After a little more than five years, wedge designer James Patrick Harrington and Titleist have mutually agreed to part ways. That’s the headline, and with it comes the requisite mutual well wishes for future success.
As you’d expect, Titleist isn’t saying much. The official statement reads “Titleist and JP have agreed not to continue their exclusive partnership together – we wish JP well going forward.”
For his part, JP says his time at Titleist was “a great experience,” adding that he harbors absolutely no regrets or animosity, though it’s reasonable to believe that the opportunity to work for one of the biggest names in golf never proved to be what he had hoped it would.
The Next Big Thing
For those unfamiliar with the backstory; in July of 2013, Titleist and James Patrick Harrington, an up and coming wedge designer and craftsman, entered into an exclusive 5-year agreement. At the time, bringing Harrington (known in gearhead circles as “JP”) into the fold was important enough to Titleist that then CEO Wally Uihlein flew to Minnesota to meet personally with JP and get the deal done. It was a curious hire given that Titleist’s Vokey franchise was (and remains) the dominant force in the wedge game, though it’s possible that the company had concerns that its #1 position in the market was vulnerable. Shortly after Harrington came into the fold, a source inside Titleist told me that there were “no plans for a JP line and that Bob (Vokey) was still very much the guy,” adding, “he is, however, 74 and a cancer survivor, so eventually…”. While the need wasn’t immediate, it wasn’t a stretch to think JP was there to help protect the future of the Vokey brand.
Harrington was unquestionably talented – a Scotty Cameron-type in the making, but the feeling inside Titleist was that he was raw and would need some time to round out his understanding of performance. If there was ever a definitive plan for JP, nobody ever said what it was. There would be no timetable and no pressure for him to develop a commercial line. He’d be given a shop and access to R&D horsepower, but, I was told, “what we do will be based on what he comes up with.”
It took the better part of four years, but with the launch of the JP Wedge line and the JP Wedge Experience in May of last year, it looked like Harrington had finally found his place at Titleist. He estimates he’s done about 100 fittings and a handful of one-off wedges for VIPs, but its largely been a one-man effort. Harrington was responsible for every aspect the of experience. Fitting, building, stamping, even some of the photography and marketing efforts fell on JP’s shoulders.
If the opportunity for JP to become the steward of the Vokey brand ever existed at all, it never materialized. Harrington says he never sat down with Bob Vokey and that other than the type of cordial interactions you’d have in any office building, the two spent very little time together.
Recent evidence suggests an effort by Titleist to raise the profile of Vokey PGA Tour Rep Aaron Dill. Dill has worked under Bob Vokey for more than 10-years and, perhaps more importantly, has the trust of the Titleist PGA Tour staff. When the day comes that Bob isn’t the guy, it’s likely Aaron Dill will be.
Where does that leave JP? It’s a question that never yielded a specific answer, especially as it relates to the balance between Titleist’s two wedge guys, with a source inside Titleist last year saying “I’m just glad they’re both on my team.”
What seems certain is that Titleist would always maintain clear lines between the JP and Vokey brands. If he’d stayed, JP’s footprint would have likely remained small. It’s certainly possible, perhaps even likely, that his wedges would have been part of the Concept line, but it’s doubtful they would ever trickle into the mainstream.
The PGA Tour was mostly off limits. Harrington says he didn’t have access to Titleist’s tour staff. With a singular exception of an accidental encounter at the Titleist Performance in Oceanside, Harrington had no interaction with the best players in the world. On the one occasion when he did, the player was unaware that a JP line existed under the Titleist umbrella. Harrington says the player hit about 30 shots and was impressed by what he saw. For JP, the experience served as tour-level validation for his work.
How the relationship played out is reminiscent of what happened after TaylorMade acquired Adams Golf. From the outside, it appears that Titleist and Harrington, despite initial the initial excitement, struggled to find a comfortable place for the JP brand alongside the core Vokey franchise.
After 10-years (five on his own, the last five at Titleist) of being largely a one-man show, Harrington seeks to build what he calls a championship team that can bring his brand (and his name) into the mainstream. That wasn’t likely to happen at Titleist. Talks of extending the partnership never progressed to the point where he was comfortable with what Titleist could offer, so, says Harrington, “I decided to take what I learned and move on.”
The Next Chapter
With the Titleist chapter of his life all but closed, Harrington is choosing to focus on the positives and his future. He describes Titleist as a proving ground that offered him unique access to one of the most stringent test environments in the golf world, telling me, “there was no better place to validate my work.” He learned CAD and got an education in quality control, assembly and fitting. “I went from being a kid in a garage to a manufacturer with a big checkbook,” says Harrington. “After 5-years, I’m leaving with a doctorate in making golf clubs.”
It’s an experience that put him in an enviable position for the future. To say he has options is an understatement. Since he announced himself as a free agent, he’s spent a fair amount of time fielding phone calls from all over the equipment industry. He politely declined to be specific but says he has spoken with both large and mid-sized OEMs. He’s also not ruling out raising capital and trying to make a run at it on his own. For now, he’s spending part of his time doing what he calls the JP Tour in search of the right partner to help relaunch his brand.
He’s also working on new designs which could see the return of the three tungsten sole weights that were the signature of pre-Titleist JP wedges. Those didn’t find their way into the Titleist JP offering because the company already had a three circles guy. Telling me “camber is king,” he’s developing a new sole design he believes will be a game-changer for golfers of all ability levels.
Harrington’s endgame is ambitious. JP doesn’t just want to bring his wedges into the mainstream; he has his sights set on one day becoming the #1 wedge brand on the market. For a man who has been on the shelf for the better part of the last five years, it’s a lofty goal. JP knows he can’t do it alone, but if he can find the right situation and the right team, he’s confident he’ll make the most of a second chance to be the next big thing.