Welcome to another edition of History’s Mysteries. It’s our effort to look back at some of golf’s bygone brands and find out what happened to them and why. Today’s look back should be an adventure.
Do you remember the original Lynx Golf?
Talk about an aptly named company. The lynx, of course, is a feline and we all know cats have their allotted nine lives. By our count, the current iteration of Lynx is its eighth. The company’s journey from disruptive early ‘70s innovator to corporate cog to mothballed store brand to European niche is a fascinating one.
So let’s jump in the time machine, buckle up and take a trip back in time.
History’s Mysteries: The First Life of Lynx Golf
History, it’s said, is written by the victors. Today it’s pretty much accepted in golf canon that Karsten Solheim is the man who made investment-cast irons a thing. But would it surprise you to know that the first truly successful investment-cast club was designed and sold by Lynx?
I bet it would.
But before we go there, let’s start at the beginning. Just how did Lynx start and how did it get its name?
The internet is a little hazy when it comes to the birth of Lynx but the story actually starts where the brand currently sits, in England.
John Riley was one of the U.K.’s top amateur golfers in the 1950s, playing out of the Accrington Club in northern England. In 1961, Riley emigrated to the United States to take an engineering job as a tooling specialist with PING.
By the end of the decade, Riley had designs on striking out on his own. In 1971, he formed Golf Lynx, Inc. with partner Carl Ross, a former sales manager for the Arnold Palmer Golf Company. While it might be easy to say the name “Lynx” is a play on words with “links,” the real story might be a tad more interesting.
The Riley Car Company
From 1926 to 1938, the Coventry, England-based Riley Car Company made and sold a slick little British roadster called the Riley Lynx. Riley made everything from little sports cars to Rolls Royce wannabees. By the late ‘40s, Riley merged with British sports car maker MG and that group eventually became part of the British Leyland Motor Corporation. By 1969, British Leyland stopped making Rileys.
Also in the late 1960s, two Ford employees started their own open-wheeled race car company called the Lynx Car Company. Those two Ford employees were John Mills and … wait for it … Bob Riley.
We can find no direct, uhh, links between John Riley, the Riley Car Company, the Lynx Car Company and Bob Riley on the worldwide web. While we don’t know for sure of a familial connection, we do know history hates coincidences. That’s an awful lot of English Rileys connected to the Lynx name.
Remember that first truly successful investment-cast iron we mentioned? That would be the first iron Lynx produced, the 1972 Master Model. In a MyGolfSpy article from 2011, former Tommy Armour, TaylorMade and Nickent executive John Hoeflich cited the Master Model as one of the most important golf innovations of the modern era. It was the first investment-cast iron that sold in mass quantities, Hoeflich told us. It also brought custom spec builds to the masses and it revolutionized off-course distribution.
Not bad for a first effort.
The Second Life of Lynx
All was not well with the Riley-Ross partnership, however. While details are sketchy, Riley either left or was forced out of the partnership within a year. He went on to found Pinseeker Golf and later the John Riley Company and would create a metal-faced wooden driver and later patented the very first fully metal driver.
Meanwhile, Lynx continued making noise as investment casting was starting to take over the golf business. The big OEMs of the time like Wilson, MacGregor and others made forged clubs. Investment-cast clubs could be made faster and the process was more repeatable, but it was an expensive addition to their operations. Lynx and PING didn’t have a status quo to protect, so both went about disrupting the market.
“The enormous success of the pioneer manufacturers—small companies such as Lynx and PING—has prompted the big companies to get into the (investment cast) race,” wrote Golfdom Magazine in its January 1973 issue. The article speculated on whether the success of these small, investment-cast companies might cause them to be engulfed by larger golf companies.
That didn’t happen to PING but it did happen to Lynx, sort of. Less than two months later, Lynx was bought out by a larger company, one that had nothing whatsoever to do with golf.
Zurn: The Third Life
If you’ve ever used a urinal, you’re probably familiar with the name Zurn. Today, Zurn is a worldwide plumbing, fire protection and water control giant but in 1973 it was slightly more diversified. Along with floor drains, flush valves and backflow preventers, Zurn also had a leisure products division that made products for boats and recreational vehicles. It was also developing a marina townhouse community in Oxnard, Calif.
Zurn added Golf Lynx, Inc. to its stable that April, buying it from Ross for an undisclosed amount of common stock. During the Zurn years, Lynx became a solid niche brand, walking in lockstep with PING, offering a variety of investment-cast irons. In the following decade, Lynx would open its own foundry in Nevada, a move that would prove to be a financial sinkhole.
By the late ‘80s, however, Lynx was primed to make major moves to raise its profile. Unfortunately, the rest of the industry was ready to move as well, which would ultimately prove fatal to Lynx.
