2002: Business - From golf gloves to grooves, Antonious has made millions

Anthony J. (Tony) Antonious woke up one day and saw the future of golf. Clearly the future had a name: Velcro.

Using the sticky Velcro on the closure at the back of golf gloves, Antonious, 85, received a U.S. patent and made tens of millions of dollars. He also made enemies. The dollars outnumber the enemies, although his critics certainly aren’t shy.

Says Joe Phillips, a 54-year veteran of Wilson Sporting Goods: “He was not well-liked. I can’t believe that guy is still around. I can’t believe somebody hasn’t shot him by now.”

Phillips does not mean this to be taken literally. He simply is giving voice to a smoldering rage against what some see as the inequity of the U.S. patent system.

Antonious, an inventor and holder of more than 300 U.S. patents, most of them relating to golf, sees it differently: His life, he will tell anybody, is the American dream come true.

“I started with nothing,” he says. “My parents came over from Greece and couldn’t even speak the language. Nobody gave me anything; I earned it. This wonderful country provided me with the opportunity to make something of myself, and I had a burning desire to be successful.”

The way some of his critics describe him, Antonious is a bulldog who wraps himself in the American flag. From experience, they know that when he barks, the bite is not far behind. One thing is certain: No other individual has challenged so many major golf companies in court – and won.

Antonious profited enormously from the simplest of golf inventions. Back in the 1950s and 1960s, when golf gloves still were secured by a single button snap in the back, Antonious had his vision: yes, Velcro.

Replacing the button snap with Velcro and increasing the size of the opening in the back, Antonious invented the deep-vent, quick-closure golf glove. He began selling it in late 1969. After he displayed it at the 1970 PGA Merchandise Show in Miami, glovemakers around the world followed one of two tactics: They either licensed the concept from Antonious, or they tried to copy the idea without a license.

He dragged the copycats into court, suing 14 golf companies, and he made, in his words, “many, many, many millions.” Simple math reveals that, after paying his patent attorneys “many millions,” he was left with many, many millions. (Some of his patent attorneys earn $1,000 per hour).

Antonious, who played his first round of golf when he was 48, lives on a course in Sarasota, Fla., where he remains an active inventor. His glove patent expired in 1988, but he tries not to dwell on past glories. Antonious’ glove patent was issued in 1971 and had a life span of 17 years and was not renewable. (Today they last 20 years.) All royalties stop when patents expire.

His latest brainstorm, vertical grooves instead of horizontal grooves in the face of a metalwood, can be seen in the new Tour Trajectory driver from Merit Golf.

Patent attorney Nick Aquilino, semi-retired and splitting his time between his office in Virginia and a home in Florida, has known Antonious for almost 30 years.

“I’ve done work for Tony since the 1970s,” says Aquilino, at one time a scratch golfer. “He’s unbelievable. It’s almost like he never stops. Despite his doctor’s admonitions, he keeps going. He has a drive unlike any other inventor I have ever encountered. He has several hundred golf patents, some of them fairly significant, and he continues to come up with new and innovative ideas.”

Aquilino recalls Antonious showing him “a few (royalty) checks for a half-million dollars,” although it was the multimillion dollar checks that earned Antonious a reputation as a hard-nosed businessman.

Wilson settled with him for several million dollars after unsuccessfully battling in court over the Velcro closure glove. Mizuno, already having introduced the T-Zoid iron, discovered that the iron’s weight distribution scheme, or a likeness of it, had been patented by Antonious. Eventually, Mizuno shelled out a few million to acquire the patent.

“Sure, I remember when we settled with him,” says Phillips, the Wilson veteran who serves as a consultant to the company. “You want to know my opinion? He just patented everything in sight, whether he invented the product or not. He let everybody use Velcro, and then after they were successful, he said: ‘I own that patent, you owe me royalties.’ He was very intelligent, and he knew how to play that game.”

Jim Hansberger, the longtime president of Ram Golf who is retired in Orlando, Fla., harbors a forged-in-the-fire resentment of Antonious and most patent lawsuits.

“We, like everybody else, were pursued by him,” Hansberger says. “It’s a con game. A lot of these people will patent something that is an existing technology. Golf companies do it, too. It’s a huge problem. The patent office doesn’t have any knowledge of golf, so some patents are issued when they shouldn’t be. Then the patent holder will go after the small companies first. These little guys don’t have in-house attorneys and financial resources, so they will reach some kind of settlement. That sets a precedent that may establish the validity of the patent.”

