Reps grind for Tour validation

Orlando, Fla.

Six weeks. Six long weeks.

That’s how long it took Mark Thomas to get a five-minute audience with Tim Herron. Thomas, whose job is to get PGA Tour players to use the wedges of start-up Solus Golf, had been lobbying and courting and cajoling Herron and his entourage. Finally – finally – Herron visited the “bullpen,” the area off to the side of the practice range, two days before last month’s Bay Hill Invitational, and began hitting short flop shots with the Solus wedge.

“Mind if I take one out and try it?” Herron asked with disarming innocence.

Mind if I take one out and try it?

Thomas had been waiting six weeks to hear Herron utter those beautiful words.

“Absolutely, go right ahead,” Thomas replied.

It was only a practice round – Herron had made no commitment to use the Solus wedge in a tournament – but it offered hope to Thomas, in his first year representing Solus on Tour.

“You can’t be a used-car salesman out here,” Thomas said. “You’ve got to be patient and show that you care. If you respect their time, they’ll give you some time.”

Armed with plenty of clubs but little or no cash, equipment representatives from small and mid-sized companies chase the Tour from one city to the next, hoping to get one or two clubs in play to validate their brands with consumers and retailers. But they have to pick their spots.

“Three-woods and putters are the ones you have the best chance with these days,” says Tour Edge rep Andy Harris, who, not coincidentally, has both. (After six years representing three golf companies, this is Harris’ first year as an independent, and his clients include Guerin Rife putters.)

Tour Edge has built a substantial business selling value-priced, game-improvement equipment, but it’s only with the recent introduction of its premium Exotics line that the St. Charles, Ill., company felt it had products that the world’s best players would use. Harris has had some early success getting a handful of Exotics fairway woods in play, though a common roadblock is players who have blanket endorsement deals with larger companies.

“It’s a battle out here,” Harris says. “The biggest key to keeping your sanity is patience.”

That’s difficult when so many players have contractual obligations and bonus incentives to play products made by the large equipment companies. Despite the fact that 141 players made more than $500,000 on the PGA Tour last year, some still are influenced by seemingly piddling bonuses.

“If they’re really influenced by $600 a week and $18,000 a year, what’s that?” says an exasperated Bobby Grace, who avoids such players.

Grace has been promoting his eponymous putters on Tour, both while running his own company and now as part of MacGregor Golf. At Bay Hill, he spent a large chunk of one afternoon whispering sweet nothings in Hank Kuehne’s ears about the many virtues of his distinctive V-Foil putters.

Kuehne is a prodigious talent, but one who has been struggling, ranking 188th on the money list entering Bay Hill. His caddie, Fred Sanders, says Kuehne has put nearly 60 golf clubs in play through the season’s first three months. So Sanders, a 20-year Tour caddie, has been testing putters on Kuehne’s behalf, looking for something that will jump-start his player’s season.

One of Sanders’ stops was to see an old friend, Pat Sellers, who got his start in golf caddying for Loren Roberts and Tom Lehman in 1983.

Now the national sales manager for SeeMore Golf, Sellers showed Sanders the new Money putter with interchangeable weights, and Sanders liked the sound and feel enough to recommend that Kuehne try it.

Earlier on pro-am day at Bay Hill, Sellers got a start when promising Tour rookie D.A. Points stopped to take a few practice strokes with a SeeMore.

“I putted with one of these things forever,” Points says. Sellers moved toward Points, who put down the putter. “I can’t use this anyway,” Points says, an apparent allusion to his endorsement contract with Ping.

This time, Sellers’ mark is Kuehne, and he pranced across the green to assist him. Early results with 335-gram and 355-gram models did not go well, but when Sellers switched to 375 grams, Kuehne began draining putts with robotic precision. Sellers’ putter at least was on Kuehne’s radar.

The equipment reps abide by an undefined etiquette that Sellers compares to a line he once heard at Scioto Country Club in Ohio: “There are no rules, but if you violate them, you’ll be removed from the course.”

Some reps say they don’t like to approach players they don’t know, preferring to give the pros their space and work through back channels – for instance, lobbying instructors or caddies.

Others take the more direct route. As Harris says, “Not many (players) take a gander at the bullpen.”

Jeff Jackson, who represents Aserta putters, has no reservations, particularly if he sees a player testing various putters. At Bay Hill, Jackson walked up to Nick Faldo, extended his hand, spent several minutes with the Hall of Famer and came away with orders to build two 36-inch putters, one heel-shafted, the other center-shafted.

The idea of chasing the Tour from city to city, occasionally hobnobbing with famous players, might seem glamorous.

“But after two or three months, the honeymoon is over,” says Dave Curry, who tries to get his Big Oak putters in play on the PGA and Champions tours.

Harris is on the road as many as 40 weeks per year, sometimes rising at 2:30 a.m. on Mondays so that he can catch an early flight out of Norfolk, Va., and be on the practice range when players start arriving.

Thomas doesn’t even go home. When equipment reps pack up on Wednesday nights, Thomas hits the highway, not unlike Tour players did a half century ago. When he gets to the next Tour stop, he does paperwork, plays golf, and is back on the range the next Monday.

And the accommodations tend to be modest. While at Bay Hill, Bill Wiechmann, who dropped out of Gonzaga (Wash.) School of Law last year to work for putter maker Optic Golf, says he was “staying at a Days Inn they’re about to tear down.” As for meals, Wiechmann says, “You don’t go out for steak, you go out for a chicken sandwich.”

But the payoff for equipment reps comes when they get a product in play, or even – dare they dream – see it displayed on national television late some Sunday afternoon when a player is in the hunt. It’s validation of their hard work and products.

Or maybe it’s just marketing and happenstance.

Gesturing to the Bay Hill practice green, Curry says, “(Consumers) don’t realize that these guys could putt with a brick on the end of a broomstick.”

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