There are certain words and phrases in golf that, whether it’s due to overuse or downright cynicism, have become almost completely devoid of meaning.
One of those words is innovation.
Merriam-Webster defines innovation as the introduction of something new, or a new idea, method or device, a novelty.
The phrase thinking outside the box has become such a trite business cliché that companies have been known to fine employees for using that phrase during strategy meetings.
In golf, cynics contend that innovation has come to mean incremental alterations to existing products with no meaningful performance improvements. In some cases that cynicism is warranted, in others, it’s just, well, cynicism for cynicism’s sake.
As for thinking outside the box, is there really a case to be made that dual sliding weights, foam-filled hollow heads or extensive face-milling – while useful and beneficial – truly represent going beyond perceived barriers to create new solutions?
As a cynic, I await your response.
True innovation usually comes from the oddball, the crackpot inventor or the small startup company that thinks it has a better idea. Today’s story profiles one of those oddballs, a small company from Buffalo that, quite literally, had an oddball idea.
OnCore Golf, its origins, and its unique attitude may not make you believe in rags-to-riches, but it just might give you hope that there are still people out there not only thinking outside the box, they’re actually thinking in a completely different space that doesn’t even have a box.
Shake It Up, Baby
Soft, softer or softest. Spinny, more spinny or less spinny.
When it comes to golf ball innovation, that’s pretty much it once you get past round and dimpled. Colors are cool, but Day-Glo Orange, while fun, isn’t what you’d call a great technological leap forward.
Bret Blakely, VP and Co-Founder of OnCore Golf, says the golf ball industry is ripe for a shakeup.
“There’s been a long-standing tradition of withholding innovation,” says Blakely. “Every ball is longer and straighter, but it might just be a slight switch in dimple patterns. There’s really been nothing groundbreaking or radical in typical golf ball construction, and a lot of it has just been lipstick on a pig.”
OnCore is definitely in full shake-up mode as we approach 2018. The company first known for its hollow metal core golf ball (the Caliber – more on that later) delivered its first Tour-level ball earlier this year in the ELIXR. You may not have heard of the ELIXR, but MGS editor and noted cynic Tony Covey calls it a real surprise performer, with excellent approach and greenside spin.
And OnCore is preparing to knock the golf world on its collective buttocks with what it’s calling The Genius, a ball with a built-in micro-chip with GPS and full-fledged launch monitor technology built in. An Indiegogo campaign supporting development of the Genius ball wraps up later this week, having already reached its goal of $30,000.00.
“We want to create balls that are radically different from anything else,” says Bret. “That’s the point of entry we’re seeing, and we’re trying to hang our hats on that. We’re trying to be true innovators in the golf-space and not just delivering marketing-speak.”
Bret is 36, and his partner and fellow Co-Founder Steve Coulton is 32. They met a decade ago in New York City – Bret trying to make it in the advertising game and Steve in banking. The bottom fell out of both of those industries in December 2008 and in the middle of the worst recession in decades, these guys decided to try the golf business.
An engineer named Doug DuFaux, who at the time worked for Bret’s father, originally came up with the idea for a hollow-core golf ball. That idea that eventually became the OnCore Caliber.
“He’s one of those guys with a workshop in the garage and just invents things, with no rhyme or reason,” says Bret. “After a particularly bad round of golf, Doug and his golfing buddies, who were also engineers, sat over some beers and decided since they didn’t have time to fix their swings, maybe they could fix the golf ball.”
What they came up with was the idea of taking mass out of the center of the ball and shifting it to the perimeter – perimeter weighting, if you will – to seriously slow down the spin rate of the ball off the tee and on full shots to keep the ball in play. DuFaux’s idea was just that - an idea and a prototype that sat on a shelf until 2008, when Bret and Steve both lost their jobs.
“We called up my Dad and said hey, can we market that ball on the side to make some extra money while we look for work?” says Bret. “My Dad explained there was no company to market and no balls actually being produced. So we spent the next six months writing a business plan, learning about corporations - you know, the boring stuff - but the end game was a company that was going to be ours.”
