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Where there’s a club and a ball there’s hope

By ED TRAVIS

This column was originally published in 2012 and reproduced today with sadness and a sense of deep loss at Palmer’s passing and expresses the effect this remarkable man had on his millions of fans.

The King is 11 over, today Arnold Palmer turns 83. He has arthritis, survived cancer, lost his wife of more than four decades and plays only occasionally in front of fans but still he is The King.

Though he may be on the back nine of life and his golf game isn’t up to the lofty standards to which he formerly played, he is thoroughly loved by fans. He practices or plays almost every day whether at his Bay Hill club in suburban Orlando or the course in Latrobe, Pa. where he grew up and now owns or his other winter venue in Palm Springs, Calif. where his current wife has a home.

To give an idea of his magnetism, charisma or whatever you want to call it; a few years ago some visitors from California were driving past the eighteenth tee at Bay Hill as Palmer’s foursome were hitting their tee shots. The Californians screeched to a stop, stuck a camera out the window and gawked (“My God, there’s Arnold Palmer”). After hitting his drive he walked to the edge of the tee box nearest the street and waved so they would have a good picture plus a great memory…I won’t even speculate how many other touring professionals, past or present, would do that.

Everyone who’s been writing about golf for a while has a personal story about Palmer and I have several such as an interview session a number of years ago when he was seriously considering no longer playing in the Masters. (He said he would stop any number of times usually following a poor round when the walking scorers no longer showed a number after his name).

The occasion of the interview was the inauguration of another of his golf course designs. In this case it was evident he wasn’t very enthusiastic about the course; the routing was hemmed in by large homes and contoured around ponds excavated to satisfy the environmentalists. However, as was his style, he was enthusiastic (cynically, if only about the fee the owners paid him) and put on a mini-clinic while warming up with pithy commentary from his course design partner the late Ed Seay. Then it was off to race around the front nine.

There was no back nine. Along with three of us writers, who I’m positive would not have bothered to show up if it hadn’t been the King, Palmer repaired to the men’s grill for liquid refreshment. Sitting there relaxed he joked, told a few stories then started pumping us for the questions we would ask in the subsequent press conference, so “he could be prepared.”

There were the obligatory inquiries into his design philosophy and how it was employed on this newest of his creations plus several other equally yawn-provoking exchanges. After a while the conversation turned to the state of his game and his competitive plans. His answers were human and truthful without the use of the royal “we,” the affectation of so many of today’s toursters.

I asked a couple of more questions concerning what he was working on to improve his swing and then he gave me the quote which became one of the best leads I ever had.

Palmer said in a steady voice, “Well, you know, where there’s a club and a ball there’s hope.”

Not only is this a wonderful memory of time spent with Palmer and a pretty good story, it also expresses his love of the game and is one of the reasons fans love him.

Maybe next year to commemorate his 84th I’ll tell you another of my Palmer memories…a true one about the men’s room at Bay Hill Club.

Tiger’s In – Nike’s Out

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He hasn’t put his game on display for over a year and his last PGA Tour win was in August of 2013 but the soon to be 41-year old has created lots of attention by saying he will play in a charity event October 10-11 followed by the Safeway Open October 13-16.

And the company whose clubs he has played since 2002 is getting out, out of the club, bag and ball business to concentrate on shoes and apparel.

Tiger Woods and Nike, inseparable in the minds of many, have had an amazing run together. Woods currently has 79 Tour wins with 14 majors (not all using Nike equipment) ranking second all-time in both categories. Nike though, was never able to come up with a category-defining club in spite of having on the payroll Tom Stites, one of the most respected club designers in the business. What they did however, with Woods under the most lucrative contract in golf, was become the number one golf apparel brand.

It’s no wonder, with the equipment business having at best a minimal-growth future, the decision to leave that arena was made.

Woods and other staff members, most notably Rory McIlroy and Michelle Wie, will continue to wear Nike Swoosh apparel so they will still have a huge presence in the minds of consumers. Golfers just won’t be able to purchase Nike clubs.

The effect the Nike withdrawal from selling equipment is uncertain but a good estimate is it probably won’t be very large. The golf division never had more than $800 million (last year $706 million) in sales but since the breakdown between hard goods and soft goods was not reported, actual club sales are unknown. They never approached a 10% market share in hard goods.

Some in the media are saying Nike’s problems are because Woods hasn’t been playing and that’s incorrect. Nike didn’t have market leadership or even contend for leadership when Woods was at his best, winning multiple times in a season. His presence on Tour alone never could generate the amount of business Nike wanted to dominant the golf hard goods sector but did help push soft goods to the number one spot.

Golf for Nike was a tiny part of their overall business, less than two percent, and several factors virtually preordained their decision. The small market share plus an industry where product lifecycles are measured often in months with relatively large development costs meant staying just didn’t make sense. It was obvious golf equipment had to go.

With Nike paying more attention to golf performance and lifestyle soft goods, the biggest impact could be seen by competing shoe and apparel brands Acushnet’s FootJoy, adidas and Under Armour. Adidas is also leaving equipment and selling its golf brands TaylorMade Golf and Adams. The other major player Acushnet, owner of Titleist, is in the process of going public which typically can create uncertainly in corporate decision making.

