“Luck is what happens when preparation meets opportunity.”
That grand old saying has been credited to everyone from Seneca the Younger (4 BC-65 AD) to Oprah Winfrey and, as sayings go, it’s as axiomatic as they come. It’s also an accurate descriptor of Birdieball, its award-winning Birdieball putting mat and the company’s 17-year journey to overnight success.
The Colorado-based Birdieball copped top honors in MyGolfSpy’s Putting Mat Buyer’s Guide for 2020. In this article, we’re going to share with you the story of Birdieball and its two signature products: the odd-looking but surprisingly fun-to-hit Birdieball and the award-winning Birdieball putting mat.
But to really understand this 11-person family business, let’s jump into the WABAC Machine and set the dial for April 1999.
Running Down a Dream
“What I’ve learned in life is nobody buys your dreams,” says Birdieball founder, president, owner and inventor John Breaker. “You have to show them the dream in concrete.”
Golf is filled with crazy ideas. And the original Birdieball is a crazy, napkin ring-looking golf ball. According to Breaker, it feels and flies just like a real golf ball.
“Not just a little bit like, but exactly like a golf ball,” he says. “The difference is it only goes about 40 yards.”
One can certainly discuss the relative merits of a napkin ring-looking golf ball that only goes 40 yards. The real question, however, is how the hell did Breaker even think of a napkin ring-looking golf ball that only goes 40 yards?
“My dad and I were watching the Masters back in 1999,” says Breaker. “One of the TV announcers said they’re going to have to lengthen Augusta because of Tiger.”
That got Breaker, who has a background in plastics and polymers, thinking about limited-flight balls and shorter, less expensive-to-maintain courses. So, he drilled holes into balls to learn how they were made and how they fly. That led to an aha moment.
“I had this bucket of balls that had holes in them,” says Breaker. “I had a huge backyard, so what does any golfer do with a bucket of balls and a huge backyard? You gotta hit ‘em.
“So I dropped one down and almost hit my neighbor’s house. I threw another one down and it flew perfectly, high right-to-left with a baby draw. I’m like ‘Oh, my God, I just pured that thing.’ I thought it flew out into my field but it fell just short of my fence. So, I’m like ‘what the hell just happened?’”
What The Hell Did Happen?
Clearly, the hole was doing something. Several months and prototypes later, Breaker learned what.
“The hole allowed the ball to compress more than you’d ever be able to compress a golf ball,” he says. “It also created an aerodynamic airflow that was literally making the ball fly and not fly at the same time.”
Breaker quickly realized his Birdieball wasn’t going to change golf but it might make an interesting training aid or a just-for-the-hell-of-it outdoor game.
“We tried to limit the flight as much as possible to keep it in the backyard,” he says. “That’s why the straight sides became straight and the hole got bigger so it would lift faster. To this day, if you put that thing on the ground and ask someone to hit it, they go ‘what?’ And when they hit it, you can literally count to three and hear them say, ‘wow.’”
Breaker started the Birdieball company in 2003 but soon realized people needed to give them a whack or two to truly get it. He opened a store at the Colorado Mills Mall in 2004 with three hitting bays, selling more than $300,000 worth of Birdieballs that first year.
“In 2005, we won new product of the year at the PGA Show,” says Breaker. “And seven million Birdieballs later, we’re having a resurgence. During this COVID crisis, our sales were up 600 percent. We’ve leveled out a bit but we’re still running at about 300 percent over previous years. March and April were absolutely insane.”
“We’ve been doing ‘home golf’ since we started,” says Breaker’s daughter Katie who, along with her brother Jack, helps run Birdieball. “It’s perfect for the quarantine situation. Not only can people practice at home and stay sharp but they can also have some fun.”
The Rising Cost of Clicks
After an early dalliance in the retail world, Birdieball has been exclusively direct to consumer. Breaker was an early adopter with Google and Pay Per Click and was paying about a nickel per click in the golf training aids space. He figures at that time he was paying roughly $5 for every $19 per dozen sale. And he was making money.
Then, in 2010, things changed.
“Pay Per Click got a lot more expensive and our conversion rates stayed the same,” he says. “Pretty soon I was spending $20 to sell a $19 per dozen package of Birdieballs.”
You don’t need to be Elon Musk to figure out that kind of opportunity cost isn’t sustainable. But the entrepreneur in Breaker understood that crisis and opportunity often wear the same clothes.
“We needed to find a $200 product,” he says. “And, sort of simultaneously, I was starting to get the yips, to the point where I couldn’t pull the putter back. So I started looking for a putting mat.”
Unfortunately – or fortunately, depending on your point of view – Breaker couldn’t find one he liked.
“Everything had a ramp. To make it go into the hole, you had to hit it uphill. I just didn’t understand that.” So, Breaker channeled his inner Caractacus Potts and started messing around with what he knows: polymers.
“I know about polymers and I know how to make them do certain things so I started looking at aerated polymers,” he says. “Not just foam but engineered polymer foam. Foam engineered to do something.”
That started Breaker down a new path, which eventually led him to develop what MyGolfSpy calls “a unique foam material that ensures a perfect roll every time.”