Following the same reasoning, Barney Adams, founder and CEO of Adams Golf, wonders, “How can anybody patent weight distribution in an iron? We (golf club manufacturers) have been distributing and redistributing weight forever and ever. I can’t tell you I understand it, because I don’t.”

Acknowledges patent attorney Aquilino: “Tony is very opinionated. He’s had somewhat of a bad reputation in the golf industry because he has been unwilling to compromise his values.”

Antonious is, well, Antonious. He is proud and stubborn. He may be viewed as a money-grubbing appendage of the U.S. patent system, but the way he sees it, his life is all about God, country and the rights of the ordinary citizen. Recalling his many appearances in front of juries, he says, “Unless you’re aggressive, unless you speak up, some of these companies will tear your heart out. I won’t let them do that. These are my ideas, my inventions. When I go to court, I have to say what’s in my heart. Within five minutes, the jurors know who is wearing the white hat.

“Some of them (golf companies) are just spitting in the face of the USA. They won’t honor a patent unless you force them to do it. I can’t stand that. You act like that, and I will come at you like a banshee.”

Antonious was the oldest of four children. He grew up in Norfolk and Williamsburg, Va., and he vividly recalls “walking 8 to 10 miles” to get to night classes at John Hopkins University in Baltimore. He received a two-year certificate in accounting and auditing, then went to work for WR Grace, a chemical and agricultural products company.

He retired from Grace after 21 years in the firm’s financial department.

“I was making a million (dollars) for the company, and now I wanted to make a million for myself,” he says.

Mission accomplished. But the accumulation of money has not stopped Antonious from pursuing his goals of acquiring more patents and advising more people, particularly senior citizens. Even a bout with prostate cancer has not slowed him.

Ed Abrain, who was president of three golf companies (Wilson, PowerBilt and Aldila) and who recently retired from the Acushnet Co., says Antonious is genuine.

“I’ve always found him to be a charming guy,” Abrain says. “He can be a bit persistent, and I would say this to Tony’s face: If he came around the corner at the (PGA Merchandise) Show, I would kind of groan and say, ‘Oh, no,’ because he has such a passion for his ideas. You knew he was going to consume a disproportionate multitude of your time. He could be untimely – not unpleasant, just untimely.”

Abrain, who was the Titleist product manager for clubs and accessories in the early 1970s, was one of the few people in golf who urged his company to pay royalties to Antonious for the Velcro glove.

“I’ve got to be honest,” Abrain says. “Everybody in the industry I talked to, with the exception of (FootJoy co-founder) Dick Tarlow, felt that this was a crazy guy who was making claims about a utility patent that weren’t going to hold up. Everybody thought you were nuts if you signed any agreement with him.

“And Dick said to me, ‘Look, do you want to be in the glove business?’ Dick had a strange wisdom. He said, ‘If you can’t make money in the glove business paying that percentage (to Antonious), then you’re not going to be in the glove business anyway. It’s not the percentage that is going to make or break you.’ He was right, and I went back to Titleist and convinced them that this guy wasn’t the cuckoo clock everybody said he was. In the long run, Titleist probably paid a lower percentage and certainly avoided the expense of any court battle with Tony.”

The official royalty percentage was 5 percent of the wholesale selling price, although Antonious and his attorneys offered some special deals. FootJoy’s first payments were 5 cents per glove, and Antonious said he immediately made about $500,000 per year from FootJoy. “This was important to me,” Antonious said, “because I wanted to give a substantial amout of money to my church.”

He can be a captivating man. He will speak for hours about his inventions, including a new glove he is perfecting.

“You won’t believe how good it is,” Antonious says proudly.

Tony is, well, Tony. One minute he is musing, “The good Lord has given me that divine guidance, and I don’t abuse it.” The next he is declaring, “Give me a level playing field, and I’ll beat your brains in. I’m full of tenacity. It’s a cruel world out there, and we have to stand up for God and family and doing things the right way. That’s the American way.”

Patents, too, are the American way. Increasingly, so are patent lawsuits.

“It’s a way of life in golf,” says Barney Adams. “It’s simply the way the game is played.”

And nobody plays that game more skillfully than Antonious.

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