The Local Knowlege

Balls

Former TaylorMade R&D leader going into ball business

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The golf ball market is starting to get a lot more interesting. 

While most golfers have been paying attention to the recent introductions of tour-level balls from major companies (Titleist's latest Pro V1/Pro V1x, Callaway's Chrome Soft and the Srixon Z-Star family), there’s been a recent influx of smaller manufacturers that have developed some success in marketing golf balls directly to consumers (3UP.com, INeedtheBall.com, Hopkins Golf and Vice Golf). In many cases, these are balls with not insignificant technologies at prices significantly below the national average. Now comes news that for the first time one of the more notable figures in golf ball technology over the last few decades is getting into the business on his own. 

Dean Snell, most recently the vice president of golf ball research and development at TaylorMade, is the force behind Snell Golf. The company announced two new products today, one of which includes a multilayer, urethane-covered construction the highest-priced technology currently on the market. Like these other companies, Snell Golf will market its golf balls exclusively online, direct to consumers.

Unlike these companies, however, there’s an individual with some serious golf ball technology cred on the payroll. Snell has been at the forefront of golf ball development with both Titleist and TaylorMade over the last 25 years. His name is on 38 golf ball patents, and he has worked on the groundbreaking technology behind the original Titleist Pro V1 and the five-layer TaylorMade Penta golf balls. 

Snell Golf’s My Tour Ball features a low-compression core and a multilayer construction with a cast urethane cover. The company also is offering a two-piece ball (Get Sum), also with low compression, aimed at improving distance, reducing spin on tee shots and providing softer feel. 

Beyond the technologies, what may be most appealing about these products are the prices. My Tour Ball will cost $31.99, similarly priced to one of Snell’s last projects before leaving TaylorMade, the Project (a) ball. That price is in line with some of the other direct-to-consumer offerings, but $10-15 less than some name brand multilayer urethane cover balls. Get Sum is $20.99. 

“I love this game and I hate seeing it decline,” Snell says on a video on his company’s website. “The motivation I have to start this company is to try to help grow the game. If I can help in any way, I can help with the cost of the golf ball. I can give you the performance and the technology that you’re looking for at an affordable price to help you go out and play more.”
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Equipment

Callaway Golf makes profit in 2014, best year since 2008

xr-driver-sole-b.jpgIn the nearly three years since Chip Brewer took over the reins as president and CEO of Callaway Golf, much has been made about the company’s comeback. Belts were tightened, product innovation grew and sales numbers were up. Indeed, general consumer perception was changing along with the company’s re-emerging presence in the professional ranks, too. Thursday, the company put those changes in the clearest perspective.

For the first full year since 2008, Callaway Golf made money. In a year that had been in many circles troubling for the golf industry, Callaway announced that full-year income for 2014 increased by five percent to $887 million, up from $843 million in 2013. Its gross profit of $358 million was the highest since 2010, and fully diluted earnings per share were $0.20 versus a $0.31 loss in 2013. 

“When looking just at the currency neutral basis you can see that we’ve made nice progress,” Brewer told investors on the company’s fourth-quarter earnings call Thursday. “What we’ll continue to need to do is basically the things that we’ve been doing in operational improvements and revenue growth. On a currency-neutral basis I believe this was and is trending on a very positive basis.”

Among the highlights for 2014 were increased sales in woods (8 percent), irons (12 percent) and golf balls (4 percent). The company saw also sales increases in all regions of the world, including an 11 percent gain in Europe. 

Still, the company is cautious about its 2015 forecast, suggesting that operating costs will increase due to spending on tour support and marketing. But the big drag will be weakening foreign currency. Callaway is forecasting a decrease in net sales based solely on unfavorable foreign currency exchange rates. Still, on a constant currency basis, Callaway is forecasting an increase in net sales to a high end of $920 million, or as much as 5 percent, including an estimated growth of 5-6 percent in core channel business. 

Brewer also said Callaway increased its investment in the driving range/entertainment franchise TopGolf to $50.4 million. “We continue to be excited about the prospects of that business, and we think that’s going to be a positive for the shareholders of Callaway Golf,” he said. 

