Feel Golf to make ‘aggressive’ grooves in ’11

Lee Miller, an imposing, broad-shouldered man with a booming voice, has become the first golf industry executive to defy the U.S. Golf Association over its timetable on new grooves.

Miller, CEO of Feel Golf, an equipment company with annual sales of less than $1 million, announced he would not abide by a joint USGA and R&A policy that instructs golf club manufacturers to stop making aggressive, old grooves at the end of 2010 – although most amateurs can continue using such clubs for another 14 years, until 2024.

With clear marketplace signs that demand for aggressive-groove wedges is on the rise, Feel Golf doesn’t want to forfeit potential sales, Miller said. Though manufacturers are supposed to cease production by year’s end, retailers can sell clubs with old grooves as long as supplies last.

“We’re a business. We’re going to offer what our customers want,” Miller said. “That means we’ll be selling wedges with both the old and new grooves as long as there is a demand.”

So far, no other golf company has joined Feel in its rebellious stance. Major golf club manufacturers declined to comment on Miller’s announcement, citing the often fragile relationship between themselves and the ruling bodies.

Under ordinary circumstances, golf companies voluntarily comply with regulations established by the USGA and R&A. USGA jurisdiction includes the United States and Mexico, while the R&A governs golf in the rest of the world.

Manufacturers do not sign contracts or agreements with the ruling bodies. Rather they simply follow the wishes of the USGA and R&A. For their part, the ruling bodies maintain open dialogue with the golf companies, including commentary periods before most new equipment rules are adopted.

In response to Miller, USGA senior technical director Dick Rugge issued what sounded like an admonition: “We do not see it as our role to actively monitor the distribution of equipment by manufacturers. In keeping with the spirit of the game in which golfers for the most part regulate their own compliance with the rules, we trust and believe that the same ethic will prevail within the manufacturing community on this issue.”

But a couple of equipment manufacturers expressed sympathy for Feel Golf.

“The USGA is trying hard to do the right thing,” Ping CEO John Solheim said, “and I compliment them for this. Sometimes, though, they overdo things.

“They can get themselves in trouble when they start telling manufacturers all the things they can’t do,” he said. “They (the USGA) may think they have figured out all the effects of this groove situation, but it may not work out that way. Their track record hasn’t been that good.”

Jesse Ortiz, former Orlimar vice chairman and now the chief golf club designer for Bobby Jones Golf, said bluntly, “He (Miller) can do it if he wants. There’s nothing to stop him.”

Feel Golf’s situation also re-ignited other complaints about the ruling bodies’ decision to implement new grooves, which are smaller in size and have less-sharper edges than the old grooves.

“It’s not hurting the pros. . . . It hurts amateurs,” club designer Dave Pelz said. “They’re going to lose half the pitiful spin they currently have. We already have a declining participation in golf because the game is so hard, and they’re making it harder.

“I think the USGA has totally flopped in the reason they’re doing this.”

The commercial impact of the governing bodies’ decision is a direct result of how they’re implementing the equipment change. It consists of three segments: 1. Worldwide professional tours switched to new grooves at the beginning of 2010; 2. Starting in 2014, the biggest and most important amateur tournaments around the world will require new grooves; 3. Most local, state and regional tournaments will not make the change to new grooves until 2024, when all golfers globally will be required to use the reconfigured grooves.

With a belief that old-groove clubs soon will become scarce, consumers appear to be “stocking up” on such clubs.

“Golfers are scooping up wedges as fast as they can,” said Ron Partridge, Golfsmith’s vice president of club merchandising. “Our wedge sales are up 22 percent for the first eight months of the year. The supply of these current high-spin wedges (old grooves) will dry up over the next several months.”

For Miller, it makes no sense to pass up such potential sales, especially during a recession.

Miller, a golf professional and instructor, founded Monterey, Calif.-based Feel Golf in 1988. The small company, which designs and sells its own wedges, irons, metalwoods and grips, has witnessed sales decline in the past two years to “about three-quarters of a million dollars” per year, Miller said. Before the current slowdown, sales had been “about 50 percent higher,” he said.

Feel is known primarily as a wedge company. Although Feel does not pay any touring pros, its wedges have appeared regularly on various professional tours, particularly the LPGA. The newest line of Feel wedges is named after its CEO (Lee Miller Autograph Series).

Miller acknowledged he was contacted by the USGA and R&A after his announcement earlier this month.

“I’ve had the USGA (call me), and I’ve had the R&A, and now I’m going into seclusion,” he said with a laugh. “The bottom line is that they can’t stop me from doing this. We make great wedges, and we need the business.”

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