2005: Glass menagerie

By Mike Mazur

Coming soon to a select retailer near you: Protective eyewear from Nike that’s not just another pair of sunglasses. In fact, they’re not glasses at all.

The Nike MaxSight – a shaded, soft contact lens developed with Bausch & Lomb – was introduced to the golf world during the Buick Open in July. Over two days, it created quite a stir, as 51 players and caddies lined up behind Nike Golf’s tour van to get fitted.

It’s an ideal alternative, Nike officials say, for athletes who don’t want to fret about sliding frames or dirty lenses in the midst of a swing. And it serves as evidence of the extreme measures companies are taking to capitalize on golf’s eyewear market.

Once almost exclusively a fashion domain, eyewear has been growing fast, thanks mostly to health-conscious golfers seeking sun protection. But sales also are up because players are coveting eyewear as “equipment” that can help shave strokes off their scores.

That consumer demand has attracted the interest of manufacturers large and small, from Oakley to entrepreneurs such as PeakVision Sports. And whether they’re promising fashion, sun protection, better vision or even stereo sound, they’re all investing significant resources to get their fair share of the market.

This summer, for instance, Adidas Golf created a line of golf-specific eyewear to complement its apparel and shoe offerings at green-grass shops and specialty retailers.

Says Adidas Golf president John Kawaja: “The category has the potential to be a $5 million to $10 million business.”

But eyewear hasn’t always been so lucrative.

Golfers, largely bound by tradition, often spurned wearing sunglasses on the course for fear they would hinder performance. That especially was true for professionals – despite the fact their livelihoods increased their chances of developing UV-related eye disease.

“Back then we’d go out with a bag of glasses and couldn’t give them away,” says Al Janc, Oakley’s golf sports marketing manager.

But eventually, Oakley’s persistence and design ingenuity – along with that of other golf pioneers such as NYX Golf – began to pay off. Today, a number of pros, especially younger players, consider eyewear essential gear during play.

That interest has created opportunities for newcomers such as PeakVision, an Overland Park, Kan., business that’s focusing on selling a single message to a targeted consumer: better performance for the competitive golfer. PeakVision officials say their golf-specific glasses feature lenses that not only block the sun, but aid in reading greens. Its Dual-Zone technology splits a lens into a gray-tinted upper zone designed to reduce glare, and an amber-tinted lower zone that highlights green contours.

As part of its marketing offensive, PeakVision has inked a deal with The Golf Channel making it the official eyewear of the Viewers Cup Championships, and recruited Tour players Billy Andrade, Scott McCarron and Bruce Fleisher, and TV commentator David Feherty, to endorse its products. Determined to emphasize their glasses’ performance benefits, PeakVision only signs endorsers who will wear its glasses in competition – and not just in advertisements.

“If they don’t, you’re sending the wrong message,” says Scott Berg, PeakVision’s president and chief operations officer.

But for many golfers, sunglasses remain a fashion statement. Regardless of performance features or lack thereof, if eyewear doesn’t look good and fit comfortably, it won’t sell.

Which likely explains the continuing popularity of Maui Jim, the sunglass company that evokes a sun-soaked Hawaiian lifestyle.

By most accounts, Maui Jim, with its broad menu of fashion designs, is the No. 2 player in the golf market, trailing only category leader Oakley.

Several of its more performance-oriented rivals, however, resent Maui’s success, and contend that the company’s polarized-lens eyewear might be good for fishing, but not for golf. (Maui Jim officials did not return calls.)

“The ball appears smaller, and it can mess with your depth perception,” says Andrew Cohen, product manager for Bolle, one of several brands that comprise Bushnell Performance Optics.

Cohen insists Bolle’s brown, EagleVision tint is ideal for on-course applications. The company’s pitch appears to be working: Golf eyewear accounted for roughly 10 percent of Bolle’s 2004 sales, which represented “significant growth” over previous years, according to Derek Schuman, Bolle’s sports marketing coordinator. And in 2006, Bolle – which sponsors Sergio Garcia – will expand its EagleVision golf lens to nine frame styles from its current offering of six.

In the future, manufacturers may take eyewear in a whole new direction. Some already have.

Last year, Oakley introduced the Thump, sunglasses with built-in digital audio. And in July, the company partnered with Motorola to unveil the RazrWire, which comes equipped with Bluetooth cell phone technology.

Then again, who needs frames at all?

Nike’s MaxSight, available as corrective prescriptions, make an attractive alternative for golfers who have balked at wearing sunglasses.

Says Rob Barnette, Nike’s product business director: “It’s simply a derivative of the work that’s happened over the course of the last 10 years.”

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