Brewer also touted the company’s newly launched XR line of clubs and Chrome Soft ball and noted golfers’ acceptance of higher-priced products.

“Given the strength of our product line for 2015, and anticipated additional improvements in our operations, we expect for 2015 on a constant currency basis not only sales growth and market share gains, but also further improvements in gross margins and profitability. Golf is a momentum business and fortunately momentum is now on our side." 

Callaway’s stock price was up 3 percent in trading this morning.
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Golf & Business

Sorry, you missed your opportunity to buy Dustin Johnson's waterfront mansion

On Monday, Tim Rosaforte reported Dustin Johnson is eyeing a February return from his "leave of absence" from the PGA Tour and that he's been busy working out and practicing. Apparently, he's also been wheelin' and dealin' real estate during his time away from competitive golf.

Related: The lack of golf amenities in this $195 million estate is alarming

The LA Times reported Johnson sold his Jupiter, Fla., mansion for $5.2 million in an off-market deal. The 7,860-square foot Mediterranean-styled home was built in 2007 and was bought by Johnson in 2011 for $3.7 million.

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The buyer, Alexandre Ismail, president and CEO of Honeywell Automation and Control Solutions, seems to be getting a deal on the house, which was listed for $6.5 million before being taken off the market in July. The waterfront property includes a putting green, private dock, pool, and an outdoor fireplace and dining area.

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Johnson and fiancee Paulina Gretzky are expecting their first child. Perhaps, the couple is looking for something with a bit more space.

(Photo: Redfin)

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Golf & Business

The real cause of slow play isn't what you think

You know that guy who takes three practice swings and reads putts from both sides of the hole? And that other guy who tells long jokes when it’s his honor on the tee box? Turns out neither are responsible for the preponderance of five-hour rounds in this country. 

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The second annual Pace of Play Symposium was held at the USGA headquarters in Far Hills, N.J., last week. The purpose was “to exchange thoughts, ideas and solutions for improving the pace of play in golf.” While this sounds like a grandiose version of the same futile, finger-pointing conversation overheard at the low-handicapper’s table in the men’s grillroom, it wasn’t. Discarding assumptions and embracing the scientific method, the results of 17 research projects, conducted by people from all corners of the world, were presented over two days. The data was as robust as the coffee. And Golf Digest sat through it all so you didn’t have to.  

If there was one common finding among the independent projects, it’s that the overriding factor is course management. No, not the kind that comes from reading yardage books, but how golf courses are actually operated by those who own them. This is encouraging, as the solution entails changing the behavior of a few thousand motivated stakeholders versus millions of unwitting Kevin Na copycats.

Rather than get bogged in the weeds of how the data was gathered (in one project, USGA interns spent their summers handing out GPS tracking devices to recreational players on the first tee and then collecting them on the 18th), let’s simply highlight the key points. 

The average round of golf in America takes 4 hours, 17 minutes, according to Lucius Riccio, Ph.D., who analyzed 40,460 rounds. The average time of dewsweepers, or the first group out, is 3:46. The length and Slope Rating of a golf course has almost no correlation with pace. The only statistically significant variable is how busy a course is. Golfers move like cars on the interstate. Rush hour is bad. Make too many merges too quickly, and gridlock ensues. 

So the most effective change course owners can make is to increase tee-time intervals. In the 2014 LPGA Tour season, the average round time was reduced 14 minutes by switching from 10- to 11-minute intervals. “While competitive golf is a much easier nut to crack because we can enforce faster play with referees and penalties, the same principles apply to recreational golf,” said Kevin Barker, assistant director of rules for the R&A. Many public facilities operate at eight-minute intervals. On the surface, moving to 10-minute intervals costs a course roughly 15 percent in revenue because fewer golfers can be accommodated on the tee sheet. 

However, faster rounds means a course can go later into the day before charging twilight rates to players less likely to finish. It also means they can operate with fewer carts. Poppy Hills Golf Course sold 10 carts from its fleet after significantly improving its average pace of play. 

