The Times They Are A-Changin’—Bob Dylan

dyaln_640x400Though Bob Dylan sang the lyrics to The Times They Are A-Changin’ in 1964 to reflect the social unrest of the time he could have been singing about the golf equipment business today.

The trials and tribulations of golf equipment manufacturers and retailers have been well reported with Dicks Sporting Goods (NYSE:DKS) purchasing Golfsmith out of bankruptcy and Nike’s (NYSE:NKE) decision to withdraw from the club market receiving the most attention. At the same time two of the largest club makers are undergoing major changes.

Potentially the sale to the public of Acushnet, makers of the number one ball brand Titleist and the number one golf shoe FootJoy, will have an impact that could be more far reaching.

Owners Fila Korea Ltd. and an investment group led by Mirae Asset Private Funding purchased Acushnet from Fortune Brands in 2011 for $1.23 billion and will not relinquish their entire ownership in the initial public offering only selling roughly one-third of their shares. The prospectus also states the proceeds from the public stock sale will not be used by Acushnet to reduce debt or for product development but retained by Fila and the others.

Fila also has told Pulse News in Korea they have plans to purchase more shares, up to 50 percent, from other current shareholders to keep control of the company.

As a publically traded company Acushnet (NYSE:GOLF) will be making decisions differently than when privately owned. The pressure from investors will place them in the same position as every other public company. Quarterly results will be closely scrutinized and management decisions will be made in light of that attention.

In other publicly-held corporations long-term strategy may be compromised for the sake of short term profits. One of the most obvious areas of change could be the balance of profits retained by the company to fuel growth and the amount distributed to stockholders. It wouldn’t be the first time short term decision making overrode long term product development.

TaylorMade Golf owned by adidas is for sale and after six months no deal has been signed leading some to ask why. Adams Golf and Ashworth brands will likely be included in any deal. Adidas CEO Herbert Hainer said in May, when the possibility of a sale was being investigated, they wanted to concentrate on other divisions of the company with better prospects for growth. A reason essentially the same as that given by Nike in August when they decided to leave the club business.

It may or may not be significant but TMaG has not announced any new models for the 2017 season even though during late summer and fall all the other makers are introducing their latest. TMaG has the leading driver on the PGA Tour and has the largest selling iron model, the M2, on the market so it would be expected new clubs would be introduced at this time or at least an announcement there would not be new club models for 2017.

One interesting possibility is, if the Acushnet IPO is popular with investors, TaylorMade could be seen as a more attractive acquisition.

The Dick’s/Golfsmith deal for a reported $70 million remains to be finalized and as yet unresolved is how many of the Golfsmith stores will remain open and if Dick’s other specialty retailer Golf Galaxy will assume Golfsmith locations. Dick’s bought another competitor, Sports Authority, also in bankruptcy earlier this year.

Stay tuned. The Acushnet IPO is Friday the 28th, more news about TaylorMade’s fate will surely be coming and Dick’s decisions about Golfsmith will to a large degree set the pattern for big box retailers.

Woods Not Out of the Woods


woods_2015_wyndhamThe last time Tiger Woods played a competitive event was the 2015 Wyndham Championship 14 months ago. He finished in a tie for 10th place. His last win was two years and two months ago at the World Golf Championships-Bridgestone Invitational. His last major victory was the 2008 U.S. Open. He will be 41-years old in December.

But when he announced his plans to play in the Tour’s Safeway Open this week fans were excited and the media seemed to talk about nothing else.

Everyone asked the same question. Could he recapture the magical game that resulted in 79 Tour victories with 14 majors?

Those not able to be at Silverado Resort’s North Course were making plans to watch the first two rounds on the Golf Channel when the dream pairing for his comeback was to be with longtime rival Phil Mickelson. Crowds on the course would have been multiple layers deep on every hole since, according to a report on GolfChannel.com, ticket sales for the Napa Valley event had doubled compared to last year.

However, fans, tournament sponsors and advertisers had to face the fact of Woods’ withdrawal on Monday when he posted a statement on TigerWoods.com saying his body was fine but his game wasn’t ready to compete against the best in the world…yet.