The USGA Blues
OnCore launched in 2011, but it wasn’t until 2013 that their hollow-core ball was sanctioned by the USGA.
“They rejected us twice,” says Bret. “But we appealed to the executive standard committee, and their decision took 11 weeks. When they notified us, they said it was only the 2nd time in 100 years that they were rewriting the rules to allow new technology in.”
Bret admits if OnCore had not received USGA approval, it would have been hard to justify staying in the game.
“Everything we had was riding on approval. If we didn’t get it, all we had was a ball we were going to try to market to the small demographic of players who didn’t care if it was conforming or not.”
Those first iterations of the hollow core technology were, by any standard, meh – and even that might be generous.
“From a standpoint of trying to start with a reputation of being true innovators, that first ball was a big success,” says Bret. “But the ball was really meant for slow swing speeds and beginner golfers. Once you got over a 90 MPH swing speed, you really felt the stiffness of the hollow metal core. Distance would start to drop off, and the sound was a real turn off.”
What that first ball did, however, was convince Bret and Steve that hollow-core technology and its offshoot – perimeter weighting – were unique and meaningful innovations in a market that severely lacking in unique and meaningful. Those innovations set the stage for OnCore’s other balls, specifically the 2-piece Avant distance ball as well as the ELIXR.
“A lot of good things came from us just being persistent and deciding not to fit in with the crowd,” admits Bret. “We were like ‘no, no, we’re going to be weird, we’re going to be different.’ Our ball may sound a little bit ugly, but this is what we came in doing and this is what the entire brand is based on, so we need to live or die by this.”
“If we do die, so be it. But if we succeed it’s going to be because we stayed true to the original vision.”
Blue Oceans, Red Oceans
Bret is a true believer in perimeter weighting, but the cynic in me had to ask – if this technology is so good, why didn’t Titleist, Bridgestone or one of the other ball biggies come up with it first?
“The only ones that can really answer that are those big guys,” says Bret. “But innovation usually comes from smaller companies, people that are scratching and crawling, trying to make a name for themselves by having something truly different.”
There’s simply too much invested in the status quo for, say, Titleist to chuck two decades of ProV1 for something new and completely crazy. Don't read that as a criticism of Titleist in any way – it would be financial suicide for any company to upset their apple carts in today’s economy for anything that isn’t a sure thing.
“A lot of companies don’t want to stray too far away from something they know will sell, so that’s where the R&D dollars go,” says Brett. “That’s why I say innovation has been lacking. But if we were in their position, I’m not sure we ever would have tried something so different either.”
During our conversation, Bret turned me on to a business concept (and accompanying book) called the Blue Ocean Strategy, which preaches creating uncontested market space by making the competition irrelevant and creating new value for the customer. Unexplored market space is like the blue waters in undisturbed parts of the ocean. The opposite is a red ocean, where the water is bloody from excessive competition. If you’re trying to crash the golf ball party, Blue Ocean is definitely the way to go.
“What we’re doing, to me, is a total Blue Ocean approach,” says Bret. “It took us two years and two rejections from the USGA before we succeeded. There were many times when we just looked at each and said ‘do we need to forget battling and just make regular golf balls?’ But if we did, we’d have just been a passing fad. There’d be no differentiation to hold on to, so there’d be no point. To be the brand we wanted to be, the company itself and the ideology behind it had to be as unique as the golf ball.”
It requires a certain amount of testicular fortitude to be a Blue Ocean entrepreneur, especially when things aren’t quite going your way. A two-year battle with the USGA to sell a ball an awful lot of avid golfers didn’t like can certainly rattle the old confidence.
“We’ve seen a lot of guerilla companies pop up over the last six years,” says Bret. “95% of them have gone out of business already. As sad as this is to see, that we’re still here is something we’re proud of. We’ve been able to maintain our business and continuously come out with innovation. Each one of our balls has true, proprietary innovation - things that have not been done in golf balls before and all with patent protection.”