Course setup is the second most important factor. Pete Rouillard, senior VP of golf operations for SunBelt Golf Corporation, which manages the Robert Trent Jones Golf Trail in Alabama, pays strict attention to tees. During busy weekends, he’s had success pushing the tees back on par 5s and reachable par 4s, to deter longer hitters from waiting to have a go at the green, and also moving the tees forward on par 3s to result in more greens in regulation for everybody. The idea is “to make every hole transition to a short par 3 at some point to improve the flow of a round.”

Andrew Tiger, Ph.D., is big on flow. “Disney World has it figured it out, they make you wait while you think you’re on the ride,” he says. “A round that takes 4:18 where you don’t wait feels infinitely better than a round that takes the same time where you wait for 18 minutes.” Tiger has built a sophisticated model to predict how long a round will take depending on the precise features of each hole, the ability of the golfers playing, the number of golfers in a group and so on for as many variables as can be inputted, like say, if a group is playing a Scramble or Stableford format. The model is still a work in progress, but the USGA plans to work with Tiger closely in 2015. The goal is to be able to predict pace so acutely that courses can make management decisions and redesign accordingly.

The early returns suggest redesigns are indeed where you can pick up the most pace. Independence Golf Club in Midlothian, Va., shaved 45 minutes off its usual five-hour round by removing bunkers, making others less severe and overall increasing the playability of the course by removing large swaths of rough, which were costly to maintain and easy to lose a golf ball in. “The best players at the club say they’ve never had more fun playing,” said Lester George, who oversaw the redesign. “You still keep the challenge, golfers like getting it thrown back at them once in a while, but you increase the shot options.” 
“Golf courses used to be run on emotion, but as we go forward we’re going to see them run more like businesses,” said Stephen Johnston, founding principal of Global Golf Advisors.
And if that means making them run faster, customers will be happy. It’s quite possible the most useful conversation ever on slow play took 16 hours last week in New Jersey.   


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Golf & Business

New TaylorMade CEO Ben Sharpe: 'People want us to be the renegade'

TaylorMade's Thursday night launch in New York City of its new R15 and AeroBurner lines of metalwoods also served as a coming-out party of sorts for CEO Ben Sharpe, who was available for interviews for the first time since moving into his new job in April.

loop-ben-sharpe-taylormade-325.jpgSharpe, 40, has been with the company since 2006, spending six years as TaylorMade-adidas Golf's managing director in Europe. During that time he helped double the TaylorMade business in Europe. A member of Great Britain's field hockey team that competed in the 2000 Olympics, Sharpe was born and raised in Birmingham, England and graduated from Sheffield University in 1996 with a degree in Business Studies and Financial Markets. A 7-handicap who began playing golf at age 12, he was named executive vice president of Adidas Golf and Ashworth in February 2013 before becoming CEO this year.

Golf Digest got the first interview with Sharpe, who laid out his plans for both TaylorMade and Adams Golf and how to expand golf's base without changing the fabric of the game.

Golf Digest: You spent 100 days speaking with a lot of people about TaylorMade and the brand. What did you learn?

Ben Sharpe: What surprised me is that things aren't quite as bad as everyone is making them out to be. I think there is a big difference between perception and reality, and things are never quite as bad as they seem. Or quite as good as they seem. The positive thing I heard was how excited people are about what we are going to do with TaylorMade going forward and how they are going to support us and how important we are to the industry. In short, they want us to succeed.

Some things came out consistently. One is whether it be retailers, tour players or media, people want us to be the renegade. People want us to be the innovator -- to come out with new and exciting ideas -- and when we come out with them, to speak about them in a big way and in a different way that engages consumers.

GD: Is part of that enthusiasm driven by your stated goals of managing inventories and less cascading down of prices?

Sharpe: They want us to lead that charge, but in a responsible way. Still, talk is cheap and you get judged by what you do, not by what you say. All I ask is that we get judged by what we do. We want to address the challenges, but also introduce product in a cool way. Something that hits a nerve with every golfer -- like what we did with the introduction of the RSi irons -- where the golfer says, "Yeah, that could be for me."