Speculation raged. Woods wasn’t pleased with his long game, unsure of his short game, struggling with his putter, etc. But of course that’s all it was, speculation. It’s intriguing to ask though if during his recent intensive preparation chips and pitches were exhibiting the chunks and blades of late 2014 and part of 2015.

In any event, regardless of the uninformed guessing one thing is for sure the 15th club he always had carried would no longer be there.

That club was intimidation, the same as Jack Nicklaus carried in his prime. It has been said of Nicklaus, “He knew he was going to beat you. You knew he was going to beat you and he knew that you knew he was going to beat you.”

Woods brought that same confident aura to the first tee in every tournament and though he might not win competitors always wanted to know “What’s Tiger doing?”

Often it meant he had won the contest of wills before a ball was struck.

So whenever he manages to bring his surgically repaired body to the course pursuing resurrection, rejuvenation, Sam Snead’s record 82 Tour wins and Jack Nicklaus’ 18 major championships it won’t be the same.

There’s no doubt the young players at the top of the game today are not “afraid” of the Tiger.

All we can hope is this isn’t the end and he will be back…sometime.

10 Rounds with Sentio Sierra 101

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Club makers use words like NEW, AMAZING, THE LATEST, etc. to promote their clubs and putters are no exception. When I first saw the Sierra 101 from Sentio and talked with Jim Varney, the company’s president, it was evident perhaps their new Sierra 101 putter did have something that was new and even unique.

Sentio’s idea is to completely isolate the putter face from the putter body with a layer of TPE (thermoplastic elastomer) which, when made with different properties, would change the feel of the impact and indeed the amount the ball rebounds. This means the feel can be matched to individual preference and the speed of the greens normally played.

Good players know feel is the critical factor in making more putts.

There are three TPE layers or “feels” available: green is soft for fast green speeds, blue for slower greens and red for medium speed greens.

The testing of the Sierra 101 with a red TPE layer was over 10 rounds on medium speed Bermuda greens and it was evident from the first this patent-protected idea worked and worked well.

Distance control was excellent almost eerie and as experience increased it became simply a case of determining the putt’s line and hitting it. Obviously not every putt went in but the confidence from knowing the distance would be correct meant three putts were virtually a thing of the past.

Other than the TPE layer each of the Sierra 101 modern blade models has a medium toe-hang and a plumber’s neck hosel and the two-part body of milled stainless steel. A face balanced mallet style is in the works and should be ready by the time of the PGA Show in January.

Varney responded to questions with answers showing both the hard work and commitment to the Sierra 101.sierra-cutaway_300x215

ET: How did you come up with the idea of the “insert” in the middle of the head instead of on the face like most other putters?

JV: My business partner and I have a background in product design and engineering, so we are constantly looking at everyday things and thinking of ways to improve them. As an avid golfer (and equipment nerd) I noticed so much technology and cutting-edge manufacturing going into drivers, metal woods and irons while putters were very traditional.  There seemed to be a lot of room for innovation there especially in regard to feel; most of the new ideas from the big brands dealt more with alignment even though 85% of golfers say feel is most important.  We decided to apply our knowledge of engineering and manufacturing to approach the problem from a fresh perspective. The breakthrough came when we realized that by molding a dampening agent in the middle of the head we could change the feel response in ways that are impossible with face inserts or solid putters. This construction also gave us the ability to improve forgiveness and MOI, and also create alignment features – it was like an all-in-one technology. We knew this would be technically difficult but certainly feasible, using a method called Insert Molding.  We then verified our ideas with experiments and research, culminating in our patent in 2013.

ET: The Sierra 101 loft is only 2-degrees which is less than most others which are 3- and 4-degrees for what reason?

JV: Greens in general are getting faster than they were even 5 years ago, which means you don’t need as much loft to launch the ball out the indentation it’s sitting in on the green. We want to create forward roll as soon as possible, and the grooves and lower face loft help achieve that. The hosel design allows for loft/lie bending anyway, so golfers that get custom fit with our putters can have this adjusted to their preferences.

ET: Can you share COR values of your putter versus others? Readers are used to thinking in terms of the USGA .083/.086 maximum for drivers, etc.

