It's never easy to see someone else get credit for your work, particularly when the work includes golf clubs which go on to win major championships and garner significant attention for companies which ultimately become competitors rather than collaborators. Companies spend millions of dollars and countless hours creating and executing brand building and marketing campaigns to create an image to attract consumers.  At some point, it’s no longer valuable to be part of someone else’s campaign.

Such is the plight of Fourteen Golf.

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ORIGIN

Established in 1981 by renowned Japanese club designer, Takamitsu Takebayashi, Fourteen Golf began as a design company doing work for larger OEMs. Most notably, in 1987, Scott Simpson won the U.S. Open using a set of Yamaha FX-25 irons (designed by Fourteen). Several early PRGR hybrid models were also designed by Takebayashi.

In 2002, Fourteen launched as a brand and shortly after that Ernie Els won The Open Championship (aka The British Open) with a Fourteen HI-858 driving iron in the bag. The follow-up effort (HI-660) gained the attention of David Duval among others (Justin Leonard). There’s only one reason a world-class golfer plays equipment from a company most had never heard of – it’s demonstrably better.

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It’s reasonable to suggest that, in the early 2000s, no manufacturer made a better hybrid/utility iron than Fourteen. Truthfully, few companies made this type of club and soon enough larger OEMs with more robust R&D budgets started making copy-cat versions. Regardless, Fourteen established itself as a company capable of making tour-level equipment, and by addressing niches which other OEM’s hadn’t yet identified, Fourteen gained a solid tour following. Then, in an effort to stay ahead of the curve and resist complacency, Fourteen decided to turn attention towards a different product where it felt it could gain a similar competitive advantage and tour usage – the wedge. While the acceptance wasn't quite as rapid (there wasn't an obvious void to fill), it became clear Fourteen was on to something special.

Now, with the introduction of the FH-900 forged irons and updated RM-22 wedges, Fourteen is hoping to garner additional attention from both touring professionals and the general golfing population.

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WHAT’S IN A NAME

Golf rules allow a player to carry a maximum of 14 clubs – and implicit in the brand name is Fourteen’s stance it can produce the very best fourteen clubs to go into any players bag. But there’s a bit more to this story. Take out the oversized “F” and “N” in the Fourteen script and what’s left is “our tee” as in, playing Fourteen brand clubs assures honors from one tee to the next.

Then there’s the feather. The effortless descent of a feather is akin to the way your ball will behave when struck by a Fourteen brand club, or so the story goes. Also, all scores below par (birdie, eagle, albatross) have an aviary connotation – so there’s that.

LANDSCAPE

Fourteen Golf is one of several golf subsidiaries (along with OnOff, Roddio, GIII) of Globeride Inc. (formerly Daiwa). If you’re an angler, you’re familiar with Diawa, which accounts for the majority of Globeride’s annual revenue. That said, as a publicly traded company, the health of each subsidiary has an impact on the larger financial picture. As an investment, Globeride’s financial health is mostly determined by the fishing industry, while golf holdings represent a healthy diversification for Globeride’s portfolio.

As Fourteen Golf seeks to increase brand awareness (and sales) in North America, several key questions should be addressed.

Fourteen feels it can produce a superior product for each of the fourteen clubs a player puts in the bag. It’s nice for an OEM to hold itself to high standards of production, but this expectation is neither realistic nor financially viable for a company of Fourteen’s size. Fourteen acknowledges as much in referring to this as a “constant pursuit of the impossible” which leads one to believe it’s more philosophical than pragmatic. Regardless, what can Fourteen Golf produce which truly differentiates itself from other golf equipment companies?

Similarly, Fourteen created buzz on professional tours by designing clubs to fill specific voids. But as a full-line equipment company, does Fourteen have sufficient resources to devote to both the general consumer and the touring professional? If so, can it do both well enough to sustain a consistent consumer following while expanding its rather limited tour presence?

CURRENT LINE

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Fourteen Golf is a full-line club company, but the heart and soul of the operation rests with its irons and wedges. Like the majority of Japanese companies, the metalwoods (drivers, fairways, and hybrids) are solid, but unspectacular when it comes to quantifiable performance metrics (ball speed, MOI, launch/spin optimization). Considering the challenge of competing directly against OEM’s like Ping, Callaway, and TaylorMade, it’s a challenge perhaps worth conceding (at least in North America).

The recent additions to the iron and wedge line showcase Fourteen’s premier technology and what I believe Fourteen does best. It’s also where most consumers will find something to pique interest. Whereas other companies talk about CG location as a design feature, it’s a defining technology for Fourteen. The company engineers a precise CG location for each iron and wedge, which allows it to manipulate launch and spin for ideal performance.

