2006: TaylorMade tees it up again in ball market

After scrapping its own ball brand more than four years ago and purchasing Maxfli in 2002, TaylorMade-Adidas Golf is changing directions yet again and re-entering the premium ball category under the TaylorMade Tour Preferred banner.

The revival of a TaylorMade ball launches a two-prong strategy that positions Maxfli more as a recreational product and targets TaylorMade directly at elite golfers.

TaylorMade entered the golf ball business in 1999 with great fanfare, but it poorly executed its first attempt in the marketplace. The company wasn’t prepared to compete in the category, enduring production problems as basic as keeping its balls from discoloring and lacking the intellectual property to manufacture anything beyond a Surlyn product.

The purchase of Maxfli was hailed as the solution to the company’s problems. Acquiring an established brand and its valuable patent portfolio was supposed to jumpstart TaylorMade’s fledgling ball business. Under TaylorMade stewardship, Maxfli has enjoyed commercial success with its Noodle line, but its reputation as an elite performance brand has eroded.

Eager to capture a share of the influential and profitable top-tier ball category, TaylorMade is banking on its own rejuvenated brand image to deliver a “halo effect” on its new ball effort. But as TaylorMade begins its third attempt to hold the green, it faces more challenges than ever: Titleist’s stranglehold on No. 1 remains tight, and new ball players such as Nike and Callaway have entrenched themselves in the category as well.

TaylorMade-Adidas Golf president Mark King concedes the task won’t be easy, but argues the company had to try again because it covets the reputation and revenues possessed by full-fledged equipment brands.

“For us not to have a ball under the TaylorMade brand was a hole in our product line,” he said.

King is confident the company will make a splash this time for one simple reason: TaylorMade’s tour staff finally has embraced the new product, claiming that it is as good as, if not better than, anything else on the market.

The Tour Preferred line, including the TP Red and TP Black models, was more than 31⁄2 years in the making. According to company executives, the balls feature improved aerodynamics through its

322-dimple Pentagular Di-Pyramid design. Both models are three-piece balls constructed with thermoset urethane covers. The Red’s thinner mantle promotes a lower launch angle and gives it a slightly softer feel compared with the Black, said TaylorMade officials, adding the technology and innovation found in the balls couldn’t have been achieved without the Maxfli acquisition.

“We were always able to produce a ball that could go a long distance,” said Dean Snell, senior director of research and development for TaylorMade and Maxfli. “The shots around the green were the biggest issue, especially the 65-yard shot.

We couldn’t do it until we got the Maxfli urethane cover chemistry.”

Added King: “We knew down deep we didn’t have the best product. We didn’t have the patents, the know-how or the resources. Maxfli allowed us to be in the game.”

For the past few years, few years, the challenge has been to generate the right feel and control that tour players demand, particularly with iron shots. Sergio Garcia tried the Maxfli M3 in 2003, but the ball did not fit his game, and he resumed playing the Titleist Pro V1x. Garcia switched to a TP Red prototype in November, first putting it into tournament play at the Target World Challenge. He used the TP Red in The Masters. Hale Irwin also is playing the TP Red; Justin Rose and J.L. Lewis are among the Tour players who prefer the TP Black.

Unveiling a TaylorMade ball for the low-handicap player shouldn’t conflict with Maxfli’s presence in the market because it hasn’t registered with better golfers. The Black Max, the brand’s premium ball, has less than 1 percent unit market share at on- and off-course retailers, according to February sell-through data from Golf Datatech LLC, a Kissimmee, Fla.-based research firm. The lack of market success underscores how Maxfli has depreciated in the eyes of serious players. That is attributable, in part, to the brand being undermined by the popularity of its Noodle line, which has recasted Maxfli’s image as a recreational brand.

“That combined with the M3, which was not commercially successful at all because it did not perform the way it needed it to,” said Sean Toulon, executive vice president of product and brand creation. “It took a long time (to revive Maxfli after its acquisition), and in the middle you had Gary McCord on TV or in print talking about these goofy balls (the Noodle), and now we do them in pink and blue and purple, and we’re selling them like crazy. It’s a good news–bad news thing.

“Now we have a great (Tour-caliber) ball, but Maxfli has changed. That’s why it makes more sense to launch it under the TaylorMade brand. That’s the playbook.”

Backing a TaylorMade ball also should provide marketing efficiency.

“It gets pretty clumsy with a multiple-brand strategy on Tour,” Toulon said. “You got a guy in a TaylorMade visor playing a Maxfli ball. Well, it’s a whole lot easier if it’s TaylorMade across the board.”

Retailers say that tapping into the success of the TaylorMade brand makes sense.

“I don’t think that many golfers make the connection between Maxfli and TaylorMade,” said Heath Hamlin of the PGA Tour Superstore. “I think having a TaylorMade ball will help.”

They also expressed a willingness to give TaylorMade another shot. After losing its corporate identity in the late 1990s, TaylorMade has reinvented itself as “the best performance brand in golf.” Since the introduction of the 300 Series, TaylorMade has launched a string of successful drivers including the r7 – and its compelling moveable weight technology – and regained metalwood leadership at retail and on Tour.

“They’re a different company than they were in 2000,” said Drew Pettengill, a PGA professional and buyer of hard goods at PGA Tour Stop in St. Augustine, Fla.

TaylorMade will launch a print campaign to support TP Red and Black in May, emphasizing tour players’ usage of the products. The goal is to get the ball in the hands of the best golfers, and to target golfers who use the TaylorMade driver.

“It’s not designed for the club but our research indicates the message will resonate with them,” Mike Ferris said. “We estimate there are 5 million golfers using the driver now.”

The TP Red and Black carry the same manufacturer’s suggested retail price ($55 per dozen) and will be available nationwide beginning May 19.

When TaylorMade introduced its first golf ball, the InerGel, it was sold in a plastic air-tight container that looked like it belonged in a drugstore and opened like a can of tennis balls. This time the TP balls will sell in more traditional packaging.

Said one industry observer: “Let’s hope their ball strategy is air-tight this time.”

Meanwhile, Maxfli will get its fair share of attention and undergo a relaunch of sorts later this year. Company officials are keeping mum about Maxfli plans, but any new strategy likely will play off the brand’s evolution and emerging strengths. John Daly, who signed an endorsement deal in March to be Maxfli’s main pitch man, will continue to play the Black Max. The price of that ball is being reduced to $29.99 per dozen.

“The whole Maxfli product line is going to go through a pretty strong transformation over the next six months,” Toulon said.

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