GD: What's the path to do that?

Sharpe: Getting back to who we are: cool, exciting and [with] technologies that are better than their predecessors. And the marketing campaigns that are around those really need to strike to the core of the golfer. That's what it is all about and maybe, over the last 18 months, we got a little bit away from who we are. Sometimes I think we got a little bit carried away with our messaging. But I think what you saw with RSi and what you'll see with R15 and AeroBurner is that we're right on point.

GD:Is the average consumer confused? Bored? Angry? Eager?

Sharpe: If you listen to the people on the blog sites I'd say they are angry. But if you listen to the golfers out there -- because a lot of people who are on the blog sites are our competitors -- I would say there is some confusion. What product is the best one for me? Why is this one better? And why does this one cost this much and why does the other one cost that much? That's not an angry emotion. They're just a little confused.

GD: What's the plan for Adams Golf?

Shapre: We had an employee question-and-answer session the other day, and one question was, "Why do you love golf?" Some people said they love to compete. Others said they searched for the perfect shot. Others said they wanted to have fun or play with their pals. So there are different reasons and there are different purchase decisions that go with that. So with TaylorMade and Adams, we can spread those brands out across all those constituencies to attract a larger portion of the golf market. I think there is an opportunity to move Adams into that fun, friendly environment, a social, easy-to-play and put-a-smile-on-your-face brand, and keep TaylorMade as the zero to 4-handicap, aspirational, tour-validated, great-technology brand. And that's the value of having both. That's the reason we brought Adams to Carlsbad. It allows us to have those conversations every day on positioning.

GD: So you know exactly what you want to do with Adams?

Sharpe: We do. It's going to be different, but will still be able to be played by the best players in the world. Their hybrid technology is fantastic, and we will continue to develop that. But Adams can stand for more than just golf products. It can stand for movement to introduce a new demographic of people who want to play rather than compete.

GD: Nonconforming equipment, perhaps?

Sharpe: We can explore that. I'm not ruling anything out. But when you look at Adams I think I just want people to smile. There are six opportunities to get in a players' bag: Driver, fairway wood, hybrid, irons, wedges and putter. If you ask people to choose five or six cars, they wouldn't just have Aston Martins. So there's some room for the Adams brand to live.

GD: Is that space beyond golf clubs?

Sharpe: Yeah, I think it can be. But we are a golf equipment company at the moment and that's what we know. So that will be the focus for now.

GD: What about Hack Golf? Where does that stand?

Sharpe: Hack Golf was an interesting exercise for us. Unfortunately it was perceived as a TaylorMade marketing initiative, and it didn't get buy in because no other company wanted to get involved. So we learned that we cannot lead that charge. But we would like to be involved in anything that will improve the health of golf and grow the sport. We're working with the PGA of America and supporting some initiatives and will continue to have the Hack Golf website and if there are any good ideas we will continue to help fund those. It's an honest attempt to address a problem.

Golf is an aspirational sport and always should be. And always will be. But if you get the net wider you can still have your country clubs and all that. People shouldn't fear growing the game. It doesn't mean that it has to change the fabric of it or the integrity of the sport. Two of my most enjoyable golf experiences are seeing my 7-year-old boy hit the ball 100 yards at a nine-hole municipal course. The other is playing a private, members-only golf club and seeing no one in front of me and no one behind me for 18 holes. And I love them equally. And you can still have both of those experiences. Just because you're trying to do something new doesn't mean you have to lose that. And I think that may be a fear and why some things aren't being embraced.

GD: What about the tour and its role for TaylorMade given the investment and the return on that investment?

Sharpe: It's a conversation we have every year and review it to make sure it is relevant. And I'm sure in 10 years our tour strategy will be different than it is today. But at the moment I think the stable of players we have and the position we have in count in metalwoods and irons is a strong message. We talked about how the facts can be exciting. And the fact is since 1979 when took something made out of wood and made it out metal, we've been the innovator in that space. And the fact is the best players in the world have embraced those innovations in a big way. No one comes close to us in that area. So in terms of why you should play this product, it's because if it's from this company it's the best innovation because we've proven that's what we do. And it's because the best players in the world rely on this equipment to put food on their table. That's two compelling reasons to buy a product.

