Driver error: Wilson Triton weeks away from USGA approval

Driver error: Wilson Triton weeks away from USGA approval

Equipment

Driver error: Wilson Triton weeks away from USGA approval

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Carl’s Golfland in Bloomfield Hills, Mich., was midway through a Black Friday demo day promoting Wilson Golf’s new Triton driver when general manager Pete Line received some unwelcome news: The U.S. Golf Association has not yet ruled the Triton to be a conforming driver. That means the Triton cannot be used in competition or for rounds used for handicap purposes.

“I wasn’t aware that it wasn’t on the list (of conforming drivers),” Line told Golfweek on Nov. 25.

The Triton was the winning product in the Golf Channel reality series “Driver vs. Driver,” which concluded Nov. 22. Eric Sillies of Cincinnati designed the Triton and won the $500,000 first prize.

The reality series created interest in the Triton, but also slowed Wilson’s efforts to get final products to the USGA for review. That has put Wilson in an awkward spot because its highest-profile launch in years is, at present, nonconforming.

The USGA has the club now and possibly could add the Triton to its confirming list within the next few weeks. Normally, a manufacturer submits any new product for USGA approval long before shipping that product to retail.

The last time a major manufacturer launched a nonconforming driver was in October 2000, when Callaway Golf introduced the ERC II – though that was done to pick a fight with the USGA. Wilson, by contrast, wants the Triton to be conforming, but hasn’t yet received the USGA’s blessings.

In a Nov. 26 interview during a demo day at the PGA Tour Superstore in Orlando, Fla., Wilson Golf president Tim Clarke said the company met with the USGA on Nov. 21 and was told a decision “would take up to two or three weeks.” He said he knows the Triton meets the most basic USGA criteria for size and spring-like effect, adding, “It will be a conforming product. We’re committed to make it conforming.”

Clarke said Wilson’s efforts to expedite the launch of this product were slowed by “a lot of moving parts that aren’t in our normal cycle.” Filming of “Driver vs. Driver” concluded July 29, and Clarke said “there was one more round of tweaks to the tooling” before production began. He said finished drivers arrived at Wilson’s warehouse Nov. 7.

“It was a timeline issue,” Clarke said. “When we started this thing, we knew it was going to be tight. But the window everyone wanted to hit was this window from Thanksgiving to New Year’s.”

That timeline was further shortened by Golf Channel’s confidentiality requirements. He said Wilson had to set up “a private cell” at the production facility and secure an outside warehouse to store the product. He said employees working on the project had to sign confidentiality agreements that included a $1 million penalty for any disclosures.

“Before the final episode aired, any leak of the show wrecked the show,” Clarke said.

As it turned out, retailers didn’t learn that the Triton was not USGA-approved until being contacted by Golfweek in recent days.

Wilson Staff Triton driver

Wilson Staff Triton driver.

The owner of one East Coast golf retail chain said Nov. 25 that he was “shocked” to learn the Triton was not on the USGA’s conforming list, and said his first thought was to post signage alerting customers to that fact.

“We would not sell a nonconforming driver,” he said.

Wilson launched a busy demo-day schedule on Black Friday to promote the Triton, and that will continue through the spring.

Indian Spring Country Club in Boynton Beach, Fla., is scheduled to hold a Triton demo day Nov. 28, and director of golf Mike McLellan said he plans to stick to that schedule. But McLellan, who was unaware that the Triton was not yet a conforming product prior to being contacted by Golfweek, said he will inform his members that the USGA has not approved the club. After the demo day, McLellan said he probably will return the six Tritons he received this week.

“If it’s not USGA-approved, how can I sell it to my members?” McLellan said. “We play by the rules.”

McLellan’s reaction highlights Wilson’s dilemma: The Triton is an extremely tough sell if retailers and consumers are aware that it is not approved by the USGA. It also muddies Wilson’s marketing message. In a television ad, Wilson endorser Kevin Streelman says of the Triton, “It’s in my bag, and it should be in yours.” Streelman can’t play the Triton in competition until the USGA approves it.

Wilson Staff Triton driver

Still, some retailers contacted by Golfweek were understanding of Wilson’s situation.

In an email, Matt Corey, chief marketing officer for PGA Tour Superstore, downplayed the matter, calling it a “timing issue,” adding that “we are confident that everything will be fine.”

At Carl’s Golfland, one of the most influential specialty shops in the country, Line said his staff will let customers know the product is not yet conforming. But he said he understood Wilson’s position.

“I have full confidence in Wilson,” Line said. “They’ve always been a great vendor partner of ours, and if we have any issues, they will fully stand behind the product.”

This was an unanticipated ending to Wilson’s most ambitious product launch campaign in years. Aside from the product development, that included a major investment with Golf Channel and the marketing campaign to promote the Triton. The company is counting on sales to offset those expenditures.

“We brought product in that basically covers our exposure in costs,” Clarke said. “When it’s sold out, we’re done. . . I probably shouldn’t say this, but we may miss sales because we’re not planning on bringing more in. We know that there’s a finite life to drivers.”

While Clarke insisted he is confident the USGA will sign off on the Triton in the coming weeks, he said Wilson is prepared to address the situation if the USGA does not place the driver on the conforming list.

“If there is an issue, we’re not going to leave any of our (retail) partners, our golf professionals, our staff members or our consumers in a bad spot,” Clarke said. “We’ll rectify the situation.”

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