Those of us who travel in these circles (and certainly more and more golfers who troll the internet for the latest in equipment gossip and news) are getting used to the image: TaylorMade CEO Mark King bounding up toward a stage, slapping high fives on all sides from staff and clients like company endorsee Hale Irwin reenacting the 1990 U.S. Open at Medinah, leading full-throated exaltations over the latest TaylorMade innovation, and oozing equal parts televangelist and telemarketer (even the most jaundiced observer concedes King, who is a hot ticket at corporate conferences lately and gets a healthy five-figures a speech as a client of the Washington Speakers Bureau, is doing a better Steve Jobs than even Steve Jobs ever did).
What we're seeing is indeed a familiar site, another product introduction from TaylorMade. This time it's the company's new game-improvement iron, the R11, a sleeker-looking game improvement iron that incorporates multiple elements of the company's core iron technologies, including thin-faced inverted cone face design, progressive size and center of gravity locations through the set and a newly engineered groove design that attempts to break new ground in the groove debate.
But aside from the trappings of the video and despite the dearth of specific technology detailed in King's sermon, what's memorable, what is meaningful and educational about the state of the industry today is not exactly what King says, but how he says it. Most notable is the moment in which he extolls the idea that the R11, like all TaylorMade products, is special because of the unique passion of the people in his charge. He talks about an idea instilled by right-hand man Sean Toulon, executive vice president of club creation, "This will sound a little corny but I really believe it, but because of the love that the people of our company put into these clubs, Sean and I believe that the reason this is the most outstanding club ever is that it has a heartbeat."
Therein, the man who leads one of the two most successful companies in golf provides a clue as to what makes TaylorMade tick. King certainly believes in his company's technological merits, but he makes TaylorMade as a brand just seem cooler than so many others. That hasn't been the case for his backyard neighbor since that company's namesake stopped appearing in commercials or calling out rivals at trade show press conferences held in overflowing hotel ballrooms.
When Callaway announced last month that George Fellows was stepping away and board member Tony Thornley was taking over as interim CEO, the message was clear: A change of direction was needed. Thornley, who by all accounts has eagerly moved into the position with frequent staff emails and a daily presence that the previous administration lacked, mirrors King in that he is an avid, accomplished golfer. But it seems fair to say that at 64, his role may be more transitional than transformative. The challenge for Callaway is to find an inspirational, passionate leader like the one it used to have, like the one it sees in TaylorMade's company videos.
First, just look at the heads of the top golf companies today and you'll see passionate golfers at every turn: Wally Uihlein at Acushnet, Chip Brewer at Adams Golf, Greg Hopkins at Cleveland/Srixon, Cindy Davis at Nike, John Solheim at Ping and the aforementioned King. Might Callaway lure away one of these proven leaders? None would come easily, but if not, they need their own version.
The leading in-house candidate might be senior vice president U.S. Jeff Colton, but is there a better current voice of the company than chief endorser Phil Mickelson? Mickelson may not want to give up the chase for history and that elusive first U.S. Open, but no player currently in golf exudes a brand passion like Lefty McThrillsville. He even made a phone call extolling the virtues of Callaway's technology while on contract to another company. What's more, like Mark King, people believe him when he speaks, they're eager to high-five him as he walks by and, most importantly, he's eager to high-five them.
Mickelson might not take the job if offered, but he would be an intriguing rival to King. In the end, whoever that new leader might be at Callaway, he or she needs the heartbeat King so proudly talks about and wears openly on his sleeve.