PACIFIC PALISADES, Calif. — Justin Rose parting ways with TaylorMade to take up with Honma might not represent a tectonic shift in the equipment landscape, but it did produce a jolt.
Rarely does an elite player at the peak of his career opt for a relatively unknown club manufacturer over a brand name. Think Nick Price signing with Atrigon in 1995, after winning the PGA Championship and British Open the year before.
Rose, meanwhile, is No. 1 in the World Ranking and the reigning FedEx Cup champion and Olympic Gold Medalist. Now, he's debuting a new brand of irons and wedges, and possibly a driver, in the Desert Classic in La Quinta, Calif., on Thursday.
Yet it wasn’t woods or irons that precipitated Rose’s decision to look beyond the most popular brands and opt for a brand well known in Asia but virtually a nonentity in the U.S. and European markets. It was the opportunity to choose any putter and what that represents to an elite golfer—freedom from club contracts that require a player’s entire set come from their equipment benefactor.
“That was a big factor in having that flexibility,” Rose said at Honma’s official North American launch Monday at Riviera Country Club. “The putter was a huge reason why this conversation [with Honma] started. I’ve continued, fortunately, to be surprised at every step of the way with the products Honma has been able to produce.”
The putter that Rose is eyeing right now is from a company called Axis1, a brand even less well known than Honma but a true expression of the freedom of choice Rose is now focused on. Axis1 is based outside of Boston, and boasts that the technology in its putters delivers a perfectly balanced instrument that resists twisting to help apply a purer stroke.
Honma, too, offered Rose the ability to have input into the design of the irons, including the TW 747 Rose Prototype muscle back irons, at least some of which he will have in play on Thursday. Collaboration has become one of Rose's motivating principles.
“That’s really important,” Rose said. “Obviously, TaylorMade’s been one of the juggernauts of the game. There’s elements there that you can have an influence on, but they have a solid R&D team that’s working years in advance. The collaborative process of making these [Honma] irons was so much fun. I was able to make them look and feel like my own, which I think is awesome.
"Within the structure of the deal with Honma there were elements that I thought were very important to me at this stage of my career. There was a little more flexibility than I would have had at one of the top other companies that would have demanded 14 clubs, ball, putter. And I thought that was very important for me going forward.”
Rose will have several Honma clubs in play on Thursday, though he has not settled on a set makeup. He’ll play Honma irons, either all blades or a split set that would include its prototype cavity back 747 V irons.
“I may go blades all the way still,” he said, “but I have the option. The great thing is they’ve made the cavities look like a continuation of the blades. Even in the utilities, the top line and toe profile look like they flow through the set. Before I felt like I had two different sets. There was that awkward transition. I don’t feel like I have that now, which is great.”
He’ll also have three Honma TW 747 Rose prototype wedges in his bag—48, 52 and 56 degrees—as well as a Titleist Vokey lob wedge. He’ll still be playing TaylorMade fairway woods for the time being, and he’s “leaning toward” playing a Honma driver, the TW 747 460 with 9.5 degrees of loft.
“The driver was the risk,” he said. “I think that’s fairly obvious. I was incredibly confident I was going to have a set of irons that look and feel like nothing I've ever had and that has been the case. The driver I had to take people’s word for, and I’ve been blown away by the performance.”
Another option under consideration is replacing his 5-wood with a Honma TW Utility club with a 2-iron loft.
“Unbelievable,” he said of the club. “For some reason I hit them so much straighter. They have that great high flight, distance capability. They seem to feel more balanced.
“Do I put the 2-iron in and take the 5-wood out? It’s not a setup I would have thought of previously. Sometimes I go 4-iron and 5-wood. I have to make sure the gap isn’t too big. The 2-iron would be the perfect option to bridge that gap."
The Axis1 putter that started Rose's newfound freedom has not yet cracked his starting lineup. But it remains very front of mind as he starts the next phase of his career, at the top of one mountain but starting a different climb.
“[It] has a pattern that is very robust and no one else can really copy,” he said. “It’s a technology I really, really believe in and buy into. It’s not been the prettiest putter until recently. I’ve been working with the team there really hard to try to make something that looks really good or somewhat conventional, but has the performance elements that give it its pattern and its advantage.
"It’s been a very collaborative process.”