It’s taken six years, but OnCore has finally achieved one of Bret and Steve’s dreams – an entire suite of golf balls to serve the entire spectrum of golfers, all with proprietary technology they feel is unique to the industry. Doug DuFaux is now with OnCore as what the company calls its Chief Technologist. What makes OnCore truly unique is, unlike most of the other new wave ball companies, it has its own R&D team, featuring two veteran ball designers working with DuFaux.
"This isn't just another ball with a cool logo, this tech works." - Adam Beach
The Caliber is the direct descendant of DuFaux’s original hollow core idea and features a hollow metal ball where you’d normally see a solid hunk of rubber. The Avant is a soft, 2-piece ball with what OnCore calls SoftCell technology and the ELIXR is a 3-piece cast urethane tour ball that combines the concept of perimeter weighting with a unique composite core. Perimeter weighting is achieved through a polymer mantle layer infused with high-density particles.
Bret says OnCore’s Tour Rep showed the ELIXR to some of the most finicky guys he could find – tour players, hall of famers, and teaching pros he’s known for over 10 years, guys who wouldn’t hold anything back. After a week or so he came into the main office and had Bret get everyone in the conference room.
“I’m thinking we have an absolute f***king disaster on our hands and he’s calling a Code Red.” says Bret. “So he gets us around the table and says that after a week of player testing, he’d literally never had an experience like he’d had over the past week. And we’re screaming – is that GOOD or BAD????”
According to Bret, it was good.
“He said every single guy who tried the ball said it was the most complete or best ball they’d ever tried. They felt the difference in performance was almost like going from the Balata ball to the ProV.”
If you’ve been a follower of MyGolfSpy for any length of time, you know how we feel about OEM claims. We’ve also tested the ELIXR and found the tech to be seriously legit and again, noted cynic Tony Covey says he never plays the balls he likes best because he doesn’t want to lose them. The ELIXR is one of those balls.
"Do you want the straightjacket now or later, because it’s literally insane to get into the golf ball industry."
The Art of Different
Business differentiation and carving out a niche is serious heavy lifting, and naysayers will say since people buy Titleist, Bridgestone or Callaway balls, to succeed you have to do what they do. The problem is those guys not only have a huge head start; they have wayyyyy more money. If you want to get into the game and stay a while, it's best to do it on your terms, not theirs.
“It’s crucial for us to create authenticity,” says Bret. “If we do what the other guys do, all they’re going to do is outspend us. They’ve been doing it for decades, and they have the Tour giving them all the credibility and authenticity they need."
“My dream is for OnCore to become a case study on how to penetrate an impenetrable industry. If you want to learn how to do something impossible, pick the hardest freaking industry you can find. Everyone in this business, when we told them what we were doing, said do you want the straightjacket now or later, because it’s literally insane to get into the golf ball industry.”
Insane or not, Bret and Steve and the rest of the OnCore Team - most are also in their 30's - are closing in on their 7th year in business, and the adage says if your business isn’t seven years old, chances are it isn’t going to be. It takes that long – sometimes longer - to navigate your way to that Blue Ocean and to build a lasting, authentic brand. The trick is to hang in there until it happens.
“Everything hinges on reputation,” says Bret. “Golf is a relationship industry, and a lot of it is word of mouth. If your products don’t do what it says on your box or your commercials, you’re going to have a ton of disappointed customers, and they’re never coming back to you. They’ll go back to the established brand names because they don’t have to think; they just know to expect a specific performance. For us, we have to make sure we’re not just a cute marketing story. We really have to provide the benefits we’re preaching.”
OnCore is decidedly different from many of the other upstart ball companies. Most simply buy someone else's ball and put their name on it, but OnCore has its own R&D, proprietary technology, and patents. It also has plenty of attitude as well as the chutzpah to stay true to its vision and find that Blue Ocean.