To the casual social media observer, Sub 70 Golf may seem like an overnight sensation.
It’s been in the works for more than 25 years. And, with the help of Twitter, Instagram and Facebook, Sub 70 Golf has become a golf company for the new decade: nimble and consumer focused with a growing legion of cult-like followers.
A quarter of a century is quite the gestation period for an overnight sensation but that’s what makes it a compelling story. To paraphrase the late, great Ted Baxter, Sub 70 Golf started in 1993 in a University of Wisconsin-Oshkosh dorm room, an illegal internet connection, and a crazy dream.
And a guy with the testicular fortitude to give it a shot.
This, my friends, is the very real and very interesting story of Jason Hiland and, eventually, Sub 70 Golf.
What were you doing when you were 22?
I was living in a converted gas station with three buddies and making $175 a week at a dinky radio station in Fitchburg, Mass. Weekends were spent in the pursuit of girls and beer – not necessarily in that order.
Jason Hiland was making much better use of his time.
“I lived with two guys who were computer science majors in college,” Hiland tells MyGolfSpy. “Our first internet connection was in 1993. They very (sic) illegally jerry-rigged it from the university server through the phone lines.”
And it was one of those buddies who gave Jason a glimpse into the future.
“There were no graphics on the internet back then. It was all text,” says Jason. “But my buddy says, ‘One of these days, Chevrolet is going to have pictures of their cars with colors and options so you could literally go on the computer and see what your car would look like. You could then call up the dealer and order that exact car.'”
“So, we figured if we could do this with a car, which seemed really advanced at the time, people are eventually going to want to do this with golf clubs.”
So why was it Diamond Tour Golf and not, say, Diamond Tour Tennis? Or Skateboards? Or a thousand and one other things?
“I was a golfer,” says Jason. “I grew up an only child in a very small town in Illinois and had to find ways to self-amuse, hitting golf balls against the barn.”
During the summer, Jason’s mom would drop him off at the local nine-hole muni in the morning and pick him up in the evening. He had his pull cart and would play all day long. And he got pretty good.
“I actually played two years in junior college but that’s where it ended. Even at that level, those guys were really, really good.”
Jason kept his nose in the game after transferring to UW-Oshkosh, working summers for the component company SMT. That’s where the business major learned the business of golf.
“I saw how well SMT was doing as just a catalog business. But if you could move that catalog to the internet, I knew that would work. I didn’t want to go with some old retail stores. That’s old school shit. I wanted to go down this pathway.”
So, with a loan from his parents, Jason launched Diamond Tour Golf as a clone and component company.
The Early Days
Jason describes the early days of Diamond Tour Golf succinctly.
“Batshit crazy. I was working 65 hours a week and lived for a year and a half on like $100 a week. I lived at home, drove a terrible old Ford Escort and put all the money back into the company. I gave myself a year but I knew within the first three months it was going to work.”
Oh, about that loan from mom and dad? Paying that off was Jason’s first priority.
“I paid them back in the first year. I couldn’t live with it if they weren’t square so I worked my ass off. Twenty-two years old and I never missed a day of work to pay them back. Once I did that, I got rid of the Escort and bought a Jeep Wrangler where the top came off. That was much cooler to drive around town than the Escort.”
Jason’s parental support went well beyond finances. They were active supporters of his vision.
“I didn’t have this huge silver spoon. But my parents gave me the confidence I could do whatever I wanted to do and that I was smart enough to do it. That’s what every kid wants: two parents that love him and believe in him. They were like, ‘ You want to go do this? Then go do it. You’re smart enough, you’ll figure it out.’”
Send in the Clones
Don’t mistake clones for counterfeit clubs. They’re very different. Clones sorta-kinda look like brand-name clubs with slightly different names and nowhere near the same tech. They’re perfectly legal while counterfeit clubs – basically forgeries – are not.
The clone business was very different back in the ’90s than it is today. Back then, OEMs weren’t on yearly product cycles and it could be a lot less expensive for golfers to build their own sets. Besides, you-know-who was taking the game by storm. The golf business was booming, creating the ideal scenario for a little internet component company.
“Back then, OEMs would go maybe five years with the same iron so you could do an iron that looked like a ‘pro-line’ iron,” says Jason. “It would be your own component design and you can still cut the pricing quite a bit by going direct to the consumer.”
