A craft ball revolution? Nicklaus, new names jump into golf ball market
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A craft ball revolution? Nicklaus, new names jump into golf ball market

Jack Nicklaus, as the U2 song goes, still hadn't found what he was looking for.

So, like any successful entrepreneur, as Mr. Nicklaus certainly is, he created it himself.


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"Since we stopped making golf balls some 15 years ago, I’ve gone through 10 different manufacturers, trying different things, and still not even understanding what I was trying to find," Nicklaus said in an email last week.

"Now, that we have made the Nicklaus Golf Ball, with the goal to simplify the selection process for the average golfer, I think the problem has been alleviated."

The Nicklaus Golf Ball makes its competitive debut this week at the PNC Father-Son Challenge in Orlando, Fla. Both Nicklaus and his son, Jackie, will be playing the ball.

"I know that our Nicklaus Black ball suits me well," Nicklaus said. "It’s a darn good golf ball."

Nicklaus spent three years researching and testing what was already in the market before diving back in with a trio of golf balls -- the White, Blue and Black models -- that make the ball-fitting process as easy as possible for the average golfer.

"You walk in (to a golf shop) and the clerk says, What tee do you play? You know what tee you play, then you know what ball to buy," Nicklaus said Wednesday.

If you're a higher-handicap player with a slow swing speed, the White is for you. An average player? Blue's for you. The Black is for a low-handicap or scratch player.

Nicklaus won't threaten Acushnet for its massive share of the golf-ball market. That's not the point anyhow. But Nicklaus isn't a billionaire with a sense of whimsy, neither is he head of some upstart company lacking scale. The Nicklaus Golf Ball is available for sale on Nicklaus.com and in the golf shops at 200 Nicklaus Design courses around the country. With that kind of efficient distribution, Nicklaus can offer a top-tier golf ball at a price that undercuts Titleist's best models by $20 per dozen, with a dozen Black balls going for $32 online.

A percentage of the proceeds from the brick-and-mortar sales benefit the Nicklaus Children's Health Care Foundation to support pediatric programs and hospitals nationwide. In pro shops, the Black ball will sell for $50 per dozen, with the $18 difference in price compared to buying online, going to charity.

Internet buyers can opt to add up to $20 dollars to their purchase to benefit the foundation. So far, they're doing that.

"We've been very surprised and very pleased that over 80 percent of the people that have bought golf balls over the internet have sent a donation with it," Nicklaus said. "which really adds a charity element that I think has been the backbone of golf for so long."

At $32 per dozen, you'd be foolish not to buy the ball online. If you see it in person at a Nicklaus Design track, there's no better place to give it a try. Nicklaus said golfers are doing that at the Nicklaus Design tracks, and the results are translating into purchases.

"We're very encouraged," Nicklaus said. "We're young in the game, but certainly we're not being bashful about it."

***

At some point in the not-too-distant past, there were thousands of breweries making beer across America. By the 1960s, however, consolidation in the industry left the consumer without many choices and much distinction between the choices.

When Nicklaus turned pro in 1962, there were three very similar options: Titleist, the Spalding Dot or the MacGregor.

"The golf balls, back in the 1960s, were all made almost exactly the same way," Nicklaus said. "Then, it came down to which manufacturer produced the best ball."

Quality not only could vary from one company to the next, but, like beer, from one batch to the next.

"Some companies made balls better than others, and some years, there were companies that made balls better than other years," Nicklaus added.

Titleist always made a great ball, Nicklaus said. They still do. Today, however, every golf manufacturer makes a good ball. That fact makes the decision-making process more difficult for the modern professional.

"For a someone who is turning pro now, and wants to decide on what golf ball to play," Nicklaus said. "He or she has got a wide variety to test and, frankly, it’s a challenge."

***

In the beer world, the makers of beers like Sam Adams and Sierra Nevada were the ones crazy enough to challenge Anheuser-Busch, Coors and Miller in the late 1970s and early 80s. They were, and in many ways still operate like, small companies led by people passionate about brewing, making something delicious and proselytizing about craft beer to a generation of beer drinkers that didn't yet know what they were missing.

The message caught on. Sam Adams, Sierra Nevada, Dogfish Head and others are practically considered mainstream. If a bar doesn't have them now, it's a ding on them; no longer is it a pleasant surprise to see the rare craft tap. (Maybe Bridgestone and Srixon -- despite being part of massive, global corporations -- are the best comparisons to golf.)

However, the beer battles those brewers fought -- with distribution, the consumer and the establishment -- paved the way for a proliferation of craft brewhouses. These young, thirsty beer makers are pushing the envelope on what beer is, how it looks and tastes.

The winner? The discerning beer drinker. There's a taste for every kind of taste bud.

