Come Back Tiger


For a lot of reasons besides the thrill of watching him play this madding game we need a healthy Tiger Woods back on Tour.

He draws attention regardless of his score. TV ratings take a big bump whenever he tees it up not to mention how much they increase when he is in contention. Companies get more “eyeballs” on their advertisements resulting in more sales and more return on their investment. In the case of the golf equipment OEMs such as TaylorMade Golf and Bridgestone Golf who pay Woods to endorse their products that can be significant.

Then, let’s not forget tournament ticket sales, merchandise sales, refreshments and pro-am fees. The more money raised the more can go to charity. Plus, though his turning professional in 1996 may not have resulted in a permanent increase in the number of golfers, there’s no denying a healthy Tiger attracts attention and bolsters the sport’s image which doesn’t hurt participation.

Whether Woods is the greatest player of all time or not, the truth is he still brings an interest and excitement to any event he enters. Insiders would say, “He moves the needle.” Is his career over? Who knows and it seems that even he doesn’t know.

Maligned, sometimes unfairly, and praised, sometimes undeservedly, but whatever the circumstances he has been the face of professional golf and for the past two decades has been the most talked about and written about golfer on Tour.

Dealing with just the facts, rather than what sometimes passes for news and is actually opinion, Woods is a forty-something athlete who has a bad back and there’s always a big question mark with that type of injury. Three surgeries put him on the sidelines beginning in August 2015. The layoff ended with his ballyhooed return in early December 2016 at a 17-player charity exhibition and no cut. He finished 15th.

Next in late January this year he teed it up at Torrey Pines Golf Club less than an hour from where he grew up. His rounds of 76 and 72 missed the cut by four strokes. Then he flew commercially to Dubai (Really? It’s hard to believe he would go commercial) where, after smoothing it around for a 77, Woods was hit by back spasms forcing his withdrawal.

Though had planned to, he did not play at Riviera (his charity is a primary beneficiary) nor the Honda near his home in South Florida revealing on TigerWoods.com his doctors had ordered no activity to let his “back calm down.”

And those are the facts. With the Masters five weeks away and his often voiced determination to win more major championships it will be interesting to see if he is able to play. Or even if his back is OK Woods may feel his game isn’t ready for prime time, that he can’t be competitive and decide against going to Augusta.

It’s important to not get carried away with speculation, guessing and wishful thinking. Woods doesn’t need the money but does, from all reports, still want to win more majors, i.e., continue chasing Jack Nicklaus’ record.

Besides, there’s one other salient fact about the former world number one who held that spot for a total of over 13 years. In less than nine years Woods will be eligible for the Champions Tour.

Tiger’s In – Nike’s Out

woods_2015_wyndham

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.

Callaway & TMaG Sales Up

CallawayTMaG_400x300

The third quarter financials of Callaway Golf (NYSE:ELY) and TaylorMade-adidas Golf reflect small sales increases over the previous year but year-to-date sales for both are lower.

Callaway reported third quarter sales of $176 million with a $3.6 million loss compared with 2014 sales of $169 million and a $1.1 million loss. For nine months sales were $62 million less than last year at $690 million and pretax income was $11 million lower to $50 million. The company says early sales figures for the new Great Big Bertha driver have been encouraging.

TaylorMade-adidas, part of apparel giant adidas Group (OTCMKTS:ADDYY), said third quarter sales rose 6.5% to $173 million driven by double digit percentage increases in metalwoods. Profit margins were lower while year to date sales were $737 million, down 13% from 2014.

Restructuring of TMaG continues with the announcement in the third quarter report further layoffs will occur before year end effecting 14 percent of company employees worldwide. This is on top of a six percent layoff in July and previous layoffs in 2014.

Adidas is investigating sale of the Adams Golf and Ashworth brands, part of TMaG, and speculation is TaylorMade may be sold as well due to continued underperformance of sales and profits. The company acknowledged sales of last season’s R15 driver were “disappointing” but that the M1 driver model introduced in September along with the PSi irons recently announced would provide increases. Both have already been positively received in the marketplace.

TaylorMade on the Block?

TmaG_Headquarters_400x300

Adidas (OTCMKTS:ADDYY) said they have engaged an investment bank to look into selling non-core golf brands Adams and Ashworth which along with TaylorMade Golf make their golf division. A sale of TaylorMade however, was not ruled out as golf division sales had double-digit declines in the second quarter following lower first quarter sales following a 29 percent drop in 2014.