GD: You've said you want all of TaylorMade's employees to have a voice. What is the benefit of widening that net?

Sharpe: The great thing about our industry is that it is in sport. And most people that play in sport are competitive and play to win. And we want to win together. I'm a team player and I've played team sports all my life. I kind of like winning, and I think we're going to give it a shot again.

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Golf & Business

Can one Orlando-area community save its golf course from being destroyed?

What would you do if the golf community where you lived suddenly announced plans to get rid of the golf course? You'd probably protest the decision, right?

That's what more than 1,000 residents of EastWood did on Wednesday night. The group of people, with most wearing red shirts as a sign of solidarity, crammed into the cafeteria of Avalon Middle School in Orlando, Fla., according to the Orlando Sentinel.

Related: Man faces one-year golf ban after alleged "lesbian comment"

Here's a news clip from Orlando's NBC affiliate station:

EastWood is a community of about 2,000 homes in the Waterford Lakes area, but the owners of its golf course are trying to have it rezoned, according to the report. Developers want to turn those 182 acres into hundreds of new homes and thousands of square feet of commercial real estate.

The protests aren't all golf-related, of course. Residents fear changes would result in more traffic and crime while decreasing the value of their homes.

Jim Pratt, an attorney representing the land owners, cited "the declining, failing golf industry in America" as the main reason to rezone the course. Pratt left the meeting surprised by all the opposition. "It was an overwhelming response . . . and we'll take that back to the owner."

Related: Justin Timberlake sells his Memphis golf course for just 500K

For this to happen, the County Commission would have to approve if the matter comes to a vote in 2015. That seems unlikely judging by commissioner Jennifer Thompson's response.

"When you do zoning, it's all about compatibility with the people who were there first," Thompson told the Sentinel. "I can't imagine they would convince me this is a good idea, but it's their legal right to go through the process."

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Golf & Business

The tool USGA officials hope will help solve the problem of slow play

usga-flagstick-device-175.jpgUSGA technical director Matt Pringle knows he can't wave a magic wand and make golf's slow-play problems disappear. But when he speaks during the Pace of Play Symposium the USGA is hosting this week at its headquarters in Far Hills, N.J., Pringle is looking forward to showing off a new device he hopes will some day help address the issue at the recreational level.

As part of the two-day gathering -- pro/amateur golf being the focus of discussion Wednesday, everyday golf up Thursday -- Pringle will unveil a prototype tool the USGA has been developing that attaches to a flagstick (see photo) and can be used to track the time between groups on a course. The device is triggered when the flagstick is placed into the cup (which has sensors in it along with the bottom of the flag stick) by a group walking off a green after players have putted out. It then tracks the time until the flagstick is removed from the cup by golfers approaching in the next group. These "cycle times," measured throughout a course, can then be monitored collectively to address issues in real time to try and get groups moving.

According to Pringle, the USGA began looking into developing the flagstick tool to give course operators an inexpensive but practical way to measure pace of play at their facilities. "It's our feeling that there are a lot of golf courses that are going blind," Pringle says. "They have no means of measuring, and therefore controlling, pace in any way, shape or form. The thing is, you really just can't leave it to chance."

Indeed, Pringle will show the USGA, which is hosting the symposium for a second straight year, is doing anything but leaving things to chance regarding slow play when he and colleague Scott Mingay present data the association gathered during the summer. At more than 130 public and private courses around the country, golfers were given GPS loggers to track them during their rounds, recording their location and the overall time to play as well as time spent waiting to play shots, among other metrics.

Pringle says more than 5,400 rounds were tracked, with the numbers being used to help the USGA offer recommendations, policies and solutions to deal with slow play, some of which will be discussion points this week.

In trying to broadly study the problem of slow play, Pringle and Mingay have looked to other industries that similarly rely on efficiently moving people or products through a defined system. Think Walt Disney World and its lines for rides and concessions, or UPS processing and delivering packages around the world.

