Spalding has grand expectations for new Hogan ball

For the past year or so, the news out of Spalding has been less about the products it sells and more about its financial ups and downs. But executives at the Chicopee, Mass., company that makes Strata, Top-Flite and Ben Hogan equipment believe that situation is about to change dramatically with the introduction of what they say is the best-performing golf ball in Spalding’s history – the Hogan Apex Tour.

That move not only gives Spalding a potentially hot new product, but also the opportunity to re-position its ball business and enhance the Ben Hogan brand.

The Apex Tour is a four-piece ball with a soft inner core and harder outer core, both of which are made from a rubber compound. It also includes an isomer mantel and an HC350 thermoset urethane cover with a new dimple pattern. The result, officials say, is a ball that provides exceptional distance off the tee and optimum feel around the green.

“The Apex Tour is the most exciting new product we have launched in the golf business since I have been here,” said company CEO Jim Craigie, who started at Spalding in 1998.

That enthusiasm for the Hogan ball is shared by several members of Spalding’s PGA Tour staff who helped in the ball’s development and began putting it in play at the 2002 U.S. Open.

“It’s the best ball I’ve ever used,” said Hal Sutton. “It stays in the air a long time, and in today’s world, air time is distance. Yet, it still has a lot of spin around the green. I compare it to a jet fighter in that it’s sensitive to the things you do with it, and want to do with it.”

The development of the Apex Tour began in earnest last fall when Spalding executives asked some staff pros for help in determining which of a series of prototypes would perform best.

Sutton, Len Mattiace, Bernhard Langer, Dennis Paulson and Jim Furyk all helped, and Spalding’s team of scientists and engineers made adjustments as the tour pros’ comments came in.

The product that originally came out of that process was a Strata called Tour Ultimate G. Initially, the company produced three prototypes, and the ball was first put into play at the 2002 Nissan, where Mattiace captured his first PGA Tour title. Then Furyk had the Tour Ultimate G in his bag when he won the Memorial Tournament in May.

Initially, there were no plans to sell the ball as a Hogan. “In fact, we thought the next new Hogan product would be woods,” said Mike Ferris, Spalding’s executive director of golf balls. “But this ball turned out to be so good that we had to reevaluate. And in time we decided it had to come out under the Hogan name.”

Mattiace says it is a fitting choice.

“It is probably 15 yards farther off the tee for me, and I can do about what I want with it around the greens,” he said. “It’s rightfully named Hogan because Hogan had it all, and so does the Apex Tour.”

The ball that now bears the Hogan logo is slightly different from the product Mattiace and Furyk played in their wins. While Mattiace has joined the rest of his Tour colleagues at Spalding in using the new Hogan, Furyk has decided to stick with the Tour Ultimate G. At least for the moment.

The Apex Tour will begin shipping July 1, with the first batch going to Shady Oaks, Ben Hogan’s old club in Fort Worth, Texas.

Suggested retail price will be $58 a dozen, and the ball will be sold on allocation in selected on- and off-course outlets as well as some sporting goods stores.

Spalding plans to support the introduction with a $20 million marketing campaign featuring its Tour players, including 2001 U.S. Open runner-up Mark Brooks, who recently signed with Hogan. The company plans to more than triple the size of its existing Tour staff.

While the new ball is getting most of the attention at Spalding these days, it by no means spells the end of Strata. That brand will live on, though probably with fewer offerings. In time, Strata will probably find itself positioned somewhere between Hogan and Top-Flite, promoted as a premium product that goes for a less-than-premium price.

As for Hogan, it will now be top of the line – and a name Spalding executives will want to do more to build and promote.

“This is the first big step toward Ben Hogan becoming a mega-brand,” said Craigie.

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