In January 2019, Honma announced a multi-year equipment agreement with Justin Rose, though, in the month preceding the announcement, the agreement itself was the worst kept secret in golf.
Now, a little over a year later, we’re largely in the same situation. Friday’s announcement formally spells out what everyone saw coming roughly two-and-a-half months ago. Justin Rose and Honma were, to borrow a line from Taylor Swift, “never, ever, ever getting back together…”
Mountains or Molehills?
Behind closed doors. Inside the ropes. Tip of the iceberg. There’s plenty of clichés to go around.
While most details fit into the “we don’t know what we don’t know” category, it’s reasonable to surmise issues have been percolating for some time. Signing a player of Rose’s caliber to a multi-year deal doesn’t happen overnight. Similarly, dissolving such a relationship isn’t going to happen over a small tiff or routine frustrations present in every player-OEM relationship.
As is typical in such situations, questions exceed answers. People will speculate and theorize, but ultimately only a handful of individuals will really know what went down and why. In time, pieces of the truth may surface.
Today’s announcement is primarily a formality to acknowledge what everyone already knew. Rose no longer believed Honma was the best fit for him. Or Honma no longer thought Rose was the best fit for them. Or whatever.
The statements from Rose and Honma give little insight into, well, much of anything. It’s typical C.Y.A legalese. It’s a series of well-crafted generic phrases that don’t say much.
Some “Justin will no longer be one of Honma’s brand ambassadors” here and “I have enjoyed working with the Honma team and collaborating closely with them to design and develop excellent golf equipment” there. And nothing of any great substance in between.
While it’s what everyone reasonably expected, it’s also the last official statement we’ll likely receive from either party on the topic. Even so, to give a little context, let’s rehash some keystone moments over the past several months.
Rose Benches Honma TR-20 Driver
The first public evidence of some unease occurred in early March at The Honda Classic. Rose ditched Honma’s new TR20 driver in favor of the new TaylorMade SIM model.
Unusual? Perhaps, but not unprecedented. It’s also worth noting, until signing with Honma, Rose was a member of TaylorMade’s tour staff for the better part of two decades. So, perhaps he was tinkering around with his set up to find an optimal arrangement headed into the bulk of the season. Rose’s deal required him to carry 10 Honma clubs, so he was free to experiment with the other four spots.
But the driver is a pretty damn bit spot to swap out of the starting lineup, particularly given that Rose said he was seeing four to five miles an hour faster ball speed with the Honma driver. Perhaps a honeymoon period, perhaps a classic oversell. Who can say for sure?
The Honda was followed by the Arnold Palmer Invitational, where Rose showed up to the Wednesday Pro-am with a mixed bag, including TaylorMade irons, TaylorMade and Cobra metal woods, and several TaylorMade, Titleist and Wilson wedges to test.
There wasn’t a single Honma club in Rose’s bag.
If the week before caused some raised eyebrows, this set them on fire.
When Rose appeared at the 10th tee on Thursday morning for his 7:54 AM tee time still without a single Homna club in the bag, it was the death knell.
The move appeared to catch pretty much everyone off-guard. Without any lead notice, Honma execs didn’t have much to say other than, “Out of respect for Honma, Justin, and the tournament, there will not be any comment until that time (Monday)”
The Monday announcement never happened. Instead, a global pandemic ensued, Rose missed the cut, and like all other PGA Tour related news, it faded temporarily to the periphery.
Not Your Average Relationship
Player-OEM splits usually don’t garner this type of attention, but then again, this wasn’t a typical staff ambassador situation. Justin Rose was the entirety of Honma’s PGA Tour presence. Without Rose, Honma didn’t exactly have a Plan B.
Honma’s work to establish a larger footprint in North America included landing a marquee PGA Tour player as a vital part of the strategy. In hindsight, it might have made more sense to follow Wu-Tang’s advice and diversify your bonds. However, by signing Rose, Honma acquired some amount of instant credibility in a crowded and competitive marketplace.
Even so, Rose wasn’t just a marquee player with global appeal. He was the #2 ranked player in the world, reigning FedEx Cup champion and Olympic Gold Medalist.
Maintaining that pace into 2019, with a new bag of sticks, wasn’t a reasonable expectation. However, Rose notched his 10th PGA Tour victory at the Farmer’s Insurance Open in late January. It would have been tough to script a better start, though no one would have thought twice had Rose struggled to gain form after a wholesale equipment switch.
Rose would go on and finish the season 13th in strokes gained/round with on-course earnings of $4.3 million and an OWGR of #8. By any measure, it was a successful first season. With Honma’s TR-20 line slated to release in early 2020, everything appeared to be in order. “I have a lot more trust in the product now because I’ve tested it under the toughest of circumstances and conditions,” asserted Rose.
Not According to Plan
Unfortunately, Rose’s play entering the new decade has been less than stellar. A lot less. Before the COVID-induced hiatus, in five official events, he had three MC’s, a T-56, and a 2nd place finish in the Singapore Open on the Asian Tour. Why the slide?
Who knows? Golf is hard. Players aren’t robots. Golf is really hard.
Was it the equipment? Exceedingly unlikely. Again, Rose had a direct hand in the design of his Honma equipment and even asserted, “At the end of the day, a blade is a blade, so the most important thing about a blade is that it looks pretty.”
So, the driver produced more ball speed, and according to Rose, “feels much more forgiving and incredibly stable. From that point of view, it’s an improvement for sure.” The muscle-back irons are, apparently, mostly a question of cosmetics and as for the wedges…
“I’m playing the highest bounce option in my 56, and I was actually out there at Torrey today using it a lot out of the rough, and it’s actually becoming my go-to club much more over my 60, even out of the bunker, I seem to be really, really enjoying it.”
What’s perhaps the most perplexing part of all of this is that these statements from Rose were taken from an article penned by Jonathan Wall (Golf.com) that published only several weeks before Rose’s SIM swap in early March.
It’s nice to think we can take players at their word, and there’s no reason to suggest we shouldn’t in the case of Rose. He’s doesn’t seem the type to build sandcastles, blame camera angles, or send cease and desist letters. That said, the timing of all of this is entirely curious. Alongside the PGA Tour’s more condensed schedule, one would think to make wholesale equipment changes the month prior to that little invitational in Augusta, GA is something a professional only does out of necessity. Then again, I suppose what one player considers necessary others might call desperate. We’re also assuming everyone involved is a rational actor, acting based on objective information. That’s anything but a safe assumption when contracts, emotions, money, and ego all have a seat at the negotiating table.
So, where does that leave us? At the end of the day, all we can be reasonably sure of is the following:
Rose and Honma are no longer.
A good craftsman never blames his tools.
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