"I feel a little bit sheepish when I talk about this project," Pringle says. "I think what we're doing is very advanced for golf, but if you were in a factory, Henry Ford would have done this [100 years ago]. . . . It's kind of cold to describe it like that, but this is a time and motion study on a very complex factory."

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By extension, the prototype flagstick tool (see the cutaway above) is an attempt to allow any facility the opportunity to study their own unique assembly line.

"We're not trying to make any money on this," Pringle says, "but we see it as an opportunity to help a lot of courses improve pace."

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Golf & Business

The lack of golf amenities in this $195 million estate is alarming

The Palazzo di Amore, a Beverly Hills creation of real estate investor Jeff Greene, is going on the market for a record $195 million. The property sits on 25 acres, has 53,000 square feet of living space, and includes things like a full-size movie theater, bowling alley, 128-foot reflecting pool, a tennis court, and a Turkish-style spa.

Related: The best backyard golf holes

Not bad, but where are the golf amenities? If I'm going to pay that kind of money for a house, you've got to at least give me a practice putting green!

Apparently, Mr. Greene, who made a fortune betting against subprime mortgages (his name comes up in Michael Lewis' well-known book chronicling the build up of the credit and housing bubble, The Big Short), isn't a big golfer. He failed to include any golf features on the otherwise spectacular property that took eight years to build and has been renting for $475,000 a month.

But just look at this estate:

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(Photo: Marc Angeles)

There's plenty of room for a putting green, a driving range and probably a few holes if you make one minor change. Who needs their own vineyard, anyway?

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Photos

This viral golf photo speaks volumes about the separation of two worlds

Golf often is a place to escape life’s realities, but a Spanish course couldn’t avoid them as it became the backdrop for a dramatic photo making its way around the Internet Thursday.

The image shows several African migrants trying to enter Europe from Morocco by climbing a nearly 20-foot-tall, razor-wire fence adjacent to the Club Campo de Golf in Melilla, Spain. The migrants had been living for months in makeshift campgrounds near the fence, waiting for an opportunity to cross the border and seek asylum as Spanish officers (hidden by the bushes) attempted to keep them from coming over.

The photo was taken by Jose Palazon of the human-rights group PRODEIN, and posted on Twitter.

According to a story in The Guardian, roughly 200 migrants tired to scale the fence with 20 successfully making it over. As many as 70, meanwhile, remained stuck on the fence for several hours.

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Golf & Business

GolfBeer Brewing Co.: Want a G-Mac ale to go with that G-Mac and Cheese?

Coming soon to a 19th hole near you: Freddie’s Scandinavian Style Blonde Ale, G-Mac’s Celtic Style Pale Ale, and Keegan’s New England Style Lager.

That would be PGA Tour players Freddie Jacobson, Graeme McDowell and Keegan Bradley, who have entered the beer business, partners in the new GolfBeer Brewing Co.

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“We wanted to create craft beers for the 19th hole, approachable craft beers, something the golfer can enjoy and maybe associate those with a golfer like Freddie Jacobson, like Keegan Bradley and myself,” McDowell said.

The idea was Jacobson’s and came from a conversation he had with a friend and business associate, Patrik Waxin. After completing his due diligence, Jacobson went to McDowell and Bradley to ask them to join him in the venture.

The beer is brewed at the Brew Hub in Lakeland, Fla., a company founded by craft beer experts and beer industry veterans. Initially it will be available on draft and in 12-ounce cans at select golf courses and restaurants in Florida. It has plans to offer it in glass bottles and to market it in grocery stores, bars and restaurants in 2015.

Related: Golf Digest’s best 19th holes

McDowell’s Nona Blue tavern in Lake Nona, Fla., which features G-Mac and Cheese on its menu, will be among those carrying GolfBeer’s offerings.

Each was developed according to the players’ own palates. “To have a master brewer develop a beer based on my taste preference has been an incredible experience,” Keegan Bradley said in a news release. “The beers are delicious, the concept is unique and I’m excited to be a part of it.”

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