Clay Long’s claim to fame is designing the odd-looking putter used by Jack Nicklaus in the 1986 Masters, an historic win for the all-time great and a major mark in Long’s career as a golf club designer.
A Meridian native and Meridian High School alumnus, Long lives in California and works as consultant designing putters and wedges for Honma and Airforce Golf after several decades designing golf clubs for major companies.
“I call myself semi-retired, but I’m really semi-working,” Long explained.
The MacGregor Response ZT 615 putter used by Nicklaus in 1986 is his most famous club, known for its unusual size, but Long has designed countless clubs in his time, including a wedge used by last week’s U.S. Open champion Gary Woodland on 17 that was designed by Long during his days working at TaylorMade Golf. It’s been a rewarding career for Long, one that began when he was a child playing golf at Northwood Country Club.
Long was a student of former Northwood pro Bill Davis and looked up to players like Chuck Ray, Mike Taylor, Bobby Parker and Jimmy Gamblin, who all played golf in college.
“Kids my age were growing up and watching them play and be successful,” Long recalled. “It kind of became the thing to do, especially if you weren’t a football or basketball player. Golf was the perfect game for me because I was light and slow.”
In addition to learning how to play the sport from Davis, Long would often watch Davis do something else that piqued his interest when he wasn’t on the course at Northwood.
“Mr. Davis was an old-time pro who knew how to repair and fix clubs,” Long said. “I used to sit at the back of the pro shop and watch him. That’s how I learned to take apart golf clubs.”
Though he didn’t know it at the time, it was a hobby that would one day turn into a career. After playing for Ole Miss in college and studying mechanical engineering, Long took a job out of college at International Paper in Natchez. One day, he was contacted by a headhunter about a potential job in the golfing business, but Long turned it down, saying he wasn’t interested unless it was a job either repairing or making clubs.
That headhunter would later contact Long while he was playing in Northwood’s Fourth of July tournament and asked him if he would be interested working as a manufacturing engineer at MacGregor Golf Company in Georgia. He took the job in 1980 and later got promoted to the product development in 1983, a year after Nicklaus bought the company. Long stayed there until 1992, and during that time, Nicklaus used the famous putter designed by Long.
“It became sort of an iconic product in golf because of his iconic win that day,” Long said. “People still ask about it.”
In fact, the Golf Channel did a TV special on Nicklaus a couple of years ago and interviewed Long about the putter, which was “functional, but different,” Long said, referring to its large size.
“Back then, the company went from not selling any putters to selling more putters than we could make,” Long said.
Nicklaus sold 80 percent of his stake in MacGregor in 1986 and sold the remaining 20 percent in 1992, which was the same year Long left the company and began working as a contract designer. He then picked up a position with Arnold Palmer in Chattanooga, Tennessee, as an outside consultant and worked for them for five years. Following that, he moved to California in 1997 to work for Cobra Golf Company as vice president of research and development. He’s lived in California ever since, working not just for Cobra, but also Titleist, Nicklaus Company and, most recently, TaylorMade, from where he retired almost two years ago.
When he’s not designing putters and wedges as a consultant, Long can be found in Meridian four or five times a year. Usually, it’s to visit his mother, who still lives in town, but he’s also a regular at Northwood’s Fourth of July tournament — though this year it’s more likely he’ll make the Labor Day tournament, Long said.
“I always play golf at Northwood with my buddies when I’m home,” Long said. “They all play and are still pretty good.”
When he reflects on his success in the golfing world, Long said he never considered himself a small-town success story because he never thought of Meridian as a small town.
“I don’t think I thought of Meridian that way until I moved out here to the San Diego area,” Long said. “Meridian is not as big as it used to be when I was in high school. It feels like a small town now, but it’s a great place to be. It always feels like home. The scenery and trees and terrain is beautiful.”