By John Steinbreder
True Temper, the giant of golf’s steel shaft business, long ago distanced itself from its competitors.
But for all the products in its vast arsenal, True Temper always has lacked one that could challenge the singular success of its resilient rival Royal Precision: the Rifle line of “stepless” shafts preferred by many tour pros and avid players.
That is about to change.
This fall, True Temper will unveil the stepless Black Gold – what company officials hope will be their answer to the Rifle.
“It’s pretty obvious what True Temper is going after,” says Mark Timms, a top clubmaker and owner of Hot Stix Golf in Scottsdale, Ariz.
“But it is going to take a very good product, and a pretty substantial marketing campaign, to make an impact on the Rifle brand because it has such a strong following.”
Stepless advocates maintain that their shafts provide a softer feel because they lack the steps (or rings) of typical shafts that, they say, act as vibration amplifiers. True Temper CEO Scott Hennessy doesn’t share this assessment, adding simply that stepless shafts provide a “different” feel.
“It’s not better or worse. . . and some like (the stepless feel) better than others,” he says.
Truxe Temper’s ability to win this product battle is by no means a foregone conclusion.
With annual production of roughly 25 million shafts, no company makes more steel shafts than True Temper. And the Memphis, Tenn.-based business is on pace for a record financial year, with net sales for the first half of 2005 approaching $65 million. By comparison, privately held Royal Precision reportedly produces 4 million to 5 million shafts per year, and its annual sales are estimated to be less than $20 million.
But it will take more than True Temper’s sheer size and economic might to erode an established brand such as Rifle, which has a loyal following among consumers and equipment manufacturers. Indeed, Rifle has kept its brand fresh and relevant with iterations such as the Project X shaft, which Phil Mickelson used in his irons to claim the PGA Championship.
“Good as True Temper is, I am not sure a stepless shaft is in its DNA,” says an equipment manufacturing executive, who requested anonymity because of his dealings with both shaftmakers. “Rifle has done well with (stepless shafts) and currently has three of the top five players (in the Official World Golf Ranking) using one of its shafts. If True Temper is going to be successful with this, Black Gold is going to have to offer a performance difference.”
Hennessy is convinced Black Gold, which is designed to complement the company’s thriving Dynamic Gold line, does just that.
“This is a tour-weighted shaft that gets progressively lighter, from long iron to short, giving it a distinctive feel,” as the clubs progress through the set, he says.
According to True Temper, Black Gold’s best attributes are its performance and consistency throughout a set – thanks to frequency tuning, an electronic calibration that assures identical weight and flex distribution.
“We (frequency tune) through the manufacturing process, not afterward, which means the finished product is more consistent and easier to build,” Hennessy says. “From our standpoint, it really helps us round out our line. It fills a niche we have not had before, and we feel the volume will be significant.”
John Lauchnor, Royal Precision’s chief executive, welcomes the competition.
“Leadership always invites imitation,” he says.
Though in recent years Royal Precision has witnessed its business erode, Lauchnor says the company is on an upswing.
“We have had a very good first half of the year, and our sales for the second half should be up 70 percent over the same period in 2004,” he says. “Demand for our Rifle line is excellent, and we believe we make the best product in that category.”