SBJ/September 14 - 20, 1998/No Topic Name

Help or hype? New clubs spur debate

Revolution or simply ridiculous?

That's the question surrounding new technology as golf equipment companies scramble to develop the latest and greatest clubs promising to make the hacker into the club champion. From potent new alloys to new shaft designs, golf companies are falling over one another to grab golfers' attention — and their wallets.

But how much of the game's new technology is truly legitimate? And have there been too many technological advances that have warped the game's sense of tradition?

Clues may lie in a recent U.S. Golf Association announcement that has put the equipment manufacturers on notice. The USGA says it will pay close attention to the efficiency of new equipment.

That caused a major stir in the club business, including threats of litigation by industry giant Callaway Golf Co., maker of Big Bertha drivers, the oversized drivers that almost single-handedly changed the nature of the golf equipment business.

And what a business it has become.

According to Adams Golf Inc., maker of fairway woods featuring design technology that the company claims allows golfers to drive the ball out of virtually any lie, the golf equipment business is nearly a $2.4 billion industry. Adams, which recently went public, says the sale of golf clubs increased at 13 percent annually between 1992 and 1997. More telling: While the average number of U.S. golfers has stayed static at 25 million, the number of beginning and junior golfers grew by 40 percent in 1997, and 900 new courses are expected to open by the year 2000, according to the National Golf Foundation.

The growth has spelled increasingly fierce competition among the club manufacturers, each trying to use innovative technology to lure the average golfers who struggle to improve their game.

To capitalize, golf manufacturers have divided the club market into two categories: professionals, and the rest of the golfers.

For the professionals, technology has its limits, which is drawing the attention of the USGA.

But for the bulk of the average golfing population, there still seems to be plenty of demand for the next, best golf club that will improve even the game of those with hopelessly high handicaps.

"There really are two different markets," said Jim Baugh, president of Wilson Sporting Goods Co., which has rolled out its new Fat Shaft line of clubs featuring technology that Baugh thinks will put Wilson back as a major player in the golf equipment business. "But the average player needs all the help in the world, and there is always better technology."

The problem, Baugh said, is that the new technology has come too quickly for the average golfer to absorb.

"There are too many manufacturers in the business," he said. "So you have to win and die with your product."

One company that has been suffering from the influx of new technology is Callaway, which in the past has dominated the club business thanks to its Big Bertha oversized clubs.

Adams, with its newly designed Tight Lies brand, has cut into Callaway's dominance with its top-selling fairway woods, achieving a 27 percent share in the category, according to the company.

Adams' success apparently has taken its toll on Callaway, which saw its net income for the six months ended June 30 plummet 55 percent to $32 million, while net sales fell 3 percent to $410 million. The numbers forced Callaway to roll out some new technology of its own: a new line of smaller metal woods featuring a stainless steel chip in a smaller club head.

Callaway's new offering is an indication that golf's new innovations are shifting with the competition.

Consider one of the industry's newest entries, California-based Liquidmetal Golf, which boasts of gee-whiz "energy transfer" technology.

The company, which began selling a new line of clubs this summer, says its newly developed clubs featuring five alloys allow the club to avoid any weak spots on the head. Priced at $600 for a driver and $2,595 for a set of irons, it's a steep price to pay for a bigger sweet spot.

"Before, companies used different variations of steel and titanium, but we are much different," said Atakan Peker, a senior scientist for Liquidmetal. "The push point is the material in our clubhead."

Liquidmetal officials would not disclose their start-up costs, or how much they have spent on marketing their new products. Last year, though, companies like Callaway and Spalding Sports Worldwide spent between $15 million and $25 million on marketing. Liquidmetal may have to follow suit to convince consumers.

It's too soon to know if Liquidmetal is simply an overpriced novelty, but it's a sure bet that rivals such as Callaway and Taylor Made Golf Co. are rushing to develop their own new alloys.

To nobody's surprise, Liquidmetal's competition is publicly skeptical of the new technology.

"The golf ball is extremely soft," said Richard Helmstetter, Callaway's chief of new products. "And any metal is infinitely hard, so there is really no difference."

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