Tucked away in a nondescript strip shopping center, wedged between a Mexican restaurant and a Vietnamese pool hall, toils a man with the hands of a surgeon, the wisdom of Solomon and a heart of pure gold.
John Gamble works on golf clubs for a living, but his accomplishments rank far above replacing a worn grip or installing a new shaft. He soothes bruised egos, dispenses inexpensive advice and, most of all, he gives hope to the hopelessly lost.
And he does this for everyone from rank beginners to accomplished tour professionals with the same enthusiasm and loving care.
Gamble owns and operates Carolina Golf Manufacturing in Charlotte, N.C., and has for nearly 35 years. He does golf club repair and sells new and used equipment while welcoming a daily parade of golfers of all stripes.
Local golf legend Norman Swenson bought a club repair shop in 1982 and turned things over to a 23-year-old with little experience.
“Norman said, ‘Here’s the key,’” Gamble said. ‘If you decide to do something else, bring back the key.’”
Gamble has had the key ever since. Swenson died several years ago and Gamble has long since owned the place.
Gamble was not long out of college when he took over the shop and had spent a short time selling insurance before landing in this unique opportunity. He taught himself club repair using the methods of industry legends Ralph Maltby and Irv Schloss.
“It was a great way to learn,” Gamble said. “I had to do it right or I’d go out of business. I didn’t have the luxury of having someone teach me. That makes you accountable from the start. If you treat it like you’re working on your own clubs, you put more effort into it.”
Over the years, Gamble has learned a great deal about elements of his business other than the mechanical. He has a high degree of experience in knowing the kind of customer who comes through the door. He works with players with varying degrees of skill or lack thereof and everything in between.
“I’ve never found it tough to work with skilled players,” Gamble said. “Most of them understand the game more. They have a particular demand. Some skilled players are very meticulous and know what they want. They are qualitative and mechanically oriented. Some guys, like [PGA Tour player] Harold Varner III, are subjective. He just cares what it feels like. You have to determine which you’re dealing with.
“With a beginner, after you speak with them, you can guide them into clubs they can hit solidly and get it going in the right direction. You can convey to them what makes a club easier to hit and is more forgiving. Their swings haven’t evolved yet.”
Then, there are the best players in the world. Gamble worked with some of them right away. When the old PaineWebber Invitational, a PGA Tour Champions event played at Quail Hollow Club in the early 1980s, was in town, some of the players came by Gamble’s shop.
“Bob Goalby came in here one time with a wooden club,” Gamble recalled. “He wanted the neck to look a certain way. I was so nervous. There are guys who are extremely particular. But when you gain their trust, it makes it easier.”
Other golf legends like Mike Souchak, Dow Finsterwald, Dave Hill, Harold Henning and Peter Oosterhuis have counted on Gamble’s skill and expertise. Today, a number of PGA Tour players live in Charlotte and almost all of them come to Gamble when they’re not on Tour. Varner – from nearby Gastonia – has been a regular for years. Johnson Wagner, Kyle Reifers, Jason Kokrak, Brendon de Jonge and Seamus Power all trust Gamble with their clubs.
When asked how the tour players had heard of Gamble, he said, “I have no idea.” In fact, Gamble does no advertising, depending strictly on reputation spread by word of mouth. It’s an old-school way to do business in a new age marketing world. But the method works for Gamble.
He is, however, well-schooled on every new technology that comes down the pike. In his estimation, the biggest advance of the last 30 years is the driver clubhead.
“It’s so much easier to hit than ever,” he said. “I hit the ball farther now than I ever have. Yes, the ball goes farther but it’s been engineered to use with the modern driver. You find a shaft that’s comfortable for you and all the top line drivers are good.”
But that doesn’t prevent many of his customers from believing that the next great driver or set of irons or exotic shaft or putter will put them over the edge as a player.
“It’s still a game of skill,” he said. “That will trump everything else. You can’t pay for the skill. It can’t be bought.”
Location: 2917 Central Avenue, Charlotte, NC
Mike Purkey has written about golf for more than 30 years for a number of publications, including Golf Magazine and Global Golf Post. He lives in Charlotte, N.C.