I know the Olympics are over, but Bridgestone Golf may have just copped the Gold in Synchronized Stealth Marketing.
It was so stealthy that unless you were actually reading Twitter yesterday instead of just doing the scan-and-scroll two-step, you’d have missed it entirely. Most OEMs will at least drop us a postcard or throw us a line for even the smallest update or release, but Bridgestone is seemingly trying to sneak its new driving iron into the marketplace.
And yes, they’re calling it a driving iron instead of the more politically correct utility iron.
Not a Utility Iron
Don't look for Bridgestone's Tour B X-HI at retail: you won't find it. The new driving iron is an extremely limited release that’s available only on Bridgestone’s website, and once they’re gone, they’re gone.
“It’s an in-line product in Japan,” says Zack Kupperbusch, Bridgestone’s golf club product manager. “We wanted to bring it in over here in limited quantities to test the popularity. Assuming it sells well we’ll look to bring it in as a full line release in the near future.”
This is Bridgestone’s first release in this growing niche since the J33 Air Muscle; a club Kupperbusch says customers still ask about.
“From working with shaft companies and gauging the market, we feel like the driving iron category is making a comeback. We wanted to get in front and see how well this would be received.”
I doubt a 2018 test market run of a product line that’s been pretty much on everyone else’s radar since 2012 or so qualifies as getting in front of it, but the fact is if you want one, you better hurry.
Priced to Move
The Tour B X-HI as currently constituted is available only in a 20-degree model and comes stock with a Golf Pride MCC grip, the KBS Tour Hybrid Prototype shaft and an impressive array of no-upcharge options. And at $189.99 it's a relative bargain in its category - not bad for a product Bridgestone admits is being test marketed.
“We’re being really aggressive with the price,” adds Kupperbusch, “because we want to see how quickly we can sell-through this first batch of inventory. If it sells pretty quickly, then hopefully we can bring more in as a full-line product."
The Japanese versions sell in 18, 20 and 22-degree models. Bridgestone isn’t releasing much information regarding technical details, other than to say it’s hollow-bodied construction that’s thicker all around with a wider sole, like most other driving irons, er, I mean utility irons.
Given Bridgestone's standing in equipment market share, this type of release makes sense, especially considering the niche: gauge the market's appetite for the particular product at that particular price before making a bigger investment.
The Bridgestone Tour B X-HI is available only on Bridgestone’s website and in extremely limited quantities.
Bridgestone’s business is getting curiouser and curiouser. Weeks ago the company announced a record-setting year in terms of ball volume sales, which was followed by persistent rumors of red ink on the North American bottom line. We’re also hearing about new Tiger-centric marketing initiatives, and no doubt the gang in Covington had to be pleased with Tiger’s performance, and the ever-obsequious coverage by CBS at the Honda over the weekend.
Also, Bridgestone CEO Angel Ilagan has been a vocal proponent of rolling back the ball on the PGA Tour, which seems to be picking up steam with the USGA. A ball manufacturer calling for a dialed-back, standardized tour ball gives the cynics among us plenty of fodder for late night debates.
On the equipment side - a tiny fraction of Bridgestone's overall business - the company is making its premium Tour B metal woods and irons available online after a year of exclusivity with a select network of club fitters. We also hear rumors of an overhaul of the old-ish JGR metal woods and irons offering.
Given the face-plant Bridgestone endured following the J15 release, it's easy to understand limited edition test marketing for new equipment, particularly with something as niche-oriented as a driving iron. 2017 was a busy year for Bridgestone, and it appears 2018 will be as well. The company remains #3 in ball market share and, despite solid performers in virtually every category, it remains on the outside looking in when it comes to equipment.
Balls are where the money is, and Bridgestone will need to be creative to maintain its market position. The company appears to be taking a very conservative, low-risk approach on the equipment side, which - given its history - is a prudent move.