IRONS

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The FH-900 is billed as a high performance forged iron for “every” player. This season the irons found their way into the bag of PGA Tour player John Rollins. As with most one size fits all products, those at either end of the fitting spectrum will likely be better served with a product more geared toward that specific demographic. In this case, players wanting a true MB style iron should look at the FH-1000 and those questioning whether they have the game to bag the FH-900s might want to look at the TC-544; a one-piece forged design with game-improvement features.

In my testing, I found the FH 900 to look, feel and play like an uber-forgiving players CB. If you have experience with JDM clubs, Epon’s 302 is a good comparison. Offset is minimal, the topline is pleasantly thin, and the S20C forged carbon steel body is as soft and consistent as can be expected. The small-ish head promotes a sense of workability, while perimeter weighting boosts forgiveness, a feature which I noticed more so in the 6-iron and down. Again, if you can’t consistently find the center of the face in your scoring irons, this might not be the best iron for you. The cavity isn’t particularly dynamic in appearance and stampings/logos are understated, which will be a welcome sight to those in the less is more camp.

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The TC-544 is the bigger, more forgiving, but just as good feeling sibling to the FH 900. The offset is greater, sole wider, topline thicker and is a bit more game-improvement in every way. These features align better with the majority of the golfing public and while many will want the FH 900, more should probably go the 544 route.

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WEDGES

The reverse muscle is what defines Fourteen wedges as unique and is present in all models except the hollow-cavity HO30.  In all RM series wedges, the traditional muscle shape is present, but some weight is shifted toward the very top of the blade. The raised CG increases spin and decreases launch. On full shots, I didn’t notice an appreciable difference, but partial shots were easier to control and seemed to grab a bit more on the second hop. The additional weight also helps to stabilize the club head through impact.

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The heads are forged nickel chrome molybdenum and feature what Fourteen calls a “flat mirror milled face with trapezoidal grooves.” The nickel-chrome forging is it’s more stated to be more resistant to wear, which theoretically keeps the grooves sharper for an extended period. I can’t state definitively how much longer the grooves will last, but this is an attractive feature for players who A) like to practice a lot B) primarily use one wedge for most shots around the green.

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The RM-22, RM-22 Tour Raw and RM Tour Raw are variations on a common theme, with each featuring a different assortment of Fourteen’s updated list of bounce/grind options.

  • Standard Grind - A thinner sole designed to produce consistent spin on full and partial shots.
  • Delta Grind - Fourteen’s most versatile option offers aggressive heel relief allowing the leading edge to sit low to the ground on both square and open-faced shots.
  • Bumper Grind - Offers negative bounce on the leading edge and lots of sole camber, which is great for those with a steep angle of attack and for shots requiring a lot of bounce (think fluffy green side bunkers and gnarly lies)

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The RM-22J spec has the same guts as the rest of the RM-22 line but features more offset and a larger footprint to increase overall forgiveness.

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The RM-22 series is as good a wedge as I’ve ever tested. To clarify, I’m not suggesting it’s an unequaled piece of equipment, but if there’s a shot I’ve historically struggled to pull off, it’s the lower/boring pitch with enough bite to hold really firm greens. With this series of wedges, I can hit that particular shot more consistently than I can with most other wedges. For me, if a club gives me something I didn’t have before, that’s significant.

For the game-improvement crowd, the H030 is Fourteen’s hollow-body, couldn’t-be-more-forgiving answer for those who simply can’t pull off any short-game shot with any sort of regularity. The hollow-body is cast and in terms of design has more in common with a hybrid or fairway wood than a traditionally shaped wedge.

It’s entirely funky looking, but before you get all high and mighty, we already have two major OEM’s headed this direction with Callaway’s Sure Out wedge and the Cleveland Smart Sole 3, which purport to offer similar error-eliminating technology.

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It might be a form before function type of design, but I’ll be damned if it didn’t perform as advertised. Reluctantly, I tried to sh#^k (can’t bring myself to type the word) a couple balls and was unsuccessful in all attempts and even with pretty sloppy technique, I was able to slap the ball up in the air, all but eliminating the dreaded knee-high skull. It’s not impossible to totally chunk or thin a shot, but if you can’t hit a bunker shot with this club, may I suggest you take up falconry.

Hybrid/Driving Iron

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The HI-877  is based upon three decades of Fourteen’s experience producing clubs for the nebulous hybrid/driving iron category, and it feels this edition strikes the perfect balance between the forgiveness and versatility of a hybrid and the trajectory and maneuverability of a long-iron. While it leans toward a small-hybrid footprint (remember the Adams Peanut Tour Prototype?), the launch and spin were in line with how I typically hit comparable utility irons (think Srixon U65 or Mizuno MP Fli-Hi).

