First, congratulations on the success of the R11. Have you been able to tell if it has attracted new golfers to the game?
We don't know at this point if our new R11 and Burner SuperFast 2.0 metalwoods have encouraged people to take up golf. History has shown that charismatic players like Arnold Palmer, Seve Ballesteros and Tiger Woods are what draw new people to the game. However, it's clear that our white metalwoods have golfers excited about playing again, which was one of our goals. Offering white clubheads was a gamble because the market could have rejected them, but our testing indicated that the white finish offered a real performance benefit, and that gave us the confidence to move forward. And consumers have embraced them with an enthusiasm that even we could not have imagined.
What's the biggest challenge facing the golf industry right now? And how is TaylorMade addressing that issue?
There's no doubt that our biggest challenge is finding ways to grow the game, because the number of golfers in the United States is shrinking. Part of the problem is the still-sluggish economy. Yet I think the biggest obstacle is the frustration factor. Golf is a hard game to learn, and not much fun when you're a beginner and struggling to get the ball off the ground.
You can make the game easier in other sports by altering the playing field. In basketball, you can lower the net; in baseball or softball, you can shorten the base paths and bring the fences in; in volleyball, you can lower the net. Unfortunately you can't change the playing field in golf very easily. What we can do is make it clear to new players that you don't have to play by the rules. Tee the ball up in the fairway if you want to. Take a free drop out of the trees, rough and sand. Count any putt that touches the hole as good.
The truth is that a lot of long-time golfers already do this kind of thing. They realize that if you aren't playing for a living, why let the game beat you up? We need to start a movement emphasizing fun and enjoyment first, and we need to get the PGA of America, Tour pros, famous athletes and celebrities behind it so that new players realize it's okay to play by their own rules to make the game more fun.
Some industry leaders have advocated for a bifurcation of the equipment rules. Does this appeal to you?
It's true that we can engineer equipment that promotes more distance, which golfers can't seem to get enough of, but which doesn't conform to USGA limits. Higher-COR clubfaces and balls that deliver higher initial veloc-ity come to mind right away. If equipment like that gets golfers excited about playing and attracts new players to the game, it's possible we would offer it to consumers. Purists have criticized companies for creating nonconforming equipment in the past, but as I mentioned earlier, most golfers don't play strictly by the Rules of Golf anyway. I'm not saying that TaylorMade will create and offer such equipment, but I believe it's a concept worth exploring if it can help sustain a healthy playing population. As for a bifurcation of the rules, I don't think it's necessary. One set is fine, you can either choose to adhere to them or not.
What do you think the next big trend will be and how might it benefit the game?
Let me start by saying that making clubs more adjustable and more customizable is a trend that will certainly continue. The tens of thousands of players who are hitting longer and straighter tee shots with the R11 have validated that the ability to adjust face angle, loft and CG location is an incredibly valuable asset in a golf club. Our R&D team is busy working on finding ways to make our clubs even more adjustable so that you can match them even more closely to your individual swing characteristics, improving launch conditions further to make the quality of your shots that much better.
We also believe that there's still a lot of room left to improve the performance of golf equipment within the limitations set by the USGA, it's just a matter of working creatively and scientifically to break new barriers, which we're continuously working toward. I don't want to tip our hand by revealing exactly what we're focused on, but we're confident that we're years ahead of our competitors in this respect.
We seem to have hit a ceiling with the USGA in terms of clubhead size and MOI. Do you think there's any chance they'll relax their limitations in the future?
Only the USGA knows the answer to that question, but historically whenever they've changed equipment rules, it has been to tighten limitations, not relax them. A good example is the change this year to the requirements on groove design, which was intended to limit spin generated from the rough. In the past 10 years, they've limited clubface COR, clubhead size and club length, all in an attempt to limit distance.
The USGA's priorities are to preserve the challenge of the game. Our priorities are clearly different–to make and sell golf equipment that performs better than our previous models. Not that we don't want to preserve golf's challenge, but we, like most equipment companies, don't believe that continued enhancements to equipment performance will make the game dramatically easier–it's still going to be a challenge to break 80, and you won't see an avalanche of 16-handicappers dropping to 6. It's still going to take dedication and practice to get good at the game.