The Art of the Roll
There’s no shortage of cheap putting mats. And in a pinch, we’ve all used the living room carpet. To cure his yips, Breaker wanted something that rolled like a real green. And when you’re a polymer expert, you tend to look in places where others don’t.
“My son and I bought a piece of light blue foam. I thought it would be fun,” he says. “It worked, except it was so slippery and fast that it just didn’t replicate a real green at all.”
Father and son kicked around some other ideas, including felt or some sort of turf but those became unwieldy and expensive. The best approach, thought Breaker, was to find a way to alter the existing foam and turn it into grass.
“We started playing with chemistry and abrasion and we came up with a combination of both,” he says. “First, we ruptured the cell on the surface, elongated the crater and turned it into a linear grass-like fibril. Then we figured out how to angle it to give it a grain.”
Also, Breaker figured out how to randomize the fibrils – roughly 10,000 of them in a two cubic-inch area. That, he says, is the key to getting a true, green-like roll.
“The problem with woven synthetics, carpet, felt or any other manmade textile is they have a pattern,” explains Breaker. “When the ball slows down, it follows the pattern. Ours has a spongy sub base, like a real green. It tracks perfectly and is deep enough so the ball falls into a real hole instead of having to go uphill.”
The Birdieball putting mat comes in a bunch of different sizes and in three speeds: Pro (fast), Country Club (medium) and Municipal (slow). The difference is in the length and thickness of the fibrils.
Practice for the Stars
Breaker was swamped with orders for the Birdieball putting mat during the COVID quarantine. Some of those orders came from some high-profile folks, such as NBA stars Jayson Tatum and Mo Bamba. Actor Mark Wahlberg has a Birdieball putting mat on his private jet. The company regularly gets orders from tour pros and average Joes alike.
“Our products are great for low-handicap golfers looking to improve,” says Katie Breaker. “And for beginners looking to get into the game and for people who’ve never played golf before. It’s literally for any person who wants to have fun.”
“If you have a Birdieball putting mat in your living room, it’s entertainment,” says John. “It’s like having a pool table. And we sell them to colleges, high school golf teams, putter fitters, really anybody.”
Although Birdieball putting mats can get quite large (4’ x 18’), they can be easily rolled up and stored. “If you roll our mat fuzzy side up and make it round when you store it, it’ll roll out flat again,” says Breaker. “Its own weight makes it flat.”
And while your putter fitter might have a Birdieball putting mat, you won’t see a retailer using it in their putter corral. “You need to treat these greens properly,” says Breaker. “You can’t let anyone with stilettos or golf spikes walk on them. If you put one in a retail setting, it’ll just get trashed within a month or two.”
Just this year, Birdieball introduced an outdoor putting green. The aerated polymer product that topped our Buyer’s Guide is for indoor use only. The outdoor mat is for use on patios or other solid surfaces. They’re available either in three or 6 1/2 feet widths and up to 18 feet long.
It’s a Family Affair
Breaker describes himself as a serial entrepreneur. He’s started, built and sold several companies in his 62 years. With Birdieball, he’s able to work every day with son Jack and daughters Katie and Amy.
“It’s the single best blessing in my life,” he says. “They’ve all chosen to be here, which makes it fun. They’re all smart, college-educated and could all be doing other things. But they’ve chosen to be here.”
Breaker says the family takes care of the blocking and tackling of the business, which gives him the freedom to be creative.
“They’re my governors,” says Breaker. “There are so many ideas I’ve come up with they’ve just said ‘no’ to. But every once in a while, they let me out of the box and say ‘run with that one.’ That’s kind of what happened with the putting green.
“My wife is our bookkeeper. Katie is focused on the customer side, Jack’s our marketing guy and Amy [on maternity leave] is on the production side,” he says. “We have 11 employees and are looking to add more. People like being here and we like making it a happy place for everyone.”
Birdieball putting mats are made at the company’s factory in Evergreen, Colo., about 30 miles west of Denver in the Rocky Mountain foothills. Like most everything else about Birdieball, even the factory is a little different.
“It’s a 12,000-square-foot Swiss chalet in the mountains,” says Breaker. “When people come up, they think they’re at a giant house.”
So What’s Next?
Often the difference between a crackpot inventor and a serious innovator is the ability to articulate dreams. Breaker has several new ideas up his sleeve refined enough that his kids are letting him run with them.
“We have Birdieballs that can go every distance,” he says. “You could play the game with 14 birdie balls and just one club.”
He’s also working on a mid-range ball designed for playing on short golf courses as well as a Birdieball retrofit package for disc golf courses. Breaker’s most ambitious idea, however, might just be the Birdieball Entertainment Lounge: a TopGolf-type facility using Birdieballs on a much smaller footprint.
“We won’t have an RFI chip in the ball, it’ll all be line of sight,” says Breaker. “We’ll have games you can score on touchpads and there will be food and beverage. We can do 15 bays of Birdieball with a restaurant and parking on three acres.”
The pandemic has slowed that project but Breaker says that’s actually been a blessing since no one really knows what dining out and entertainment will be like once this is all over.
“I do see an opportunity to have two or three facilities in each city,” he says. “But I need a partner to be able to do that.”
“At this point, it’s not about the money with me anymore. I have a finite amount of time left. I have more crazy ideas in my brain and I’m worried about the time I have left to execute them.”
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