JV: There are several ways of measuring COR, we use the static drop method: drop a golf ball (ProV1) from a set height onto the face of the putter, which has been immobilized, and measure the rebound height. This is important because we wanted to measure the COR of the face independent of other design elements, such as the hosel and shaft. The ratio of rebound height to drop height is the COR value.

Using this method, a relatively firm face insert has a COR of about .82 and a solid milled 303 stainless steel putter has a COR of .87. They may seem close, but that represents about 13-15% difference in energy transfer between the two.  On a 20 foot putt, that difference equals 3 feet. Our Sierra models have COR values in the range of .83 to .86, spanning the range between the two extremes.

ET: What’s the reason the vertical grooves the TPE fills are deeper in the center and are eliminated towards the heel and toe?

JV: The vertical grooves in the back of the face replace some of the heavy steel with lighter TPE.  This has two effects:

  1. It further increases MOI of the head
  2. It locally reduces the mass of the face in the center, making the sweet spot a little less hot. This makes the putter more forgiving on off-center strikes.

ET: The model you sent me has what I judge as a 45-degree toe hang so are all the models the same? Why did you choose that as opposed to say a face balanced weighting or a 90-degree toe hang?

JV: As an independent start-up we decided to start with a single head shape and expand from there. The Sierra 101 head style was designed to fit as many players as possible, so we chose a middle of the road “4:00” toe hang which could be used by almost everybody. True straight-back-straight-through (SBST) players may not like it, but even some of those folks find it easy to control. I’ve heard from many people that they like the way it “sets up”.  I think this is a combination of the square lines and the balance at address.

ET: Each model has and L-shaped hosel (plumbers neck?) and is heel mounted. What is your reasoning?

JV: Again, starting with a single body style was going to be necessarily limiting, so we decided to go “classic” with a full-offset plumbers neck hosel. There is actually no limit to the shapes and styles we can do with our technology, which is one of the cool things about it. There are some great technologies in putters out there that require certain shapes or forms or balance points – we don’t have any of those restrictions. Our next body styles will have different hosels and balances – a mallet is in the works too.  We designed the Sierra 101 with a nod to tradition, but with a vision pointed squarely in the future.

Negatives: Alignment using the exposed top of the TPE layer may not be for everyone and certainly those who presently use a face-balanced putter may find the toe weighted Sierra 101 an adjustment. Not really as a negative but a caution, downhill putts because the hit is so solid tended to run out more than usual that the model I previously was using.

Recommendation: The Sierra 101 from Sentio Golf is really different and unique due to the use of the proprietary TPE layer and this alone makes it one you should consider if only for the feel the layer provides. Priced at $299, it may be purchased on SentioGolf.com and select golf shops.

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Did Hazeltine Save the Ryder Cup?
By ED TRAVIS

Now that a few days have passed since the USA Ryder Cup victory a couple of points should be raised.

Forget the humiliation of four years ago at Medinah. Forget Phil Mickelson’s criticisms of Captain Tom Watson and the “Ryder Cup Task Force” formed after the Gleneagles loss in 2014. Forget Davis Love III was this year’s captain…it’s certainly tough to say anything against him since the team won. Forget Patrick Reed’s over the top enthusiasm matched by the likes of Rory McIlroy on the European team.

Disregard the pontificating by pundits with meaningless “in depth” analysis of the swings and psychology and personalities of players on the two teams.

And you can even remove from your memory the few boors among the 240,000 fans visiting Hazeltine from the practice rounds Tuesday through the finals on Sunday.

What made the difference and why Team USA won a decisive win is simple; they just out played (read that as out putted) the Euros.

The atmosphere of a Ryder Cup is dramatically different than any other golf event, be it a regular Tour event or even a major championship. No matter how exciting of how good the golf they just have don’t have the same energy and the same effect on fans.

However, if the U.S. had lost again at Hazeltine golf fans could have been saying, “To heck with it. I don’t need this.”

The reasoning is simple. Ask any baseball or football fan whose team never seems to win the big one. After a while, after the repeated emotional investment, the buildup in anticipation of a win then the heart break and dashing of hopes of yet another loss gets to people. They lose interest.

