The Water Cooler: Driver Wars Begin

The Water Cooler:  Driver Wars Begin

The Driver Wars Begin

Amana, not a club manufacturer, not in the golf business, taught the golf industry bunches about influencing the golfing public when they bought the foreheads of a large group of PGA Tour players in the early 1970’s.  Apparently, the guys from the Iowa PGA Section started the whole thing when they asked Amana to sponsor their section tournament and Amana agreed if the players all wore an Amana hat.  The concept snowballed from there.  Those hats are collector’s items today but in the 70’s they were almost standard issue PGA Tour uniform.  Pretty simple, you’re a high-profile athlete seen on TV so we pay you to use/advertise our product. Players had equipment contracts before that, but to me the Amana hat marks a time when “influence” began to take on more importance to the golf industry. 

The person in charge of influencing the players was the PGA Tour Manufacturer’s Representative.  PGA Tour player contracts were pretty flexible in the age of the Amana hat.  It was rare a player signed a “14-Club” deal, then added “Bag and Hat”.  Certainly, players had their endorsement deals and some were very lucrative, think Jack Nicklaus and MacGregor, Greg Norman and Cobra, Fred Couples and Lynx, but most players had an “out” that allowed for some flexibility in their bags.  There were a bunch of “Driver Only” deals, or 9, 10, and 11 club deals.  This allowed the player to pick from other company’s products to fill his bag, basically allowing him to play the products he thought best for his game.  The Manufacturer’s Tour Rep needed to know these deals, who had them, and who was unapproachable.  What was odd, really still is, is that big time players rarely successfully sold clubs with their names on them.  Thinking back, I’ll give Ben Hogan his due.  The Hogan Company sold a ton of golf clubs but not until he stopped playing.  From there, there was the Arnold Palmer Brand, Jack Nicklaus Clubs, Sam Snead’s, none of those sold very well.  Even though Jack’s VIPs were pretty sweet for a time, sales were just, eh.

But could great players influence the general golf consumer to buy clubs?  Jack played MacGregor.  Once metal woods made the Eye-O-Matic a collector’s item Macgregor wallowed as a second-rate club manufacturer, no matter how many times Jack told us how good the clubs were.  There was a time when almost every PGA Tour player had a persimmon MacGregor Eye-O-Matic driver, then a metal wood for a 3 wood, most likely an “Original One” from TaylorMade or the Tour Spoon.  They would have an iron deal with a manufacturer, use Wilson wedges, and pick their putter from a choice of 3 or 4 reliable models. Remember Ray Cook putters or Ram Zebra putters?  There were bunches played on Tour. This was toward the end of persimmon and the wound golf ball.  The 80’s and 90’s.  To that date, signing players to represent your company was standard operating procedure, but not really effective marketing.  Ask a club company executive from the 50’s, 60’s or 70’s and they would tell you, “product is king, make the best product and it sells the best.”  Ah, the good old days; for the Tour Rep, very good old days.  It was a simple process, “Tom, try this.  Roger is killing it with this.”  Tom would try it and if he liked it, he would use it.  Simple.

A couple of things happened along the way that made the job of the Tour Rep more difficult.  The world we live in forced security to get tighter which in turn made access to players more difficult.  Also, more money came to the Tour thanks to players like Arnold Palmer, Jack Nicklaus, and Greg Norman and then, of course, Tiger.  Tiger signed with Nike.  They paid him buku bucks, 5 years and $40 million, (a record at the time) but didn’t require him to play all Nike clubs or play the ball.  All he had to do to earn $8 million a year was wear the shoes, hat, and clothing.  When Tiger finally put the Nike ball and clubs in play that contract went to, gulp, $20 million a year.  Besides Phil Knight (Nike founder) there were other people that drove how equipment was chosen on Tour, who played it and why.  These people were the movers and shakers of the golf business and the reason you have the high performance clubs you have today.  Make no mistake, those “movers and shakers” had very big egos, were driven by money, competition, AND a love of the game of golf.  They all knew the most profitable product in golf was the driver.  Sell the most drivers, make the most money. And so…

The Driver Wars began