ONOFF; it's a great name...for a brand of light switches. That's not a knock on the 15-year old Japanese club company, but more an acknowledgment of how pragmatic branding can be in Asian markets.
ONOFF works to provide golfer equipment for those seeking a "premium lifestyle" both ON and OFF the course – hence the ONOFF moniker. Moreover, there's sentiment espoused by the company that golf mirrors the best of what societies expect of its citizens – that they are honest, of high integrity, and generally virtuous.
ONOFF's parent company, Globeride (formerly Daiwa Seiko Corporation) is a global leader, best known for its fishing equipment. To provide some context (citing 2017 fiscal year-end numbers) 73.6% of Globeride's sales occur in Japan, and of those, 84% come from fishing-related products. Golf sales account for only 6.6% of Globeride’s total revenue, a figure which is split between ONOFF and sibling subsidiary, Fourteen Golf.
By definition, I suppose most JDM brands qualify as niche. However, one could argue ONOFF is even niche-ier. Even those generally in-tune with Japanese brands may not have a strong understanding of where ONOFF fits in the JDM landscape.
ONOFF’s situation isn't significantly different from that of other Japanese brands (e.g., PRGR), which fractionally contribute to a larger conglomerate. As such, ONOFF (and by extension Fourteen) have a limited financial impact on the parent company. That may not be a bad thing given the growing competition within the golf marketplace in both Japan and Korea. It’s one of the reasons brands seems to have a renewed enthusiasm to increase brand awareness in North America.
ONOFF doesn't have a large professional staff, but it does maintain a robust following in Japan and Korea. The two brand ambassadors (Shingo Katayama and Ji-Hee Lee) need no introduction in Asian golf circles but don't do much to carry ONOFF's story abroad. Katayama is 44 years-old and last cashed a check on the PGA Tour in 2013 at The British Open (or Open Championship for our Eurocentric readers). Lee has 22 wins on the Japanese LPGA tour but hasn't earned a dime on the LPGA tour since 2001. To the degree consumers associate brands with professional athletes, ONOFF could stand to hit the refresh button should it want to attract a younger and more global audience.
Golfers with any interest in JDM equipment likely care more than most about where the equipment is manufactured. The easiest assumption – and the one many consumers work off of - is that all equipment bearing the name of a Japanese OEM, is in fact, made in Japan. To quote the gifted Lee Corso, "Not so fast my friends."
Unless one sees definitive evidence, such as a "Made in Japan" stamp on the club, there's sufficient reason for any consumer to be skeptical. In fact, last year I received product from a notable Japanese company only to see a label clearly stating "Made in China" on the shaft of its premium forged irons. As producers explore more complex multi-material designs (see: Miura Genesis) the likelihood of sub-contracting pieces of the process out to China and Taiwan increases. As a result, I suspect we will start to see more qualifiers, such as developed, assembled, final inspection, attached to a product which isn't farm to table Japanese.
That being said, ONOFF's brand story relies entirely on products which are created and produced in Japan and adheres to the Japanese philosophy of "monozukuri" which is a state of mind dedicated to constant improvement in product, craftsmanship, and manufacturing processes.
The most distinct difference when comparing JDM product lines with major OEMs like Callaway and TaylorMade, is larger OEMs thrive on choice (perhaps to the point of oversaturation) while the more niche JDM brand seems satisfied so long as every golfer can find a viable option. It's not entirely a conversation of quality versus quantity, but then again American consumers seem to find comfort in needing 847 TV channels, 64 different types of deodorant and no less than seven fast-food joints each offering a unique take on the basic burrito.
To that end, ONOFF has three distinct lines – one for women, one for the more recreational golfer or those seeking maximum distance, and one for competitive players and aspiring amateurs.
LADY - As the name implies, this line is engineered specifically for women and features clubs with less total weight, more flexible shafts, and female-oriented color schemes. Theoretically, LADY will fit female golfers at any level, though stronger players (regardless of gender) will likely find more suitable equipment in the AKA or KURO lines. ONOFF's marketing materials term this line "refreshing and flexible" which underscores the difficulty, at times, of translating marketing messages for a broader audience.
AKA – This line should remind us all that more than anything, golf is a game – and games are played primarily for enjoyment. For some, this means taking advantage of any technology which allows the ball to launch higher, fly farther (preferably with a draw), and places a premium on forgiveness. The AKA line's chief visible technology is the Power Trench, which is found on both metalwoods and irons and aims to maximize face flex at impact to increase ball speed. The most recent AKA line hit the market in 2016, so the technology isn't ancient; however, it would be a more than a stretch to label it as cutting edge.
Aesthetically, the AKA line looks every bit the part of a typical GI/SGI range of equipment with wider soles, thicker toplines, and an undercut rear cavity in the irons.
