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Buyer Beware

Counterfeit equipment is more available and increasingly harder to detect. What you need to know to avoid getting burned by this $240 million international scam

February 29, 2008

Jay Weibel was browsing eBay, searching for an Odyssey Marxman putter. Finding one for $118 -- an attractive price, but not so cheap it aroused suspicion -- the 4-handicapper from East Brady, Pa., made a bid and eventually won the auction. When the putter arrived, Weibel noticed that while it looked identical to other Marxman putters he had tried, the insert felt decidedly firmer. After two days comparing the putter with photos of other Marxman putters, he discovered it is not always "better when you win." He had bought a counterfeit.

"I felt sick -- like a punch in the stomach," says Weibel.

The sickness Weibel felt is becoming more prevalent, and there is no cure in sight. Although no hard figures are available for golf-only counterfeits, the International Chamber of Commerce estimates counterfeits account for 6 percent of all goods sold -- a $350 billion business worldwide annually. Golf equipment and apparel is approximately a $4 billion-per-year industry, meaning the sale of counterfeit goods in golf could be as much as $240 million a year. Translation: There's a lot of bogus clubs in the marketplace.

Testifying before the House Committee on Ways and Means in 2005, Myron Brilliant, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce's VP for East Asia, said the problem of counterfeiting in China had "reached epidemic proportions," citing a 47-percent increase in the value of counterfeit goods seized from the prior year. The U.S. Department of Homeland Security estimates that more than 80 percent of all counterfeit goods originate from mainland China.

"Anyone who is doing manufacturing in China has a problem," says Steve Gingrich, vice president of global security for Cleveland Golf. "Counterfeiting is not a victimless crime. The victims are the consumers."

Manufacturers are victims, too. Not only is there the lost sale, but intellectual property and trademarks have, in effect, been stolen. Perhaps worse is damage that can't be measured -- the blow to a manufacturer's reputation. Shafts break, clubheads fly off and swingweights aren't close to being accurate in many instances. A purchase of 52-, 56- and 60-degree wedges might result in all three wedges having the same loft. Other counterfeit golf goods such as bags and apparel aren't safe, either. Zippers break or seams rip. And if the consumer hasn't figured out something is a fake, the company being ripped off in the first place suffers an additional loss.

"All that consumer knows is the product hasn't held up and that our name is on it," says Gingrich. "And not only will they buy from another company next time, but they're likely to tell their friends who will tell their friends. The counterfeiters don't have a quality control department. Those damages cannot be measured."

Although counterfeits lack the performance characteristics of the real thing, the crooks are bringing their "A" game in other areas.

"One of the sobering experiences is seeing just how good these clubs have gotten cosmetically," says Stu Herrington, Callaway Golf's director of security and investigations. "Not in terms of engineering, not in terms of materials or quality or playability, but in terms of just looking at the damn thing. It's much better than five or six years ago. If you put a good counterfeit side-by-side with a legit club, you may be able to tell. But if it's alone on the shelf or a photo on the Internet, you probably won't know."

While the level of cosmetic sophistication has gotten sharper, marketing has gotten smarter, too. Gone is the "too-good-to-be-true" pricing that for years was the hallmark of counterfeits. Now, to reduce suspicion, counterfeit pricing tends to resemble a good deal as opposed to the bargain of a lifetime.

The combination of good looks and attractive pricing is exactly what lured Mike Castellani, a software developer and a 10-handicapper from Bethlehem, Pa. Searching for a Scotty Cameron Studio Design putter on eBay, Castellani spotted an auction for one and then did his homework.

First Castellani looked at photos of the putter and felt the club looked legitimate. The price, $190, was not exactly cheap, although lower than what he could buy the club for elsewhere. Then he looked at the bid history: There were 25 bids, with several different bidders. An experienced eBay buyer, Castellani felt that was a good sign as some auctions inflate the price by having one person continue to bid time and again. Finally, he looked at the seller feedback, which was virtually all positive.

"It looked like a legit auction," he says.

Making a last-minute bid, Castellani won the auction. But the enjoyment of his "victory" was short-lived. Within five minutes he received an e-mail from an eBay user telling him he had bought a fake. A day later, Lisa Rogan, trademark manager for Acushnet, which owns the Cameron name, e-mailed Castellani and informed him the seller had come under suspicion as a dealer of counterfeit products.

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