Public Relations

In the News
The New York Times

January 31, 2009
Article: Selling the Putting Game to Offset the Downturn
Written by Larry Dorman

Stephen Boccieri of Heavy Putter has added mass to putters for a more consistent stroke.

ORLANDO, Fla. — Though positive economic indicators were few at the annual PGA Merchandise Show, where attendance this weekend was off by an estimated 7 percent, one small segment of the golf industry — upstart putter companies — may be positioned to benefit from aspects of the economic downturn.

With inventory of premium woods and irons mounting on retail shelves and in pro shops, evidence that golfers are unwilling to spend $599 for a new driver or $1,800 for a new set of irons, standalone putter companies are hoping consumers will turn the putter into the must-have club for golf addicts craving something new to feed their habit.

“Golfers always have to spoil themselves in some way, shape or form with some new technology that will help their game,” said Matt Molloy, the president of Rife Putters, a company that took over as the No. 1 brand in use on the Champions Tour in just three years. “They may hold off on that new driver for the year, but they are going to step up for something. We think a $100-to-$200 putter will fit right into the wheelhouse.”

Companies like Rife, Heavy Putter, See More Putter and the just-revived Slotline Putters do not have the resources to overtake industry giants like Odyssey, Ping, Scotty Cameron or Taylor Made.

At least not yet. But what these companies lack in marketing dollars they make up for in focused energy. Each year at this time, the golf industry cracks open a huge can of hope to sell to consumers. And every year, to one extent or another, consumers buy hope because it really is the one thing that still springs eternal.

Stephen Boccieri, the president and chief executive of Heavy Putter, knows all about this trait. A former nuclear engineer, Boccieri grew up in a family of golfers and has always yearned to play the game for a living. He even thought about trying the Champions Tour, beating thousands of balls a day at the indoor range he fashioned in his South Salem, N.Y., home.

A practice session on a tee adjacent to Tom Watson snapped Boccieri back to reality.

“I looked at Tom hitting shots and said, ‘I could never beat this guy,’ ” Boccieri said Thursday as he stood in the Heavy Putter booth at the show.

See More Putter’s M3 Mallet is among the new products. What he can do is design functional putters that work for golfers from tour pros to high handicappers. Heavy Putter, which made its original mark in the industry by producing an array of putters weighing about two pounds — almost twice the weight of standard putters — with a technology story that resonated with golfers. Essentially, the heavier mass engages the body’s larger muscles, creating a more consistent stroke.

Heavy Putter has garnered a following. But Boccieri is not satisfied with a 4 percent share of the roughly 1.5-million-unit market, and introduced a line of midweight putters at the show that he believes will help his company pick up 2 to 3 share points.

Other economic fallout from the downturn could benefit smaller companies: most of the larger manufacturers are no longer paying tee-up money to induce touring pros to use their putters as part of a 14-club deal, which gives the smaller companies a chance to get their putters in the hands of pros based strictly on merit.

This is good news for a company like Slotline, the once-proud brand that is being revived this year. The No. 3 putter company in the market through much of the 1980s, Slotline had been mothballed since 2001, but is back with 14 putters priced from $99 to $199.

“Slotline was trusted by professional golfers on all tours in the late ’80s,” said Chad Lehr, the company’s product manager, “and based on early feedback from the tours, we feel good about our product line. Being able to get our putters in the hands of pros is key, because putting is the one aspect of the game where average players can really relate to the professionals.”

Jim Grundberg, the owner and managing partner at See More Putters, agreed. Grundberg was part of the original team that started Odyssey from obscurity to success, and he says there is a window of opportunity for companies like his to mirror Odyssey’s success if they can design and create superior products that have a story, preferably about technology, told in an energetic and engaging way.

“Putting really is the one category where average golfers can look at the best players in the world and aspire to be close to as good as those players are,” he said. “What we do with the technology in our putters is to give average players a system where they can be confident they are set up properly and lock in precisely on the target, to eliminate one of the variables.”

The variables in the current business climate will be slightly more difficult to eliminate. If the downturn persists into spring, and existing inventory does not sell through, there will likely be steep discounting that will hurt all companies, regardless of size. That is the sobering reality.

Molloy is mindful that the clutter at retail from slow holiday sales could have an impact in the first quarter. But armed with more than 40 percent of the Champions Tour using his company’s putters — and the news that Jesper Parnevik may keep his Rife putter in the bag after shooting 61 with it last week — he is guardedly optimistic.

“People are still trying to clear out product at retail and the next three to four months could be difficult,” he said. “But as long as everybody realizes that Armageddon isn’t going to happen, then golf will bounce back quicker than other industries and we will be well positioned.”