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Now It’s the 9-Iron Curtain; Russian Rocket Builders Convert Factory to Build Golf Ball Delivery System

July 28th, 1994 No comments

Paul Abercrombie
Special to The Washington Post

A once top-secret military factory here that built the Soviet Union’s fearsome Kh-31 air-to-surface and Kh-35 naval cruise missiles now produces a more civilized missile delivery system: golf club heads.

It’s not that Russians are crazy for golf. There are only two courses in all of Russia. At one, Tumba Golf Club, some fairways actually intersect; the other, Moscow Country Club, lacks a clubhouse.

Rather, it has to do with economic survival in a post-Cold War world.

The factory, Strela, stands out as an example of defense conversion success, though by Western standards it seems curiously low-tech, with its clunky old machinery and dim lighting.

Indeed, Kaliningrad, roughly an hour’s drive from Moscow, seems frozen in time. A gigantic, dour statue of Lenin still looms in the city’s square. The city was the cradle of the Soviet aerospace program, where scientists and technicians worked secretly with almost limitless budgets. But with the end of the Cold War came the cold reality of capitalism: Make something people want or go out of business.

And some in the West may want these club heads. The quality is “great – I’m really surprised,” said Russell Jossey, senior vice president of Ryobi-Toski, a Newark, Ohio-based club maker that is considering buying the club heads. “They have come a long way.”

Three years ago, before privatization of former Soviet defense industries became widespread, a handful of scientists at Strela saw the omens and decided to form their own company, Metal Park Ltd. With few civilian applications in Russia for their speciality, aerospace titanium technology, they looked to exporting.

The idea of golf club heads came from the newly created Russian Golf Association. “Before that, we’d never even heard of golf,” said Victor Bannikov, 45, the company’s president and chief engineer.

Russian aerospace technology and golf club heads clicked. Titanium happens to be among the trendiest and most expensive new materials in golf club construction.

“The market is always looking for something new,” said 24-year-old Frank Shaw, who became a golf pro at Moscow Country Club last September after answering an ad in a U.S. golf magazine. “From a design standpoint, you can do more things” with titanium, he said.

And with Russia’s vast titanium reserves and low labor costs, each club head only costs around $30 to produce – roughly half what it costs in the United States. Plus, Metal Park’s club heads are 95 percent titanium, purer than most, said Shaw, who is soon to become the sole U.S. partner in Metal Park.

Because its scientists are experienced in working with titanium, Metal Park may even have a technological edge.

“For ordinary golf manufacturers, it’s practically impossible for them to make club heads like we do,” said the company’s vice president, Valdimar Maksimov, 35, who holds a doctorate in computer linguistics. “We use the equipment and technology for making missiles.”

Golf club heads may not be as complex as supersonic missiles, but even rocket scientists needed some help getting into the swing of things. Last year, chief constructor Vladimir Khlopkov, 50, flew to England for a week-long class at Golfsmith, a golf club-making school. “This is the diploma of the first Russian club maker,” Khlopkov said, holding up his framed certificate from Golfsmith.

Even with such a radical shift in the product line, few big changes were needed at first. For instance, the same molds used to forge the gill-like titanium fins of a Soviet MiG-29 fighter jet’s engines are used for the initial steps of making irons.

A lack of money has forced Metal Park to do with old-fashioned paper and pencil what most club head designers use computers to figure. But with a loan – since repaid – from a Russian commercial bank, Metal Park was able to pay for the retooling.

Profits from the first big sale – 20,000 club heads to Korea – have been plowed back into the company, and it is now debt-free, said Maksimov. With 30 employees, Metal Park can produce as many as 3,000 irons and 2,000 drivers per month.

Those employees may have mastered the nuts and bolts of club making, but there is a more nebulous – and perhaps equally important – skill in which they are not so well versed: selling.

That’s where Shaw comes in. Jetting around the globe, meeting with prospective clients and investors such as Titleist and Ryobi-Toski, he is Metal Park’s link with the golfing world. Just last month he presented former vice president Dan Quayle with a prototype putter in Indiana. (The shaft turned out to be too short for Quayle and is being retooled in Russia.)

While Shaw is out evangelizing about Metal Park’s clubs, the scientists are checking out the newest batch. They don’t play golf, and they don’t use fancy robots that endlessly swing at balls. Instead, they simply hand over the new clubs to the Russian National Golf Team.

“I have no time for health or playing golf,” Maksimov said with a laugh.

PHOTO,,John Strait For Twp; INFO-GRAPHIC,,Twp Caption: THE CLUB’S CLIMB 1700s: Earliest golf club heads are made of fruitwoods, including apple and pear. 1880s-1900: Shape of driver head changes from an elongated style to a more compact head. The compact heads remain popular through the turn of the century. 1890s: Golf club manufacturers begin inserting materials such as brass into the face of wooden drivers to help prevent damage. These inserts also tend to improve the club’s performance. 1920s-1930s: Manufacturers use mother of pearl, ivory and other decorative materials as inserts. This is purely for aesthetics. 1940s: One of the earliest non-wood driver heads is made of Textolite, a resin developed by General Electric Co. 1980s: Non-tradition- al materials such as graphite and ceramics become popular. 1990s: Plant in Russia makes titanium golf club heads, at a far lower cost than they can be made in the United States. SOURCE: Gary Wiren, Golf Around the World Inc. Caption: Vlacimir Khlopkov, who has a diploma in making golf clubs, works at the factory.

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