What, in your mind, was the Golden Age of Golf?
Was it Hogan, Snead, and Nelson bashing it around in the ’40s? How about the rise of Arnie’s Army in the late ’50s? Or the Arnie-Jack rivalry, followed by Jack’s dominance in the ’60s and ’70s?
Or was it the All Tiger, All The Time era of the early 2000s?
Mondher Latiri puts the Golden Age of Golf just a few years before the Tiger Slam, in the early to mid-1990s.
“Golf’s greatest players included Faldo, Payne Stewart, Greg Norman, and Tiger,” says Latiri. “Callaway was becoming the world’s biggest golf company, reaching $1 Billion in sales, while Cobra was selling to Puma for over $700 Million. Golfsmith was fast becoming the biggest component distributor on the planet, with over 650 employees.”
Interesting take, but who the heck is Mondher Latiri?
If you’ve never heard of Mondher Latiri, you’re not alone. But the company he runs has nearly as much to do with your game and the equipment you use to play it as Callaway, TaylorMade, PING or Titleist. Latiri, you see, is the founder and CEO of Golfmechanix, the industry’s leading manufacturer of the tools, gauges, instruments and heavy duty machinery OEMs use to design and build your golf clubs.
And Latiri believes that when it comes to equipment advancement, nothing beats the ’90s.
“Serious dollars were being spent on R&D to decipher shaft performance,” he says. “There were new casting technologies that made oversized titanium drivers possible. This is also the period that coincided with the biggest level of participation of golfers in the US, Europe, and Japan.”
Mondher’s resume is long and impressive, and his fingerprints can be found not only at OEMs and at casting houses but also at your local clubmaker and fitter and on the workbenches of those of us who like to do-it-ourselves. Latiri has a fascinating back-story and a truly unique perspective on the game, its equipment, and its future.
Browsing through products on the Golfmechanix website is a lesson in engineering. You’ll find, in no particular order: lie and loft measuring gauges, digital swing weight scales, analogue frequency analyzers, digital shaft testing rigs, club head mass property scales, club MOI pendulums and MOI speed match systems, modern gripping and grip alignment stations, lie and loft bending equipment, shaft extenders and epoxy curing stations.
Visit a Tour Van or virtually any fitting center, and you’ll see plenty of Golfmechanix equipment. It’s no exaggeration to say that in some way or another, Mondher’s equipment has helped your 9-iron be the club that it is today.
We tend to think golf’s tech-heads came out of the womb thinking about MOI, CG and discretionary weighting, but more often than not, fate brings these people to the game. Mondher, whose background is in marine engineering – that’s boat building to the likes of you and me – is no different.
“Somebody asked me if I knew anything about golf, specifically about lie and loft,” says Mondher. “I said when you build boats you do a lot of lofting. Lofting is designing the hull on a one-to-one scale on the floor, so I said I knew a lot about loft, what do you want to know? They said it was for golf, and I said let me look into it…”
“It was a little bit of a word game, but that’s how I got into the golf business.”
Mondher started his golf career in 1990 as head of product design and marketing for a small company called Mega Golf. Inspired by the work of both Ralph Maltby and Tom Wishon, and in need of performance analyzing and quality control tools, Mondher started inventing. His first patent filings included a digital swing weight scale and a loft and lie gauge, as well as the first fully functional digital shaft flex profiling machine.
In 1992 Mondher finally met Wishon and the two formed a mutual-admiration society. At the time Wishon was the Chief Technical Officer at Golfsmith, and he convinced Mondher to join his R&D team. His first task was to create a line of affordable tools for clubmakers, ultimately designing over 600 products.
“If you’re passionate about something, that something will find you,” explains Mondher. “You want to understand the why’s and the how’s. You ask yourself a lot of questions, and it often comes down to simple problem-solving.”
Opening Doors, Pulling Strings
As far as Mondher is concerned, nothing could touch the ’90s as golf’s Golden Years.
“From 1990 to 2000, the golf industry saw unparalleled and unusual growth,” he says. “Consumers hit the greens in droves.”
If you look at golf not as a game, but as an actual consumer product that includes golf equipment, golf courses, and golf accessories, a case can be made that golf is no different from any other consumer product – technology drives demand. Mondher believes three specific technological advances drove those Golden Years: the shift to metal woods, the advent of the launch monitor, and the introduction of the shaft adapter.
“When metal woods started becoming mainstream, that was the biggest revolution we’ve seen,” says Mondher. “That’s what made golf playable today; otherwise we’d still be hacking away with persimmon woods.”
Launch monitors also changed the game, because for the first time consumers – and in theory marketing departments – could match slogans with numbers. Vague concepts like spin, launch angle and ball speed now became real and tangible.
“Before you used to be able to sell by bullshitting your way into the market,” says Mondher. “Now we have launch monitors, so the truth is on the table.”
“It’s a shift in paradigm because now we have the tools for determining the truth. From a qualitative and quantitative analysis, it’s obvious: I hit this golf ball, that’s my launch angle, that’s my RPM, that’s my distance. It’s measured. Of course there are some inaccuracies, but I’d rather have that truth than have somebody else’s truth making you believe some club is going to make a big change for your game.” – Mondher Latiri
The third key technology is the one that spikes Mondher’s blood pressure.
“The shaft adapter destroyed the livelihood of lots of clubmakers,” he says. “They sell this adapter for $30 or $40 and let you swap out your shafts. That’s why the shaft market is so hotly contested now. You can try ten different shafts when before you couldn’t really do that.”
