Do you realize it’s only been two years since Cleveland Golf morphed into a short game/putting specialty brand and away from the full-line company it had been for over 35 years?
Sure seems a lot longer, doesn’t it?
Truth be told, despite iconic clubs like the Launcher and HiBore drivers and 588 wedges, Cleveland as a full-line brand had been sliding into irrelevance since the late 2000’s. Sumitomo Rubber Industries and its subsidiary, Dunlop Sports Ltd (parent company of Srixon Golf), bought Cleveland for a relative song in 2007, and spent the next several years trying to figure out how to blend a struggling full-line brand in Cleveland with an emerging (in the US, anyway) full-line brand in Srixon.
Ultimately, it couldn’t. Cleveland’s last Tour-level irons were the circa-2012 588 MB/CB lines and by 2014 the course was set: Srixon would be the Tour-level/better player brand and Cleveland would be the Game Improvement/Senior/Short Game brand.
That didn’t work either. Cleveland released the CG Black, the last of its full-line equipment, in early 2015. Soon thereafter Dunlop made it official: Cleveland would be the short game brand (wedges and putters) only, while Srixon would handle irons and woods.
With that as a backdrop, you could look at today’s announcement that Cleveland is returning to the full-line equipment world - as a Game Improvement line, no less - as more slapdash corporate strategizing.
I think you’d be wrong, though.
We’ll discuss strategic merits in a bit, but first let’s look at Cleveland’s new goodies: 2 sets of irons and a driver-fairway-hybrid lineup. The entire package is aimed squarely - and unapologetically - at the Recreational/Game Improvement golfer.
Launcher HB Woods
Cleveland can take credit for releasing the very first 460 CC driver with the original Launcher, but you can make a case their last compelling driver was the HiBore. Since you're making a comeback anyway, why not bring back both names?
“At the time, those were some of the best performing drivers on the market,” says Brian Schielke, Cleveland’s Senior Product Manager for Golf Clubs. “A lot of golfers have fond memories of their Launchers and HiBores, so we thought it was important to bring back and enhance the best technologies of both.”
The Launcher HB driver features a new-age HiBore Crown on top, Flex-Fin technology on the bottom and the Launcher Cup Face in front, all in the name of thinner, lighter and more forgiving.
“Giving us a more forgiving club head by moving the center of gravity back and lower, that’s what we’ve all been trying to do for years,” says Cleveland R&D chief Jeff Brunski. “The physics haven’t changed much, but what we’re able to accomplish with the thickness and the strength of titanium has.”
“Flex-Fins get you more ball speed lower on the face, the HiBore crown gets you better energy transfer high on the face, and the Cup Face lets us go thinner and stronger over a larger area of the face. We need to see ball speed and efficient launch conditions to get people straighter and longer.” - Jeff Brunski, Cleveland Golf
You’ll notice the Launcher HB, at a very 2008-ish price of $299, is not adjustable (also very 2008-ish) - a move Cleveland says is as much about performance as it is about price, if not more.
“If you’re a TaylorMade or a Callaway, you’re trying to get 30 or 40% market share with your drivers,” says Schielke. “You need to make something that’ll work for every type of golfer. so you put adjustable hosels on them, you put adjustable weights. That works kinda well for everyone, but it’s not optimized for anyone. We’re not making this driver for everyone. We’re making it for people who want to hit it high and straight.”
Adjustable hosels are all kinds of fun, but they aren’t terribly aerodynamic and tend to add mass high and forward - the worst possible location for this driver’s target golfer.
“If you’re a tinkerer or if you like to hit low fades or things like that, this isn’t the driver for you,” says Schielke. “There are a lot of other drivers that will work better for you. But if you just want to hit it high and straight time after time, this performs.”
“Adjustability serves a purpose from some golfers,” adds Brunski. “Ultimately people are going to realize they can get the same or better performance without paying for things they don’t use.”
Brunski says the driver, fairway and hybrid are designed for golfers with average swing speeds - mid 80’s to mid 90’s. “We’ve been using the term ‘real golfer,’ a golfer who’s average in every dimension,” he adds. “Average swing speed, average distance - that’s the core golfer we’re targeting.”
The Launcher HB fairways and hybrids both feature the HiBore Crown and Flex-Fins. The driver will be available in 9, 10.5 and 12 degree options, with 15 and 18 degree fairways and 19, 22 and 25 degree hybrids. The stock shaft for the line is the Miyazaki’s C. Kua, but true to the target market, there will be no XS option.
"There will be custom options available," says Brunski. "But we're not going to have a variety of no-upcharge options because the C. Kua was built as part of a cohesive design. We feel it will give the best performance for most golfers - the 8 to 20 handicappers who are the meat of industry. The lower handicap or tourney golfer - this driver really is not for them."
As mentioned, the driver MSRP is $299. The fairway is $219 and the hybrid $199.
Launcher CBX Irons
Last week we told you about Cleveland’s new Game Improvement CBX wedges, which should dovetail nicely into the new Launcher CBX irons.
“These are on the Better Player side of Game Improvement irons,” says Schielke. “The Cleveland brand is positioned for average golfers, but a lot of them are used to nice looking irons. We didn’t want these to have super-thick top lines or be extremely oversized. These might even appeal to lower handicaps, maybe 5 to 16 or so.”
There’s plenty of familiar Srixon-Cleveland tech built into the CBX irons, including Tour Zip Grooves and Double Laser face milling (same grooves as Cleveland's wedges) throughout the set and a progressive V-Shaped sole for better turf interaction.