This could mean Callaway picks up the major portion of Nike club sales however large it was and undeniably Callaway has been on an upwards trend since Chip Brewer took over as CEO. Privately-owned Ping and others potentially could see a bump in sales as well.

With all that in mind, which clubs will Woods switch to now that he plans to compete and again chase Nicklaus’ record of 18 majors?

Well, it’s not clear he will switch at all and for sure not right away though Woods has said companies are sending lots of clubs to try out. He hasn’t played a Tour event since August 2015 and it’s unlikely he will make a club change soon. Additionally any equipment company paying the amount of money Woods can demand will want their logo prominently display on his cap and shirt so there’s an immediate conflict with his Nike apparel contract. Nike is worth several millions each year to Woods and the contract doesn’t renew until the end of 2018 so he’s not going to put it in jeopardy.

One thing is for sure, fan interest will continue as will the speculation about Woods as he tries to get back to being top of the Tour.

The Mistake Jason Didn’t Make

day_tmagJason Day is the world’s number one ranked golfer though Dustin Johnson with his superlative play this summer is gaining on him and a lot depends on the outcome at East Lake Country Club in two weeks at the Tour Championship.

However, that not the point of this column.

The point is to congratulate Day for not making the same mistake numerous other stars have made (including Payne Stewart after he won his first major) of switching equipment companies. Often what happens is though the star is being paid lots of money to play the new clubs, they don’t perform like the old clubs.

Many struggle for months if not an entire season trying to recapture the winning magic they had found in the old sticks.

Of course, as soon as winning a few tournaments or a major pushes a player higher in the golf consumer’s consciousness equipment makers line up offering significant monetary inducements to drop the clubs that made them famous and take on new ones.

Day hasn’t done that, in fact he had already re-upped with his club company TaylorMade Golf several months ago in advance of the contract renewal date at the end of the year.

What he didn’t continue was his contract with TMaG’s parent company adidas to wear their shoes and apparel.

Therefore the announcement he had signed with Nike to endorse shoes and apparel for a reported $10 million annually was not a huge surprise. Day not only will continue with TMaG for his clubs he can’t play Nike clubs since they dropped out of that part of the business last month.

So congratulations to Jason Day for not making a potentially disastrous choice.

SUPERMETAL & Kevlar – The Exotics XJ1 Driver

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Tour Edge Golf rolled out the Exotics brand in 2008 with the express purpose of utilizing technologies and materials that might not make economic sense for large club manufacturers since the need for higher pricing would limit sales. This idea has pushed the 30 year old company to an enviable positon of producing clubs of outstanding performance often pioneering manufacturing processes such as combo-brazing, a chemical bonding of the face to the club body rather than welding.

The new Exotics XJ1 driver brings together materials and construction techniques that Tour Edge says are designed to help the average golfer. Quoting President David Glod, “Most technologies of the past decade have benefitted players with higher swing speeds eliminating the majority of golfers. We have been developing the XJ1 driver for over four years, working on each characteristic of the club, moving critical amounts to weight around for the best results and waiting for the technology to catch up to our goal of bringing this extremely lightweight driver to the market which will benefit golfers with real swing speeds.”

The basic idea then, is a very lightweight driver that gives the average player the opportunity to create more clubhead speed along with the launch characteristics to produce more yardage.

Tour Edge first breaks new ground in the XJ1 by making the club body from a titanium alloy they have tagged as SUPERMETAL. This 9-1-1 titanium is significantly lighter than titanium used previously but with very high strength, two properties allowing the metal to be thinner and effect a 10 percent weight savings.

Glod made the point, “…no one has the SUPERMETAL, which allows us to shift a huge amount of the weight to the sole. The SUPERMETAL is also more elastic at normal swing speeds, which translates into greater spring from the whole body while keeping the CT [Characteristic Time, a measure of flexibility] normal.”

And the new ideas don’t stop there. The XJ1 crown is made of a Kevlar-carbon combination that weighs only 12-grams, saving more weight and lowering the center of gravity. Also since this material is stiffer it aids in producing more ball speed. Significantly, according to Glod, the center of gravity is below a line running perpendicular to the clubface producing a higher launch with lower spin.

In response to the question, is the advantage of Kevlar-carbon because it is lighter than the carbon fiber, Glod responded, “No, the Kevlar-Carbon in the XJ1 allows better stiffness producing a better sound.”

The face plate of thin flexible titanium is robotically laser bonded to the body giving two nice benefits, additional weight saving and a higher trampoline effect or C.O.R for more forgiveness. The sole has three tungsten weights and because of the weight saved in the body and crown, heel and toe bars for more stability and better resistance to twisting have been added. A draw ball flight tendency is enhanced by a replaceable tungsten screw near the heel of the sole with additional weights available.

With a 45-gram Fujikura Air Speeder R-flex shaft the total weight of the XJ1 is only 275-grams placing it in the ultra-light category so average golfers can swing it faster which means more distance. Even going to a stiff flex the weigh only increases by 10-grams.

The Exotics XJ1 will be in stores Nov. 1 with a choice of 9, 10.5 or 12 degrees loft for $700.