Presidents Cup Putter Positioning

A couple of prominent equipment manufacturers are getting more aggressive in their attempt to become bigger players in the putter market. The Presidents Cup provided a few prime examples of this trend.

Bag DropIn this week’s Bag Drop, we’ll cover a few of the odds and ends of the equipment world. We’ll start with some observations of putters put in play at The Presidents Cup, then make sure to hit a few industry transactions involving a couple of old pros and some young guns.

The top putter brand in the game at retail and overall across the world’s professional tours for the past several years has been Odyssey. Right behind has been Titleist, which has seen the Scotty Cameron line of putters become a high-end retail powerhouse and the perennial No. 1 on the PGA Tour.

Titleist and Odyssey have been able to maintain their big usage numbers on Tour because each brand has a number of players under contract to use their putters, and because a number of players who use equipment from other manufacturers choose to use an Odyssey or Titleist putter. So when you saw a player with a TaylorMade or Cleveland bag, for example, often they would be carrying an Odyssey or Titleist putter.

This phenomenon dates back to the days of Ping’s dominance on tour. Players think of their putters as separate from the rest of their clubs, and don’t feel a significant disconnect if their flatstick doesn’t match their driver or irons. Odyssey and Titleist took advantage of this attitude by offering good financial incentives to play their putters, and both brands cultivated a winning reputation thanks to dozens of tour victories around the world each year.

TaylorMade has been one of the companies trying to encroach on Odyssey’s and Titleist’s turf for a few years now. The company launched the Rossa putter brand a few years ago with a big splash. The bright red insert was unmistakable on TV, and TaylorMade even signed Loren Roberts to an endorsement deal to switch from his beloved old Cobra Greg Norman model putter to a new Rossa.

The strategy didn’t exactly work overnight. Fast forward to the present day, and Roberts is winning on the Champions Tour with his old Cobra putter back in his bag. But TaylorMade has stuck with the Rossa, and is finally starting to see some of its marquee players switch over to the company’s putters. Two of Team USA’s players at The Presidents Cup – Fred Funk and Kenny Perry – were longtime Odyssey devotees, despite using TaylorMade woods and irons. Perry had used an Odyssey Dual Force Rossie I putter since the mid-1990s, while Funk has used a White Hot 2-Ball putter during his late-40s career resurgence.

But both have come over to the Rossa camp. Funk has used a Rossa mallet on and off throughout the year, and Perry has finally made the switch as well. They join Sergio Garcia as high-profile TaylorMade staff players to use Rossa mallets on tour. Don’t be surprised if Retief Goosen, a TaylorMade staffer who usually uses Yes! putters, to be the next to be Rossa-ized.

While TaylorMade has converted a couple longtime Odyssey users, they’ve also grabbed a former Titleist/Cameron player. Mike Weir also wielded a Rossa mallet at The Presidents Cup after several years of success with Scotty Cameron putters.

The Cameron camp has also taken a couple of hits from Never Compromise, the putter brand of Cleveland Golf. Never Compromise was started in 1997 by some of the folks who had founded Odyssey just a few years. Despite some early success, the company never followed Odyssey’s sharp rise at retail, and was purchased a couple years ago by Cleveland.

Like TaylorMade, Cleveland is starting to circle the wagons and get its staff pros using the company’s preferred putters. The first big name to come aboard was Vijay Singh, who won the Buick Open this year using Never Compromise’s new GM2 FM mallet. Singh has used many putters over his career, but had much success in recent years with Titleist and MacGregor putters.

Now longtime Cleveland Golf staffer David Toms has also switched to a Never Compromise putter after years of playing Cameron Studio Design putters. Nike has also claimed a past Cameron mainstay in Justin Leonard, who used one of Nike’s Kevin Burns-designed putters at The Presidents Cup. Believe me, the idea of a tour pro using a Nike putter would have been laughable even two years ago. Things have changed.

I take these putter switcheroos to mean two things. One, other putter makers are closing the performance and technology gap. Odyssey and Titleist have had outstanding tour fitting programs for years, and a number of innovative designs. But, as with drivers, other companies are catching up. Two, manufacturers are starting to lean on their staff players to actually play the clubs they’re paid – especially when they’re playing in big made-for-TV events. Both of these things point to more competition around the ol’ practice green in 2006.

Brief Bits
Speaking of competition, Nickent Golf is making a move to become a bigger player in the equipment industry. The company has added a couple of seasoned vets to its team. On the heels of naming Jim Grundberg as the company’s national sales manager, Nickent hired John B. Hoeflich as senior vice president.

Hoeflich is well-known as an excellent designer. His golf club design credits include the Tommy Armour 845 irons, the original Titleist DCI irons and, more recently, the TaylorMade RAC irons and wedges. He is expected to build aggressively on Nickent’s current product line, which includes the successful 3DX Ironwood hybrids. Look for new Hoeflich-designed clubs to debut by year’s end under the Nickent name.

Nickent’s hiring of Grundberg is also a key acquisition, bringing experience on the business end to help deal with the company’s growth. Prior to a successful stint in the guitar business, Grundberg was VP of sales for Odyssey and also worked in key positions with Wilson, TaylorMade and Cutter and Buck.

Meanwhile, there may be a high-voltage player signing announced this week. Multiple sources are reporting that Michele Wie will turn pro and sign with Nike Golf for her equipment needs. Following Paula Creamer’s decision to sign with TaylorMade-Adidas, this would be another major signing of a talented young female golfer.

As good as Creamer is, Wie has the chance to be a Tiger Woods-like presence. That’s why she is likely to choose a “lifestyle” brand like Nike over a purely golf brand like Titleist or Callaway. More on this in the weeks to come, but having both Tiger Woods and Wie on staff will make Nike an even more formidable presence in the golf world.

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