It all started with a single baseball.

Past editions of Know Your Japanese Brands Stories have featured Japanese companies trying to figure out North America – particularly in the face of increased competition from the American brands who’ve invaded the Japanese market. This story is a little bit different.

It should go without saying that Mizuno doesn’t fit the strict definition of a JDM (Japanese Domestic Market) brand. Once the #1 Iron Brand on the PGA Tour, Mizuno now qualifies as a challenger brand, though its US footprint is significantly larger than that of any JDM brand we’ve covered to date.  This isn’t the story of a brand trying to figure out North America, but rather it’s the story of a company trying to reestablish itself as a serious player, particularly in the iron market where Mizuno has traditionally been at its strongest.

With Nike Golf having exited the equipment space, and others cutting back on tour spend, Mizuno believes there’s an opportunity to regain some of the exposure lost to the scourge of pay for play at the professional level and with that, could come growth.

Mizuno’s is a tale of two – arguably three companies. While the brand is global, its heritage is firmly Japanese. It maintains its Japanese identity, in part, by holding certain product lines exclusively for the Japanese market. Mizuno’s European catalog is also larger than the US version. Other regions get putters, balls, shoes, and apparel. While we’re accustomed to having the lion’s share of gear to choose from, Mizuno fans in the US get the short end of the stick. Here, Mizuno’s golf accessory offerings are light (bags, gloves, and miscellaneous other), apparel and balls are non-existent, and the wedge is the shortest club in the bag.

Despite limiting its US offerings, golf accounts for roughly 1/3 of Mizuno’s annual revenue. In the US, the company also does well with baseball/softball, running, and volleyball, while a new suit design has made it an emerging force in competitive swimming as well. Stroll through any of Mizuno’s stores in Japan, and you’ll quickly realize the brand’s reach extends into nearly every imaginable sport.

In some respects, Mizuno can be thought of as the little Nike of Japan, and according to Mizuno lore, “it all started with a single baseball.”

Origin Story

In 1906 Rihachi Mizuno and his younger brother Rizo founded Mizuno Brother’s Ltd. in Osaka, Japan. The store sold what’s described as western sundries, noteworthy among them were the baseballs. A year after opening, the brothers began selling athletic apparel, and by 1911 the Mizuno brothers were eyeing expansion. 1912 saw the opening of a Tokyo store, and by the end of 1913, the company was manufacturing hand stitched baseballs and gloves.

Mizuno was no longer just selling sporting goods; it was making them.

With allowances for a milestone here or there, including the first standardized drop test to ensure the quality of a baseball, the Mizuno business plugged along until 1921 when the brothers, as part of their efforts to expand into other sports, began planning for the production of their first set of golf clubs. The project took 12 years to get off the ground, but in 1933, with the launch of the Star Line – the first Japanese-made golf clubs – Mizuno Golf was born.

Perhaps Callaway’s recent namesake Epic Star offering was offered up in homage.

Today Mizuno operates a chain of retail stores across Japan. An Osaka store is home to Mizuno’s Golf Academy. It’s an important part of developing and growing golf in Japan, as the country lacks any sort of centralized organization of the game akin to the PGA.

Mizuno’s current headquarters is a 31-story office building on a manmade island off the coast of Osaka. It’s the base of operations for the entire Mizuno empire and, for our purposes, notable for being home to the Japanese arm of Mizuno Golf R&D. Beyond that, it’s not much different than any corporate office building here in America. Other than stunning views of Osaka from the upper floors, it’s perhaps the least interesting of Mizuno’s Japanese facilities.

CHUO

The soul of Mizuno Golf lies at the Chuo forging plant, which occupies a unique place in the Mizuno enterprise. Though the relationship is close, the independently owned Chuo does not fall under the Mizuno corporate umbrella. Golf clubs aren’t the primary income source for Chuo; the majority of its business comes from precision auto parts, and the majority of those are forged for Mazda. There’s no contract between two companies. Mizuno and Chuo operate entirely on a handshake agreement, which isn’t atypical for Japan, where honor remains deeply entrenched in the culture. The overwhelming majority of Mizuno designs dating back to 1968 have been forged at Chuo.

The arrangement is not exclusive. From time to time Chuo has forged irons for other companies, but only with Mizuno’s blessing. In practical terms, Mizuno is the only OEM of real consequence to offer Chuo forged irons.

