Mike Nicolette competing in the 2011 U.S. Senior Open. Photo courtesy of the United States Golf Association.

Nicolette crafting career in golf club design
By Mike Dudurich • May 28, 2024

The game of golf has been very, very good to Mike Nicolette.

Just ask him, he’ll be happy to tell you.

Growing up close to the epicenter of Arnold Palmer’s world – Latrobe, Pa. – Nicolette was influenced by what Palmer was accomplishing in the world of golf, even though he didn’t meet him until he was a mid-teenager.

He did have a couple significant meetings with the ‘King,’ however. Nicolette was in the field of the 1983 Bay Hill Classic and pulled off a major victory by defeating one of the game’s best players of the time, Greg Norman, on the first playoff hole at Bay Hill Country Club.

Norman bogeyed the extra hole, Nicolette made par and before he knew it, he was accepting a trophy and a check for $63,000. That was his first and last PGA Tour victory in a career that spanned a dozen years and was the springboard for a highly successful post-playing-days life.

"Every Tour player dreams of winning a major championship,” said Nicolette. “For me, the next-best event to win would have been Arnold's. To have my first win on the PGA Tour be that event… well, that was most certainly a dream come true.

“And then to win a playoff with arguably the best player in the world at the time, Greg Norman, I could have never imagined.”

Three months after the thrilling victory in Orlando, Nicolette qualified to play in the U.S. Open at Oakmont Country Club near Pittsburgh, and not all that far from his hometown of Mt. Pleasant.

Upon registering for the event at OCC, Nicolette received a wonderful surprise when he was handed a copy of the pairings for the first two rounds. Call it fate, call it a good call by the USGA, but there it was: Arnold Palmer and Mike Nicolette would play 36 holes in our nation’s championship.

"I couldn't believe it when I saw the pairings and saw that I was playing with him," Nicolette said. "They usually paired him with other greats, but it was a thrill and honor to play with him."

Nicolette posted his best-ever finish in an Open that week, a tie for 13th.

He was the first-round co-leader in the 1988 U.S. Open, but couldn't sustain that level of play and faded over the last three days.

Nicolette won at every level as he grew, starting with winning the Pennsylvania Junior Championship in 1973. His biggest tournament victory, until Bay Hill, took place when he was a student at Rollins College. He won the 1976 NCAA Division II Men’s Championship and turned pro two years later.

He won several mini-tour events and, when his time on the PGA Tour came to an end, he had amassed nine top-10 finishes.

Once his playing days were over, Nicolette faced the question all of us do once we reach a certain age.

"I wasn't sure exactly what I was going to do after I was done playing," he said. "I was thinking maybe a sales rep or something. I contacted PING, Foot Joy and Titleist but didn't have a great deal of success. I did get a call back from PING and they told me I would need to work in their factory for two years to learn everything about club making and the culture of the company."

Nicolette accepted the job and found himself working under Alan Solheim, son of PING founder Karsten Solheim. He learned about club fitting, production, grinding, all things that would enable him to speak intelligently when making calls on prospective clients.

The younger Solheim eventually moved Nicolette into a position of running their pro athlete program, in which the company would search out and court the top-name players in every sport and sell them clubs at a reduced price.

The elder Solheim walked by Nicolette's desk on his way to PING’s plant almost every day, leading to conversations about golf clubs between the two. Nicolette accepted Solheim's invitation to join him on his walks to the plant and they soon became friends. Until, that is, they got into a discussion about how clubs look and perform. They didn't see eye-to-eye on the subject and Solheim fired him on the spot.

Later, as Nicolette was in the process of cleaning out his desk, he got a phone call from the boss man, who admitted to making a mistake, telling Nicolette it was reasonable for two intelligent men to disagree. And Solheim also said there wasn't any reason why he couldn't continue to work there.

"He invited me to lunch that day and that started something," he said. "We had lunch together several times a week for the next 15 years."

Nicolette was a senior product designer for PING and has his name on many patents for club designs and improvements during his time there.

A casual round of golf with a PING colleague that led to a job change for Nicolette. The two crossed paths with a wealthy businessman, Bob Parsons, who was a friend of Nicolette’s playing partner.

"We became friends. He's a very funny guy and we get along very well," Nicolette said. "And then he said he was thinking about starting a golf equipment company and wanted to know if I'd be interested."

Nicolette said his initial answer to that question was, while it was somewhat intriguing, there were lots of significant questions that would have to be asked and answered before he'd be signing on any dotted line. Those questions were asked and answered to everyone’s satisfaction and Nicolette was hired as a Founding PXG employee, the Senior Director of Iron Development.

Combine that with his 23 years at PING as senior product designer and PXG has one of the best designer/researcher/inventors in the business under its roof in Scottsdale, Arizona.

Beyond the excitement of the new job (he’s been at PXG 11 years) which is based on ground-breaking principles, and the wildly popular equipment it produces, Nicolette brings his own personal excitement to his job.

“Obviously, I have a passion for the game of golf,” he said. “I’ve had a passion for the game since I was about 14 when I started to play tournament golf, and I love the challenge the game brings. I love the challenge of trying to get better each and every day.

“My golf game has always been important to me – whether it’s trying to hit it straighter, more consistently, a little further, or chip and putt better, there are so many different aspects to the game to work on and get better at.

“That’s really what keeps me involved at my age; I love the challenge of trying to shoot as low as I possibly can, and I think every golfer wants to improve. With golf club design, I take the mindset that all golfers want to get better, so I really take my job seriously trying to make the absolute best golf equipment that money can buy.

“It’s important because I really care. With anything in life, if you don’t care, why the heck are you doing it?”

About the WPGA
Founded in 1899, the Western Pennsylvania Golf Association is the steward of amateur golf in the region. Started by five Member Clubs, the association now has nearly 200 Member Clubs and 34,000 members. The WPGA conducts 14 individual competitions and 10 team events, and administers the WPGA Scholarship Fund and Western Pennsylvania Golf Hall of Fame.