Jack Nicklaus is entering the golf ball industry. Chalk that up as a headline I didn’t expect to see.
Before we get into the apparent hypocrisy of Nicklaus getting into the business he has so long derided for its overemphasis on distance technology, let’s first look at the line he produced and assess what type of golfers they might appeal to.
The main thing to know about the Nicklaus line of balls is that they are rooted in simplicity. The balls, which are produced by Bridgestone, will come in three different variations: “White,” “Blue” and “Black” that are meant to correspond with the color tee box that you would typically play, white for front tees, blue for middle, and black for the tips. The central philosophy behind the Nicklaus color-coding system is that most people don’t know what type of ball they should be playing and while they may be confused by the myriad of choices in the pro shop, everyone knows what tees they typically play so this system will make their decision that much easier.
As Nicklaus’ business partner, Howard Milstein, the current Chairman and CEO of New York Private Bank and Trust, puts it:
“The beauty of these balls is they solve the golfers’ dilemma of which ball to play — all you need to know is the tee you play from — and no matter what your skill level, you know we’ve designed the highest-quality golf ball best suited to your game.”
Besides the line’s simplistic style, the other main feature you should know about Nicklaus’ latest venture is its connection with charitable giving. There will be two ways to purchase the new Nicklaus line of balls and both will result in a portion of the profits being donated to the Nicklaus Children’s Health Care Foundation. The balls can be purchased at the pro shop for one of the more than 200 Nicklaus designed courses in the United States, where the “Black” version will retail for $50 per dozen, while the “Blue” and “White” versions will sell for $46 per dozen with a portion of those proceeds going to the charity.
The other way you can buy the balls is by visiting Nicklaus.com where they have set up an intriguing new way of promoting charitable donations. On the website, a dozen of the “Black” version will be offered for $30 and the “Blue” and “White” will sell for $26, however when you purchase any version of the ball there will be the option to make a voluntarily donation to the charity of up to $20 per dozen.
This is what the order screen will look like on Nicklaus.com:
Now that the details are out of the way, let’s take a closer look at how the market might shape up for these balls and what type of consumer might purchase them.
First of all, I don’t see the Nicklaus line making any sort of noticeable dent in the current marketplace that is dominated by the likes of Titleist, Callaway, Srixon, Bridgestone, Nike etc. Rather, the line’s simplistic nature leads me to believe that they will end up being more of a novelty item that will be purchased because you’re either a big fan of the Golden Bear, you happen to be playing one of his courses and you’ve run out of balls/want a souvenir from the trip, or maybe you just feel like donating to charity will help offset the sting of donating another ball to the woods on the left-side of No. 8. Whatever the rationale may be, I certainly can see a marketplace for this line albeit a pretty small one.
While I laud Nicklaus and his team for coming up with a way to creative way to both simplify the game and give back to his foundation in the process, I do have several critiques about this line as well.
As I mentioned at the beginning of this article, there is the obvious elephant in the room about how Nicklaus has taken such a staunch stance against advancements in golf ball technology, and yet here he is slapping his brand on a ball that claims to use the same “cutting-edge technology” that he has incessantly rallied against. Clearly, I wasn’t the only one befuddled by this issue as Nicklaus himself recently responded to the immediate claims of hypocrisy in Golf Digest:
“For years, I have been very vocal about the golf ball. What people don’t understand is that my philosophy has always been to maximize the impact the ball can have on playability and enjoyment for the majority of golfers. My biggest concern has been golf at the highest level, and the need to put some limiting specs on the ball used by Tour players — who make up only .08 percent of those who play the game — because golf courses are often negatively impacted by the need to lengthen courses to accommodate their length. But for the majority of golfers, I want the ball to go as far as it possibly can, and even more important, with consistency.”
Reading between the lines here it appears to me that Nicklaus is advocating a stance of bi-furcation, a term we’ve previously come across during the anchored putter debate. For those who aren’t familiar with the word, “bi-furcation” literally means the process of splitting something into two parts or two branches and in this case it refers to the notion that there should be two sets of rules, one for the pros and one for amateurs. The problem I have with Nicklaus’ stance here has nothing to do with the idea of “bi-furcation” itself, in fact I think it’s a good idea, rather it’s that it seems to be at odds with his previous statements on the issue when he wasn’t yet in the business of selling distance-maximizing golf balls.
Here is an excerpt from the March 2007 edition of Golf Digest entitled “I’ve been thinking…” where Nicklaus speaks at length about the issue of golf ball technology and its affect on the modern game:
“Although my main problem with the modern golf ball is what it’s doing to the game at the highest level of competition, I still don’t believe in instituting two sets of equipment rules: one for the elite player, and another for everyone else. From a practical perspective, such a structure would be very difficult to administrate. Perhaps more important, the notion that the rules are the same no matter what the skill level is as old as golf. It might be an illusion — the difference between the equipment pros use and what’s best for amateurs is increasing all the time — but it would be dangerous to tinker with such a fundamental tradition.”
Here is where my confusion lies. In the first quote, where Nicklaus is promoting his new line of balls, he specifically says, “for the MAJORITY of golfers, I want the ball to go as far as it possible can.” Which I believe we can take to mean that he thinks the non-majority, the “.08 percent” of golfers that are tour players, should not be afforded the same luxury of using a ball that utilizes the same distance-enhancing technology. However, when he was asked the same question seven years ago, when he wasn’t in the business of selling these balls, he very clearly states that he doesn’t believe in two distinct sets of rules, he doesn’t believe in bi-furcation and even goes as far to say that it would be “DANGEROUS to tinker with such a fundamental tradition.”
Listen, maybe I am nitpicking here, maybe it’s not that big of a deal and maybe Nicklaus, whom I have the utmost respect for as a legend of the game, simply changed his mind. But the incongruity is so obvious and so spelled out even in his own words that I would be remiss to leave it out. I would love to see someone like Jim Nantz or Dan Hicks ask him to clarify these statements so we could gain some insight on his perspective.
At the end of the day I wish that Nicklaus had stayed true to his convictions if he felt so strongly about them. I would have loved to see him come out with a ball that didn’t advertise it’s “cutting-edge technology” and instead marketed itself as the ball “Jack wants you to play.” I wish he had flipped the script on the whole golf ball industry and actually introduced a “new” ball that adhered to his calls for a rollback. Sure it would be a nearly impossible sell to the average golfer:
“Here buy these! You’ll hit them 20 yards shorter! Your banana slices will now go 40 yards to right instead of 15!”
But at least they would be intriguing, at least they would continue the conversation that he started, heck it could even be marketed in conjunction with the other cause that Nicklaus staunchly supports, the “Tee It Forward” campaign.
In my perfect world the Nicklaus line would be one ball not three, it wouldn’t have that big, bulky Golden Bear brand stamped on the front of it, instead it would simply say “Nicklaus” in cursive (much like the old Nicklaus or Hogan ball), it would be scaled back to Jack’s desired specifications and it would thus force you to “Tee It Forward” and play from the front tees. It would symbolize all the Jack stands for in the game of golf, it could still have the charitable component, but most importantly it would be unique. Instead we are left with more of the same, another dimple-faced rocket lost amid an already overflowing armory of them.
Nicklaus is a much smarter businessman than I and he’s forgotten more about the game of golf than I’ll ever learn. Maybe his new line will be a rousing success (and for the charity’s sake I hope it is), but I can’t help but feel that so much more could have been done.