This year MyGolfSpy is showcasing a variety of Japanese equipment companies, and last month we featured Miura Golf. Our series continues with Vega Golf, which some of the more well-studied readers may already associate with the Kyoei forging house in Japan.
VEGA – ORIGIN STORY
The early 1900s saw the birth of the country's first golf course in Kobe, Japan. At that time no one was producing golf clubs, but the region did have a rich history with... you guessed it, samurai sword making. As much as I bemoan connections made between the two - because some use one (samurai swords) to imply credibility of the other (forged irons) - Vega's lineage is perhaps more authentic as it was a samurai craftsman who started Vega in his hometown of Ichikawa, Japan, where Vega still (mostly) exists today.
Over the last 50 years, Vega has existed for a single purpose – the creation of the perfect golf club (apologies to Peter Kessler). This part of the story, while nondescript, is pretty much party line for JDM companies and might help explain why it's tough for some to put their proverbial finger on exactly what makes Vega unique. Given this backdrop, Vega's latest release of Mizar irons and Alcor wedges is emblematic of its search for differentiation.
Until 2012, Vega was owned by Kyoei Golf and, as its "house brand," was billed as the best Kyoei had to offer. In 2007, PGE (Professional Golf Europe) became the European distributor for Vega and in 2012 purchased the company outright. PGE also owns or distributes Iomic and Iguana (grips), Shimada (shafts), Radius (putters), and Musashi (limited edition irons). Part of the purchase agreement required PGE to continue use of the same Kyoei facility and, to date, all of the classic line is produced there.
That said, ownership isn't willing to commit to the exclusive use of the Kyoei facility long term.
As the brand develops we are looking at other processes and technologies that might mean us using specialist facilities for certain elements of the manufacturing. We will maintain the long heritage of one-piece forgings but are also not ruling out new technologies if and only if we feel they give us an improvement in some way whilst not losing the quality and feel our customers expect. -Peter Lord, Co-Director PGE
The astute observer will draw a parallel between the statement from Vega and how Miura produces the Genesis (PP-9005) iron; the main body is forged in Japan, and a thin hi-cor steel face is added at a separate facility outside of Japan.
With more JDM companies offering multi-material irons, does this mean the best technology for this genre of clubs is no longer in Japan or is it simply a more cost-effective way to get the end product?
The identity of Vega is one which seeks balance - a fusion of traditional design elements and modern styling. This is what drives lead club designer, Peter Lord, and his team to create clubs that embody the characteristics and historical influence of Kyoei while blending those with attributes demanded by customers seeking premium performance.
That's all well and good, but if people can't hit, see, or touch your product, the battle is steeply uphill – like running up Lombard Street after an oil spill hard.
Therein lies the primary challenge faced by Vega and Jennifer Gard, who took over distribution rights last fall for Vega in North America. Gard says, "The primary challenge is taking over a brand that does not have a strong awareness in the North American market." Vega is a relatively small player within the already niche market of JDM, and in acquiring a brand without much momentum or visibility, it's almost like starting from scratch.
So, how does a company without the marketing and advertising budget of the big boys build awareness on such limited resources? Rock meet hard place.
Jennifer alluded to some marketing efforts already in the works, but thus far she wasn't willing to disclose any specifics. What we do know is Vega won't be buying Tour players or ad space in major golf publications – and even though the Mizar irons received a Silver ranking in a Golf Digest's 2017 Hotlist, that too comes with attached string in the form of required fees for any use of said award from the publisher. Effectively it's winning a gold medal at the Olympics and then having to drop $25,000 for the right to wear it around town.
Suffice it to say, Jennifer will have to use of her marketing acumen to make up for lack of financial resources. My hunch is it will rely on support from PGE along with strategic partnerships (Veylix?) and other less descript grassroots efforts. Beyond that, the strategic vision is a bit blurry, and Jennifer's only stated metric is "seeing awareness increase." There is a positive correlation between boosting awareness and increased sales, and for the short-term, that's fine – but at some point, the conversation has to include sales figures and growth data. If Vega is going to carve out some type of consistent following in North America, it has to find a way to get product into hands of potential customers – and quickly.
The foundation of Vega is one-piece forged irons and wedges, and the current lineup bears witness to this. Every club is forged from premium S25C carbon steel and is designed in-house, under the direction of PGE co-founder Peter Lord.
Both the VM-01 and VM-02 are classic blade designs, with the VM-02 offering a tri-grind sole which matches the grind on the VW-02 wedge. The VC-01, VC-02, VC-03 and VC-05 are variations on the theme of cavity back irons, each with differing sole widths, topline thickness, offset and cavity depth.
The VDC-01 is a one-piece forged dual-cavity design which, other than the square toe profile, has similar design features as several of the other CB models. That said, the real significance is the example it sets for what to expect from Vega moving forward. It has the profile and specs of a player’s iron, but pairs that with aesthetic pop and edginess. It's a crowded dance floor, and Vega is taking measured risks to rise above the noise.
The Mizar irons and matching Alcor wedges are visually distinct and for right now are the clubs most likely to be recognized by general consumers. Like the VDC-01, Mizar represents the next generation of Vega irons and proves Vega can go mano a mano with competing models such as the PXG 0311, Epon 503, and Miura Genesis.
The Mizar is a multi-material design with a forged main body, 3.5 mm thick maraging steel face, and strategically positioned tungsten inserts which slide toward the toe in the shorter irons and the heel in the longer irons. The additional weight keeps the center of gravity low, trajectory high, and helps square the face at impact. Vega calls the Mizar the "most powerful" iron it makes, part of which is due to the 42° PW. For comparison, the VM-01 9 iron is 43°, and the VM-01 PW is 47°.