Beyond the steady stream of beloved Mizuno irons, the Chuo/Mizuno partnership led to the development of the Grain Flow Forging and Grain Flow Forging HD techniques. The two companies share the patent on the process, which involves stretching and bending the steel billet before the start of the primary forging process. Mizuno credits Grain Flow Forging for its signature feel. It’s the reason why the company claims Nothing Feels Like a Mizuno.

Molds for all current and previous Mizuno designs are stored at Chuo. While as a matter of courtesy, Mizuno tries to avoid asking Chuo to manufacture one-offs, it does have the capability to recreate nearly any of its previous designs from the original molds. In 2016, when a former Nike staffer who would later sign with TaylorMade requested replacement sets for his MP-14s and MP-29s, Chuo was able to deliver.

Yoro MT

If Chuo is the soul of Mizuno’s golf business, its heart lies in Yoro at the Mizuno Technics facility.

Yoro MT is a sprawling collection of buildings interconnected by asphalt pathways and patches of artificial turf – evidence of Mizuno’s endeavors outside of the golf world. Yoro is home to Mizuno’s baseball factory where balls and gloves are stitched and wooden bats are turned by hand by Mizuno’s Craftsmen.

Yoro’s R&D facilities include a wind tunnel, which it uses to test the aerodynamics of golf balls, baseballs, and shuttlecocks (badminton) alike. Ball designs are further validated via its indoor ball cannon, and of course, Mizuno wouldn’t be a proper golf company without a swing robot.

An on-site Golf museum is home to a collection of Mizuno’s past clubs – some more popular than others. It offers a walk through time where both classic and obscure designs speak to Mizuno’s golf heritage as well as its unique connection to the Masters and British Open. Mizuno maintains exclusive rights to use the respective logos on golf gear, and once developed a series of clubs for each. In what will prove to be a common theme, those logoed products can’t be sold outside of Japan.

Mizuno’s Asian market assembly takes place at Yoro, and gearheads will no doubt recognize the Yoro name from Mizuno’s uber custom Yoro Craft offering. While some Yoro Craft designs are available off-the-rack in Japan, the hardcore among us recognize Yoro Craft as Mizuno’s hyper-customization platform that goes lightyears beyond anything offered by its mainstream competitors. In addition to the requisite shaft, grip and paintfill options, Yoro Craft customers can choose from more than a dozen finish options. Custom grinding services are available as well. For those that want or need it, Mizuno’s craftsmen will literally reshape the iron; changing the shape of the toe, altering the face profile or adding or removing offset by hand using a hammer technique developed by Mizuno’s legendary Meister Craftsman (and Nick Faldo’s go-to club tweaker), Turbo.

Turbo is one of only two Meister Craftsman working at Yoro MT. Obtaining Meister status takes years, and the ultimate test requires the craftsman to take the raw head from a light strike of a primary forging mold and grind and shape it by hand to a near-finished product while maintaining exacting tolerances. It’s a skill that is not practically necessary in the modern world, but it reflects Mizuno’s unwavering dedication to craftsmanship.

Every Mizuno golf club must pass through Yoro before going into production. As one of the final steps in Mizuno’s MP iron development process, the raw iron shapes created in CAD software are handed off to the craftsman. Their role is to further hand shape the product, grinding away any harsh lines and edges remaining from the CAD process, leaving behind Mizuno’s signature flowing shapes. Once the handwork is done, the head is digitally rescanned to create the master mold. It’s an extra step that’s not common in the industry, but it’s an absolutely integral step in the Mizuno process.

Mizuno on Tour

It’s perhaps that attention to exacting detail that led to Mizuno’s popularity on tour in the latter part of the 20th century.

In the mid-90s, at any given tournament, Mizuno had upwards of 40 iron sets in play – as much as 25% of the field. Reflecting the changing nature of the business side of the game, Mizuno’s Tour fortunes changed virtually overnight when competitors like Callaway, TaylorMade, and Titleist adopted pay for play as part of their marketing strategies. Within the span of a single season, Mizuno – which had been the #1 iron tour for the better part of a decade – fell to #4. One of many smaller brands losing ground in the pay to play market, Mizuno’s slide continued into the 21st century.

One could argue that Mizuno shares some of the responsibility for its decline. The lack of aggressiveness in the tour market can be traced to Mizuno’s heritage. Longstanding in the company ethos is the idea that there is no greater validation or endorsement than when a professional chooses to play your product without compensation. Self-described as fiscally conservative, Mizuno is reluctant to overpay or sometimes even appropriately pay for play on tour. As its tour use declined, so has its share of the retail market.

