Jacob Sanborn probably isn’t a name you recognize, but his industry persona as The Wedge Wizard is a fitting and fun departure from his contemporaries.
Imagine a 19th hole conversation around WWF style names for established industry wedge veterans. Bob Da Voke Vokey. The Guru, Roger Cleveland…and Jacob Wedge Wizard Sanborn?
It's elite company for a young upstart like Jacob who is only just beginning to make his mark. Tossing Jacob in with the likes of those guys may be premature, but at just 25 years old, he’s already the guy at a small but ambitious OEM (Fourteen Golf). Fourteen may not carry the same cache as Titleist or Cleveland, but the fact that Jacob personally handles every custom order ranging from iron sets to fully personalized wedges speaks volumes.
Even in golf, where nearly everyone colors inside the lines, Japanese companies tend to be more risk-averse than their American counterparts. That Fourteen has the confidence in Jacob to allow his autograph on its products is a significant testament to his abilities.
Jacob is a California kid without much of a golf pedigree. He grew up on the state's beaches, not its fairways. His father, blue collar to the core, was a finish carpenter who specialized in custom millwork. It was his father's attention to detail, work ethic, and ability to take pieces of wood and craft something unique which first captured Jacob's attention.
"He was the kind of guy who always made our furniture, instead of buying it," recalls Sanborn.
Jacob became enamored by the process – one built on trial and error with each piece offering its own story and personal connection between crafter and consumer - something one might suggest is largely lacking in the golf industry right now.
It was Jacob's grandfather who introduced him to golf and, in high school, Jacob caught enough of the bug to start playing more seriously. Like many of us, once bitten, Jacob was hooked. As his love affair with the game progressed, he began to tinker in his garage. He took clubs apart, put them back together. Eventually, he started playing around with a grinding wheel and a basic stamp kit.
He loved playing the game, but more so the discovery that this vexing pursuit could offer something else – a place to exercise his need to build and craft, using a medium which also offered room for self-expression.
After high school, Jacob did the "juco thing for a bit,” admitting, “I really didn't know what the hell I wanted to do." Serendipity struck, and a job opened up at the Carlsbad Golf Center - a clubfitting/building position, where Jacob would spend the next four-years fitting hundreds of golfers and repairing more clubs than he cares to recount.
Jacob knew he could do the job, but he acknowledges that wasn't some sort of savant. I'm sure he'd love to go back to both thank and apologize to more than a handful of early customers – but that's the catch-22 of an occupation where experience is often the best teacher.
His age also resulted in more than a couple sideways glances from paying customers, the body language insinuating "You're too young to know anything, kid." Young for sure – but he was more than a neophyte who'd just passed a 2-hour online clubfitting course.
In December of 2015, a buddy told Jacob about a job posting for a Custom Club Builder at Fourteen Golf. Jacob applied and got the job, and while he had more questions than answers, the new gig had all of the feels of a major step in the right direction.
Quick reprise: Fourteen Golf, like many Japanese companies, is trying to figure out how to access more of the North American golf market, which by dollars spent/year is still the largest in the world. With that plan comes the acknowledgment of the need to fulfill custom – hence the need for Jacob.
Custom-assembly (adjusting for loft/lie/length and swingweight) doesn’t require the same skillset as made-to-order, one-off custom wedges and I'm not convinced Fourteen was fully aware of Sanborn's ability when it hired him.
ON THE JOB
The first six months or so weren't exactly what Jacob was hoping for, but that's easy to chalk up to an eager and talented young employee who felt he could offer more than he was being asked to do. Bending irons 1° upright and cutting them ¼" short isn't exactly brain-surgery for someone of Sanborn's capabilities.
Despite his ambitions, Jacob knew his place in the operation and was grateful to have an opportunity to work in an environment which he says "has provided me such an incredible opportunity."
Jacob's custom work was on display in his own bag, but it wasn't until a friend of professional golfer John Mallinger (for whom Jacob has done some custom work) swung by the shop that Jacob's bosses took notice. It was an I told you I could do this and people would like it type moment and because he took more of an ask forgiveness rather than permission approach, it made it easier for management to green light what is now Fourteen's entirely custom, hand-crafted wedge operation.
Officially launched in September 2017, this wedge platform is only beginning to showcase what Jacob to the table...or the grinding wheel...or...well you get the idea.
The program allows golfers to purchase an entirely hand-ground, custom-stamped and finished wedge, to their specs. It's the same treatment provided to Fourteen's professional staff.
Sanborn has produced north of 40 custom wedges since the platform's unveiling, but there's no contrived, limited release structure to increase demand and keep prices high. If he could spend 40-60 hours a week doing nothing but fitting, grinding and finishing wedges, Sanborn would be happier than Bill Belichick in a staring contest.
For now, however, producing custom wedges is just one of Jacob’s many duties at Fourteen. If demand continues to increase, Sanborn may find himself in more of a specialized role focused exclusively on custom wedges.
BEST UNDER PRESSURE
By any measure, Fourteen Golf isn't a large OEM, and in the long run, this may work in Jacob's favor. Establishing an identity separate from the OEM isn't easy for a young craftsman, and whatever Jacob accomplishes during this phase will certainly be a function of his access to Fourteen's tour staff and marketing platforms. This, in addition to his own Instagram, should continue to provide exposure for both brand and individual.
There's no guarantee the next generation of consumers will want what previous generations demanded. We're seeing a massive trend toward customization as consumers seek equipment that better reflects the individual. James Patrick (JP), whom Sanborn lists as a huge inspiration and quasi-mentor, embodies this new wave of demand. In JP, Sanborn sees the future of what consumers will want (and be willing to pay for). Specifically, a one-stop shop where equipment is custom-tailored to the individual, built and finished by one person who is equal parts fitter, builder, and artist.
In the golf industry, it's often convenient to be categorized as either a grey-haired veteran who has plenty of knowledge and the experience to back it up, or a young hotshot who talks a good game but may not know much of anything.
Jacob Sanborn is neither. He doesn't yet have the wisdom that comes only through years of tussle, struggle, and progress, but he's learned enough to know what he doesn’t know.
"I have so much more to learn...I'm almost entirely self-taught...I don't have an engineering degree or anything ...I have so much growing to do."
Entitled, his is not. But a wizard, he just might be.