True Spec Golf, one of the nation's leading club-fitting businesses, tweeted with glee on Feb. 18 that they had just been named by Golf Magazine as their top clubfitter in North America.
Such an honor should be cause for celebration. After all, public recognition for hard work should be savored.
However, there's just one problem with the honor: True Spec Golf and Golf Magazine (as well Golf.com) are owned by the same company.
8AM Golf is the umbrella holding company for the golf-related businesses owned by Howard Milstein. Those companies include the Nicklaus Companies, Golf Magazine and Golf.com, the GolfLogix app, Miura Golf's North American operation, True Spec Golf and Club Conex.
In effect, then, one of Milstein's companies is awarding another of his companies. Even worse, there's no acknowledgement whatsoever from either True Spec Golf, in their self-congratulatory tweet, or Golf.com, in their article attributed to Golf Editors, that such a massive conflict of interest exists.
If you're being charitable about the tweet, you could say there just wasn't enough room in 280 characters to acknowledge the relationship -- which should be acknowledged every single time.
However, it's impossible to be charitable about the complete lack of disclosure in the Golf.com piece.
Not only does the copy not acknowledge the relationship between Golf.com and True Spec Golf, it also doesn't acknowledge that Club Conex, by extension, is also part of the conflict. Golf Magazine didn't really "partner" with True Spec Golf on the ClubTest; there was no option.
On March 2, Golf.com updated their website copy to indicate True Spec Golf was their "sister brand." That may fly over the head of many consumers, who might not realize the shared ownership. The update also didn't disclose that 8AM Golf owns Club Conex. Print readers will also not see this update, as the clubfitter ranking had already been published and mailed through to circulation and newsstands.
Club Champion, Cool Clubs and Hot Stix are all tremendous fitters. They do many of the same things True Spec does, and they have excellent fitters who work tirelessly to help their customers achieve maximum results from new equipment -- or to help them avoid making a costly purchase that won't tangibly improve their game.
Further, it's curious that Tour Experience Golf was ranked No. 2 on the list. With the others on the top five -- really, the only chain-sized competitors to True Spec Golf -- boasting a variety of locations, a Canadian fitter with two locations in Ontario earning second-best honors does seem awkward. 8AM Golf President and True Spec Golf co-founder Hoyt McGarity is close with TXG ownership. Does that directly influence this ranking? I don't know.
This is objectively bad. What's worse is, True Spec Golf could conceivably be the best fitter in North America. That's a distinction filled with conjecture and opinion, but that's possible. What's impossible is to take this award seriously because of the lack of transparency here.
This is far from the first time 8AM Golf has not been honest with its customers and readers.
In a piece from June 20, 2019, True Spec's Director of Fitting and Sales, Tim Briand, and Golf.com's Luke Kerr-Dineen teamed up on a piece to discuss putter fitting. At the top of the article, there's a disclosure that True Spec and Golf.com have the same parent company. Great! However, the article fails to tell the reader about the other massive conflict of interest throughout the article.
In graphics showing the consumer how a putter should be properly fit (which I actually disagree with, but that's neither here nor there), each putter has a logo on it: the Miura logo. It's a subtle bit of marketing, as it just so happens every drawn putter in the article dons the logo of a company under the 8AM Golf umbrella. Of course, there's no mention of that anywhere in the article.
The lack of transparency continues through to 8AM Golf's handling of its relationship with the Nicklaus Companies.
After Milstein purchased Golf Magazine and Golf.com in February 2018, the publication handed out its award for the best US remodel of 2018. Turns out, that award went to a Nicklaus Companies job, at Valley of the Eagles in Ohio, a place not too many people know. While relative obscurity shouldn't mean work is precluded from praise, it took some goading to get the publication to acknowledge at the bottom of copy that 8AM Golf is in charge of both companies.
In September 2019, the Nicklaus Companies sent an email blast to their distribution list, announcing the company had received many plaudits in Golf Magazine's latest top-100 courses list. At not point in the copy did the two companies' relationship come up.
Come on! This is such a huge conflict of interest. pic.twitter.com/TauMinD2jE
— Ryan Ballengee (@RyanBallengee) September 23, 2019
Check out this old Instagram post from Golf.com, featuring a quote from Jack Nicklaus about his company's work in designing Trump Golf Links Ferry Point in New York.
At no point does the caption or a comment acknowledge the two entities are intertwined.
If any of these issues had been one-time aberrations, they could be accepted. Mistakes happen. However, a pattern has now emerged that is impossible to ignore. Why this keeps happening is not for me to speculate, but that it needs to stop happening should not be in dispute. Consumers deserve the truth, and they deserve to know when there are conflicts of interest in marketing and in content.
Conflicts of interest are rife in golf, and I'll detail more of those over time. I try to do my best to detail my conflicts in content, and I know a number of our peers (or competitors, if you'd like) put in the same effort. The journalists at Golf.com work hard and do good work, and their quality content should not be diminished because of a lack of sunshine about the realities of their position.