2003: Laser Link’s aim: Faster rounds, profitability

Rob O’Loughlin spent the latter part of the 1990s helping orchestrate one of the golf industry’s most unlikely marketing triumphs: the rise of Softspikes.

Now, O’Loughlin is immersed in another marketing challenge. He is trying to make his latest venture, the Laser Link rangefinder system, as prominent at golf courses as Softspikes have become.

“This Laser Link business is going to be far more important and far more successful than Softspikes,” predicted O’Loughlin, 51, former president and part owner of Softspikes.

Laser Link’s two main components are a handheld laser rangefinder, the QuickSilver, and the SmartSticks, flagsticks with built-in reflectors. The portable laser is calibrated to locate the reflectors and give golfers precise measurements to holes. The company’s plan of attack is to build accounts with elite private and resort courses.

“We’re going after the trend-setters,” O’Loughlin said. “I know the real action will be at the public fee (courses), but our strategy is to get it into the best private clubs and let it trickle down.”

The company has established 220 nationwide accounts, and Laser Link has drawn high marks for its accuracy and ability to speed up play.

“Part of the reason why we went to them is I have some members that were ranting and raving about these Laser Links,” said Gary Ray, head professional at Lakeside Country Club in Houston. “After you do it once or twice it’s so easy.”

But O’Loughlin’s company faces major obstacles to growth. For starters, U.S. Golf Association rules prohibit rangefinders in sanctioned tournaments.

In addition, consumers have no incentive to buy the QuickSilver if the courses they typically play haven’t installed the SmartSticks. Ray Butgereit, general manager at Linksman Golf Club in Mobile, Ala., said his public course invested in the Laser Link system, but customers have shown little interest.

“If we were a private course it would be a great deal,” he said. “If the majority of golf isn’t played at the same course I think it’s not very attractive.”

O’Loughlin believes courses could resolve this problem by incorporating the QuickSilver’s cost into green fees.

He stumbled into Laser Link in 1999 while reviewing new business opportunities. O’Loughlin had seen a lot of duds, but a product called the Eagle Range Finder by Vistatronics of Minneapolis caught his eye. Softspikes bought the company in 2000, and O’Loughlin acquired it later that year.

Lack of demand for the Eagle Range Finder resulted in O’Loughlin making improvements and introducing the QuickSilver ­­– which provides a “shotgun blast” of pulse lasers as wide as 20 feet at 200 yards. Interest grew, and the company has been adding about five accounts per week, though it has not yet reached profitability.

O’Loughlin hopes to more than double his account base to 500 this year, while eliminating Laser Link’s losses. The company plans to build momentum by sticking with its door-to-door sales strategy, peddling the SmartSticks for $70 apiece and the Quicksilver for $179 wholesale. Courses have been retailing the Quicksilvers from $220 to $250.

Laser Link seems to be winning converts.

“I thought . . . it was a joke,” said Steve Kimmel, head professional at Oak Tree Golf Club in Edmond, Okla. “We don’t have a round over 31⁄2 hours. I think it will lead the industry in the next five years.”

“On the fringe” is an occasional feature that focuses on small businesses.

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