The Diamond Tour business has evolved with the times. The Turner series (TaylorMade-ish) is still around but Jason says the business model is more like what GolfSmith used to do: create your own series of in-house components.
“People still like to build their own clubs,” he says. “And it’s also an alternative to low-end box sets. We’re delivering much higher quality for the price. Does it have every piece of technology you could possibly have? No, but you can get a damn good set of irons for 150 bucks.”
Like A Hurricane
Let’s fast-forward to 2008. The golf industry, thanks to TaylorMade, is changing and OEMs are moving to faster release cycles. The unintended consequence? Lots of unsold gear that needs liquidating.
Add to that a sudden downturn in the economy and a dash of boldness and you get another business opportunity.
Enter Hurricane Golf.
“People always like a deal,” says Jason. “But if we used our knowledge of the internet to start a company selling major OEM brands at a discount, we felt we could make it work.”
“We would sell everything but our major focus would be buying 1,000 pairs of PUMA golf shoes at the right price and then put it out there for the consumer. Almost like a T.J. Maxx of golf.”
Jason says his team predicted the economy would tighten up a bit in 2008 but that people would still want to play golf. What he didn’t foresee was just how much of a left turn the economy would actually take.
“We didn’t know it was going to be as bad as it was but we knew if we could be an outlet for OEMs for their end-of-year inventory, buy it in big volumes and pay for it, then we could build a strong pipeline for closeouts.”
Lots of Hurricane Golf imitators have cropped up since 2008 but Jason, along with Rockbottom Golf and a few others, pioneered the model.
“There were a lot of online pro shops back then but we had a different niche with a deal-of-the-day type thing. If you could step up and take some volume, there were deals to be had. The economy was rough but we rode it through. There’s opportunity in turbulent water, per se.”
Sub 70 Golf, Aston Martin and The Combatant Gentlemen
In many ways, Sub 70 Golf is the logical progression from Diamond Tour Golf and Hurricane Golf. Inspiration, however, came from the car 007 (#RIPSeanConnery) drove in Goldfinger.
“The company came from the idea that we wanted to build Aston Martins in our garage,” says Jason. “Let’s try something completely different: direct-to-consumer but high-end. Let’s cross every ‘t’ and dot every ‘i’ to make the equipment as good as we can make it. And let’s see if we can compete with the biggest names out there.”
But could Sub 70 Golf actually sell premium golf equipment at direct-to-consumer prices without the consumer thinking it was, well, cheap? The proof of the concept came dressed in a snappy new suit from Combatant Gentlemen.
“That brand felt cool and edgy,” Jason says. “It didn’t make you feel like you were buying a shitty, discounted suit. The experience felt like I was buying a high-end suit, from the material to the look to the way it was shipped. You feel like you’re buying a premium suit in a smarter way.”
If it works for men’s fashionwear, why wouldn’t it work for golf clubs?
“You have to get the branding out there and make it different, kind of hip and authentic,” Jason says. “You’re going to be less expensive because you’re eliminating steps in the chain. But the needle you have to thread is being less expensive but still of the same quality.”
For many consumers, the same quality for a lot less money simply does not compute. A set of forged Sub 70 639 irons for $460 in the same performance neighborhood as a set of $1,400 Mizunos? Common sense says fuggedaboudit. But Sub 70’s online reviews, as well as its performance in MyGolfSpy’s Most Wanted testing, say otherwise.
The Sub 70 Golf Way
Sub 70 Golf keeps its costs under control in several different ways. The most obvious, of course, is the direct-to-consumer model which effectively cuts out retail markup. The company itself is very lean and outsources its R&D to its Chinese suppliers, something very common in modern manufacturing.
“We come up with the concepts ourselves, like, ‘we need a product for this specific niche’,” says Jason. “Then we hire their R&D to help us design it. We also hire some guys in the States who are in the golf business to review and modify what our suppliers send us. It’s like hiring consultants instead of having them in house.”
And even though you’re seeing Sub 70 Golf equipment finding its way into bags on virtually every tour, there’s no pay-to-play going on.
“We decided we’re not going to play that game because where does it end? All it does is I have to charge more for the clubs.”
Another advantage Sub 70 Golf has – along with other DTC brands such as Ben Hogan – is that it’s not a slave to the calendar. There are no predetermined product lifecycles.
