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The disruption of the $5-billion golf ball market is in full swing

Startups are chipping away at a $5 billion market

Michael Croley | Bloomberg 

Golf
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Unless you’re developing a fertilizer, you probably don’t expect to disrupt the industry from the spare room of a sewage company. But that’s where Dean Snell found himself four years ago, holed up in an office with a single computer. “In the mornings, we were walking past the trucks that pump out the port-a-johns,” he says with a laugh.

It wasn’t what Snell envisioned when he decided to start his own company. He’d been an engineer in the golf-ball business for 25 years—first with Titleist and then with TaylorMade Co., where he worked with such pros as Dustin Johnson and Jason Day and was instrumental in developing the Tour Preferred line. His name is on dozens of patents, including one for the original Titleist Pro V1, the most popular ball on the tour. (Gary Woodland played with it for his U.S. Open victory in June; Brooks Koepka used the Pro V1x when he won this year’s PGA Championship.)

But Snell figured he could bring his knowledge of materials, patents, and processing to the public and “eliminate big tour contracts” that pay pros handsomely to use specific products. His premium ball would have the performance characteristics of market leaders while passing the savings back to the consumer. The base rate for a 12-pack of Snell’s new MTB-Xs is $33; a dozen Pro V1s cost $52.

Snell is among a handful of that have disrupted the golf-ball market—valued by Golf Datatech at $420 million out of a total $5 billion golf-equipment industry—by following a direct-to-consumer model that rewards volume shoppers. Vice Golf was started by a pair of German lawyers who met while surfing. “We weren’t the typical golfers coming at this wanting to turn our favorite sport into a business,” says co-founder Ingo Düllman.

Instead, after seeing the success of Dollar Shave Club, Harry’s, and other consumer brands, they set out to give golf-ball marketing a makeover with cheeky commercials you’d expect from Old Spice or Geico.Vice sells a dozen balls for anywhere from $34 down to $11, if you buy in bulk. They come in lime green, neon red, and traditional white, or you can mix and match all three. And you can pair the brand’s logo—which rides the line between edgy and gaudy—with a picture of your own or a rival’s face. The company also sells flat-bill caps, golf bags, and waffle-knit towels and has teamed up with the NBA so basketball fans can tout their favorite team on the fairway.

Another competitor, Buffalo-based OnCore Golf Technology Inc., is taking a more technological approach. Its first ball had a hollow metal core, which helps drives stay straighter, and eventually forced the U.S. Golf Association to rewrite its rulebook. Its Genius ball, making its debut in the second quarter of 2020, will have an internal GPS to measure shot velocity, spin rate, total distance, trajectory, and apex, all while telling you how far you are from the green. Brokerage founder Charles Schwab joined as a shareholder in January, and the brand was renewed in April as the official ball of the New York State Golf Association. Its premium Elixr sells for $35 per dozen, but buying in bulk can drop it to $30.

If you lose four or five balls a round, like Cut Golf founder and Chief Executive Officer Sam Uisprapassorn does, you might need a cheaper substitute. He started Cut under the assumption that if he could get people hooked on the ball, they’d also pony up for $50 polos down the line. “The golf ball was a way to build a loyal following,” he says. In two and a half years, Cut has carved out a discount niche, selling its balls for less than $20 per dozen.

Most modern premium golf balls have the same three elements: a rubber core, one or two (or even three) additional layers, and the dimpled cover. But Sam Robinson, senior director for product testing at the independent review site MyGolfSpy, says consumers have a misconception that premium golf balls are all the same. The distinctions are just hard to measure, because everyone hits differently. Tested using a robot that makes the same swing each time, Snell’s MTB-X ball had a slightly higher ball speed on average and hence traveled a few yards farther than almost every other ball on the market. OnCore and Vice didn’t lag far behind.

Even though most golfers determine their brand loyalty by how far the ball goes, Snell believes a better test is to start 125 yards from the green and then work your way in, because that’s where you take most shots. After you’ve found a ball you like, he says, use it when you’re looking for a new driver, which is the opposite of how most golfers shop. “The ball is the only piece of equipment you will use on every single swing,” he says. “If you can’t tell a difference between them, then go buy the one that’s most affordable.”

First Published: Sat, August 17 2019. 22:03 IST
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