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Inside the world of counterfeit golf clubs

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This story was selected as one of the 15 best GolfWRX stories of 2015!

Allow me a bit of forecasting, for those of you planning to buy clubs in the upcoming years. Start saving your money.

The TaylorMade scenario of pushing the market with constant product reached the predictable overload, with the company’s drop in sales giving way to margin-driven efforts. This means higher prices by the major manufacturers, and retailers being held to honoring suggested retail prices. Translation: More out of your pocket when it’s club-buying time.

Some of the lesser-selling brands can view this as an opportunity by striking lower price points. This is nothing new, and past efforts have not been enormously successful. Think of it as “We’re just as good and we cost less.” And the truth is they are just as good, but by selling for a lower price they send a message that they have to because they don’t perform as well.

We may well see the return of counterfeits — not that they ever completely disappeared — but the rapid-release cycle made it difficult for them to compete. By the time they were available, the copied model was already on discount and the “new and better” model was out.

The subject of counterfeits takes some explaining. There are “knock-offs,” which are loosely defined as being very similar to a specific brand, but they do not have the trademark. On reasonable inspection, you can tell they are not the real thing.

Counterfeits are exactly that. They look exactly like the intended product, including the trademark. Knock-offs are legal (and there can still be litigation over brand deterioration), but counterfeits are definitely not.

For the sake of this story, I’ll use the terms interchangeably even though they are technically different. The heads come from China, and equipment manufacturers source in China. So why don’t they switch to the U.S. and protect their brand?

At Adams, I was personally involved in switching from a U.S. source to a Chinese manufacturer (Taiwan in those days). Two dynamic reasons:

  1. The price was much less
  2. The quality much better

The job is to provide your customers with the best product at the best price, so the sourcing was inevitable.

Casting, the process by which most current clubs are made, requires hand grinding and polishing, and it must be done with great accuracy to look right and match the weight specs. Hand grinding foundry cast products is essentially one of the labor functions that the U.S. market couldn’t fill, or it did so at a cost per head that was prohibitive. It’s a lousy job and I speak from experience spending a summer working in a black sand iron foundry in 1956. It’s a miracle I still have my fingers, but the $0.80-per-hour pay was tall cotton in those days.

So along with most of the rest of the golf equipment industry, we got our heads from Taiwan. While some of those sources still exist, much has moved into mainland China. Not unlike the U.S., when the electronics industry moved into Taiwan the choice for a bench job was electronic parts assembly in a relatively clean, quiet environment — or enjoying the noise of the grinders and breathing in the polluted air.

Back in my day, the process of getting good product was arduous, as samples shipped back and forth while we battled the language barrier and what looks good in a head with suppliers unfamiliar with the game. Today, the degree of sophistication is significant; you can download computer files to a tool-making machine in a hamlet in mainland China and have pristine samples back in a relatively short time frame.

For the record, most of the U.S. manufacturers assemble their custom orders while importing stock and packaged sets. Even the majority of milled putters are imported. While small operations will say, “This isn’t us,” their total market share is 1.2 percent with brand awareness comparable.

This positive importing relationship came with, for most of us, an unwanted consequence — counterfeit product. I say, “for most of us” counterfeits closely tracked market popularity. In more than one instance, the source was our own supplier. Tooling that we paid for had an “extra run” for heads that were popular.

On one of my visits, I visited a new foundry and asked to see knock-offs of a popular model from another manufacturer. After inspecting them, I asked to see counterfeits and was taken into another room for a “private showing.” While our main foundry would steadfastly deny those “extra runs,” it wasn’t difficult to find knock-offs.

Quick story about renegade operations. I had made some friends in Taiwan and they took me to a foundry that “specialized” in copies. I kid you not, the entire operation was below a restaurant! You walked down this labyrinth of winding stairs, probably three floors in all and nervously looking around all I could think of was Dante’s Inferno!

The foundry was at the very bottom, and the grinding and polishing levels were on the higher floors, with product delivered by conveyer belt. There was no air circulation, and just one entrance/exit. It was like looking through (and breathing) a world of grainy smoke. The noise was deafening and open bottles of some kind of “white lightning” were on the benches. That part I understood, you had to do “something” to work there.

Think for one millisecond that the owner/operator was terribly concerned about the ethics of copies? The place made such an impression that I can see it to this day; it made my personal foundry experience in the 50″s benign by comparison.