Mondher acknowledges that the shaft adapter has helped shift more power to the consumer, but he adds more choices can often lead to more confusion and endless tinkering in the pursuit of the proverbial unicorn: ideal spin rate, launch angle, smash factor and distance – which launch monitors made it possible to track.
“The consumer is a little bit lost in a forest of shafts,” he says. “Are the golfers really benefitting? Are the companies really benefitting?”
There’s My Baby, Lost That’s All…
Golden Years don’t last forever, and Latiri says the long, slow decline started as far back as 2000.
“China opened up to the world,” he says. “They had a billion workers, and golf is a tremendous consumer of labor. The casting houses moved to China in pursuit of lower and lower labor costs, and those savings could be transferred into marketing to grab market share from somebody else.”
Mondher believes his old stomping grounds Golfsmith was an unintended victim of that market share grab.
“Golfsmith’s success was intimate with club making, and they had very successful lines, like Snake Eyes,” he says. “They could keep three technicians at each story very busy, but since their lines didn’t advertise, and companies like TaylorMade did…he who screams the loudest gets the business.”
Another victim was the club maker, who found himself marginalized by the big boys and their rapid release/discount two-step. That gave consumers choices like they never had before, all at pretty attractive prices.
“Why would someone who’s pressed for time working for corporate America, spend two to three hours with a clubmaker to get custom fit, and then pay the price for it? Especially when all the game is about for him is maybe a corporate outing, and he needs the new clubs to show off to the boss. That’s when everybody started playing golf, wearing all those nice golfy shoes, golfy pants, having a good time with the boss and your co-workers.” – Mohnder Latiri
The 2008 financial crisis popped that particular balloon, and the common narrative says the air has been leaking out of the golf industry ever since. It was in this atmosphere that Mondher started Golfmechanix, a continuation of his work with Golfsmith, to create tools for clubmakers, hobbyists, and OEMs.
Roughly 20% of Golfmechanix’s business is with OEMs, with products to analyze the design and performance of club heads and shafts, as well as measuring tools to make sure products meet R&A and USGA standards. Mondher says he keeps a stable of parts on hand to experiment and provide custom solutions for OEM engineers.
The core business, however, remains with club makers.
“Golfmechanix are tools of the trade,” says Latiri. “I recognize there are guys out there that need to make a living, and that I am a capital expenditure for them. Without my tools, they cannot do their job. They enable the clubmaker to make a living without needing to spend an arm and a leg.”
Run For The Shadows
Gloom and doomers may think otherwise, but Mondher does not believe golf is in crisis mode. The problem, he says, is overproduction combined with the rising cost of retail.
“The only differentiator right now is advertising dollars and how fast you can go to market,” explains Mondher. “You look at all those minor improvements to golf clubs, they’re really just incremental.”
On the retail side, fitting boutiques such as Modern Golf or Club Champion are appealing to the hard-core golfer with money to spend, but the small, independent club maker is being left behind.
“And that concerns me, because golf is a popular game and should be affordable. Clubmaking helps you, with what Golfsmith used to do, and what Golfworks and Dynacraft are still doing. You used to be able to go to clubmaker and buy a set with all the bells and whistles, a nice putter and a bag for $300 or $400. It was really popular, it was inexpensive, and people could enjoy the game without spending a fortune.” –Mondher Latiri
Mondher also sees OEMs trending towards something called Mass Customization; creating small manufacturing cells to build custom clubs while competing directly with retailers and clubmakers for fitting sessions and dollars. And they already have a huge head start with their technology, their advertising budgets, and their online presence.
“All they have to do is refine their production processes where some of the custom clubmaking can be automated,” says Mondher. “Instead of mass producing clubs, they’ll have smaller cells with maybe three people turning out 100 sets a week, just enough to satisfy demand. All of the OEMs have internal programs where they’re systematically getting into clubmaking.”
Walk Tall, Act Fine
Even though OEM’s make up 1/5th of his revenue, Mondher remains passionate about providing high-quality Golfmechanix machinery to the small club maker at what he considers reasonable prices compared to his competitors. And despite the industry trends, he still believes the clubmaker is irreplaceable.
“An independent clubmaker works for himself,” says Mondher. “He has so much at stake, and he won’t bullshit you. He looks beyond that first set he makes for you because he wants you to be a returning customer.”
While Mondher remains optimistic about golf’s future, he is branching out and producing tooling for the tennis and biking industry. As for golf, he believes the industry is just going to have to adapt and that a new era may be dawning.
“The next ten years are going to be just like this year,” he says. “Technology is evolving and we are entering the era of the hardcore golfer. These are people that are taking the game seriously and aren’t just playing casually. The bottom of the market is stagnating.”
The cure for that stagnation, he believes, is the independent clubmaker and getting back to what brought people to the game back in the 90’s – affordability and fun.
“With the world the way it is today, our time is being monopolized, and we’re being marginalized,” says Mondher. “All of us should start playing golf like we did in the early 90’s. It was Democracy; it wasn’t as elite. We need low greens fees, we need affordable golf clubs, cheap golf balls, and we need to drink plenty of beer on the golf course and let people blow their lungs out with cigars!”
There are all kinds of passion in golf. Players are passionate about their equipment, OEMs are passionate about their technology and Mondher Latiri is passionate about all of that, and he has the tools that help everyone in the chain fuel that passion.
“Nobody makes a fortune in golf except the players and maybe big corporate America and their investors,” says Mondher. “For the rest of us, what drives us is our passion.”
“That’s what brought people to the game and the people who are still playing after 10 or 15 years, that’s how they got started. Let’s not kill that flame.”
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Offer valid through 12/1/2017