Performance isn’t brand specific. The ball doesn’t care about the name on the club, and all things being equal, sensible golfers shouldn’t either.

It’s an idea that Tommy Armour (Dick’s exclusive brand) is hoping consumers find appealing enough that they’ll give its Atomic line a serious look.

Marketing is both a powerful drug and a beast large companies continuously feed. Like a good illusionist, large OEMs (did you know both Titleist and Callaway topped $1 Billion in sales in 2018?) are better positioned to steer consumer focus and ultimately reinforce this self-fulfilling cycle of brand allegiance. It’s a deck-stacked against you (and smaller brands) situation where one wonders just how many decks are actually involved.

The task for so-called challenger brands begins with an acceptance of the reality that it doesn’t make much sense to compete directly against TaylorMade, Callaway, and Titleist on home courts where the rules of big-box retail favor the incumbents. From there, it’s a matter of offering the right combination of performance and price while finding a way to get product which is aesthetically on par with the big boys in front of the target golfer.

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TOMMY ARMOUR

When we reintroduced the Tommy Armour brand, it was under the premise it wasn’t just another house brand destined to sit against the back wall of boxed sets waiting for liquidation. It was a real golf brand with bona fide R&D, modern technology, and the resources in place to stick around for the foreseeable future. With 2019 Most Wanted testing still in process, the Atomic irons gave us a glimpse of where it sits relative to the field.

Internally, the goal of the Atomic irons was to build the longest game-improvement irons on the market without sacrificing too much playability. In 2019 Most Wanted Game Improvement iron testing it received accolades as the “Best Distance Iron”, but it also produced some of the lowest launch and decent angles. The summative data was a bit of a mixed bag. It ranked in the top 5 in strokes gained (in all three iron lengths) but outside the top 10 in consistency and accuracy metrics.

Citing robot tests performed by Golf Labs, Dick’s feels the Atomic iron compares favorably against Callaway’s distance-first, game improvement iron, Rogue X. Both irons feature 27° of static loft, so it isn’t particularly surprising that launch angle and peak height were similar. That said, Atomic’s decent angle was 1° steeper. Atomic also displayed a tighter distance dispersion (as opposed to left/right target dispersion) than Rogue X, and nearly identical ball speed. Finally, Atomic generated more spin (5800 RPM vs. 5100 RPM) than Rogue X on center-face shots, which in this case is likely a positive for most target consumers.

As a category, Game-Improvement irons exist to give golfers some added forgiveness and distance (with moderate workability), but most GI irons will do one of those three well and the other two well-enough. With that disclaimer in place, if your hope is that new irons will allow you to regain some pop (even if it means possibly adding another wedge), our testing indicates Atomic is at the head of that particular class.

INSIDE LOOK

All things being equal, lower lofts yield higher ball speeds and generally speaking, more distance. It’s the primary reason a 6-iron goes farther than a 7-iron. Though industry types don’t love the term, loft-jacking is a reality in any category where distance is often a point of emphasis. Erasing the 9 in favor of an 8 is the simplest way to add some yards, but there can be validity to the notion of responsible loft-jacking, which requires manipulation of the center of gravity location to maintain playable launch conditions.

As discretionary weight is moved lower and farther away from the geometric center of the clubface, lower lofts are necessary to maintain comfortable launch windows. Without a decrease in static loft, shots would launch too high without much in the way of increased carry distance. Therefore, the lower/more rearward engineers can get the CG; theoretically, the more aggressively loft can be decreased. The too often fine print in all of that is that while loft-jacking can work for some, and quietly benefits higher swing speed players, for moderate swing speed players, too low launch, spin, and everything that comes with it, is an all too common result.

So, are Atomic irons loft-jacked? Yes. Our measurements put the Atomic 7-iron at 26.5° degrees whereas most 7-irons in the GI category hover around 30°. In fact, of the 16 models in our 2019 Most Wanted Game Improvement Iron testing, 14 models had 7-iron lofts between 29.25°-31.5° and two models (Atomic and Tour Edge EXS) came in at 26.5°.