One evening, a Taiwanese man who I considered a friend educated me at dinner. He explained that the world of knock-offs and counterfeiting, while not something to be proud of, was ingrained in the culture. Some suppliers (like him) refused to participate, but the practice was wide spread and looked at as more of an enterprise than some heinous crime.

What he essentially told me was that it was a way of life, and the best thing to do was have our own full-time rep in Taiwan to look after our interests — but even then a very popular model would spawn copies. He very politely warned me that some of the major operators in the world of counterfeiting were not upstanding citizens and could be dangerous.

Since golf equipment today is frozen technically by the USGA, at least in the critical category of distance, it’s essentially a brand-awareness, marketing game. Frankly it’s not unlike the fashion business, as new models must be accompanied by very strong marketing. Counterfeiting in that industry is a major issue and China is one of the main sources.

If my prediction of higher prices for new clubs comes to fruition, the knock-offs won’t be far behind.

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Barney Adams is the founder of Adams Golf and the inventor of the iconic "Tight Lies" fairway wood. He served as Chairman of the Board for Adams until 2012, when the company was purchased by TaylorMade-Adidas. Adams is one of golf's most distinguished entrepreneurs, receiving honors such as Manufacturing Entrepreneur of the Year by Ernst & Young in 1999 and the 2010 Ernie Sabayrac Award for lifetime contribution to the golf industry by the PGA of America. His journey in the golf industry started as as a club fitter, however, and has the epoxy filled shirts as a testimony to his days as an assembler. Have an equipment question? Adams holds seven patents on club design and has conducted research on every club in the bag. He welcomes your equipment questions through email at barneyadams9@gmail.com Adams is now retired from the golf equipment industry, but his passion for the game endures through his writing. He is the author of "The WOW Factor," a book published in 2008 that offers an insider's view of the golf industry and business advice to entrepreneurs, and he continues to contribute articles to outlets like GolfWRX that offer his solutions to grow the game of golf.

39 Comments

39 Comments

  1. Dave

    Apr 23, 2015 at 9:47 am

    I thank God every day I am a lefty!!!

  2. Gorden

    Apr 6, 2015 at 10:59 pm

    Barney, you do not have to write new articles all the time just bring up a subject and let everyone write in thier questions in the comments section and you can answer them for all to read…..Love your articles, love your answers (and the questions you get asked) in the comments section after each article…

  3. Carl Paul

    Mar 31, 2015 at 2:56 pm

    The “big 5” foundries in China, (Dynamic, OTA, Sino, Advanced & Fu Sheng) were all unwillingly involved with counterfeiting. Not because they cast, forged or finished the counterfeit club heads but because employees would steel first article samples and sell them to the foundries who did manufacture counterfeits. The big 5 took extraordinary steps to keep new designs secret but too frequently an employee would figure a work around. At one foundry, an employee simply walked to the window with a finished head, threw it on to the roof and then retrieved it later. By the way, Dynamic closed its China facility and moved it all back to Taiwan.

  4. Rob

    Mar 28, 2015 at 9:33 pm

    Didn’t Apple find out one of its factories was selling iPads out the back door a couple of years ago?
    A friend bought a set of Ping irons last year online from Europe, he actually believed the crap about them being “cosmetic blems”. I started to tell him there is no such thing, but figured why waste the effort, he only plays a couple times a year and he feels good having them.
    I almost bought a new graphite Project X shaft on the bay for $35, until I realized the seller has a continual add for them and the wholesale price must be higher than that!

  5. Larry

    Mar 27, 2015 at 8:05 pm

    What would help the everyday golfer is if someone stepped in and inforced fair trade law and took the power to set prices away from the big OEMs. Someone who’s brother in law owned a driving range and pro shop said that an OEM walk in and took away all his stock of thier product because he had a “sale” where he priced the clubs below what the OEM said he had to sell them for…could not even sale clubs at full price and throw in a couple dozen balls, OEM hold all the sellers accountable for the selling price (even free shipping). If a $500 new driver cost $275 wholesale and a seller wants to charge $325 he cannot sell the driver….discount sourses like Walmart could buy thousands of OEM clubs and sell at prices much lower then retail but the golf industry is a protected buisness using the idea they have some kind of power to inforce price something that was outlawed years ago or so we thought.