That revolution may well be starting to take shape in golf.

***

For Mr. Nicklaus, this isn't his first rodeo. He has been putting his name, reputation and finances behind golf equipment for decades. (One of my favorite drivers is a Nicklaus model.)

Nicklaus has access to capital -- his or even bigger money behind to back him -- and has been through the product life-cycle process plenty of times. That doesn't mean launching a new golf ball after a decade and a half away from the segment is easier, but it's easier than starting from scratch. Anyone who would do that is downright crazy.

Let me introduce you to the crazy people laying the foundation for the indie golf-ball movement, the people with the balls, the sleeve, to take on a massive task.

***

Rob Zimmerman is a software guy. But he's also an avid, and pretty darn good, golfer.

Like any golf-crazed person, in April 2012 Zimmerman was hoping to enjoy the Tradition Unlike Any Other. Instead, something life-changing happened.

"Last year, on Masters weekend, I had a heart attack," Zimmerman said.

The experience forced him to rethink his life and chasing his aspirations.

"I had a life-changing moment, a mulligan on life, and I thought, What am I going to do now?" he said. "I'm so passionate about golf, I had to do something golf related."

After sitting down with his wife, Zimmerman figured there was something he could make to help the industry. The golf ball was nagging in the back of his head. So he decided to go for it.

Backed by some friends and his life savings, Zimmerman started 3 Up Golf. Zimmerman had identified that the golf ball he was playing wasn't working for him, so he set out to make that ball for himself and to sell to the world, hoping, like him, they were dissatisfied, too.

"As a little guy, I cannot walk into any of the big manufacturers and say, I love what you make for Fred Couples, but could you make something for me? They don't care," he said.

The 3 Up ball, called the 3F12, produces more spin with short irons and wedges, as well as offers improved feel.

"I wanted something that had a lot more spin," Zimmerman said. "I don't think balls spin enough for amateur golfers. So we did some stuff with the cover to provide more spin and better feel."

Finding someone to make the ball, however, was a bit of a challenge. Zimmerman is not a home brew kind of guy. He has outsourced ballmaking. After all, he's not springing a ball plant in his garage.

"I'm funding this company entirely out of my own savings, so that's not happening," he said with a laugh.

After some Googling, Zimmerman found and contracted with a company that has worked with larger ballmakers. They agreed to make a production run of 3 Up's ball design after deciding on the right ball from four or five prototypes.

"The rep was very candid with me and said, 'I'd be very impressed if you sell through your first production run,'" Zimmerman explained. "When I called to place my second production order, he was delighted."

At $40 per dozen, Zimmerman admits the ball isn't for every golfer. He's selling to a niche within a niche -- the discerning golfer looking for something different.

"I ask people that come up to me at golf shows, How much do you pay for a dozen of balls and what's your handicap? If they say they play whatever they find in the woods, then this ball isn't for them," he said.

But the product with 3 Up is more than a golf ball. Like with Nicklaus, sales of the ball trigger a donation to charity with the proceeds -- $3 per dozen. There's also the personal touch, including an interaction from Zimmerman to every customer.

"Direct-to-consumer is huge because it allows me to engage with almost all of our customers," he said.

Those customers include Titleist, at least once.

"Back in April (2013), one of our very first customers put a post on GolfWRX talking about the ball," Zimmerman said. "About a week later, I get an order for balls from Acushnet. So I called the guy and asked what was going on. The guy said he's from the R&D department and saw that post. He said it's his job to know about all of the competition out there before his bosses do. He walked me through what he was going to do to test the ball and everything."

Word of mouth and social media have been crucial to 3 Up's success. That word has spread to the U.K. and Ireland, leading to calls to Zimmerman asking to be an overseas distributor. He's not ready for that yet.

He also doesn't want to hop right into green-grass pro shops where the ball could linger, sitting on shelves unsold. It sounds pessimistic, but Zimmerman's view is rooted in the cautionary tales of others before him. He's aware that he's locking himself out of the spontaneity of purchasing a sleeve of balls here and there, but he's comfortable with that lost opportunity for now. He has to keep costs down. Paying the USGA $1,000 per ball -- that means, each number, each alignment line, each color of font -- to be tested for conformity isn't a throwaway expense.

Asked what he would like 3 Up to eventually become, Zimmerman kept his goals modest: what he's doing now, just more of it.

"I'm perfectly content to be a company where someone can place an order, call us up and talk to someone directly with the company," Zimmerman said. "Everyone who buys from the website gets a personal message from me, asking for feedback. That kind of connection with the customer is something I never want to lose."

"We're not Titleist," he added. "We're not trying to be a big ball manufacturer. We're just doing our thing, making our product. We're just fine moving along that way."

