2004: Business - Feel Golf puts grip on new business

Monterey, Calif.

There are two ways to describe Feel Golf: It is a golf club company that just happens to make grips, and it is a grip company that just happens to make golf clubs.

Since the official spring launch of the Full Release grip, Feel has had an identity crisis of sorts, turned upside down by grass-roots interest in its new product. Approved by the U.S. Golf Association, the uniquely designed Full Release is essentially an upside-down grip. Instead of having the biggest section of the grip at the butt end of the club, tapering down to the smallest section, this grip has the small part at the top end.

Feel uses a slogan in its brochure: “Say Goodbye To Your Slice Forever.” However, the biggest advantage of the inverted grip may be realized by golfers who hook or pull the ball. With their dominant hand holding onto the big portion of the grip rather than the small portion, it appears to be more difficult for power players to hit a shot that turns over.

Such appeal has prompted Lee Miller, founder and chairman of Feel Golf, to radically alter priorities at his company, which until now had been known mostly for its wedges.

According to Miller, Feel is producing 225,000 grips per month primarily via a supplier relationship with Lamkin, a major grip maker based in Carlsbad, Calif. With expectations that demand will increase even more, Miller has secured a secondary source in China.

Whether the unconventional Full Release will be embraced by golf’s mainstream remains to be seen, but its initial demand explains how such a crowded, if not saturated, industry continues to attract entrepreneurs. Golf inventors are determined to find ways to make the impossible game easier, and golf consumers hellbent to play better are willing to try and buy almost anything.

The Full Release grip, however, is expensive: $99.95 for a 13-grip box, which includes grip tape, instructions and a video. A 3-grip pack, with a retail price of $39.95, also is available. Thus far, Golfsmith, a major retail chain based in Austin, Texas, is Feel’s largest U.S. grip customer, Miller says. He adds that three different companies are vying to distribute the grip in Japan.

Though Miller is hoping to increase Feel’s annual sales of $5 million, he never expected growth to come from a grip. After all, he entered the golf business as a clubmaker.

Miller, 64, was attempting to prepare for the Senior PGA Tour, now the Champions Tour, 20 years ago. That’s when he earned the nickname “Dr. Feel.” This was because he had a skill for grinding wedges to the satisfaction of individual players. Give him a grinding machine, and he could nail the leading edge and the bounce every time.

Charlie Sifford couldn’t remember Miller’s name, but once said: “Go get that doctor, that feel guy.” And Dr. Feel (Miller has a doctorate in engineering arts) was christened.

“Why don’t you just make wedges for us?” Bert Yancey asked Miller.

So, in 1989, Miller incorporated Feel Golf, which sells irons and woods, but has developed something of a cult following for its wedges.

Feel offers six finishes in its wedge line (mirror, satin, raw, gun metal, oil can and designer color series). Each is available in five lofts (46, 52, 56, 60 and 64 degrees).

Feel’s standard length of 36 inches for all of its wedges is a point of distinction for the company. Depending on the loft of the wedge, the industry standard normally is between 35 and 351⁄2 inches. Miller explains that he wants to make it easier for golfers to choke down on a wedge, or, by contrast, to comfortably hit a full shot. The head weights and shaft profiles also are identical.

Though his belief in his wedges remains unwavering, Miller is realizing business plans don’t always work out the way they were intended. His company’s future, at least for now, is focused on a new direction.

“The grip,” he said. “I think this is going to be a wild ride.”

– “On the fringe” is an occasional feature focusing on small businesses.

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