Performance aside, the vibrant (bordering on garish) yellow body requires acknowledgment because it’s impossible not to notice. The primary purpose of the color is to draw attention. Mission accomplished. Beyond that, it’s a risky color choice as I’m not convinced yellow is the color of royalty – or premium golf clubs for that matter.

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DIFFERENT

It’s cliché to take the game one shot at a time, but it aptly describes Fourteen’s R&D process.  Each club is treated as a specific project which receives attention and dedication of resources until that task reaches completion. The H030, hollow-body wedge is a worthy example of a singular focus. The stated goal was to produce the most-forgiving, playable and dare I suggest s*&$k-proof wedge on the market. Once Fourteen felt it had done so, the project was complete and ready for launch. Then it moves onto the next item on the checklist, and while it may not be the most efficient process, it ensures each piece of equipment receives undivided attention – and theoretically results in a higher-quality end product.

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If you want to get a funny look from those inside Fourteen, give Titleist credit for making the first “high CG” wedge. The reply I got was something along the lines of “Just because you say it louder and more often, doesn’t make it more true” – In addition, Fourteen’s wedges are forged from nickel chrome molybdenum, whereas Vokey wedges are cast.

The purpose isn’t to discredit Vokey – which would be asinine as it’s wedge dominates both the retail and tour space – as much as it is to place credit where it belongs.

Fourteen’s “reverse muscle” design is its secret sauce and was the first technology to significantly alter CG location in wedges as a means of increasing spin and lowering trajectory. Moreover, Fourteen manipulates the CG location for every loft, so the 58* RM-22 has a CG which is different from the 60* RM-22.  In comparison, the SM6 Vokey wedges offer "low, medium or high" CG locations, which is a nice innovation, but not as precise as what Fourteen does.

CRITICISMS

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Fourteen Golf, as a business entity, doesn’t have the same heritage and history as other Japanese companies and the most hardcore JDM fanatics are quick to throw around loose (and uninformed) phrases such as “not really JDM” or “JDM lite” to describe the brand. Some of this no doubt comes from the fact not all of Fourteen’s clubs are made in Japan, which apparently, some feel is required for a company to be authentically Japanese. Never mind the reality that more and more JDM companies are outsourcing pieces of the production process in multi-material forged irons (See: Miura, Vega), or out-sourcing the forging process altogether (See: Honma).

With that, there’s a measure of refreshing honesty regarding where/how Fourteen clubs are produced. Simply, if the club is cast, it’s not made in Japan (likely China or Taiwan). If the club is forged, there’s a chance it’s made in Japan, but this isn’t a guarantee. The implicit message is while many hold on to the notion Japanese forgings are inherently better, differences in quality are more accurately attributed to initial design, quality control, and finishing processes – none of which need to take place within the geographic boundaries of Japan.

The stated identity of Fourteen Golf is making the best 14 clubs to go in any player’s bag. It’s a nice idea and a fine tagline, but it’s not realistic. To narrow the focus might cause a conflict of brand identity and force Fourteen to examine the possibility there’s a difference between what we say we are vs. what we can realistically do, but sometimes the greatest ability of any company is adaptability.

With the latest driving iron, some feel it’s too much of a departure from what Fourteen used to do so exceptionally well. The contrast of canary yellow body doesn’t scream JDM quality, but it does scream nonetheless – and screaming almost always gets noticed.

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Fourteen Golf stood in the background long enough and let others take credit for work it did, but now the challenge is to get a worldwide market (specifically North America) to understand what it’s all about. That’s no small task, but it’s made somewhat easier by the fact many other Japanese companies are simultaneously wrestling with the same questions.

If Fourteen Golf is to find sustainable success in North America, it will have to decide which arrow(s) to pull from the quiver. It’s a measured risk, but a shotgun approach of “we do everything exceptionally well” won’t allow it to get its best product (RM-22 wedges, followed closely by the FH-900 irons in my opinion) to get the attention it deserves, and it all but extinguishes any possibility of creating a cult following around a single club, which is entirely possible given how good the RM-22 is.

The dance floor is still too damn crowded, and it’s not a popular position to take, but a healthy equipment market could do with a few less OEM’s and if Fourteen wants to be around after this current round of contraction ends (whenever that will be) it can’t be all things to all golfers. It’s a nice idea, but the better approach is to pick a target, select the weapon of choice, and fire away.