KURO – Because this line efforts to serve the needs of several masters, it has to function as a one-ski quiver while still meeting the demands of touring professionals. KURO is the line I was able demo both on course and put through the paces on my Foresight GC2-HMT launch monitor.
ONOFF uses the analogy of "moving from automatic to manual" in describing the philosophy behind the KURO line, with each piece developed in concert with brand ambassador and Japanese touring professional, Shingo Katayama, whose philosophy is that in an iron "accuracy and control are ranked above distance." This has been the trend in our Most Wanted iron testing, where pure distance, which is frankly easier to engineer and sell, doesn't always translate, particularly for lower handicap players.
To that end, KURO irons ($165/club) are designed as a premium forged (S20C carbon steel) players cavity back, with a tad more forgiveness than some other JDM irons in the same category. According to Katayama, the squared and straight topline is better for target alignment and breeds confidence. Additional mass is centered in the cavity to promote a solid feel, while the slightly thicker sole increases initial launch. The double-nickel finish provides a distinct look, and the additional laser milling in between grooves help to stabilize spin from varied lies.
Katayama also felt the same cavity-back design in a pitching wedge didn't provide enough versatility for shots around the green, so in its place is a 46° muscle-back wedge with a more adroit shape and sole grind.
Regarding performance, the entire line was solid and without any distinct areas of weakness. The irons matched ball speed (6 iron – 120-122 MPH) with my Mizuno MP-18 series and launch, spin and carry numbers were entirely acceptable given the stock Nippon Modus 125 stiff shaft might not be perfect for my swing.
The thicker, more abrupt topline is an acquired taste, and while I prefer a more rounded look at address, it wasn't significantly off-putting. Because ONOFF doesn't offer a true muscle-back iron, I appreciate what it did with the modified pitching wedge as part of the solution to creating a single set of irons for every competitive player.
The typical feel is entirely subjective qualifier applies, but the double-nickel finish on top of a one-piece S20C forged head, paired with the Nippon Modus shaft creates a sensation at impact which is pure, yet sturdy. The entire club feels tight without being boardy while still providing plenty of feedback. At least part of the credit should go to the softer butt-section in the Nippon Modus shafts.
As an aside, it's probably time we acknowledge, at least on some level, the role that shaft, grip (and the ball for that matter) play in the overall feel of a club. Sound creates feel and because OEMs can engineer the acoustics of impact, the general consumer consensus is the feel of a forged iron is preferable to cast, though there's also evidence which suggests consumers can't reliably tell the difference between a forged iron and a cast iron of a similar profile. Focusing on a single element of a club (in this case the head) likely places too much credit or blame on an individual component when the reality is the club functions a comprehensive unit.
It's not at all that JDM metalwoods are forgettable, and now that we're perhaps seeing a trend (Callaway Rogue, Tour Edge CBX) back toward high-performance glued-hosel fairway metals, consumers might be wise to check out the wide array of options from JDM producers which never universally adopted adjustability. With that, the KURO line of metalwoods could comfortably hang with any of the big-name OEM's, but consumers will still pay a slight premium to do so (KURO driver retails in the $650 range). Unless there's a discernable value-added element in play (and for the sake of argument I'd include the look, sound and feel of the club as potential benefits), American customers are reluctant to pay more for a brand with which they have little familiarity. As is often the case with JDM metalwoods, the profile is decidedly rounder, while the crown is basic and purposely generic. The one deviation from this is the curved slot on top of the KURO driver which is reminiscent of Adams' Speedline drivers from roughly five years ago.
LABOSPEC is ONOFF's special division dedicated to limited quantity, one-off custom releases. Because a company like ONOFF is niche by definition, rarely will it orchestrate a full retail release for a lower lofted, tour spec utility wood, cavity back wedges or a set of irons that pulls from the best of both the AKA and KURO lines. The upside is ONOFF is willing to engage in some special releases, but once product sells out, it won't be restocked.
IT'S DIFFERENT BECAUSE:
ONOFF is a conundrum of a JDM company. There isn't any single element of it which is extraordinary or stunning, yet it exudes the expected Japanese quality and attention to detail in each piece of equipment.
It doesn't have the cachet of Miura or Epon, nor does it offer the quantity of product of larger JDM manufactures, but it encourages consumers to question how much choice is really necessary.
The differences are subtle, yet purposeful, and with the financial backing of a multi-national parent company, ONOFF doesn't feel the same pressure to release product on some predefined timeline. With that, I don't get the sense ONOFF will be as aggressive in promoting itself as some other OEMs, though it would be a mistake for anyone looking to delve into the JDM world to overlook it, particularly given the KURO irons relatively attractive price point.
So, is ONOFF Just another brick in the JDM wall or is there something special here?