“If people associate anything with Cleveland Golf, it’s the ability to design good grooves and a sole that gets through the turf effectively,” says Brunski. “Those are things that help you score better. A lot of other manufacturers, as they chase distance, make tradeoffs. If you put it all into distance you don’t have much money left to create spin generating technologies.”
Testing shows the CBX long irons are remarkably easy to launch due to their low profile and low center of gravity. “The shape progresses from a low profile in the long irons to more of standard profile with the short irons," says Schielke. “Blade length also progresses. The 4-iron blade is slightly longer, so you have more area to hit the ball if you’re less precise. The short irons are designed for more control. They’re more compact with a higher CG so you’re not hitting balloon balls.”
Comparing the 7-iron to a Srixon Z 765 you'd see a smidge more offset and a tad wider sole, but just a smidge and only a tad. Cleveland does a nice job masking GI features, producing an iron that wouldn't look out of place in a better player's bag. Also of note: the sole carries both the iron number and the loft.
Thank you, Ben Hogan.
The stock shaft is the new Dynamic Gold DST 98, which Cleveland says has the same profile as the Dynamic Gold, just a good bit lighter. The Miyazaki C.Kua is the stock graphite shaft.
CBS pricing is also very 2008-ish: $699 for the 4-PW in steel, $799 in graphite.
Launcher HB Irons
There’s a very specific - and underserved - market for the Launcher HB’s, which occupies a space even more forgiving than Super-Duper Game Improvement irons. These are very much the "Sons of the 588 Altitudes."
“The HB's are for golfers who just want to hit the ball farther and straighter with a more forgiving club,” says Brunski. “These were some of our most popular irons in the past, simply because they perform so well and are so unique. It’s a fun product to design in that you have the fewest constraints on shape. You don’t have some Tour player telling you they want to see this, or feedback from avid golfers with strong opinions.”
The Launcher HB’s are a hollow body iron with dramatically more forgiveness than even the most Super Game Improvement cavity back. The HB’s feature Cleveland’s HiBore Crown, which allows for a very low and very deep center of gravity to get the ball in the air.
“A lot of things in this product still stand the test of time,” says Brunski. “The most significant enhancement, from an engineering standpoint, is in the materials and our ability to thin out the face to produce more ball speed.”
The HB's use HT 1770 high strength steel for a thin, hot face. “Most average to slow swing speed players can add distance just by hitting the ball higher, and these will hit the ball higher than anything else on the market,” says Brunski. “But on top of that, where can you add performance? It’s getting them a little more ball speed with a thinner face.”
With Adams dead and buried, Cleveland sees a huge opportunity in this end of the market (something our own Tony Covey predicted in 2014). Schielke thinks the HB’s might be Cleveland’s biggest seller, at least in the short term, since the product will be launching in the fall, at a time when aging avid golfers, who lost their egos 20 yards ago, return to the Sunbelt.
The HB's have the same stock shafts at the CBX's, and are priced the same as well - $699 in steel, $799 in graphite.
All of the new Cleveland products will be available starting September 15th.
Now About That Comeback?
So, is this a Resurrection or a Hail Mary for Cleveland? We can rule out Hail Mary for one simple reason: Srixon-Cleveland is simply not in desperation mode. By all accounts, it's been a banner year for both brands, but without a solid GI/SGI offering, both brands are missing out on the industry's biggest segment, Srixon's Z 355 line (to be discontinued with Cleveland's return) notwithstanding.
In retrospect, pulling the plug on full-line Cleveland in 2015 made sense. Dunlop Sports tried making a big splash that year with Srixon’s Z-45 line, but wound up missing the pool altogether. Early shipping and availability issues crippled the line before it could even get out of the starting gate, and Cleveland’s CG Black line was yet another blah Cleveland release that excited no one.
Clearly a reset was needed.
And say what you will about not being influenced by what Tour players play, Tour validation is important (how many Matsuyama WITB stories have you seen today?), as is strong management, a focused sales team, retail availability and some good old fashioned mojo. Srixon has clearly found its mojo with some badly needed successes in balls and clubs, including top honors in MyGolfSpy's Most Wanted Driver and Game Improvement iron testing, to go along with Matsuyama's stellar play.
Srixon has clearly kicked the door down and taken a seat at forged iron/better player table. However, it's not serving the biggest chunk of the market, so bringing back Cleveland as the Recreational Player/Game Improvement brand makes sense. Doing it now makes even more sense when you consider 2017 is the off-year in Srixon's two-year product cycle. We won't see new drivers or irons from Srixon until next fall, so the anticipated whoopdeedoo surrounding Cleveland's return keeps the positive brand mojo rolling.
This targeted, dual-brand approach is essentially the same plan that failed back in 2014, but the context is completely different. Back then Cleveland was reeling, Srixon was desperately seeking validation and a new management team was trying to sort it all out (longtime CEO Greg Hopkins left just a year before). Both brands are on much more stable footing today, and a year-plus of CEO Matt Yasumoto’s leadership has palpably energized corporate’s attitude and culture.
Will it work? Cleveland is playing it smart by clearly differentiating its new products from the Srixon line, targeting the fat part of the bell curve and pricing for value. But if you define success as forcing TaylorMade and Callaway to wave the white flag and close up shop, then no, it won't. The bar, however, is set kind of low. In 2014, Cleveland's market shares in irons and metal woods were 1.6% and 1% respectively, barely good enough for a participant's ribbon. Matching those numbers with an upward trajectory would be a solid first step.