The decrease in loft contributes to the distance boost, but according to Dave Michaels, Senior Project Manager for Dick’s Sporting Goods, it’s the design, materials and construction process executed by Performax which sets the Atomic iron apart from competitors.

Quick refresher; Performax is the entity behind club R&D and production for the Tommy Armour line, as well as several JDM brands (PRGR, OnOff, Yamaha, XXIO, Ryoma), along with Tour Edge. Moreover, it’s the only factory in the world that uses a combo-brazing process. When adhering different parts of a club together (think titanium cup face to stainless steel body), there are effectively two options – welding or brazing. Welding melts and fuses two base metals by applying concentrated heat at the joint. It’s cheaper, heavier and requires finishing to remove excess material.  Brazing, on the other hand, uses a lower-temperature filler metal to bond the two base metals. Brazing is quite a bit more expensive, but it saves valuable weight and doesn’t require grinding, which creates greater consistency from part to part.

According to Performax, the primary reason we haven’t seen this technology from major US brands is production cost. Simply, razor thin margins and a need to maximize profit at every step have thus far prevented large OEMs from going this route. Those that have (Tour Edge and Tommy Armour) say they’ve sacrificed a fair amount of profit to do so.

It’s an objective fact that the Atomic iron leverages more expensive materials and more involved production processes than other (typically much more expensive irons) irons on the market, many of which sit in the JDM (Japanese Domestic Market) space. As a point of comparison, consider Ryoma’s DSI iron, which starts at $375/head. Both irons utilize a titanium face, but the DAT-55 in the Atomic is a higher-grade material. Also, whereas the DSI has a 3-piece welded construction, the Atomic combo-brazes the face to the body, saving 60 grams of weight, which allows for a rear/deep CG location to offset the 26.5° of loft.

Objectively, it’s the type of information around which one could build an argument that the Atomic iron is, from a materials and construction standpoint, better than an iron which is 600% more expensive. Chew on that when you’re trying to assess the value of any piece of equipment.

Also, it might seem like a non sequitur, but PING is often touted as having the highest quality stock shafts, which are rightfully more accurately labeled co-engineered. This well-earned reputation is because of the brands (UST, Fujikura, and Mitsubishi Chemical) with which PING collaborates, and is a fair analogy for the Tommy Armour – Performax partnership. If association creates guilt, it should also produce credibility.

DYNAMICS & DISAGREEMENTS

Critics will state that marginal gains in ball speed from titanium faces don’t justify the increased production costs and that adding offset can be just as effective in manipulating CG location. Both are accurate, however, with Dick’s being both the wholesaler and retailer, it can operate with lower margins, and though aesthetics are fundamentally subjective, not many golfers prefer the look of irons where the hosel and leading edge sit in different zip codes.

When brand identity is a work in progress, consumers, almost invariably, must be persuaded by price (Atomic is $499 for 4-G W in steel and $599 with graphite shafts) but every bit of performance is vital to winning a share of retail battles. Dick’s strategy is a reasonable one; drop the price low enough to catch golfers attention, and because most golfers looking at Game Improvement irons are also motivated by distance, Atomic will win a healthy portion of sales – so long as it can force its way into the conversation.

That said, Dick’s understands the line between inexpensive and cheap can be a fine one, where any step backward in performance or appearance could relegate it to precisely where it doesn’t want to be.

Performance aside, there’s plenty of reason for Dick’s executives to be bullish on Tommy Armour. Objectively, all the necessary elements for success (materials, design, performance) are in place, and Dick’s understands rebuilding a brand is a long-run proposition, where incremental progress is sufficient. Dick’s doesn’t have the marketing horsepower in the golf world to employ a pyramid/sphere of influence approach by engaging a robust tour staff or buying tour access. Instead, it will rely on the benefits of a captive audience and look to golfers who would benefit from game-improvement technologies and but aren’t the sort to upgrade drivers every season or set calendar reminders for equipment release dates to drive success.

Dick’s has big plans for Tommy Armour, and they don’t have anything to do with winning equipment counts, but everything to do with giving golfers a reasonably priced alternative where no corner is cut, and everything decision is dictated by performance.

So, is it on the right track? Tell us what you think.