Golf industry insiders speculate a purchaser may come from outside the sporting goods business segment due to the long term trend of declining equipment sales particularly in the U.S. which accounts for approximately one-half of worldwide market.  

In response to decreasing business TMaG has already changed Chief Executive Officers twice in the past 18 months and undergone two rounds of employee layouts in the past year. Adidas Chief Executive Herbert Hainer said TaylorMade’s the current R15 and AeroBurner metalwoods had not met sales expectations and he was hopeful the new models being introduced next month would be a success. 

Not part of the consideration, at least at this time apparently, is spinning Adams, Ashworth and TaylorMade off as a separate company and selling shares to the public as Acushnet-owner Fila has announced it is considering.

TMaG & Microsoft Partnership

TaylorMade Golf Company and Microsoft using the Microsoft Band have come together and created new performance technology for golfers.

“Digital technology is playing a bigger part in peoples’ lives today,” said David Abeles, CEO of TaylorMade Golf Company. “This is no different in the golf space, so it was a natural fit to partner with Microsoft in developing this innovative platform, aimed at enhancing the golfers experience through a series of unprecedented smart technologies.”

MicrosoftBand

MicrosoftBand

“We are excited to bring the golf experience to the Microsoft Band,” said Yusuf Mehdi, corporate vice president, Microsoft Devices and Services. “The combination of walking several miles with the physical rigor that goes into playing a round provides a great opportunity for Microsoft Health and Microsoft Band to track our golf customers’ fitness and provide observations to help take their game to the next level.”

Microsoft Band, the first by Microsoft Health, helps the user reach wellness goals by tracking heart rate, steps, calorie burn and sleep quality as well as email previews and calendar alerts.

Applications on the Microsoft Band will provide shot tracking and analysis capabilities beginning with the Golf Tile app which has shot tracking, GPS yardages to front, middle and back of the green and a digital scorecard. Plus biometrics such as calories burned, steps taken, heart rate and duration of the round will be captured. Data shows on the Microsoft Band throughout the round but a summary can also be found on the Microsoft Health phone application (iOS, Android and Windows Phone) or Microsoft Health web dashboard afterwards.

TMaG will soon launch a new app named myRoundPro, a standalone analytics platform that is enhanced when used in conjunction with the Golf Tile and Microsoft Health. myRoundPro will analyze golfers’ statistics in greater detail such as strokes gained, proximity to the hole, fairways hit and greens in regulation.

The Microsoft Band is sold for $199 by Microsoft Stores, at Amazon, Best Buy and Target and online at microsoftstore.com.

10 Rounds with the R15 Driver

R15_460_430_800x600

TaylorMade Golf is the number one club company for a reason and though some “pundits” have almost made a cottage industry out of criticizing them the bottom line is they sell more clubs than anyone else. Just as with other market leaders (Microsoft and CoCa-Cola come to mind) a few people seem to have a psychological need to take out after the guy on top which probably says more about them than the leader being attacked.

But let’s be clear, TaylorMade sells more clubs for a good reason. Golfers believe they perform better and all the carping or back biting doesn’t change that fact one bit.

With that bit of philosophizing behind us and turning our attention to the newest lead dog from TMaG, I admit I was looking forward to the arrival of the R15. The comparison with last year’s SLDR model was going to be fun.

For 2015, the premier driver model’s name is a return to the old standby “R” designation first seen in 2002 but most significantly as the groundbreaking moveable-weight R7 Quad in 2004. Last year the TaylorMade SLDR model hit the top of the charts with a single sliding weight that could be adjusted either towards the toe or heel by moving it along channel in the sole to compensate for the user’s slice or hook.  And it worked allowing average golfers to adjust the club to, at least in part, fix swing faults.

WZ132_zoom_D2The R15 also is a return the distinctive white clubhead (though a black version is available) and it has all the technology seen in the SLDR with two significant differences, the first being not readily apparent. The weight channel was moved closer to the face so it acts as a slot to give additional face flex at impact. This in combination with 40-grams of weight being moved 12mm closer to the clubface means the R15 produces quite a bit less side spin than the SLDR and by extension just about every other driver on the market.

