In my line of work, we talk often about technology stagnation. We often find that new products hitting the market have only slight improvements from the products offered a short while ago. The market then becomes extremely competitive, prices drop, and growth becomes a thing of the past. The most recent example is the personal computer market. Many people feel today that there is little incentive to by a new computer. I feel the golf industry is very near to a similar rut.
This came to me while playing golf a few weeks ago. All three of the guys in my group had R11 drivers in their hands. R11 is almost three years old and TaylorMade has released so many new drivers since then it begins to spin your head even thinking about it. But for the most part these new drivers were not driving my golfing buddies to ditch the old driver and switch over to the new ones. I asked them why the newer drivers hadn't tickled their fancy. They mentioned the improvements just didn't justify the price tag.
I think for the most part these guys were right. Other than minor innovations like movable weights, there is very little to drive new club sales when it comes to drivers or even irons for that matter. It really makes you wonder if golf technology has reached a "tipping point" where we are not going to be able to get much more bang for our buck. If this is true what does the future hold for golf companies?
If we look to the history of the driver during the transition from hickory shafts to steel there was a lull in the speed of innovation as well. Steel shafts were introduced in the fifties and held a position in the golf industry until graphite took over in the nineties. The drivers during this time were made of persimmon and had little innovation has well. The steel headed driver did not make its introduction until the late seventies early eighties depending on who you ask. From this point innovation took off like a rocket. The transition from steel to titanium was very fast. Titanium has been around and the main material used in drivers for close to fifteen years. There has been some work by golf companies to create composite drivers where they fuse carbon fiber with titanium, but for the most part titanium is the standard.
Titanium itself went through a great deal of innovation mainly around how thin the metal could be manufactured allowing the head of the driver to become massive but at the same time lightening the clubhead so we can swing harder and still have a very large sweetspot to hit. The last gasp from the clubmakers was to paint the clubhead white in an effort to make the clubhead appear larger and give the golfer a feeling that the club is even larger.
So the question now is what happens from here? If it is like other industries I suspect we will see some consolidation. We have already started to see this. It began with the sale of TaylorMade to Adidas and a sale of Cobra to Puma. Then more recently Adams being bought by TaylorMade, Titleist's sale to Fila, Cleveland Golf to Srixon these are an indicator that the market is shrinking. Consolidation is a sign of a very weak market. The interesting question is; do guys like Callaway and PING survive? Can the medium size companies who do not have the giant big brother clothing giant behind them be successful in this competitive market space? We still see a few small companies trying to break into the market such as BombTech and others, but the going will be even tougher for a small guy.
Consolidation by in large is a bad thing in my opinion. It reduces the number of options we as consumers have at our disposal. Less opportunity means we will pay higher prices for less innovation. Basically we will pay for marketing. I would rather my dollars go towards research and development and not advertising. Tiger and Phil make plenty of money on the golf course, why should they get more of my money each time I buy a new driver.
The balance in all of this is how do we allow for technology to blossom but not lose the game to technology. The USGA struggles with this question. They have done things like limiting the clubhead size, limit the spring effect on the face, all to try and curb technology and keep the game, well a game. Sadly this effort will limit what golf companies can do and will hurt us as consumers. They will all be forced to make the same thing and then only the large will survive.
Photo credits: © David Dusek.