***

Glendon Sutton has spent the bulk of his professional life in golf. He's a good player. So when a couple of his high school buddies told him about an opportunity to create a golf ball, he was a little skeptical.

"My initial reaction was that no one's going to beat a Pro V1. No one's going to beat a TaylorMade," Sutton said.

Then he tried The Ball.

"When I played The Ball, I could actually see a difference in the ball's flight and control, how it reacted," he said.

The trio have invested a lot of personal money and countless hours into developing the ball -- which they're still relentlessly refining. The Ball is the only three-piece ball with a tungsten core on the market which, the guys say, outperforms premium balls by 5 yards off the tee. It solves a problem Sutton had with premium golf balls: the opposite of Zimmerman's conundrum.

"I was a pretty good golfer and I always had trouble with the Pro V1s, that they would spin too much," Sutton said. "A perfect shot would spin back off the green. And it seemed every premium ball did that. On Tour, those guys can soften their arms and kill the spin and control distance. I can't do that. So I needed something a little softer and that didn't spin as much."

He wasn't the only one. His problem was echoed back to him by collegiate and high-level players he talked to in the Boston area, just some 45 minutes away from Zimmerman and 3 Up in New Hampshire.

The Ball gang has been putting their golf spikes in the water over the last year, performing outreach, working with bloggers and smaller golf sites to obtain reviews. They're trying to get as much feedback as they can, from the logo -- which is an ode to the Periodic Table and a German chemist -- to the urethane cover, which they've improved since realizing repeated play can soften its sheen.

All of that feedback will make for a better product, but then there's the toughest part: convincing the consumer to try the ball.

"We'll be giving a lot away, chalking it up as a marketing expense," Sutton said.

Sampling and seeding. It will pique people's interest. Hopefully, playing the ball will make them reach for their wallets. If not?"

"What's the worst that can happen? We lose a **** load of money," Sutton said with a laugh.

"If it wasn't fun for us, we wouldn't be doing it. We won't make our money back anytime soon, but like it's like craft beer. Why would anyone take on Busch and Miller? Those guys were sitting in their garages, trying to create great beer and consumers loved it. Maybe that's what's missing in the golf ball market."

Meanwhile, Sutton and his partners are working two jobs: the one that pays the bills and the one that's fun.

"You get home from work, and you sit in front of a computer and try to catch up on what's happened during the day," he said. "As we grow, I think one of us would like to quit our day job and manage the business full-time."

Like 3 Up, The Ball won't be in many green grass locations. Sutton expects at least a 3-year wait for that to happen. But he loves getting that constant feedback that he can only get running a small operation.

"Being this kind of craft ball company, we want to make sure we can answer emails and stay engaged with our end customer rather than just selling," he said.

The Ball has caught the eye of at least one of the big boys. Sutton says some guys at Callaway have played the ball, raving about it to them.

But Sutton says it's really special to be able to enjoy this game with your own creation.

"It's fun to be able to have your own ball in your bag," he said.

***

3 Up and I Need The Ball are not the only companies with the gall to sell to a niche audience.

There's Rife, which isn't tiny, but a smaller shop that has a ball of its own. Dixon Golf makes environmentally friendly golf balls. There's OnCore Golf, a company that makes a golf ball with a hollow metal -- yes, metal -- core. And it's legal. Others will be launching soon. Take a peek at the USGA's list of conforming golf balls to get a hint.

Some talk to each other, some don't. It's friendly.

"We're obviously making the same kind of product, but we're both building business and clientele," Zimmerman said. "We're playing in our own little pond. To call them competition at this point is kind of silly."

Sutton agrees.

"I don't think we're going to have an indie ball conference anytime soon, but we're definitely supportive," he said.

A half-dozen or so companies may not stir a revolution. But, as Sutton said, even persisting in relative anonymity will be a worthwhile gamble for any of these ball makers.

"It's such a large market," he said. "Even getting a half of a percentage point of that ($1 billion) market is worthwhile.

However, golf is contracting. Estimates have the sport losing about 4 million players in a little over a decade. Edwin Watts Golf Shops said that is the reason they filed for bankruptcy and were sold to a competitor at a bargin-basement price. Will that prohibit these companies from making inroads? Perhaps, but it could also be true that the core golfers that remain might be willing to take a look at something a little different.

Again, look to beer for the path forward. There aren't as many beer drinkers as there used to be. Palattes have changed. Wine is popular now. So is vodka. Lots of people are making vodka, infused with everything from cotton candy to bacon. But beer lovers made the beer they were waiting for, and now they're drinking it -- a lot of it.

So the next time you're at the 19th hole with your weekly foursome, listen with intent to the choices on tap. You might have as wide a spectrum of choices in your nearby golf shop in the not-too-distant future.

THAT WAS FUN, RIGHT?!

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