The second and more obvious change is the addition of a second weight in the sliding sole channel. Now, not only can the user compensate for ball curvature but because the weights can be spread widely apart, the moment of inertia or resistance to twisting is really increased. As Tom Kroll, in charge of TMaG’s Global Product Creation told me, you can think of high MOI as protecting ball speed when the impact is anywhere but on the exact center of the clubface.

Taking the R15 to the course a couple of things were readily apparent. The feel at impact was a step up from the previous SLDR model and though the SLDR didn’t have a poor feel, the R15 felt and sounded like the closing of a door on a Rolls Royce.

Distance for drives hit at or very near the center of the face was excellent, maybe even a bit past the SLDR yardage under most conditions but where the R15 really showed off was on off center hits, especially the ones slightly towards the heel. Distance was still good and as a guess, the loss of distance was about 10-yards compared to center impact.

The test 10.5 degree R15 had the smaller 430cc clubhead with the stock 45.5 inch Fujikura Speeder 67 Evolution shaft and the already impressive forgiveness would presumably be even better using the 460cc model. Of course the 430cc head tends to produce even lower spin so there is a tradeoff.

Shortly after completing the 10 rounds with the R15 while staying at the Reynolds Plantation outside Atlanta I visited The Kingdom, TaylorMade’s world class fitting center located there. After an hour long session on the launch monitor under the guidance of The Kingdom’s Noel English testing the R15 with a variety of shafts to maximize launch conditions he recommended a Fujikura Pro 53 trimmed to 45 inches—1/2 inch less than the stock shaft. The results since have been impressive or put another way I’m over the moon.

On just a typical swing with average contact I’ve gained 15 yards.

The game’s a lot easier the farther you hit it.

Negatives. The price. At $430 the R15 is among the highest priced drivers but in my opinion the performance more than compensates.

Recommendation. The R15 has to be at the top of your list if you’re looking for a new driver.

10 Rounds with RSi Irons

TaylorMade RSi1

TaylorMade RSi1

TaylorMade Golf sells the most golf equipment around the world by quite a big margin but frankly most golfers probably have TMaG’s top selling drivers come to mind when they think of the company.

That perception could be changing.

With the introduction of the RSi iron models TMaG, in the opinion of some, takes “forgiveness” to a new level and after some 250 on-course swings with the RSis over 10 rounds and maybe twice that number on the range I can say they are something special.

TMaG had been showing it understood sole slots and cavities and perimeter weighting in irons with their models in the immediate past: RocketBladez, SpeedBlade and SLDR. They also understood even professionals don’t contact the ball in the center of the club face every time and amateurs in fact hit the sweet spot less than one-third of the time.

The goal became to add to the size of the sweet spot beginning with how the head weight was distributed which lead to cavity back, plugs and ultimately slots in the sole, all of which now is pretty much standard stuff and done by most every club maker.

Enter the groundbreaking idea for the RSi model, namely slots in the face to really enlarge the sweet spot making them the easiest irons to play I have ever hit. Found in the 3- through 8-irons the face slots combined with a tweaking of the sole slot have made a difference in my iron game for two reasons.

First is the trajectory is exactly what I look for and particularly in those instances where the impact was a little low on the face the ball still got up in the air a reasonable amount. Not perfectly and that’s not to be expected but with enough height to produce an “average” shot but maybe best of all with sufficient spin to check fairly well on the green.

RSi Breakout

RSi Breakout

Just as important, because of the added flexing of the face allowed by the new face slots, I have gained distance; not the credibility-testing “these new irons are two clubs longer” kind but a solid, reliable one-half a club over the SpeedBlades I was playing.

I tested the RSi 1 model game-improvement category irons though there are RSi 2 and RSi TP models in the stable as well. The test set of 4-iron through pitching wedge with ReAx steel shafts is $700.

Recommendation: Irons are the key to scoring and the RSi models should be on everyone’s list to evaluate…they are that good.

My experience can be summed up by the fact I have gained added confidence in my iron game to the extent I pulled a 4-hybrid from my bag substituting the RSi 4-iron because I can be sure of hitting it the correct distance and there’s an added benefit. After one of those almost too rare to mention pull-hook drives I have been known for—rare being defined as not more than three times per round. It’s a comfort having the 4-iron in the bag for the ever popular under-the-tree-punch-it-out shots.

Images courtesy of TaylorMade-adidas Golf