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:
- The price was much less
- 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.
The 19th Hole Episode 170: Grassroots golf and Darius Rucker
Host Michael Williams talks about the benefits of grassroots golf programs in growing the game. Also features a reboot of his exclusive interview with Hootie and the Blowfish.
The Wedge Guy: Have a ‘Plan B’
One of the things that I think is very interesting and fun about this game is that there are a number of ways to play every hole you encounter. And sometimes a hole offers “better” ways to play it than you might think. Let me explain with a couple of experiences from my own golf life.
ONE. In my thirties and forties, I played at a club outside of San Antonio – Fair Oaks Ranch. The 18th hole was a tough par 4 with a very small landing area and a gaping bunker at about 175 out. The skinny fairway left of that bunker wasn’t more than 15 yards wide, and there was a little mott of trees on the green side of the bunker that you would have to carry with your mid-iron bunker approach. Tough, to say the least.
That hole drove most of us nuts, and double bogeys were more common than birdies, for sure. Par was always a great score and bogey wasn’t “bad” at all.
So, one day it hit me that if I hit 4-wood off the tee, I would have an elevated fairway look at the green from about 200-210, giving me another soft 4-wood or 3-iron to the green, and the fairway was about 40 yards wide back there. Being a good long club player, I began to play the hole that way. Doubles disappeared entirely, pars became the norm and I even made the occasional birdie. Hmm.
TWO. At my recent club, the ninth hole just didn’t fit my eye or my game. I play a fade off the tee most of the time and turning over a draw was just not reliable for me at the time. That ninth is a dogleg left, with a bunker on the right side of the fairway that runs from about 160-125 from the green, right where the prime driving area is. What makes this hole so tough for me is that the prevailing wind is left to right, and trees just 60-100 yards off the tee keep me from starting the ball out left and letting it ride the breeze. This is another one where birdies are rare for me there, and bogies and doubles way too frequent. So, it dawned on me one day, finally, that I could hit 4-wood right at that bunker and not get to it, leaving me a 5- or 6-iron into the green, rather than the short iron the rare proper drive would leave me. So, that became my new strategy on that hole. I’m a good mid-iron player, so I’m fine with that, and that damn fairway bunker never caught me again.
THREE. My new club puts a premium on accurate wedge play. Most of the shorter holes have the smallest greens I’ve ever seen, so distance control with your wedge approaches is critical. And I find that reasonably full-swing wedges are easier to control distance than those awkward 60- to 80-yard partial swings. So, I’ve learned to put a premium on club selection off the tee on those holes to leave my approach shots in the 85-115 range, so that I can “dial in” my approach shotmaking.
My point in all this is that sometimes a hole gets under your skin or just doesn’t set up well for your game. When that happens, design yourself a Plan ‘B,’ and change the way you play it, at least for a while. Quite often you will find a solution to a problem and your scores and attitude will improve.
Club Junkie: Mizuno T-22 wedge and Cuater Moneymaker shoes review!
Mizuno’s new T-22 wedges are forged from the same 1025 carbon steel with boron as the irons, giving them an extremely soft feel. Very versatile, the sole grinds allow for hitting any shot your heart desires.
The Cuater Moneymaker shoes might be some of the most comfortable I have worn in years. Tons of cushioning, exceptional traction all over the course, and they are even waterproof!
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