taken the Giving Pledge, promising to commit at least half his fortune to charity. And he's spent some of it setting up a golf equipment company that he wants to be seen as the "Ferrari of golf". Some people say Miguel Angel Jimenez is "the most interesting man in golf". We'd beg to disagree...
My first experience of golf was at a course called Clifton Park in Baltimore. If you went there today you'd probably get robbed. I was six or seven years old and my dad would take me; he'd hit range balls and I'd spend time chasing rabbits. Every once in a while dad would let me hit a few shots. My parents were both blue collar workers, and they were gamblers, so we were as poor as a church rat.
My mum taught me how to read the horse racing form, so I got to be pretty good at odds and fractions. I was terrible at school and failed 5th grade. A couple of my friends also failed the same year, but thanks to a clerical error I was put into 6th grade and they weren't. I went into 6th grade with the skills of a 4th grader, so it's no surprise I didn't do well at high school.The only things I didn't fail were gym and lunch, and that's only because they weren't graded.
I would have had to repeat my senior year if I hadn't joined the Marine Corps.
Stepping on a trip-wire in Vietnam got me some serious shrapnel wounds. I was in rifel company and we did ambushes. At night. I was walking through a village and I triggered a trip wire. At the time I didn't know it was me who'd stood on it, but it was attached to a grenade, which exploded. I got shrapnel wounds to my legs and left elbow. It definitely woke me up.
I’ve done everything, from working in a steel mill to accounting and writing and selling computer software. I started my first business when I bought a book from Stamford College on computer programming. I had 12 hours to kill before a ight home and by the time I got there I'd written my first computer program. I invested everything I had ($15,000) and developed home accountancy software while working a full-time job. Years later I sold the business for $64 million.
After a divorce I started GoDaddy.com (originally I bought the domain as a joke) with $38 million, and after a couple of years I was down to $6 million. I almost closed the GoDaddy.com doors, but the dotcom boom was just around the corner. That's when GoDaddy began to thrive.
"Before starting PXG I used to spend $350,000 a year on golf equipment."
I literally would buy all of the latest gear. You name it, I had it. When it came to exotic shaft options, just like every golfer I was looking for a better product. Trust me it's easy to do when you have the money. Now and again I found new equipment delivered, but all too often it didn't as new clubs are just that, new golf clubs. I tried so many I got to the point that I understood about shafts, loft, lies, the ballistics and aerodynamics.
When I had the idea of producing my own better clubs I asked Mike Nicolette, a long-time friend (and lead engineer at Ping): 'If we could spend anything, and take as much time as necessary, could we make a better club?' He reckoned it would sure as hell be fun trying. PXG was born. At PXG we spend more on the weights in our iron heads than our competitors spend on a whole iron.
We sell to the very top of the market. Our goal isn't to be the biggest name in golf.
We're a boutique brand, and we will never compromise or discount our products. Zach Johnson joined PXG and I watched him turn away and drop his club after missing an iron shot. That's what good players do. Then the ball landed two yards from the flag. You could see he was stunned. That's the beauty of our irons. Even when you miss them you don't lose much, if anything. Once somebody tries them, trust me there's no going back.
I've played golf with all our PXG tour troops – Zach, Charl Schwartzel, Billy Horschel, Pat Perez and Lydia Ko. Lydia is a wonderful golfer. The first time we played I hit what I thought was a great drive on the 1st and challenged her to 'catch that Ko!' From the same tees... she hit it past me!
I like to gamble on the golf course. I'm always impressed by the guy who plays off six or seven who's able to light it up when there's a few thousand dollars on a game. The most I've lost is $6,000 in a single game. It felt pretty rude at the time. We like to judge our success by our customers' satisfaction.
When we release a new product, it's the best available... better than anything we've done before, and noticeably better to the customer. We build our golf clubs like Ferrari build cars. We make the best possible product we can – and then worry about how much it costs later.
I've had six motorbike accidents and walked away from each.
But I'm as happy on the back of a motorbike as I am on the golf course. I couldn't choose between the two. I own the world's largest Harley-Davidson dealership. It's 150,000 square feet and there's a wedding chapel, hairdressers, tattoo and piercing studio, lingerie boutique, movie theatre and, of course, it sells motorbikes. I actually married the first couple to get hitched in the chapel.
I also own Scottsdale National Golf Club and you're likely to see me on the course three times a week.
If I was in charge of the game I'd change one rule. That would be it. I'd make divots in the fairway ground under repair. Any golfer who hits their ball down the fairway and finds it in a divot shouldn't be penalised. I hate divots.
I've had two hole-in-ones. The first was with friends in Hawaii; the second was at Whisper Rock in Scottsdale. I left the bar bill open for a month, so anyone who didn't get a drink on the day could have a drink on me for a month.
The $100 million TaylorMade spent on Rory's contract could be good value for them. They focus on the middle and lower market (the biggest parts), so when golfers see pros using their equipment, they go and buy it. At PXG, we only sign players who come to us. If a pro likes the equipment, we are open to signing a deal. That never happened with Rory.
My dad told me when I was dating that the most important thing in finding a girlfriend is to find one that likes you. That rings true today with signing our tour staff.
This is the brief I gave to our designers when they started work on our first iron. Like a blade, with little offset, slightly larger, very sexy to look at, capable of going higher and further, with a huge sweetspot, and it has to be really forgiving and feel wonderful.
We had prototype after prototype which didn't quite do it. Then we put a cavity inside the head and filled it withelastomer. By filling the cavity we made the face thinner and it sounded and felt amazing. It was our breakthrough. The final say on new PXG products comes down to me. Our engineers are scratch players and they'll bring me a new product and tell me it's incredible. I'll hit a few shots and tell them 'sorry guys, no it's not!'
I'm a 10 handicap and I need a little help, and I can tell if something isn't giving me as much help as I'm used to. Unless a product meets my test criteria – and I'm really picky – it doesn't get the thumbs up. We're working on our second-generation irons now and our engineers have found it a big ask to improve on what we have. If it takes two, three or four years to improve the design, that's how long it takes. Which is fine by me. The best bit of advice I'd give to other golfers is lighten up. Face it, we all suck on the golf course.
PXG Golf Pro's: What They Say
Lydia Ko: "When I first hit PXG's clubs I was extremely impressed by how they felt. They felt solid and the performance was... wow!"
Zach Johnson: "You have individuals that want to transform the game and give me resources that are essentially unlimited. That'
Billy Horschel: "We looked at the TrackMan data, and I was impressed. When Zach called me, I told him: I'm making the switch. I was happy to give him my input."
Charl Schwartzel: "I had the opportunity to speak with Bob Parsons and his enthusiasm for the game of golf and golf equipment is infectious."
Ryan Moore: "I'd been searching for a set of irons, and these are the best set of irons I've hit in a really, really long time. I was excited from the second I hit them."