Over the past few seasons, Mizuno has enjoyed a tour renaissance of sorts, precipitated by Nike’s exit from the golf equipment market. Not bound by lucrative equipment contracts, several former Nike staffers, including Paul Casey and Brooks Koepka have chosen to play Mizuno irons without compensation. Notably, Koepka won the last 2 US Opens and the 2018 PGA Championship with the JPX-900 Tour irons that Mizuno designed explicitly for him in the bag. The modest decline in pay for play has resulted in Mizuno’s weekly iron count doubling from 6 or 7 sets in play in any given week to upwards of 15. The recent shift suggests that when money is removed from the equation, more of the best players in the world choose Mizuno.

Pay for play remains a reality, however, and there’s less than complete agreement between Mizuno’s Japanese management and the golf team as to how much should be invested in endorsement deals. Mizuno has actively sought opportunities to spend strategically on tour. It planned to make a run at Koepka before the asking price got too high, and there were internal discussions about trying to sign Tiger Woods. Despite increased interest in the tour game, Mizuno hasn’t had any significant signing in years.

“As a brand, you want to be able the answer the question who plays your stuff on tour,” says Mizuno’s Brand Manager, Chris Voshall. For the better part of the last decade, Mizuno hasn’t had a great answer to that question – at least not one it can get excited about publicly.

Several years removed from Luke Donald’s stint as the #1 golf in the world, every indication is that Mizuno’s golf guys would love to sign someone to be the modern face of the brand, but the price has to be right. Mizuno harbors no aspiration of being the biggest anything on tour. The company prefers to focus its spend on making better products with the hopes that both professionals and amateurs alike will choose to play its clubs.

It’s a recipe that’s had some success in the past, with some indications that the importance of dominating tour counts is waning, it could be again.

To date, Mizuno clubs have been used by the winners of 15  Major Championships. The list includes all 6 of Nick Faldo’s, 1 of Tiger Woods’, 3 in just over a year from Brooks Koepka, and the slightly-less-than-legendary Wayne Grady’s 1990 PGA Championship victory.

Course Correction

Every brand with any history has had missteps along the way. With Japanese brands, it’s often as simple as a phrase getting lost in translation. For example, no one I’ve spoken with is quite sure what Mizuno was going for in the mid-80s when it released wedges named Big Sneeze and Donkey Shovel. Decisions like those are easily overlooked and just as easily forgotten, but brands are typically at their memorable worst when they actively seek to become something they’re not.

That’s exactly what Mizuno did in 2014 with the release of the JPX EZ iron family. Seeking growth in the game-improvement space, Mizuno abandoned its identity and sought to create a product that was the complete opposite of what consumers expect from it.

The EZ was generously offset with a long toe. It was bulky with a thick topline. Black finish replaced chrome, and as proof of Mizuno’s commitment to the cause, orange accents replaced Mizuno’s signature blue. If you’re wondering why that last detail matters, check your color wheel where you’ll find that orange sits literally opposite of blue.

“It’s like we said let’s make a PING,” says Chris Voshall. “PING already makes PING, why would somebody want a Mizuno PING?”

I suppose you could say Mizuno succeeded in implementing what, in hindsight, those inside the company agree was a bad idea. The first incarnation of EZ did ok at retail, but the 2nd iteration, which hit shelves for the 2016 season, bombed. The company had strayed too far from its identity, and it knew it.

Missteps on the MP side weren’t nearly as egregious, but Mizuno had started taking more risks than the nature of MP required. In 2016, alongside the stunning MP-5 muscleback, Mizuno released the MP-25. By nearly every informed account, MP-25 was a beautiful iron. It was a strong performer that was well-received and remains popular with many Mizuno fans. Mizuno strayed a bit, however, going all-in on its recently developed 1025 Boron material instead of its standard 1025E mild carbon steel. The upside of Boron is that it increases COR, and while that’s something very difficult to do with traditional forgings, it’s also largely unnecessary in an MP design. The consequence of Boron was that its inclusion altered the feel to the degree that many felt the 25s didn’t feel like an MP is supposed to feel.

While no one at Mizuno has ever said as such, with MP-25 Mizuno may have inadvertently developed its first JPX Forged Tour. Packed with invisible technology, it certainly appealed to better players like the JPX 900 Tour eventually would. The stamp said MP, but its DNA was arguably the foundation for the next generation of JPX.