    • Larry

      Mar 27, 2015 at 8:09 pm

      Barney could you replay to this idea, what did you do at ADAMS GOLF to keep your clubs from being sold for what ever the seller wanted to charge, as your products were always sold for same price every where also…..So Barney tells us why the prices on new golf clubs (and balls) are FIXED….

      • Barney Adams

        Mar 28, 2015 at 7:54 pm

        To be 100% clear. I did not run Adams during all of its existence only the early days. My feeling was make superior product and let retailers make their policy. That said we didn’t sell to some of the giant retailers for a variety of reasons. For example we couldn’t live up to their demands to take back unsold product, pay for sales space etc… We tried to forge relationships with retailers with an eye on the long view.

  6. Joe

    Mar 27, 2015 at 5:03 pm

    Bubba you are truly an idiot

  7. Tom Wishon

    Mar 26, 2015 at 2:49 pm

    it isn’t just China. And it isn’t just golf clubs. As any here know who work with sourcing products from outside the USA, regardless where there are large factories making products with consumer demand, there will be counterfeiting of any type of product. Those factories that are very good in their work get the business, and those who are not sometimes revert to the distasteful and illegal use of their skills and equipment to make money.

    For those who decry the movement of the clubhead and shaft production business to Asia, there is no question the Taiwan factories got their foot in the door of the clubhead production business because of a low price made possible by a low labor rate. But they kept the business and by the early 2000s, eliminated the US based head making factories to get all the business, for one reason only – they ended up being better at it in all ways.

    I began designing heads in 1986. I did head design projects with US factories and Taiwan based factories from day one. I grew to dislike the 15,000 mile round trips 2-3 times a year to Taiwan to do my work. But I also grew to dislike working with the US based factories because it was a royal pain in the rear to have to deal with separate vendors for tooling masters, for dies, for casting, and then for finishing the heads. In Taiwan, they had “one stop shopping”, so to speak, with everything done in one factory facility.

    But then around the mid 90s, the better Taiwan factories really, and I mean REALLY, got extremely good at what they do. So good that this was when all the major OEM companies began to jump ship from their US based head factories. Because they HAD to in order to get the best quality in their head production. And the good factories got the quality companies’ orders while the not very good factories reverted to what they felt they had to do to make a living. Plain and simple, I would have loved to make the clubhead development trips to LA rather than Kaohsiung. But it didn’t work out that way because their factories beat the pants off ours. Barney knows. He lived through it too.

    • Joe

      Mar 27, 2015 at 5:02 pm

      you missed the major factor. The good ole EPA drove every USA based company out of business.

      • Tom

        Dec 24, 2015 at 11:11 am

        the EPA is the right hand of federal law making policies.

  8. michael

    Mar 26, 2015 at 9:54 am

    Shame on all manufactures who do business off shore!

    I no longer support the pga show or manufactures that frequent

    and condone such practices!

    • Patricknorm

      Mar 27, 2015 at 11:24 am

      You view is very naive sir. I know in an ideal world we would manufacture, market and buy products only from their country of origin. Today a premium new driver sells anywhere from $300.00 to $500.00 USD. Using your idealistic logic, mantra , paradigm, nothing shipped from other countries to North America would enter our shores. Or duties from these products would be so high they would limit the dollar amount people would spend on consumer goods.
      Currently many American companies sell consumer products, manufactured in America to countries all,round the world. America has multiple trade agreements with multiple countries around the world. And the reverse is true with countries that ship to America.
      Your 1950’s logic changed when the second world war ended sir. Americans are good at many things, just not everything. Competition is good for trade around the world.

  9. Phat

    Mar 26, 2015 at 4:19 am

    In China this is how it is for any industry – sport, fine art, fashion, electronics – there is literally a knock off available for anything. I say this from my perspective of believing that Chinese people are amazing, intelligent, kind, and acknowledging that many of the great human inventions came from China.

    Us westerners whinge about the Asian counterfeit industry, but it is understandable considering what hundreds of millions of ‘everyday’ Chinese people have had to endure over the past 200 years. This of course includes; the opium wars, the Japanese invasion, the Maoist revolution, the sweat shops and cheap labour (for our) luxury goods, the corrupt officialdom, and last but not least, a class division created through a rampant game of catch-up with western capitalism!

