1. What's your take on the state of the equipment industry right now? Sean Toulon, TaylorMade executive vice president of Product Creation: It's an exciting time. New innovations are coming online at a faster pace than ever before. The consumer has more opportunities now than ever to improve the performance of their equipment.
Greg Hopkins, CEO of Cleveland Golf/Srixon–USA: It's an interesting time. We're seeing a big consolidation at the retail level. The big are getting bigger. The middle-tier customers are struggling or going away. And I think you can say the same thing about the OEM level. There are only five or six major companies still out there. You used to have Ram and Tommy Armour and Lynx and all these companies that have gone away or become house brands for some companies. So there's been a consolidation there, and combined with what's happening in participation, sales volumes and the economy, it's probably a good thing that these major companies are surviving. Participation is down in the last five years over 10 percent and might be pushing 15 percent. So you have a shrinking pie. Then throw in the weather problems we had in 2011, and people were playing less golf. So the industry is mirroring what's going on in the United States, with tough economic times. Companies are having to manage things properly to survive. The white driver was such a big success, allowing TaylorMade to pump up the industry numbers. But the market is down the past five years, volume-wise about $300 or $400 million, which is significant. The white driver is such a phenom that they were up. Had TaylorMade had a normal year, the industry would've been down considerably more. The success of that driver and all the white clubs that came out helped the market from dipping down more in sales volume. And that helped the retailers. So I think the market is probably a bit more anemic than maybe even the numbers suggest. Part of that will change in 2012, because I don't see the weather being as weird as it was in 2011. Barring that, I think we'll hit a reasonable sales level where it doesn't go up or down. It's survival of the fittest right now.
Chip Brewer, Adams Golf president and CEO: Fortunately, the golf-equipment industry, like our economy as a whole, is recovering. We had a good year overall in 2011 and expect that 2012 should be even better. Consumers are increasingly looking to our new technologies–such as aerodynamics, adjustability and Velocity Slot Technology–to further improve performance and are willing to pay for it.
Rob Arluna, Nike Golf's global category business director for golf clubs: Certainly the industry has been affected by the global recession, however we are very optimistic about the future. We're seeing business begin to pick up as consumer confidence strengthens, and people head back to the golf course. While the number of annual rounds played is a key driver for health across the industry, groundbreaking innovation also plays a major role. As an equipment manufacturer, we set out to move the market and grow the game by exciting golfers and by delivering an experience that makes them prioritize golf as their go-to sport. Our innovation plan and product performance across all categories, from clubs to balls to footwear to apparel, is powerful and will inspire people to play more golf.
Tom Preece, Cobra PUMA Golf vice president research and development: The industry is competitive, but has lots of opportunity for a brand that dares to be different.
Luke Williams, Callaway Golf's senior global director of woods and irons: It's an extremely competitive industry if you're an equipment manufacturer, which makes it a great time to be a golf consumer. Golf equipment is better today than ever and it will continue to get better because you have some very smart people spending all of their time trying to make better golf clubs and balls that make the game more enjoyable for more golfers. As a result, products continue to evolve and improve with the application and combination of new technologies.
2. In what ways would you like to see club development evolve over the next five years?
TaylorMade: I'd like to see more energy and resources go into equipment to help people learn how to play the game.
Cleveland Golf/Srixon: The USGA has us pretty well cornered in the woods market. They finally caught up to advancements. As a result, what you can do to a driver head is somewhat limited, which is putting focus on other components, with lighter and stronger shafts, lighter grips and cosmetic elements. I wish the USGA would back off some of the restrictions. There's only so many things that can advance in golf, and golf is an evolution of the participation in the sport. The reality is that guys don't shoot any better scores today, but they have more ease in playing the game. They like to hit the ball a long way. I think the USGA overreacted with the groove ruling and unnecessarily boxed in manufacturers in wood-head advancements that allow golfers to enjoy the game more. And when you have a game with shrinking participation, you need to look for ways to make the game more enjoyable. Their focus was on top-of-the-pyramid players, like Tour pros, and there aren't that many of them. Those players will shoot great, no matter what you give them to play. They worry about some areas that, in the big picture, are not for the best health of the game. They don't worry about participation, but probably say they do. Or they have a disconnect between participation and responsibility in growing the game, and equipment advancement.
Adams Golf: To truly unlock the potential of today's technology, we need an even greater focus on custom fitting, both by manufacturers and retailers. We need to work closer together than ever. We recently launched a web application called HITfit, which provides guidance on how to integrate hybrids into an iron set. This is a good example of how to create a simple solution that pays dividends for the consumers, retailers and manufacturers.
Nike Golf: Golfers are more discerning than ever and will educate themselves on new product purchases, and they should. There's always new opportunities for equipment advancements, and Nike Golf will never stop innovating. It's in our DNA.
Cobra PUMA Golf: We'd like to see more advancements in technology.
Callaway Golf: We'll continue to push the technology that enables better performance and greater enjoyment of the game by more people–that's what we do. Adjustability is a step toward making a club that's better able to suit the particular preferences of an individual golfer, but there's more we can do along these lines. We're working on some really exciting stuff.
3. If you could change one thing about the way the USGA regulates equipment development in the future, what would it be?
TaylorMade: That they would completely relax any and all "plain in shape" restrictions.