2017 may very well go down as the year Mizuno rediscovered itself. With the release of the JPX 900 family, Mizuno sought to reorganize, redefine, and clarify the boundaries between JPX and MP. JPX, which was previously regarded as the game-improvement arm of the arm of Mizuno iron family, was repositioned as the technology-driven offering for the modern player. That brought us stronger lofts, straighter lines and edges, and flatter finishes. JPX became the proving ground for new materials like 1025 Boron and the JPX Hot Metal’s Chromoly steel. 2017 also brought about a change in Mizuno’s release cadence. Instead of launching a mix of new JPX and MP each season, Mizuno would release JPX and MP exclusively in alternating years.

Continuing on the path set by the JPX 900, late last season Mizuno sought to cement the role of MP in its lineup. While not strictly for the better player, MP offers a more timeless approach to iron design. Some models perhaps touch the edge of the game-improvement category but never penetrate too deeply. The sensibility of the MP aesthetic manifests itself in smooth flowing lines, traditional lofts, and the reflective mirror chromed finish. The mirrored finish is meant to both literally and metaphorically reflect the quality of the finished product. With a mirror finish, any imperfection in the iron will be visible, and with that, MP is for the player who demands nothing less than perfection.

It’s one of many reasons why the brand is a favorite among gearheads. When we conduct surveys, Mizuno routinely accounts for upwards of 20% of the irons in our reader’s bags. The company’s real-world US market share hovers between 6% and 10%. It’s roughly the same in Japan where the influx of US brands has hurt native brands. In the UK, share is a bit higher at around 15%.

The discrepancy between our readers and the rest of the world can be traced to the fact that Mizuno hasn’t traditionally been a go-to brand in the game improvement category where the bulk of irons are sold. “I think we over-index for the better player and under-index for the higher handicap golfers,” says Mizuno’s Chris Voshall. The company’s goal is a 15% share of the US market. For that to happen it’s going to need to grow the momentum it gained with the 2016 JPX Hot Metal; the company’s best-selling game improvement design ever.

Metal Woods and the Innovation Gap

Mizuno doesn’t fare nearly as well in the metalwood category, which includes drivers, fairways, and hybrids. The company’s share is currently about 1.5% (a full point higher than it was 2-years ago). Despite having some solid performers over the years, the lack of sales correlates closely with a lack of tour play, though at times Mizuno has been its own worst enemy in the woods category, where, until recently, there’s been a general lack of continuity in its driver designs.

It’s notable that in our recent one-word survey we found that overall perceptions of the Mizuno brand were strongly positive, however; the company rated well below average for innovation. There’s an argument to be made that it’s a case of perception diverging from reality.

Consider the following:

  • While TaylorMade is widely credited with introducing the titanium driver, it was Mizuno with the TI-110 and TI-120 that created the first titanium metalwoods.
  • With its Vanguard series, Mizuno was the first to leverage composite material in its club heads and crowns.
  • Mizuno’s Tour Spirit was the first graphite shaft used on tour.
  • The MP-600 was the first driver to leverage sliding weights.

More recent innovations like its Performance Fitting System, powered by the Shaft Analyzer, have put Mizuno at the forefront of fitting science while the integration of Boron and Chromoly steel into its irons designs has done the same on the materials side.

While the benefit is more feel than performance, it’s also worth mentioning that Mizuno’s patented GFF HD forging process is something no one else can replicate.

Given all of Mizuno’s innovations, why don’t more golfers view the brand as innovative? It could stem from the perception of Mizuno’s drivers. “In no other club is innovation so in your face,” says Voshall. “If you have a good perception for innovation in woods, then you have a good perception for innovation.”

“Is there something you can point too? We’re known for beauty, which is the opposite of that. We avoid it [visible technology in irons] because it takes away from the beauty of the club.”

But the proverbial root of the innovation dilemma, Voshall believes, lies in the lack of Mizuno driver play on tour.

As with irons, Mizuno drivers were once a relative force in tour bags. In the early 90s, upwards of 20 Mizuno drivers were in play each week. Mostly lost to history is the fact that Vijay Singh won the 2000 Masters with a Mizuno S300 diver in the bag. Things changed according to Voshall, when Mizuno’s competitors, most notably TaylorMade, began to buy the driver count.

As TaylorMade ramped up their tour support, which included a robust collection of tour-only heads, Mizuno failed to keep pace. “We’d outperform them in hit testing, so our guy would put Mizuno in play,” said Voshall. “The next week, they [TaylorMade] would have six more for them to choose from.” Mizuno couldn’t keep up. Eventually, it fell into the habit of limiting its tour contracts to 10, 11, or 12 club deals. “We became ok with not getting driver play on tour and started writing contracts not to include it”, said Voshall. Once you start that cycle, it becomes hard to break. Today, Mizuno driver use on tour is practically non-existent.

