(Bloomberg) -- In a four-room machine shop on a gravel road in Tuscaloosa, Alabama, U.S. Open history gathers dust in the bottom drawer of a metal filing cabinet.
There sits the black steel putter head from Jerry Pate's 1976 victory
at Atlanta Athletic Club
, mixed in with photographs and thank-you letters from some of the world's best players.
The workshop, started by mail carrier Truett P. Mills in the early 1960s, has turned out clubs used to win more than 40 events around the world. Yet the firm still adheres to one of T.P.'s guiding precepts. It won’t give away clubs to gain exposure, not even to Phil Mickelson, currently ranked second in the world, says
David Mills, the late founder’s 47-year-old son.
"My father always felt it was the principle of it,'' Mills says.
In addition to Pate, Hale Irwin
and Ken Venturi
used T.P. Mills putters to win the U.S. Open. Bernhard Langer
won the 1985 Masters Tournament with one.
"As Golfers say Mills clubs have a softer feel and give them more control over their putts.small as we are, we hang in there pretty good with the big guys,'' Mills says.
“There’s just a little more love put into them,” says Tommy Armour III, who used a Mills putter to win the Texas Open breaking the PGA Tour all-time scoring record. Armour's winning 254 total
, during which he made 58 of 60 putts inside 10 feet and rolled in a 45-footer to close his third round, is the lowest 72-hole score in U.S. PGA Tour history.
The company sells about 1,500 putters a year, Mills says, what many bigger companies can sell in a month. Customers have to wait about two months to get one. That's short compared with the 12-month wait once required for a club made by his father, who died in 2006 at age 86.
`Those Are Jewels'
The firm relies on the reputation built since T.P., an amateur golfer, decided he could make a better putter and started tinkering with blocks of steel in his spare time.
Today, David doesn't use putter molds or use computer-steered machines to shape them. Just like his father, David Mills grinds them by hand on decades-old equipment.
"Those are jewels,'' said two-time Masters winner Ben Crenshaw
, who paid $500 for one. "The sad thing is people like David are dying out in this business because of mass production. I root for guys like him.''
Torrey Pines History
Mills putters have had a strong history at Torrey Pines Golf Course
, site of many famous tour events.
Peter Jacobsen used one to win the 1995 Buick Invitational there. Mickelson won the same tournament five years later using a left-handed putter David Mills made for himself, holding off world No. 1 Tiger Woods in the final round.
Mickelson also won the BellSouth Classic and Colonial Invitational that year using the putter he bought for $800.
"You won't see me running around chasing down a player and trying to get a putter in his hand,'' Mills said. "That's not my style.''
David Toms, who won the FedEx St. Jude Championship with a T.P. Mills putter, has put it back in his bag this week for the U.S. Open.
Mills says most of the big companies are using principles from his father's designs, including the Cameron models. Cameron declined to be interviewed, company spokesman Joe Gomes
said in an e-mail.
In Mills's shop, a putter for Matt Kuchar awaits customization, along with pieces for Bo Van Pelt and Jay Haas and many others. A dust-covered thank-you letter from swing guru David Leadbetter is tacked to a peg board, next to a piece of paper bearing the address of 2004 British Open champion Todd Hamilton. Mills's father is seen in photos with U.S. presidents and Japanese prime ministers.
It takes that kind of power to get a Mills putter gratis: Among the few recipients were former U.S. Presidents Richard Nixon
, Gerald Ford
, Dwight Eisenhower
, Ronald Reagan
and George H.W. Bush. Dad was a Republican, his son explains.
David's attention to detail is well-known. "I'm kind of finicky,'' he said. "If I don't do it myself, I feel that it won't be done exactly the way it needs to be done.''