2004: Summer sizzles with driver choices

By Gene Yasuda

Call it the summer of love – that is, if you’re in the market for a new driver.

In recent months, nearly all of the major equipment brands have shipped to retailers their hottest-selling, and perhaps best-performing, models in years.

The list of new entries is impressive: Callaway’s ERC Fusion, Nike’s Ignite, TaylorMade’s r7 quad, Mizuno’s MP-001, Cobra’s Comp. Add to this mix some popular carryovers from previous seasons, such as Cleveland’s Launcher and Titleist’s 983 models, and it amounts to a smorgasbord for consumers.

Sell-through statistics confirm a driver boom of sorts. According to research firm Golf Datatech LLC, unit sales at on- and off-course retailers in May increased nearly 12 percent compared with the same month a year ago; such double-digit gains are a welcome rarity in an equipment market that’s been primarily flat for the past several years.

But aside from providing excess for buyers, this period likely will be remembered for offering plots that

ultimately will shape tomorrow’s driver market.

Among the many storylines: Will TaylorMade break from the pack with its innovative r7 – or will consumers find the club “gimmicky” and stall the company’s four-year resurgence?

Will the ERC Fusion restore luster to Callaway’s metalwoods business – or will it, and other composite-

titanium drivers, in general, fade away as a fad?

And with Tiger Woods off his game, will Nike Golf be able to ignite its driver business?

The answer to these questions and more are still in the making, but interviews with retailers and manufacturers provide hints of possible outcomes.

The most intriguing market trend to watch, arguably, is the emergence of composite-titanium drivers. Heading into the year, such combo drivers were all the rage and many of the industry’s leading brands hitched their fortunes to it.

Anticipating the debut of Callaway’s much-publicized ERC Fusion, and hoping to ride the popularity wave it would create for similarly constructed clubs, Mizuno raced to be “first to market” with a composite-titanium driver. Mizuno touted itself as a trailblazer when it unveiled its MP-001 late in 2003. Then, Callaway, and others, followed suit. Two months ago, Cobra joined the fray with three models (454 Comp, 414 Comp and 414 Comp Tour), and in August, a Wilson Golf brand makeover is expected to include a composite-titanium driver, too.

But just as many industry observers were beginning to declare composite-titaniums a permanent subcategory of drivers, TaylorMade launched its r7, with its moveable weight plugs and different trajectories, and the market quickly shifted its attention to the driver’s compelling story.

TaylorMade, in essence, juked the field by zigging when most of its competitors zagged. It’s a bold move, if company officials say so themselves.

“Big companies are averse to risk, and why wouldn’t they be? They have a lot to lose,” said TaylorMade president Mark King during the r7’s unveiling in May. For large companies – often with market share to protect and shareholders to please – the temptation to play it safe often is irresistible, he said. Following the pack or releasing line extensions becomes the preferred course.

But TaylorMade is confident gambling on the r7 because, in some ways, it isn’t as radical a departure for the company as it appears. The r7 is more of an evolution of TaylorMade’s strategy of customizing drivers – beginning with the 300 Series – that helped the company in August 2003 wrest the unit market share title from archrival Callaway, which had held it for years. Since then, TaylorMade has maintained its lead every month, and as of May, the company held more than a 20 percent share in the on- and off-course retail channels.

“We understand that one driver can’t fit all golfers,” King said. “That’s been our premise for four years now. And since then, we’ve been working to . . . how do we get to a point where the golfer can go in, and within just a few minutes, he’s got a club (that he can customize) and take home and it fits him.”

Though reliable data of r7’s early sales is not yet available, numerous retailers say the driver is moving off shelves quickly.

Tim O’Neal, head professional at North Shore Country Club in Glenview, Ill., received six r7s in his first shipment and sold out within two weeks. No small feat considering each sells for $499.

“The ability to tinker and gear the r7 to your swing is a great sales tool,” O’Neal said. “After a while, people may stop changing the weights, but that doesn’t really matter. All TaylorMade needs to do is sell it once.”

Added Pete Line, vice president of Carl’s Golfland in Bloomfield Hills, Mich.: “The interest is really focused on the r7. I haven’t heard a single customer say it’s too gimmicky or too complicated, but I’ve heard that from the other (manufacturers). That’s their spin on it.”

Indeed, archrival Callaway began telling a whole new story about its ERC Fusion – seven months after its market debut.

Though Callaway’s initial ads for the ERC Fusion primarily touted its blend of graphite and titanium, a new 2-page ad offers details about how the club’s usage of the two materials enables optimum “weight distribution.” The center of gravity differs in each driver loft, the ad says, allowing each golfer to find the model that works best with their swing.

If the storyline sounds familiar, it should. In a take-off-the-gloves jab at TaylorMade, the ad states: “No assembly required . . . Fusion Technology allows you to customize your game, without wrenches and screws.”

Retailers offer mixed views as to whether Callaway’s new tack will allow it to piggyback on the selling proposition TaylorMade popularized. Some question why Callaway didn’t tout such performance benefits in the first place, and suggest the new ads could portray the company as a copycat.

“I’m not sure if the consumer bought into the multimaterial story by itself,” said Leigh Bader,

co-owner of a major retail operation at Pine Oaks Golf Course in South Easton, Mass. “Now, Callaway appears to be saying, ‘Oh, by the way, we moved the weight around, too.’ It may actually be an easier story for them to tell now because TaylorMade pulled back the curtain for them.”

Others believe Callaway has belatedly hit upon the right message.

“With graphite and titanium, you might be able to create a wonderful weight movement story so that the hookers don’t hook it and the slicer doesn’t slice it,” said Julian Bunn, owner of Carolina Custom Golf.

Cobra Golf executives couldn’t agree more.

“We are all limited by regulations with regards to head size and COR, so driver design and manufacturing have become a game of weight distribution,” said Jeff Harmet, Cobra Golf’s general manager.

For Cobra, the success and longevity of composite-titanium category is especially important. Its existence gives Cobra a platform to fetch higher prices for its clubs, and build upon the moderate pricing strategy it used in orchestrating its comeback. Before, Cobra undercut market leaders Callaway and TaylorMade with $299 drivers; now, it’s trying to stretch into the premium stratosphere with its $399 Comp drivers.

Though Nike Golf has neither weight plugs nor a composite-titanium story, company officials are hardly fretting. That’s because they’re enjoying their biggest success to date in the driver category with the Ignite.

Nike officials attribute the club’s solid start to its nexTi construction, but retailers say it is benefiting as much from worldwide tour validation. Since last fall, the Ignite has recorded 12 victories “from nine different athletes from five different countries and on four different continents,” said Nike Golf

president Bob Wood. The bottom line: Nike Golf is making inroads into the market, and it’s becoming known for more than one famous endorser.

For some retailers the plethora of driver options has been a pleasant surprise.

“Once COR got fixed, I expected there to be a downturn,” O’Neal said. “But there’s been a lot of innovation, and the manufactures are going in different directions. It should be pretty interesting to see what happens next.”

– Martin Kaufmann and John Steinbreder contributed.

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