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Rife Putters: On a roll

By ADAM SCHUPAK
Senior Writer

SANFORD, Fla. – Don’t ask putter craftsman Guerin Rife about the hardships he endured creating his grooved-face technology clubs.

Otherwise, he might tell the tale of how he took a cavity mallet sandcast out of zinc and ground it with sandpaper until his fingers were caked with blood.

He regrets sharing such details, knowing full well he sounds like a curmudgeon recalling his days as a youngster trekking 10 miles to school. Barefoot. Through snow. Uphill. Both ways.

But it’s hard to blame Rife for reliving those early days. After all, he has been hawking his putters for more than a decade, preaching to tour pros how his patented putter face gently presses into a ball’s cover, gripping and lifting the orb into a true, top-spin roll.

“Pretty much no one believed me,” Rife says, “but you just keep showing up.”

But now, after two failed stints, Rife is gaining disciples – meaning his third time around may be the charm for his eponymous golf company.

Rife Putters has grabbed a leadership position on the Champions Tour without paying endorsement money, much the way Odyssey putters rose to prominence in the early ’90s. Though the company may not boast a marquee spokesman, it can roll out a 15-deep roster of senior players in its infomercial – including Dana Quigley, Denis Watson and Andy Bean – to provide persuasive testimonials for its putters, many named for islands in the Caribbean.

Tour support has pushed sales of the company’s $170-$200 putters, including best-sellers such as Barbados, to a marketshare record for Rife: 4.6 percent as of March and more than double from a year ago, according to Golf Datatech, a Kissimmee, Fla.-based research firm. As tough as the equipment marketplace has become, such numbers serve as evidence Rife may become one of the few entrepreneurs to have surfaced in the past decade and survive.

“They’ve gone from unheard-of to having a pretty strong following that’s continuing to grow,” says Bob Tucker, purchasing manager for The Golf Warehouse.

But Rife, 56, knows the dangers of complacency, likening it to standing on granite and discovering it’s thin ice instead. In an era of industry consolidation, he says the long-term odds are against him. That’s why – even though he says Rife is on pace to triple 2007 sales of $4.5 million and the company has received a cash infusion from investors – Rife has no intention of diversifying into other product categories.

He remains focused on one goal: Selling his business.

Rife says winning the putter count at five of the nine full-field Champions Tour events this year (and registering four victories and a PGA Tour win), launching a new hybrid putter and creating an updated infomercial all are accomplishments that should merit the attention of a suitor.

“We can’t be a stand-alone company forever,” he says.

Rife may want to sell his business, but he hopes his putter company will become an enduring name like the iconic brands he says he worked on for 10 years as a media buyer and art director for Leo Burnett – the famed advertising agency behind Tony the Tiger, Marlboro Man and the Jolly Green Giant.

In the early ’90s, Rife came home to Florida to settle his family’s estate and decided Chicago winters and the advertising business were in his past. He started fidgeting with putters, and a hobby became a livelihood. First, he helped David Leadbetter develop a putting trainer. After Rife discovered that horizontal grooves on a putter face promote a faster and smoother end-over-end roll, he licensed his findings to Top-Flite, which introduced the MicroGroove putter in 1997. That product died quickly. Soon after, Top-Flite, financially strapped, shuttered its club division.

Rife let Top-Flite out of its licensing deal in return for his technology, and when no other equipment maker showed interest in it, he started his own company, Roll Groove Putters, in 2000. Unable to make big advertising buys, he focused on recruiting a tour player to gain exposure. Signing former PGA Championship winner Dow Finsterwald to an endorsement contract entitled Rife to display his putters on the practice putting green at PGA Tour events. Rife loaded his Ford Explorer with his handiwork and followed the Tour to as many events as he could afford. He stopped at retail stores along the way, peddling clubs to pay bills.

Rife lived on credit and what money he could raise from friends and family. By 2003, his cash gone, he had no choice but to return to his former line of work.

A return to golf became possible when he met Jim Barfield. The retired insurance executive believed in Rife’s potential and helped raise $1.2 million from angel investors. Barfield also introduced Rife to Matt Molloy, who became the putter company’s president. Molloy drafted a business plan that relied heavily on infomercials to create quick cash flow.

“Name a golf company that’s come on the scene and succeeded without an infomercial in the last 10 years,” Molloy asked Rife rhetorically. “There aren’t any.”

Their first infomercial for the Rife Two Bar putter premiered in 2005. This year the company plans to spend $1.3 million (90 percent of its advertising budget) to run an infomercial for its hybrid putter on Golf Channel, according to Molloy. At one time, retailers viewed infomercials as competition that robbed them of potential sales. But they’ve gradually recognized that the vehicle often drives intrigued buyers to their stores.

According to the company, sales generated from its infomercials cover the cost of running them. Such direct-response revenue is expected to account for about 20 percent of the company’s business; the balance to be split between domestic (60 percent) and international retail sales (20 percent), predominantly in South Korea, Japan and the United Kingdom. Rife Putters has grown to 14 employees, 32 independent salesmen, seven reps in Canada and 29 international distributors.

The company’s Champions Tour success was more blind luck than strategic wisdom. Barfield, who doubles as Rife’s CEO and Champions Tour rep, knew tour winner Jim Thorpe from Heathrow (Fla.) Country Club, where both are members, and persuaded him to try a Rife putter. In 2005, Thorpe won quickly using it, and so did Quigley, who has played a Rife ever since. That year, Quigley earned the title Champions Tour Player of the Year – and Rife gained the tour converts who now appear in its infomercial.

Such success attracted Morlan LLC, a New York-based investment group, to provide much-needed cash and retire some of Rife’s debt. The payoff, the group is betting, will come if Rife is indeed sold.

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Adam Schupak is a Golfweek senior writer. To reach him e-mail [email protected]

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