“We won’t put marketing in front of performance or in front of the consumer,” Jason says. “If we can’t make it better or fill a niche we don’t have, we won’t bring it out. We’re not going to do the traditional golf marketing the way it’s been done. I’m only going to bring on something new when I know the performance is better.”
The Telephone Man
We mentioned that Sub 70 Golf is reaching cult-like status on social media. That’s largely due to Jason’s commitment to personal customer service. He’s on the phone every day talking with customers, helping them pick out clubs and answering questions. While talking directly with the owner wows the customer, Jason admits the pace is getting impossible.
“We’re going to bring in help because I’m about pushed to the limit. I’m working 70 to 80 hours a week and I’m glad to do it. It’s an honor to help people with their golf games but I have small kids at home and I want to enjoy life a little bit.”
Ahhh, the old work-life balance. For a guy who’s been putting in those kinds of hours since he was 22, it can be hard to let go.
“Look, we only get one ride on this thing before it’s over,” says Jason, who’s 47. “I have a wonderful wife who stays home with the kids and that makes it easier. But I want to enjoy my family and my community and maybe play some golf. There are times when I literally cannot return emails and phone calls during the day because there’s so much stuff coming it. I’m calling people back at 10 at night.”
Even when the help does come, Jason insists he’s still going to interact with his customers. That personal touch remains one of Sub 70’s biggest differentiators.
“There will always be a part of my day where I take calls from customers. A – I enjoy it. I really love talking with customers. And B – the feedback loop I get is amazing. They tell me if something’s not great and they tell me when something is really good.”
What’s Sub 70’s Future?
Working 80 hours a week running three businesses is anyone’s definition of hard work. But as far as Jason is concerned, he’s having the time of his life.
“I’m having more fun in my 40s than I ever have in my life. It’s a blast.”
Sub 70 Golf is working on several new products including a new driver. In 2021, COVID permitting, Sub 70 plans to expand to Asia, Australia, New Zealand and Europe. There’s also a special irons project with Tommy Armour III.
“We’re business partners on that one,” says Jason. “Tom will be playing those irons on Tour next year. He was one of my heroes growing up and now we’re working on this project together. How cool is that?”
Jason insists he didn’t build Sub 70 Golf in order to sell it off. But what if someone walked in with a really big check? While Jason says you never say never, that check would need an awful lot of zeroes for him to even think about it.
“I’m in my business prime right now and I feel like I have a good 20 years left in me. Our plan is to do some really cool things and have some fun. We didn’t do any market research. It was just, ‘Let’s make some really good stuff and treat the customers like we’d want to be treated.'” And Holy Cow, in less than two years to go from where we were to having your clubs played on the PGA TOUR? It’s nuts.
“If you don’t smile and realize how cool this is and how much fun it is to do this, then you shouldn’t be doing it, right? I pinch myself every day that this is what I get to do.”
Another Boring Romantic, That’s Me
If every life had a theme song, Jason’s would be John Mellencamp’s “Small Town.”
All three businesses, plus the Hiland family, are headquartered in Sycamore, Ill., a pumpkin festival kind of town of 18,000.
“I had a wonderful upbringing in the Midwest, a rural area with really good schools,” he says. “I loved growing up in a small town and I still live in a small town. It’s in your soul.”
That small-town soul is also Jason’s business ethos. And while he’s not one to dwell on regrets, Jason does drift back to 1995 every now and again.
“I didn’t think about it big enough. Jeff Bezos thought about it big enough. But I thought about making a little golf component company and making a nice living. There was such opportunity and I didn’t think big enough.”
But think of taking the bold step of selling clones online in 1996 or starting a discount golf liquidation company in 2008 or even a high-end/value-priced golf brand in 2018. You can say those were pretty bold steps and fortune favors the bold, right?
“Bold can also get you killed,” laughs Jason. “There are no guarantees. Everyone’s job is filled with risk. But if you look at our 25-year history, we’ve made it work. I’m confident we can make it work for another 25 years. It’s fun making people happy. Does that make sense? You do your very best for the client to help them play as good a game of golf as they can play. It’s very rewarding. If you don’t find it ultra-rewarding, you probably shouldn’t be doing it.
“If you can do that and have that passion, everything else takes care of itself.”