This Mizar is intelligent both in design and message. By departing from the "V" series nomenclature, Mizar stands alone and garners much-needed attention. Fortunately, style doesn't come at the expense of substance as Mizar can hang with pretty much any iron of similar design and construction. You have to take risks to stand out, and the Mizar does both.
Other than the Alcor forged wedge, the rest of the wedge line is a series of grinds on essentially the same head (VW-02, VW-04, VW-06, VW-08, VW-10). As a result, it appears there are six separate models, when in reality there are two models, one of which has five different grinds. To help direct players to the correct wedge, Vega offers help in the form of the wedge selector tool.
It's difficult to find any fault with the performance of this line – but then again, whether or not Vega produces a competent product is not the question. The VM-01 are everything one would want in a time-honored muscle-back design, and with the addition of Mizar, the full range of player profiles are covered. The variety of bounce/grind options available on the wedges are more than sufficient, and the grainy, raw finish is just damn salty.
As we've come to expect, LH offerings are a percentage of the complete line. Vega offers two iron models (one blade and one cavity back) and two wedge grinds (03 and o6) for lefties.
Prices are on par with other top-tier JDM clubs, in particular, the wedges and most recent iron models (Mizar and VDC-01). Depending on shaft selection, expect to pay $230+ per club.
Vega does offer a line of putters and woods, and while they don't get the same emphasis as the wedges and irons, they offer a continuity and completion for the entire line.
With many JDM companies, metal woods are designed under a similar philosophy as the irons and wedges, which sit in contrast to how most USDM (Callaway, Ping, TaylorMade, Cobra) go about it. Specifically, JDM companies tend to offer fewer models, glued hosels and proprietary shafts, whereas the North American market is built around adjustability and custom after-market shafts, and the driving philosophy that says the more options, the better. The point of separation here is philosophical more than it is performance based.
Vega's calling card is perfection, hence the "perfect star" which adorns the Vega logo –and, even though it controls every step of the process by producing every club in its own factory, that doesn't do much to differentiate it from every other JDM company – they all boast strict manufacturing tolerances and detailed quality control. Vega also advertises a bevy of wedge and iron options, but again, so does pretty much every other JDM.
What is unique is that every set of irons is forged as a set, as opposed to selecting individual irons to make up a set. A good analogy is fabric dye lots. Vega would be the house where every room uses the same color of carpet from the same dye lot, where as other JDM companies might use the same color in every room, but because different dye lots were used, small variations may exist.
It's also reasonable to give Vega credit for making the first forged cavity back iron and acknowledge it as Japan's original forging house. But that's all in the past and ultimately what will separate Vega is what it can do moving forward.
How a club feels is ridiculously difficult to assess, and while everyone wants something that feels good we all have slightly different definitions of what good is. With that context, Vega tends toward the softer side of forgings. This could be the result of the one-piece forging or use of S25C carbon steel – or some combination thereof. One downside with overly soft forgings is a loss of feel – or for lack of a better term, "mushy impact." I don't believe Vega runs this risk, but if you prefer a firmer, thick sensation at impact, Vega might be too smooth for your taste.
This year is a blank canvas for Vega in North America, and there's something liberating in starting a new journey, where the only direction is up. That's exactly the attitude Jennifer Gard has taken since acquiring distribution rights for North America last fall, and Vega's short term success is tied directly to Jennifer's ability to get Vega in front of as many people as possible. No doubt, the level at which she can inform and support all of her dealers will play a critical role in moving Vega forward.
Make no mistake, the task is an onerous one, considering the quantity and quality of competitors. Right now Vega is very much a part of the JDM conversation, but as Oscar Wilde once said, "The only thing worse than being talked about, is not being talked about." With that, what we're saying about Vega a year from now might be less important than if we're talking about them at all.
- What hangs in the balance isn't whether or not Vega maintains its status in Asia and Europe, but whether or not it can capture any portion of North America, which by monetary volume is still the largest market in the world.
- Vega is a company with Japanese heritage, European ownership, and world-wide distribution. As such, it's reasonable to question how committed PGE is to keeping ties with the Kyoei, given the recent launch of Kyoei Golf, the new house brand of the foundry. As such, Vega is no longer the golden child of Kyoei, and as it continues to explore varied technologies and materials, there's a good chance this quest won't involve Kyoei.
- For those of you keeping tabs, Vega is firmly in the "one-piece" forging camp, as opposed to Miura, which is on the two-piece side of the fence.
- Vega has partnered with lifestyle brands such as Bentley, Mercedes Benz, Harrods, Porsche, and Gleneagles, often creating smaller, limited edition runs bearing the logo of the associated brand. However, in the case of Bentley, the scope of the project was larger and more extreme. Given 80% of Bentley owners play golf, having clubs with the same level of "new challenges and no limits" design philosophy resulted in a set of clubs which easily reached into six-figures.
- Further bolstering Vega's credibility is the fact it has forged irons for winners of every major championship, but because players are not paid by Vega, names cannot be shared publicly.
It feels a lot like Vega has the guts in place to make a push, but without a more strategic plan – one which significantly differentiates the product from other JDM companies - the valid concern is whether or not Vega will get lost in the North American shuffle.
The VDC-01, Mizar irons, and Alcor wedges are steps in the right direction and build off a very solid line of one-piece forged irons and wedges. If Vega can leverage the latest release and whatever publicity it draws from that, it might become the spark which lights the fire – or at least creates enough smoke to get people to notice.
For Vega, the battle isn't one of quality, but of exposure. The tree in the forest which falls, still makes a sound – but if no one is there to hear it, does it matter? Vega makes a solid product, but if it can't get that product into hands of potential customers, all the quality in the world won't make a difference.
Questions? What else would you like to know? Which JDM companies should we add to the queue?