2005: Business - Great Golf Tee War

By James Achenbach

The Great Golf Tee War is about to erupt.

When it starts, golfers may not know which end of the tee is up. For the first time, tee manufacturers will break the code of relative silence that has long characterized their industry. They will begin talking in depth about enhanced performance and extra distance.

Golfers will be mystified. Can one golf tee possibly be superior to another?

The U.S. Golf Association will be forced into the role of mediator.

The USGA will further define what a tee can and cannot do.

Broadly speaking, the Great Golf Tee War will be fought between companies making wooden tees and those making tees from composite materials that resemble plastic.

Specifically, the showdown will feature three primary combatants: Pride Sports, by far the world’s largest maker of wooden tees; Evolve Golf, an aggressive new company selling biodegradable tees with four posts, or protrusions, on top; and Brush-T, which has catapulted golf tee advertising to new dimensions.

Such a sweeping prediction of tee conflict, although it may sound fanciful, is likely to happen. Already the companies are lined up for battle. Already the USGA has realized that golf tees will command far more attention in 2005 than ever before.

Evolve is about to become an official licensee of the PGA Tour and will promote itself as the Tour’s official tee. Several Tour players use it, and Steve Flesch was among 22 players on various worldwide tours who claimed victories in 2004 with Evolve’s Epoch tee.

As the battle for endorsements heats up, another non-wood tee, the Perfect-Tee, has become the official tee of men’s and women’s long driving in the United States.

Meanwhile, Brush-T, featuring tees that allow a golf ball to sit on top of bristles, continues to advertise more heavily than any other tee company in the history of golf. Says Paul Krok, president of Brush-T North America: “We like the image of the ball sitting on air, and so do golfers.”

Carrying the colors of wood in this war are two primary representatives, Pride and Stinger. Both sell tees made of white birch.

The Stinger tee, with the smallest cap (top) in golf, is used by many touring pros and low handicap amateurs. “My perception is that the ball goes farther,” said amateur Bob Moore of North Hollywood, Calif. “There seems to be less resistance, although I have no evidence to prove this.”

Balancing a golf ball on top of a skinny Stinger tee can be difficult for a neophyte golfer, and this may inhibit Stinger sales.

When it comes to Pride, though, there is no inhibiting the power and influence of this giant. Worldwide golf tee sales are estimated to be $40 million per year, and Pride controls at least $30 million of the market.

Pride started in 1930 in Tampa, Fla., when the father-and-son team of Fletcher and Gene Pride began manufacturing wooden mouthpieces for Hav-a-Tampa cigars. In 1956, the operation was moved to Guilford, Maine, and golf tees were added to the product line.

Logs are cut into 50-inch sections, each yielding 10,000 to 15,000 tees. In a single year, Pride produces approximately2 billion golf tees.

In January 2003, Pride acquired cleat manufacturer Softspikes Inc. and its sister company, Trisport Ltd. of England. Not only did this produce a major golf conglomerate, but it also brought to Pride a group of young, creative thinkers from Softspikes.

“We do not make gimmick tees, and we do not blow smoke,” said Rick Oleksyk, president of Pride, taking a shot at some of his competitors. “Pride golf tees have proven themselves for decades and decades.”

Maybe so, but Evolve CEO B.J. Maloy was poised for a showdown at the recent PGA Merchandise Show.

“Our testing shows that our golf tee performs better than any tee that has ever been made,” Maloy said.

Maloy and Evolve are claiming improved distance and accuracy – 3 to 7 yards distance, and 4 to 9 yards accuracy, depending on swing speed. For a swing speed of 90 mph, the distance increase would be 3 yards, according to Maloy.

Meanwhile, Brush-T is claiming 2 percent less deviation and up to 7 yards in additional distance.

To which Oleksyk responded, “Pride has the resources to go in any direction we choose. Believe me, if there was something out there, we would pursue it. If there was anything we believed could be done, we would do it.”

Evolve and Brush-T are careful in their language. Maloy says the Epoch tee is not “adding” distance. Rather, it is “transferring” more of the energy that is already there.

“The issue is deflection, not friction,” Maloy said. “With a traditional tee, the ball rests in the cap and can be deflected by the lip of the tee. That’s why you sometimes see a chip in the lip of a wooden tee.”

With Evolve’s tee, each of the four posts is slightly wider than any dimple. As a result, according to Maloy, the ball sits up and deflection is minimized.

Golf tees have never been much of a focal point for news, but in 2004 the USGA Executive Committee voted to limit the height of tees to 4 inches. Furthermore, the rulemaking body banned the use of any item that might be used as a tee but was not designed for that purpose (such as a pencil).

This brought renewed attention to the tee, and Brush-T and Evolve will strive to keep that attention on the front burner.

The USGA’s annual meeting was held the week after the PGA Merchandise Show, and Jim Vernon, chairman of the equipment standards committee, listened with interest to some of the statements made by golf tee manufacturers.

“I can’t say one way or the other,” Vernon commented, “but we definitely would look into something like that. I’m sure there are people who would be alarmed at such claims.”

Golf tee testing is not a simple task. For starters, because of the variance in golf balls, testing has to be conducted with just one ball. If a robot is used, the stability of the launch pad is a major issue.

Golfweek recently enlisted two foursomes of amateurs to test various tees while playing, and no one could discern any significant difference. Several of the players developed favorites, but these choices were based more on cosmetics than performance.

Still, a spokesman for a reputable launch monitor manufacturer, Zelocity, said at the Merchandise Show that the Evolve tee has shown marginally increased ball speed during informal testing.

This conflicts with reports from inside the USGA, where reliable sources say the organization has conducted tee testing for the past year and has found no performance advantage in any tee.

Overall, the tee picture contains many questions and few answers. However, one thing seems certain: Interest in the golf tee never has been greater.

LPGA player Beth Bauer is said to be launching a tee program in 2005. She apparently will carry Evolve tees with colorful graphics and her signature down the side. She’s no dummy: Handing out tees is easier than signing autographs.

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