To the tour-influenced consumer, when a brand ambassador doesn’t play his sponsor’s driver, it looks bad. It suggests the product isn’t as good as the competitor’s offering. Fighting that perception, which likely requires getting more drivers in play on tour, is one of Mizuno’s biggest hurdles to gaining more respect and ultimately being recognized as an innovative company.

Diverging Lineups

As has been well documented, the Mizuno lineup is not consistent from region to region. Putters are offered in Asia and the UK, but not the USA. Despite having a lineup as robust as nearly any of the market leaders, the same is true for Mizuno’s ball offerings (though I’d wager that statement won’t hold true a year from now).

Its golf shoes are widely popular in Japan and to an extent in Europe too, but as with the other things on this list, they’re also not available in the US.

Despite bringing JPX to the US in an effort to unify global club lineups, the product lines diverged…again. The Mizuno Pro line is available exclusively in Japan. The latest incarnation of Mizuno Pro was born of two necessities. The first was Mizuno’s desire to have a distinctly and (exclusively) Japanese product for its domestic market. The second is related to a larger business strategy. In Japan, in-store prices are routinely negotiated and it’s typical for buyer and seller to land on a final sale price that’s 20% below sticker. Like most everyone else in the golf industry, Mizuno is doing what it can to stop the discounting of its products and enforce MAP Pricing.

It revived the Mizuno Pro line as a means to maintain price integrity. Similar to PXG, Mizuno Pro is sold only through fitting locations, it’s a 100% custom product, and there are never any discounts.

Despite different model names (and the distinctive Mizuno Pro script), there remains a fair amount of overlap with Mizuno’s global offerings. The Mizuno Pro 118 is the MP-18, the 318 is the MP-18 Split Cavity, and the 518 is the MP-18 MMC. The Mizuno Pro 718 is nearly identical to the upcoming JPX 919 Forged, though the Mizuno Pro version includes a copper underlay that further softens feel.

The slot cavity Mizuno Pro 918 has no equivalent in the global lineup.

The GX is a forged game-improvement offering, exclusive to the Asian market. And while it’s not technically a JDM exclusive kind of thing, it’s not uncommon for previous models several generations removed from new to sit on retail shelves almost indefinitely.

Mizuno also offers a gold-plated Grand Monarch series which competes with the likes of Honma and XXIO in the ultra-lightweight, ultra-premium, affluent senior space.

On the metalwoods side, Mizuno offers a pair of JDM-exclusive MP drivers. The MP Type-1 is all of 435cc. It is prized for its compact traditional shape and distraction-free crown. It’s proven extremely popular inside the walls of Mizuno, though getting your hands on one outside of Japan is no small task.

The Type-2 retains the clean design in a larger, 460cc package. While both offer adjustable hoses, neither offers the adjustability of Mizuno’s GT lineup.

What’s Next

We’ve had a healthy discussion about where Mizuno Golf is today; the obvious question is what’s next.

The JPX 919 Iron is coming soon with three new models launching later this month. It’s reasonable to expect a metalwoods refresh in the spring along with some further expansion of the USA catalog. The Forged and Forged Tour (will Brooks Koepka make the switch?) models should get plenty of attention, but it’s the replacement for the Hot Metal that will be the bellwether for Mizuno moving forward. Has increased tour usage, 3 Major Championships, and a recommitment to doing what it does best, created any momentum in the game-improvement category?

Mizuno will continue to look for growth opportunities, especially on tour. The company would love to land a top-tier player to be the face of the brand, but corporate purse strings are notoriously tight. Ultimately, Mizuno’s ability to sign new talent may be a matter of whether or not market values for top caliber players dip to comfortable levels. Mizuno may be more aggressive – but only relative to itself.

To date, other than the JDM Monarch series Mizuno has resisted the lure of the premium market, and we can expect that to continue. I think most understand that ultra-premium products bring with them bigger margins, but not always bigger performance. While that has obvious advantages for a company’s bottom line, Mizuno believes its products are already ultra-premium, and it’s not about to diminish its existing lines for the privilege of dabbling in a higher price bracket. That said, Mizuno is looking for opportunities do something different on a limited basis, but again – it has to be the right different. Different won’t happen at the expense of current lines or its identity.

All of this speaks to a Mizuno Golf committed to being true to itself and continuing to make the kind of golf clubs that professionals and amateurs will choose to play.