The ‘90s: The Fourth Life
Parallax and Black Cat are synonymous with Lynx and both were the work of designer David Boone. The Parallax came first, in 1991. It was a cast cavity-back, inspired by the two most successful irons of the day, the Tommy Armour 845s and the PING Eye 2.
“Dave knew I couldn’t hit a 2-iron but he handed me a 2-iron anyway,” then Lynx president John Carey told Global Golf Post in 2019 for an article on Boone’s mysterious disappearance. “I was killing the ball. I told him, ‘You get this thing patented right away.’”
Boone sent the first Parallax set to Fred Couples at the end of 1991. Couples’ contract with Tommy Armour was ending and he put them in play at the Johnnie Walker World Championship. He won.
He officially joined the Lynx staff in January of ’92 and proceeded to win three more times, including the 1992 Masters. Couples used an old MacGregor persimmon driver to win the Masters but, by the end of the year, he put into play the club that spawned perhaps the greatest golf commercial ever, the Lynx Boom Boom driver.
Ernie Els and Michelle McGann soon joined the Lynx staff. Els won the ’94 U.S. Open and set a single-season earnings record with Parallax. McGann gamed Parallax for all seven of her LGPA wins. By 1995 the larger, more forgiving Black Cat joined the lineup.
“The phone lines were ringing off the hook,” Carey told Global Golf Post. “We had this wonderful receptionist … We would always joke, ‘How’s your jaw today?’ because she was talking non-stop to people who were calling in.”
While the first half of the ‘90s was an equipment heyday for Lynx, the financial side of the ledger was a disaster.
Lynx: The Fifth Life
From 1990 to 1996, Zurn spent an estimated $35 million on advertising for Lynx. The company still lost more than $25 million in that time. The Nevada foundry was part of the problem but so was increasing offshore manufacturing and new, aggressive competition from Callaway, COBRA and TaylorMade.
In 1995, Lynx sales reached $45 million, good enough for roughly four-percent market share. The company, however, still lost $4.5 million and was stuck in a logjam with other second-tier OEMs. By comparison, Callaway’s global sales in ’95 topped $553 million, with a tidy $98 million in profit.
By the following year, Zurn had had enough and put Lynx up for sale. COBRA was sold to Acushnet for $700 million earlier that year so Zurn had high hopes. Those hopes, however, turned sour. An all-star group put together by Los Angeles accountant Edward White and investor G. Louis Graziadio bought Lynx for a reported $25 million, less than its book value.
The all-stars? Well, Fred Couples, of course, along with his old college teammate turned CBS mic jockey, Jim Nantz. Also involved were hoops legend Jerry West, tennis ace Pete Sampras, actors Jack Nicholson, Clint Eastwood and Sean Connery, and Rick Dees of “Disco Duck” fame. A star-studded group, to be sure. But one with no idea how to run a golf company.
The company relocated to Carlsbad, Calif., but the celebrity board of directors couldn’t get out of its own way. With debt mounting, management reached out to Barney Adams and proposed a merger with Adams Golf. Adams insisted the only way he would run it would be if the board was disbanded. It wasn’t. Lynx was doomed.
Bankruptcy and Life No. Six
By the late ‘90s, Callaway, COBRA, PING and TaylorMade controlled 75 percent of the market. Lynx was a second-tier financial mess. And despite Tiger’s big win at Augusta, 1998 was not a good year for the golf industry. El Nino and an Asian flu saw to that.
While the Big Four weathered the storm, Lynx did not. The company laid off two-thirds of its workforce before defaulting on a $3.4-million loan in mid-July. Two weeks later, Lynx filed for Chapter 11.
Golfsmith, however, was thriving. Golfsmith started as a component company, but by the late ‘90s, nearly half its total sales were retail golf clubs. Legendary club designer Tom Wishon was Golfsmith’s director of product development at the time and was part of a group that had what it thought was a million-dollar idea.
“We went to the owners and said look, we need recognizable brand names,” Wishon told MyGolfSpy. “I can develop product lines for them and we can take them from foundry to consumer and make a ton of money.”
Lynx became the obvious first target. Its largest creditors controlled the bankruptcy proceedings but the one Lynx owed the most money to—and therefore had the largest stake in the proceedings—was a clubhead foundry in Taiwan.
“I had become pretty good friends with the principal owner of that company over the years,” says Wishon. “That’s when I got brought into the negotiations.”
Golfsmith was competing with Rudy Slucker, who owned the Tommy Armour and Ram brands at the time. Wishon was able to convince his friend that Golfsmith’s $11-million cash-on-the-barrelhead deal was better than Slucker’s offer of ownership stock and paper.
The creditors agreed.
The Payne Stewart Connection
To hit the ground running, Wishon had to build a Lynx lineup from scratch. “We decided since we were putting big money into Lynx, we should put some money into some players, too.”
Wishon, living in Austin, bumped into Tom Kite one day. Kite had heard through the grapevine Golfsmith was looking for players.
