Back when Tiger Woods was golf, I played a round with a very nice man who hit the ball about 160 yards with his driver, lost half a dozen golf balls and whose greatest pride in the game of golf was that he played the exact same clubs as Tiger Woods.
Because of my playing companion’s spending behavior, and many other golfers like him, club manufacturers invest millions of dollars on endorsement contracts and advertisements that feature famous golfers. By showing that that these professionals use their products, companies are trying to convince us to use them, too. But is this the best way to sell clubs… or the best way to buy them?
In 1996, looking to reproduce the business model it pioneered with Michael Jordan, Nike signed Tiger Woods to a $40 million endorsement contract and entered the golf market. Capitalizing on Tiger’s success, the company launched a golf ball in 2000 and golf clubs in 2002. Tiger went on to win eight major championships, 14 World Golf Championships and 50 PGA Tour events with Nike Golf clubs, and Nike Golf became synonymous with Tiger Woods.
Between 2002 and 2013, to further support its brand in golf, Nike signed dozens of other talented professional golfers to endorsement contracts. Its biggest signing came in 2013; the company pulled off what many saw as a coup in the golf equipment world by signing Rory McIlroy. Nike Golf now had the two best golfers on the planet under contract, and it seemed primed to become the leader in golf equipment sales. Not even four years later, however, Nike announced that it was exiting the golf club business.
What, if anything, can my playing companion and the rest of us learn from Nike’s history in the golf club business? Is it possible that selling and buying clubs based on celebrity endorsements is not the best way to do business? Based on the behavior of the other golf equipment manufacturers, the answer seems to be a resounding “no.” Club companies still sign golfers to endorsement contracts, of course, but they are marketing their clubs more and more on technological improvements and using launch monitor data to support their claims.
But what technological details should we care about? Does it matter that pros hit the ball farther with a new club or that it was designed in the same wind tunnel as a jet?
The only thing that really matters for golfers is to compare the shots they hit with their current clubs to the shots they hit with new clubs, and the best way to do that is by testing clubs on launch monitor. So the next time you’re interested in new gear, make sure to put the endorsement contracts and advertising aside. Go do some launch monitor testing with your current clubs to see if new ones offer a tangible benefit.
Lyndon Wilson, a club fitting expert and owner of Studio360, is a 14-year veteran of club fitting. He now works with everyone from average golfers to elite players, including the No. 2-ranked golfer in the Rolex Rankings Ariya Jutanugran and dozens of other PGA and LPGA tour players. He calls fitting “crucial” to the process of buying new equipment.
“A proper fit can increase both accuracy and distance, which is only going to make golf more fun,” he says.
There are currently a lot of buzzwords when it comes to golf equipment fitting, and they have a lot of golfers confused. That’s why it’s important to resist the urge to try and fit yourself; it’s really hard for average golfers to know exactly what they need to play their best.
Bill Holbrook, a representative of Cobra-Puma Golf and a 2015 National Sales Associate of the year, says many golfers focus too much on lowering the spin rate of their shots. He says it stems from the strides golf equipment manufactures have made in creating lower-spinning clubs in recent years and their intensity in marketing them.
“For people with speed, [lowering spin] has been a huge help,” Holbrook says. “But for a lot of players, it’s not. These players need to be fit to ensure they have the right variables to maximize distance, which often means more loft and a softer-tip shaft.”
A good starting point in a fitting is looking at the three major keys to ball flight: ball speed, launch angle and spin rate. It’s also a good idea to look at the axis tilt of the golf ball, as straighter-flying shots tend lead to more birdies than crooked ones. And of course, you’ll want to keep an eye on the balance of carry distance and roll out.
To make sure your launch monitor data is accurate, you’ll also want to do your testing on a top-notch launch monitor (the best fitters almost always use either FlightScope, Foresight or Trackman). If the data demonstrates that one club performs significantly better than another, that’s a compelling argument to purchase a new club. This goes for your wedges and putter, too!
For quite a long time on the PGA Tour, a top-10 money winner used game improvement irons designed for higher-handicap golfers. His friends may have looked at him funny, but those were the clubs that work best for him. Most golfers won’t ever make a living playing the game, but we all enjoy golf more when we play better. That likely means you’re not going to be playing same clubs as Tiger, Rory or any other Tour player.