A $50 pair of shoes! That was the big extravagance for Eric Sillies after winning the $500,000 prize on Golf Channel’s television show Driver vs. Driver presented by Wilson. That might make him sound dull, but after talking to him recently, I’ve learned he’s anything but. I spent almost an hour chatting to him about life since Wilson chose his driver, Triton, to be the company’s flagship model for 2017.
It been more than a month since the Triton hit shelves at golf retailers, and aside from a non-conformity hiccup with the USGA (which has since been resolved) the initial reaction to the driver has been very positive. A lot of people followed the show and liked the concept, and many have been curious enough to find their way to a store to try a Triton.
Sillies isn’t privy to the current sales numbers, but he did say that Wilson seems to be very happy with the exposure so far. The feedback he’s received since launch has been mostly about how forgiving the driver is in the hands of ordinary golfers, which makes him very satisfied.
“Its always great to get direct feedback from real golfers,” Eric said. “To see trends and patterns of feedback that focus on key benefits, it translates theory into reality.”
In terms of his relationship with the company moving forward, Sillies is on the Wilson Advisory Staff for the foreseeable future and will be at the upcoming PGA Merchandise Show in Orlando later this month. And in talking to him, he is a great ambassador for Wilson, mixing enthusiasm with professionalism. But for now he is back to his day job in Cincinnati with LPK, a global product design agency.
Since winning, Sillies has had a lot of press interviews and speaking engagements, far more than he ever envisaged. “Work has been great, giving me time to deal with all these commitments,” he said. “But I’m still focused on my day job.” The word grounded springs to mind when talking with Sillies.
As for the Driver vs. Driver show itself, Sillies said it was surprisingly authentic and pretty true to what appeared on people’s screens. A few of his early ideas got dropped, but Sillies is used to the iterative process involved in product design and understood that there are a lot of restrictions in play because of USGA rules.
Sillies had some concepts on a modified grip and his initial weighting idea was based on a sliding rail. He also had some ideas on innovative weighting fins to improve aerodynamics. They were built into an early prototype, but analysis by Wilson Labs showed that they had no impact on aerodynamics so again the idea was canned. And his original name for the driver, “Manta,” was switched to Triton along the way. He said both he and Wilson were very happy with the final product, which is arguably the most adjustable driver in the industry.
During the 12-month process of filming and airing the TV show, Sillies said he felt very much felt a part of the Wilson Golf team. He got to meet and work closely with a bunch of people from Wilson, including Wilson Golf’s General Manager Tim Clarke. Clarke called him first thing in the morning before the news broke about the non-conformity issue.
He also met PGA Tour player Kevin Streelman, who endorses and uses Wilson Golf equipment. “It was only when the cameras were off and I spent some time one on one with him that I found out how genuine [Streelman] was,” Eric said. “He gave me a bunch of advice and very useful feedback on my designs.”
Sillies also praised Michael Vrska, Wilson’s Global Director of Golf R&D, as a great guy and crucial to his success. “Mike and his team got the club through from the design prototyping stage to the finished product, with the rendering, design graphics, production, sales and marketing, Sillies said. “He is hugely knowledgeable and very experienced at what works and what doesn’t work.”
Talking about Vrska led Sillies to admit how much of a huge learning curve there was in the process, and how much stress there was in the relatively short time frame from concept to launch. Sillies said Vrska allowed him to be central in the process all the way through. “This is your club, you need to decide,” Vrska reminded him.
Sillies nearly didn’t enter the competition at all, but for a work colleague suggesting it to him. Not being much of a golfer, he relied on his product design skills honed at LPK. He had some golf pedigree, working as an intern at Dick’s Sporting Goods and designing the aesthetic direction for its 2012 Nickent golf club line. But in terms of a brand new club concept it was new ground, so he resorted to his mantra of making things better by making better things.
In the few weeks before the entry deadline approached, Sillies spent time during his lunch breaks and at night researching golf instruction videos. He had three main ideas. One was to put a white spot on the top of the club that was the width of the ball to show golfers where they should make contact.
“It’s so hard to hit a golf ball anyway that setting up well is a big part of it,” Sillies said. “I thought, why isn’t there a club that’s solving for that? So I decided to make one.”
He also added a removable piece that attached at the bottom of the club, which could adjust the weight of the club at several different points to fit a golfer’s swing. Both ideas ultimately made it to the final product.
Finally, he wanted the most aerodynamic club he could find. He said he was inspired to come up with an aerodynamic design by animals, specifically a manta ray. His driver wound up being the most aerodynamic of any on the show.
Surprising, Sillies doesn’t yet have a final version of a Triton driver to call his own, but he was recently fitted and is expecting one soon. He called being fit for a driver he designed “a surreal experience.” Did he enjoy being on camera and being the center of attention?
“To my surprise, I found I loved it.” he said. “Everyone was so nice, so helpful and supportive. It couldn’t have been a better experience for me. I would encourage anyone to go through the same experience.”
So what did he think was the coolest thing in the whole process?
“To me it is being able to now go into a golf store with friends and see my driver on the shelves and knowing that people across the country are going to be playing it and thinking, ‘I did that!'” he said.