“He said, ‘Why don’t you go talk to Payne?’”
Stewart’s ill-fated Spalding deal was expiring at the end of 1998. Within weeks, Golfsmith signed him to a three-year deal worth $1.2 million, and Wishon and Stewart set out to make some new irons.
“One of the funniest things he ever said was, ‘Tom, you’re really lucky you got me at this stage of my life,’” remembers Wishon. “I said, ‘Why’s that?’ And he said, ‘If you had gotten me 10 years ago, you’d have found me to be an insufferable, arrogant prick.’”
Contrary to legend, Stewart did not use Wishon’s clubs to win the ’99 U.S. Open or at the Ryder Cup in Brookline (he used borrowed Mizunos). He gamed them only once, at the Dunhill Cup in St Andrews in early October. After the tournament, he asked Wishon for some tweaks.
“He left them with me and said he’d be coming to Dallas for a golf course project,” says Wishon. “He said he’d fly in on his jet, stop in Austin to pick up the clubs, and be on his way. So I had the clubs all done and went to the private air terminal in Austin and waited. And waited. And the plane never came.”
That was Oct. 25, 1999. Stewart’s plane would never reach Texas. All four passengers and both crew members died of hypoxia when the plane failed to pressurize shortly after takeoff. The plane eventually ran out of fuel and crashed in a field in South Dakota.
“I still have those irons in my shop today.”
Bankruptcy and The Seventh Life
Golfsmith also signed Ben Crenshaw to a Lynx deal but the plan to make Lynx a premier brand soon fell apart.
“We put all this money into Lynx and we had all these plans with big cutouts of Ben and Payne in stores,” says Wishon. “We moved the clubs up front so they were the first things people saw. And, all of a sudden, the owners put the kibosh on all that.”
Lynx had apparently fallen victim to “secret shoppers.”
“These were people hired by the big companies to go into retail chains and ask for their company’s products,” says Wishon. “They wanted to see if retailers would pull a bait and switch. When our salespeople tried to sell them Lynx, they came back and made threats.”
According to Wishon, ownership gave the order to not promote Lynx for fear of pissing off the OEMs.
“They said, ‘half our sales come from those clubs. What if they get mad that we’re competing against them and slow up our shipments?’” he remembers. “I told them we were either the largest or second-largest customer. Money talks. Do you really think they were going to do that?”
Apparently, they did, and a frustrated Wishon soon left Golfsmith. His replacement was Jeff Sheets, who designed several innovative clubs for Lynx. The 2005 Black Cat 800 MX driver was one of the first to feature a carbon-fiber crown. Sheets also designed a 420cc driver that had the same MOI as a 460cc driver as well as a XXIO-like lightweight, titanium-faced iron called the LX Ti.
By 2010, however, Lynx devolved into a basic store brand. And Golfsmith’s days were numbered. It went bankrupt in 2016, and all its assets, including Lynx, were snapped up by DICK’S Sporting Goods.
Lynx, England and The Eighth Life
It’s somehow fitting that John Riley’s company has found its way back to the U.K. Today, the brand is owned and operated by the husband-and-wife team of Steve Elford and Stephanie Zinser in Surrey, about an hour southwest of London.
Elford and Zinser acquired the European rights to Lynx in 2013. A year later, they approached Golfsmith to see about buying the rights for the rest of the planet.
“It was the worst meeting of our lives,” Elford told MyGolfSpy in 2018. “Eleven hours by plane and (the Golfsmith executive) forgot our meeting. He gave us 20 minutes and looked at his phone the whole time.”
Elford and Zinser had better luck once DICK’S acquired the brand and they now own Lynx for most of the globe. Lynx remains tied to Golf Town in Canada and the brand remains independent in parts of Asia.
Today, Lynx is available at pro shops and retailers throughout the U.K. but the brand has had little luck re-entering the North American market. It’s still dogged by the same challenges it faced in the late ‘90s: large, well-funded competitors that dominate retail.
The company is trying the direct-to-consumer route over here but continues to struggle.
Will There Be a Ninth Life?
It’s doubtful because the eighth life appears to have some legs. Despite not breaking into the North American market, Lynx does have a solid base in the U.K. and Europe. Dame Laura Davies remains a brand ambassador and the company does have innovative junior sets.
The original bankruptcy in 1998, however, should serve as a warning to today’s challenger brands. The Big Five of today control the market’s attention and its dollars, and golf’s status quo doesn’t want to change. You don’t have to come up with breakthrough technology to stay profitable, but you do have to be smart, watch your costs and play your game and not your competition’s. That’s not a game the challenger brands can win.
As for the current Lynx, it remains a small, tightly run operation. As long as it keeps making money for its owners, the brand will continue. If not? Well, as you well know, a cat always lands on its feet.
And there’s one life left.