Kia Ma, TaylorMade's lead director of putter design and innovation, started working in the golf industry in 1981, a year after arriving in the United States as a refugee from Vietnam. Thirty three years later, he's still working a job he loves. We caught up with Ma just ahead of the Ryder Cup, where pros such as Sergio Garcia and Justin Rose are using his designs, so he could share his insights on how the flat stick has changed over three decades and how to find the right putter for your game.
Since you began constructing putters, how has the technology that goes into the clubs changed?
The technology has changed so much. At our company right now, we all use inserts. And that's pretty much at all companies today. The inserts have really improved the feel and the roll. The ball doesn't skip or bounce with the inserts, it gets on the ground and starts rolling sooner.
What technological advancement has most moved putters forward?
Again, it's really the inserts that have advanced putters the most. They give the ball a steady, reliable roll. End-over-end, and not skipping or spinning. The inserts I'm referring to are those with the grooves, like our Pure Roll insert. I really love the inserts, they make the putter to me.
Counterbalance is another technology that's out there. In the old days, people didn't like weight in the butt-end of the putter, but then the putter head weighed 320 grams max. And now today, it's 360 or 365 grams. With counterbalance, we've pushed that up to 395 grams. So you need more weight on the butt-end. Counterbalanced styles have been around for awhile, but people weren't really excited about them. At TaylorMade, we've done great with counterbalanced putters because we also have very high MOI (moment of inertia) heads — which means the heads are very stable — they don't twist or turn, or open or close when you swing them. When you combine that with the counterbalance, it gives you a very stable, and very consistent, putter.
Of all the putters you have created, what has been the most important?
Every putter is important to me. When I get to make a one-of-a-kind putter for some of the best players in the world, that's very exciting for me. It's even more exciting when I see them win with it. It was so great to see Sergio really start putting well over the last few seasons — I've got so many calls from my friends like “Kia, what did you give him? And how can I get it?” I tell them, 'That's a one-of-a-kind.'
What should a golfer's first steps be in choosing a new putter?
People buy putters from watching guys on tour. They like a Justin Rose or a Jason Day, so they look at the putter they're playing and they say “Oh, I'm going to go buy that, too.” That's fine, but the best way is to go be fit. Go to a retail specialist or a golf course and have their professional staff help you. Test the putters for yourself and see which model works for you. TaylorMade also has Performance Labs all over the country if people really want to get dialed in on what putter is best for them.
How much golf do you get to play?
Oh, I play golf every week. Most weeks twice. I try to play as much as I can. It's important for me to experience the feel and performance of the equipment we make — especially putters. My handicap jumps around a bit. I can go anywhere from an 8 to a 12.
Which putter do you play?
I play them all. I have a different putter every month, but right now it's the Spider Mallet with a little bit of customization.