It’s appropriate that Ping is headquartered here, far removed from Carlsbad, Calif., where many golf equipment companies are based. Ping always has gone its own way. Often the market has followed Ping; occasionally Ping has been left alone in the desert.
Its irons, putter and bags have influenced generations of designers; its drivers – well, not so much.
“We haven’t been happy with that category,” Doug Hawken, Ping’s president, says flatly.
That might soon change. In the 460cc G2 driver, introduced earlier this month, Ping has tempered some of its contrarian impulses, opting for a more traditional shape, simplified fitting options and more aggressive price.
“We wanted a club that would be quickly accepted by everybody and not seen as something new,” says John Solheim, Ping’s chief executive.
Early response suggests the strategy is working.
“It’s the first driver that has outsold the Cobra driver in two years,” says Tim Terwilliger, head pro at Brookside Golf Course in Pasadena, Calif., where four of the seven pros have switched to the G2.
Since June, the driver has been used in victories on all major professional tours and at the U.S. Amateur. And most retailers are selling it for $299 – the same price at which Cobra and Cleveland have made noise in recent years.
TaylorMade’s r7 quad has dominated the driver debate since its May introduction, but Jack Dillon, corporate director of retail operations for Meadowbrook Golf, which operates 43 courses, predicts the G2 “may hurt the r7 and other new entries in 2005.” His shops “are very strong” with $299 drivers, and he likes the look and price of the G2. “It looks like a $400 retail driver but will be much less,” Dillon says.
“It’s the right size and the right price,” says Jeff Caraway, vice president of merchandising at Austad’s Golf, a Midwest specialty chain.
Such gushing over Ping drivers has been rare. When the company seemed to have the right product, such as the ISI Titanium driver in 2000, “we didn’t deliver (to retailers),” Solheim says. And when Ping ironed out the operational problems, it didn’t have the right product, such as the undersized Si3 driver that lacked the hot sound and feel golfers want. Major Ping accounts say previous introductions suffered for a variety of reasons: their “blockier” head shape, the unique hosel configuration, the hook bias, the too-stiff shafts, the confusing fitting options.
“If I’ve taken one call, I’ve taken 500 calls over the last number of years about our wood introductions and how we just haven’t done a very good job on them,” says Pat Loftus, Ping’s vice president of sales and marketing. He notes that many of the problems “have been self-inflicted,” adding, “We’ve struggled with filling orders, we’ve struggled with demos. . . . We just haven’t had the inventories available.”
As Caraway says, “Sometimes they march to the beat of their own drum, and sometimes that hurts them.”
Ping’s historic emphasis on function over form has resulted in golf clubs that were, at various times, revolutionary (such as its early investment-cast, perimeter-weighted irons), historic (such as the iconic Eye2 irons that remain popular 22 years after they were introduced), and occasionally startling (witness the new, supersized Doc17 putter).
In a business world that favored mass marketing, Ping always has preferred mass customization. Ping continues to make its irons and putters at a foundry in Phoenix, eschewing lower-cost overseas manufacturing used by other equipment makers. (The G2 driver, however, was made in China, contributing to the lower cost.) And unlike competitors, Ping has balked at selling its products to some major retailers, passing up multimillion-dollar purchase orders for fear that its products wouldn’t be well represented.
Ping can do all of this because it is, as it has been since it was founded 45 years ago, a family-run business, led first by the late Karsten Solheim, and for the past decade by his son John. As Hawken says, if a major decision needs to be made, “there’s only one man to talk to,” pointing to Solheim.
The company has harped on custom-fitting, but sometimes, says David Rupp, owner of the Pagoda Golf Area in Sinking Spring, Pa., the fitting options were “just too confusing for consumers.”
“We scared some retailers,” Loftus acknowledges, noting that with the G2, Ping has gone from 12 to four color-coded fitting options.
With the G2, Solheim tried to recapture the hot sound of the ISI driver, and that apparently has carried over into performance. Rick DeMane, owner of DeMane Golf in Greenwich, Conn., says his testing indicates the ball speed off the G2’s face approaches 1.5 times faster than the clubhead speed – higher than most competing products.
Ping is betting that the driver will benefit from the equity built in the G2 name. Over the past year, Ping has more than doubled its putter market share to 20.9 percent from 9.2 percent, and its iron share rose to 8.9 percent from 5.7 percent – largely attributable to its G2 product line.
“I’ve sold hundreds of G2 irons,” says Terwilliger, “so people immediately are going to be interested in anything with the G2 name.”
Retailers say the club’s acceptance will be enhanced by Ping’s decision to package its technology in a more conventional shape.
“The biggest thing people like about it is the look of it over the old driver,” says John Smuin, who runs the fitting center at Uinta Golf in Sandy, Utah. “How the driver looks will have an impact on how they hit it.”
That is a lesson that Ping – a company founded and largely run by engineers – only recently has begun to appreciate. Form doesn’t trump function, but it’s been given more weight.
“How well we do between here (pointing to his head) and the club is more important than a lot of things we can do to the club,” Solheim says. Hawken, who started working for Ping more than 30 years ago, calls that a “major breakthrough.”
If Ping’s strategic shift on the G2 driver introduction pays off, it could be the major breakthrough the company has long sought in golf’s most glamorous product category.