Dean Knuth wanted to be a pitcher years ago when he grew up in Eau Claire, Wis. He ended up as a pitcher, just not the kind he expected.
As founder of Knuth Golf, Knuth’s job is to pitch his titanium drivers, fairway woods and hybrids to America’s golfers. And he does it with a nearly non-existent marketing budget.
Knuth Golf’s High Heat clubs have been word-of-mouth hits on a small scale.
Knuth’s clubs are geared toward amateurs. He is annoyed by the equipment industry’s practice of designing clubs for elite professionals, the men who advertise the clubs on TV, then trying to tweak them so they work for the far-less skilled general public. In his mind, average golfers should come first.
At 72, he’s had an amazing life. Knuth went to the Naval Academy, spent 27 years in the Navy (active and reserves); invented a top-secret method to track Soviet Union submarines; invented the Slope handicapping system for the United States Golf Association and still answers to the nickname, Pope of Slope; designs and makes golf clubs; and has three adult children who are successful, married and happy.
The closest Knuth got to baseball’s major leagues was a 20-minute tryout with the Minnesota Twins.
“The pitching coach said, 'Boy, you got great breaking stuff, but you ain’t got no heat,'” Knuth recalled. “So years later, that became the name of my golf clubs — High Heat. Because that’s what I didn’t have.”
Gary Van Sickle: So you were planning on being the next Warren Spahn?
Dean Knuth (laughing): That was my dream. I was a lefty, yes, but the problem was, I didn’t have the speed. My dad owned a trucking business. He had 12 tractor trailers and got started by buying dairy cows at auction and shipping them to Alabama. He went to nearly every baseball game I pitched, from Little League to high school, but talk about a tough critic. I pitched a one-hit shutout against a really good team in a big game in Eau Claire (Wisconsin). After the game, I asked, “How’d you like that, Dad?” He said, “You dummy, why’d you give up that one hit?”
VS: Nice. I think I know where your motivation came from.
Knuth: Academically, I thought I was average until I took the SAT test early and had a perfect 800 math score.
VS: How did you decide on the Naval Academy?
Knuth: I went to the University of Wisconsin for one year and pitched. I came home at Christmas and saw a cousin who had gone to the Air Force Academy. I loved his uniform. So I wrote my congressman, Alvin O’Konski, to see if I could get in. His chief of staff called me back and said, “You’re too smart not to get into a service academy, but the Air Force positions are filled. I’ve got a spot for the Naval Academy, though. So I took it even though, growing up in Eau Claire, I’d never seen the ocean.
VS: How was Annapolis?
Knuth: I pitched for a year on the baseball team and became friends with another lefty freshman pitcher, Chuck Yash, who went on to become president of TaylorMade and Callaway. The Academy was life-changing. I was in the Class of 1970.
VS: So you graduated and went off to sea?
Knuth: My first assignment from the Navy was aboard the USS Agerholm, an old World War II destroyer that had been modified. I was the main propulsion assistant.
As an ensign, I qualified to be Officer of the Deck, which I was proud of. I did five patrols in the Pacific, two on the Agerholm and three on the USS Bronstein, where I was the operations officer.
We shot so many shells into Vietnam that it damaged my ears. I’m half-deaf now because the ear protectors we had were terrible. On the Bronstein, it more about searching for submarines. We had deep-towed arrays we dropped into sound channels, they could go down past 1,500 feet, and try to hear Soviet subs.
VS: Did you hear some?
Knuth: We did. I got a classified award from SecNav (the Secretary of the Navy). I’d been sent to Naval Postgraduate school for two and a half years in Monterey, Calif., and got a master’s degree in engineering systems technology. I was trained to find Soviet subs, that’s what the Navy cared about.
VS: So is that why your original High Heat drivers were made from Russian titanium? I smell collusion.
Knuth (laughing): Well, I discovered a secret way to track Soviet submarines acoustically. It was a game-changer for a number of years and helped us figure out their tactics. One thing they’d do was loiter around shipwrecks so sonar couldn’t find them. They also used a rubber-like coating over the sub’s hull so active sonar wouldn’t bounce off it.
My wife and I visited St. Petersburg, Russia, last May. Our driver drove us past the former Soviet submarine headquarters on the Neva River. That was pretty amazing. I said, “Hey, those are the guys we were after.”
My medal eventually became unclassified. I left active duty after 11 years, then stayed in the Naval Reserves for 16 years while I worked at the USGA. I retired as a Captain in the Naval Reserves. I became a Commodore and was awarded the Legion of Merit, the highest medal a reservist can be awarded in peacetime. It’s a really cool looking cross you can wear around your neck.
VS: You gave up all those fun and games for golf?
Knuth: I’d been gone on deployment for 1,000 days in four years. I was a Lt. Commander and was offered the position of Executive Officer aboard a ship that was about to deploy for another seven months. I had little kids and a wife, so I declined the position.
The USGA heard I was leaving active duty and offered to create a Director of Handicapping position for me. At postgraduate school, I’d done my research project on golf handicapping for the Northern California Golf Association and developed what later became the USGA course rating system. I ran the Handicapping Department and the Golf Handicap and Information Network (GHIN) for 16 years.
VS: Then you get the sudden urge to design golf clubs?
Knuth: When I left the USGA in 1997, I had an idea how to make clubs work better for amateurs. We moved back to San Diego, but got divorced — my wife reunited with a high-school sweetheart. I got a job running an international research institute in San Diego and, later, added another office in Austin. It was great experience. Then I met Suzanne, my wife of the last 20 years. She was an avid golfer and I told her my idea about making clubs. I drew my concept on the back of a napkin at a San Diego restaurant. She encouraged me to pursue it and said, “You need to share this with golfers.”
VS: So the original High Heat driver was born. It was hot.
Knuth: It was hot. The head was only 420cc when most top drivers were 460. I formed the driver’s face in a die under extremely high pressure and heat. The head was deep, it had a low center of gravity. I made 400 of them, had no advertising budget and eventually sold all 400. It was a proof-of-concept thing. I declared victory.
VS: You could’ve quit when you were ahead.
Knuth: I know. A few years later, Steve Trattner said, “Let’s go into business, produce those drivers and do it right.” Steve was an outside attorney for the USGA’s intellectual properties office. He’s incredible, I don’t think he ever lost a case.
So that’s where we are. We want to be profitable, of course, but we want to make better clubs for amateurs. That’s our mantra. Now we have titanium-face drivers, 3- through 7-woods and 3- through 7-hybrids.
VS: So High Heat is doing OK?
Knuth:We’ve sold thousands of clubs, but Steve always wants to sell more. It costs a lot of money to start a golf company.
VS: You must feel good that you’ve got clubs you can be proud of producing.
Knuth: We really do. Our favorite part is getting emails and notes from golfers saying how much our clubs improved their games. That’s our “mission accomplished” moment — helping amateurs play better.
VS: Maybe it was best that baseball didn’t pan out. How’s your fastball these days?
Knuth: Slower than ever.
Gary Van Sickle has covered golf since 1980 for Sports Illustrated and Golf.com, Golf World and The Milwaukee Journal.