  10. Don

    Mar 26, 2015 at 12:59 am

    Thanks for the wonderful article. I remember years ago, being in a golf shop buying balls and someone came in to sell a titanium driver… the pro asked the assistant to put it on the grinder to test the metal in the sole… that was my 1st experience… when I asked about it the pro said he was always suspicious… that was 12 years ago.

    I also have a friend who has a set of asian counterfeit clubs, he still uses them, even though the lofts are wrong… he claims they are rejects from a well known brand. He also has a name brand driver that cracked… the asian seller paid for the freight so the club could be returned and then replaced it…

  11. ken

    Mar 25, 2015 at 11:24 pm

    If there are people knowingly buying counterfeit clubs, shame on them.
    And the blame for the existence of counterfeit clubs is THEIR FAULT….They are the market. They are to blame.
    Without the cheapskates buying the trash, the market for counterfeits does not exist.

    • RG

      Mar 26, 2015 at 12:20 pm

      Trash?!?! Some counterfeits are better than the original.

  12. Dave

    Mar 25, 2015 at 8:30 pm

    Barney,
    You have barely scratched the surface of counterfeiting. Two years ago at PGA show I was approached from a gentleman who imported granite slabs from China. He explained that there was a gap between each slab of about three inches, and he would be happy to bring into the US Callaway club sets in that gap with no duty taxes because they were invisible. The six iron demo he had was a very cheap clone that had a shaft diameter of .390″ made of filament wound graphite, with perfect graphics. The head was a cast item of very less quality material such as chrome plated zinc, with a $1 grip copy .
    The cost per set was US $100. When I asked about the demo item he said I could keep it, it wasn’t worth the cost to do anything else with it.
    Ultra inferior product, and logs that matched. But would bring fire-storm from the Cally patent folks, and land my sorry butt in jail for about twenty for parent infringement. Smiles, D

    • Barney Adams

      Mar 26, 2015 at 1:40 am

      When I re-read my own story it could have been interpreted that most all Chinese suppliers were involved in counterfeiting. Of course this is not the case in fact the majority are straight up business people and have greatly helped the cost of golf equipment from escalating.
      Then there are the others.

  13. mb

    Mar 25, 2015 at 7:32 pm

    Thanks pretty simple don’t try yo find a cheap deal pay what is right for the product and you want and not worry about great deal and you get buried, manufacturers pay millions to protect us but many will try to find a cheap deal. You have been warned!!!!!

  14. Jeff

    Mar 25, 2015 at 6:50 pm

    At golfsmith the other day and they still have the entire RBZ stage 1 line on display, full price, stock shafts and lots of upgrade costs. I found a G30 in the used clubs area and I’m thrilled. But it’s no mystery to most golfers, who love golf but wouldn’t ever and couldn’t ever keep up with the new products why the industry is hurting.

  15. Andy

    Mar 25, 2015 at 4:35 pm

    Counterfeiters are using more and more sophisticated means to con people out of their money. They register websites in the the country they are targeting, targeted scam emails etc., and as Mike says, they are getting harder to spot. I have also noted that on the counterfeit websites the price gap is narrowing, making them appear more legit. The one thing which will work against the counterfeiters is the growth in club fitting, so as the old saying goes, golfers who know buy from their Pro. On a lighter side, I heard a story of a guy who was given a set of clubs as a retirement present, which as you might have guessed turned out to be fake – must have been a really popular guy at work 🙂

  16. RG

    Mar 25, 2015 at 3:17 pm

    Great article once again Barney.I think people really need to understand the ramifications of continually flooding a market with constant product, but I doubt they will.

  17. Carlos Danger

    Mar 25, 2015 at 1:24 pm

    So…I look at my bag and think that I surely do not have any counterfeit clubs. Every club was bought from a golf store/site, vetted WRXer or from a US seller on Ebay whom I have either bought from before or who has a long history of positive reviews and not the type of equipment you would typically think of as counterfeit. Meaning, if you have a Ebay seller with hoards of 10 degree regular flex Taylor Made R1’s shipping from Indonesia…no way. But if its some dude from South Carolina who is selling unique high end equipment I feel pretty safe/confident that whatever Im buying is legit.

    Am I being naive? Am I forgetting that these guys had to get the club somewhere as well and who knows where that was?