Cleveland Golf/Srixon: I'd like to see the USGA back off some of their positioning because they do have a cornered market: You can't post a handicap or play in club tournaments if you don't play by their rules. I think we all need to help. We don't want the game to continue deteriorating. In Japan, the market has significantly shrunk. There are other factors there, but the point is that it shrunk, and the game here can shrink. When the big baby-boomer population moves through in the next decade, what's left? It's kind of an alarming situation to the health of golf. Part of the solution is to make the game more enjoyable. What's happened is that the USGA got behind the curve, and now they've gotten ahead of it again, which is fine. But golf courses have lengthened out. I can hit the ball at age 56 as far as I could when I was 25. But now the courses stretch out to 7,500 yards, and I need to hit the ball farther. Or I can step up to the short tees, but most guys don't want to do that because it's an ego thing. I think they're applying the wrong medicine on a perceived problem that really doesn't matter. Let the Tour do what it wants to do. If they're worried about how far the players hit it, let them deal with it.
Adams Golf: I'm probably the odd guy out, but I think the USGA is doing a great job. An interesting discussion for the future would be the potential for bifurcation related to different equipment rules for elite competition vs. regular play. I do understand there are pros and cons by going in that direction.
Nike Golf: The USGA is currently working with the manufacturers to create more transparency and guidelines around rule making. We applaud the new efforts at the USGA and look forward to a more transparent relationship as we move forward.
Cobra PUMA Golf: Continued dialogue with the manufacturers about the processes to evaluate rule changes and data-driven decisions about rule changes.
Steve McCracken, Callaway Golf senior executive vice president, chief administrative officer: We think that any change to the Rules of Golf is a serious matter, and that those Rules should only be changed to address a serious, identifiable problem. If the problem is that professionals hit the ball too far or spin the ball too much from the rough, then the solution should be aimed at those golfers and those competitions through the use of Conditions of Competition. General changes to the Rules should only be made when the problem being fixed is one that's shared by all golfers, not just a few.
4. How much farther do you think average golfers will be able to hit tee shots five years from now?
TaylorMade: At least 25 yards.
Cleveland Golf/Srixon: There are some interesting developments in shaft technology, in that shafts are getting lighter and stronger. We have some of the lightest drivers on the market, yet we figured out how to control the torque and flex patterns so big strong guys can hit the ball farther. When you have a lighter shaft and deliver the middle of the clubface to the ball, it goes farther. They're not whippy anymore. I don't see much there for improving irons. With the groove ruling, it's all about how else we can make the ball spin. And there are some interesting things coming down the pipeline that will improve that. I think we'll get back to how balls spin, and lighter and stronger shafts. But it won't come from the clubheads.
Adams Golf: Realistically, maybe another 10-20 yards. Some of that gain can easily be achieved through custom fitting by optimizing launch conditions and identifying the proper overall weight and balance point of the club. We're also still developing technologies that take advantage of aerodynamics to increase ball speed.
Nike Golf: Distance is king to the average golfer. This is certainly why drivers evoke so much emotion with the equipment segment. There's still room for improvement off the tee especially on off-center hits. We've delivered longer drivers every year. We believe we've done it again this year with the introduction of our new club line, the VR_S, that features NexCOR face technology. We focused on the face to generate more ball speed, which translates to more distance. As products become easier and easier to fine-tune on demand for each individual swing, golfers will be able to dial their driver to precise specifications that could easily add 12 to 20 yards.
Cobra PUMA Golf: It's hard to predict, but biggest gains will come from technologies that enable less distance loss on off-center shots.
Callaway Golf: That's a difficult question to answer broadly. I'd say that almost every average golfer I play with has the potential to see significant distance gains. Technique is obviously a huge part of this. Most golfers just don't swing as well or as efficiently as they could, so they aren't realizing their full distance potential. Many could improve distance with improved strength and fitness. We've seen what a huge impact this has had on the distances that the best players in world are hitting now. But many golfers I play with still aren't playing with drivers that are optimizing their distance. Some are playing with older technology that's just not up to modern standards, some have drivers that aren't well fitted to them so they aren't optimizing their launch conditions, which is the way you improve distance, and some may not be playing the right golf ball for their game. When we conduct demo days and get people testing our latest drivers on launch monitors, almost without exception, we can get a golfer into a driver that will increase their distance off the tee.
5. Which area of golf equipment is best poised for the most dramatic improvement through technology, and why?
TaylorMade: Honestly, all categories have room for dramatic improvements in performance. We have a steady stream of revolutionary ideas, concepts and prototypes that will become real groundbreaking products in every category. Cleveland Golf/Srixon: The shaft–the key is in the shaft. It's the primary engine of the club. Clubhead design is secondary. But the shaft is really key. Look what happened in shaft technology. It wasn't that many years ago when shafts were pushing 100 grams. Now they're down to 40 grams. That's dramatic. I don't see materials changing too much in clubheads.
Adams Golf: Hybrids and fairway woods still have tremendous growth potential. The inclusion of our industry-leading Velocity Slot Technology, which has a slot on both the crown and sole of the club has not only expanded the springlike effect across the entire clubface, but also allowed designers to increase launch angle without increasing spin for the first time to boost distance and forgiveness in ways never before imagined. Custom-fitting technologies like HITfit are helping average consumers optimally fit their clubs to play better and enjoy the game more.
Nike Golf: Innovation is an incredibly powerful tool. With launch-monitor improvements and new ways to capture and mine swing data, there's no telling where we could go from here. We continue to find ways to dramatically improve equipment across all categories and are optimistic about the future.
Cobra PUMA Golf: Most likely distance gains through fitting. As fitting technology becomes less expensive and more widespread, more and more consumers will realize that the proper loft, shaft type, etc. for their swing can deliver significant gains in performance.
Callaway Golf: You never know where the next great technology is going to come from–that's why we spend so much money on research and development. We're always looking for the next best thing and we're looking across all of our equipment categories. This is part of what makes our jobs so fun. We're passionate about golf and we're passionate about golf clubs (and balls) that make the game more fun for golfers of all abilities. So there will always be something new and better coming.