Case in point I was an avid Buffalo Bills fan until 1993 and the fourth Super Bowl defeat in a row. I never went to another game.

The potential was there for the same thing to have happened to the Ryder Cup if the US had lost again.

It was true back in 1979 as well when Jack Nicklaus suggested in order to make the Ryder Cup competitive, which it clearly was not, European professionals from the Continent be included rather than as it had been with a team solely from Great Britain and Ireland. That brought to the Ryder Cup a couple of the greatest ever. Seve Ballesteros started in 1979 and so did another young continental star in 1981, Bernhard Langer.

As they say, the rest is history. The U.S. before 1979 was 18-3-1 and since then is 8-10-1. How long would have golf fans in Europe supported their team if they continued to be trounced as Great Britain and Ireland were for 50 years?

The answer is they wouldn’t and neither would American fans if Team USA kept losing especially if Hazeltine had been the fourth loss in a row.

The frustration of the players and bad vibes from trying so often and not winning would be a major factor.

There was more than little of that in Mickelson’s famous (or infamous depending on your view) comments in 2014 but his words did help to change what needed changing.

The victory at Hazeltine may just have invigorated both U.S. players and fans and saved the Ryder Cup from suffering a monumental lack of interest.

 

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David Hueber – “In the Rough”
By ED TRAVIS

David Hueber has been around the golf industry for four decades, a lot of the time holding very responsible positions including a stint as president and CEO of the Ben Hogan Company. This gives him a unique vantage point to view and review the industry from course operations to real estate development to the actual manufacture of golf clubs and his book tells some very interesting tales.

“In the Rough: The Business Game of Golf” relates Hueber’s journey in golf beginning as a caddie at the club where his father was the professional and where he learned to play well enough to get a scholarship to Florida State University. He describes his time on the FSU team as, “I played without distinction,” but it was enough to convince him though career as a touring pro may have been out of his reach he wanted to be in the golf industry in some way.

An entry level job with the National Golf Foundation gave him the chance to see the inside of course development, meet Karsten Solheim the founder of Ping and hear the stories of other golf equipment pioneers including Gary Adams of TaylorMade, Tom Crowe of Cobra and Ely Callaway of Callaway Golf.

These incidents are all interesting but when Hueber took a job working for Deane Beman at that time Commissioner of the PGA Tour his experiences become a lens to the changes in the golf industry. Best known as the head of Ben Hogan Company when it was owned by Japanese entrepreneur Minoru Isutani’s Cosmo World, Hueber also ran Pebble Beach as president of Ben Hogan Properties, another of Isutani’s companies.

Isutani preferred to stay behind the scenes but hit the news in an unfortunate way when it was revealed he sold Pebble Beach for $350 million less than he paid.

From this reviewer’s perspective there are two extremely interesting parts to “In the Rough” that will attract the attention of most everyone who loves the game. First is Hueber’s description of the comedy of errors and tragic misjudgment from which none of the participants came away unscathed, the “Square Grooves Controversy” between Karsten Solheim and the PGA Tour and the USGA. The offshoot of which almost 30 years later in his view is an ineffectual USGA reacting to changes in technology and struggling to control the performance of today’s golf balls and clubs. An unforeseen result of which are the 7,000 plus yards long real estate development dominated golf courses that are essentially unplayable by the average golfer.

Then there are the many enlightening anecdotes and stories of Hueber’s relationship with Ben Hogan, perhaps the most enigmatic and dominant players of all times, who still came into the office everyday even after selling out to AMF in 1960. Heuber even tackles an explanation of Hogan’s so-called swing “secret” which allowed “The Wee Ice Mon,” as the Scots called him, control like no other player over the distance and trajectory of his shots. This at a time of persimmon headed drivers and of rubber band-wound liquid center golf balls so lacking in quality control a player was fortunate to find three or four in a dozen that were round and would fly properly.

Hueber’s personal history is interesting but what makes “In the Rough: The Business Game of Golf” worth reading is the insight he provides to the events and some the biggest names in the game.

In the Rough: The Business Game of Golf
David Hueber
TCU Press
246 pp.
Paper with flaps. $32.50
eBook. $15.95