    I guess what Im asking from Barney is…do you kind of have to be a doofus to fall for a counterfeit club? Do you have to be naive and think that “wow, this $75 Scotty Cameron from Ethopia is a great deal!” to be the type of person who is at risk of getting a counterfeit? Or am I at risk ordering a club from globalgolf.com or from an Ebay seller with 100s of positive reviews that is selling rare high end stuff?

    • RG

      Mar 25, 2015 at 3:05 pm

      Always go to the manufacturers website and verify by serial number or you’re a sucker.

      • Max King

        Mar 25, 2015 at 9:48 pm

        I tried to verify a serial # with Nike and it was like pulling teeth. The first representative told me they didn’t have a record of serial numbers. So I tried a “live” online person and they were able to verify the serial #. Nike sucks.

    • barney adams

      Mar 25, 2015 at 3:48 pm

      if it’s “too good to be true” it probably isn’t.

    • golfiend

      Mar 25, 2015 at 4:31 pm

      I’ve met alot of people with excess disposable income who are always trying and buying new clubs. They tend to get rid of their clubs at a very low price through golf for sale forums and ebay. The products are real. But the product may only be as good as the reputation of the seller.

  18. golfiend

    Mar 25, 2015 at 1:05 pm

    Counterfeit golf clubs have been around for some time, especially when it started costing $400-500 for a driver, and in Japan where the price of a driver could be $1200. There are good counterfeit clubs and bad ones in terms of appearance and finish as well as performance. The more expensive counterfeits are almost indistinguishable from the real ones at a price well below retail. Sometimes they are marketed as “tour only.” I bought one of these back in the days thinking it was actually only from the tour van, and I hate to say it but I was killing it with this driver. People who play or deal with alot of clubs are probably the only ones who can distinguish the difference.

    • MHendon

      Mar 25, 2015 at 3:23 pm

      You might have been killing it because it had an illegally performing face.

      • golfiend

        Mar 25, 2015 at 4:23 pm

        Yes, I suspected that. Then again, I’ve been to some demo days, and hit the same brand and model drivers (with same stock shaft setup) that were both duds and great. It seems that even with non-counterfeit equipment, there are some variations in performance.

        • Faker

          Mar 25, 2015 at 9:49 pm

          Well if were only killing it to 200 yards then you probably couldn’t really tell from a real one to a fake! Ha!
          But if you pushed the head beyond 50m/s and tried hitting it over 300 yards carry I bet that head would fall apart.

          • golfiend

            Mar 25, 2015 at 10:25 pm

            head didn’t fall apart. i still have it, but stopped playing it due to other equipment available but i am afraid that one day, it will no longer perform. but you’re probably right that many people will not notice a big difference in performance between a real and a fake one.

  19. Johnny

    Mar 25, 2015 at 12:35 pm

    Although the major OEMs like Taylormade, Titleist, Ping, and Callaway are bitter competitors in a stagnant golf market, they work side by side when it comes to counterfeiting. The enemy of my enemy is my friend.

    • Greg

      Mar 25, 2015 at 4:34 pm

      So by that rule… is Taylormade friends with the Titlest counterfeiters?

  20. rockflightxl1000

    Mar 25, 2015 at 12:29 pm

    The one thing that scares me about your article is the margin driven approach reaching a maximum. I feel that if Taylormade already made clubs (used) more affordable and the industry is still shrinking (i.e. less participants) than I fear that golf one day will price itself out of the market for the average working man. I just hope these bootlegged clubs do not create a phenomena where people stay away from golf b/c they don’t know if they’re getting the real thing. I like your articles Barney but I never get a “warm” feeling about the state of the game after reading them.

    • barney adams

      Mar 25, 2015 at 3:46 pm

      the industry is replete with folks looking at the glass half full. If my articles are depressing it’s because they reflect the status quo. I have put forth several suggestions aimed at positive results but I am just a voice.

  21. Mike

    Mar 25, 2015 at 11:26 am

    This is the exact same impression I had from my own industry. The counterfeits are readily available of almost everything. You just have to know the right people to see where they are made. My coworker came home with what have been tens of thousands of dollars in handbags in the US for only a couple hundred dollars in China. All of which were identical to the real thing. It is crazy how accurate the counterfeits are.

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