Business | INDUSTRY TRENDS

Golf club makers try to stay ahead in long-shot war

For nonplayers, it might be hard to imagine just how much golfers desire to hit a longer shot.

So makers of clubs, if they hope to get golfers to buy their products instead of those of their rivals, have no choice but to promise a longer carry.

But the way makers provide a longer carry is changing ahead of a planned change in golf rules, industry people say. Developing a new mix of materials is one way; customizing clubs is another.

Since the introduction of titanium heads in the early 1990s, club makers have been competing to develop heads with higher face deflection, which is said to produce stronger shots, and thus a longer carry.

For that purpose, heads have been made bigger and faces thinner. Golfers have snatched up new models touting higher deflections.

The race for higher deflections has apparently stretched to an extreme, leading some makers to make club faces so thin that heads crack easily.

“We have received complaints of head cracks from users,” an official of a golf club maker said. “But there were also some customers who demand thinner faces, saying they didn’t even care about cracks.”

Extended carries have raised concerns that course hazards such as sand traps might be rendered meaningless.

In response, professional golf authorities in the United States and Britain have set an upper limit on face deflection. The rule, which also affect amateurs, will be introduced in Japan in 2008.

The new rule, which will bar most current models from fairways, has prompted club makers to search for new ways to generate a longer carry.

Some see it as a relief and a business opportunity.

“Actually, we were pretty much at the limit in pursuit of higher deflection,” said Hideyo Asabuki, general manager of Yokohama Rubber Co.’s sports division.

The company released a hit driver in January 2003 that sold 100,000 units in its first year.

Using a so-called dual compound head made of titanium and carbon fiber-reinforced plastic, the club is designed to improve a shot by producing an ideal launch angle and ball spin rate, company officials said.

It would be difficult to achieve the same effect by using a full titanium head, they said.

Following Yokohama Rubber’s success, other club makers have started selling dual compound models.

“I think there will be a number of dual compound clubs next year,” Asabuki said.

SRI Sports Ltd., Japan’s top golf club maker, has also begun selling a dual compound model. But the firm said its mainstay models remain high-defection full titanium heads. SRI markets under the Dunlop brand in Japan and Srixon in the U.S.

“High deflection is a very important element for carry,” company spokesman Hideaki Fujita said.

SRI is the maker of Japan’s best selling golf club, XXIO (pronounced zeck-si-oh), which has sold more than 750,000 units since its debut in 2000.

But the company is also working on models designed to meet the new rule.

“There are already various rules about clubs. When the new rule is introduced, we will be able to offer clubs within it,” Fujita said.

Tetsuro Katayama, president of Golf Equipment World, a monthly industry publication, welcomes the new trend.

“With or without the new rule, we have to part with a high deflection race anyway,” he said. “Makers and users are getting tired of it. Club developers felt a sense of stagnation.”

As the makers cannot claim an edge by producing higher deflections, Katayama expects there will be more diversity in how they pitch their products.

This could lead to a more personalized approach, including customizing clubs to each player.

“Inevitably, it will become important to provide clubs that fit a player,” Katayama said.

Mizuno Corp. began training fitters who adjust shafts and heads to better fit golfers’ physical and swing characteristics about three years ago.

Today, there are some 150 professional fitters at 100 golf stores.

Fitting is a common practice in the U.S., where golfers regularly buy clubs at pro shops and receive advice from pros. But in Japan, a vast majority buy popular models and try to fit themselves with the clubs.

“It is part of a differentiation strategy. We have to take a different approach when every maker says its club has a larger carry,” company spokesman Isaku Nishida said.

Coronavirus banner