“Yeah, Wilson certainly isn’t TaylorMade, but then again, there was a time when TaylorMade wasn’t Wilson, either.”

In Part I of this three part Wilson sereies MyGolfSpy’s Forum Director, John Barba, reviewed the decline and fall of the Wilson Golf brand. Part II examined Wilson’s “reboot” since 2007, its reorganization and its R&D efforts. Today, in this final installment, John looks at how Wilson uses its Tour Staff and just who, and what, this iconic brand is all about.

Written By: John Barba

My buddy Scott is one of “those guys.” When you mention the “G-word” his head pops up like a prairie dog’s. He’s a 5 handicap and while I wouldn’t call him a club “ho,” he is showing promise. While discussing my Wilson visit I shared some thoughts on their latest equipment. His response?

“But, it’s Wilson.”

Scott’s 40. His only Wilson memory is of Chevy Chase’s gamers in “Caddyshack” reruns. For those who came of age in the mid-90’s or later, serious golfers played Titleist, Callaway, Ping, or TaylorMade.

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Not Wilson.

In Scott’s world, Wilson doesn’t make serious golf equipment. They make toys, because in Wal-Mart, the sporting goods department and toy department are side-by-each. Wilson’s late-90’s to mid-2000’s strategy to move away from the Tour and from premium equipment to instead focus on lower-priced clubs for recreational golfers certainly encouraged that mindset.

That explains how you end up in a $15 million hole with a 0.6% share of a market you once dominated.

Wilson Back On Tour

Wilson Golf GM Tim Clarke says re-establishing the brand on Tour was one of his priorities to kick-start “Wilson 2.0,” and Padraig Harrington’s 3 majors in ’07-’08 were critical in validating the brand. Today, Clarke says it’s about having the “right” Tour guys.

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“We don’t pay the most, I can tell you that. That’s not our model,” explains Clarke. “A kid like (new Wilson Staffer) Brendan Steele – he could have signed anywhere. He was a Titleist guy. We get people who want to be part of something different. Ricky (Barnes), Kevin (Streelman), Padraig and now Brendan – that’s why they come. It’s not because I have the biggest checkbook in the world.”

“Trust me, there’s a lot bigger money for those guys to go get. They gotta love the equipment, they gotta love what the brand is doing and they gotta feel like they can win. And the money has to be in the ballpark.” Tim Clarke, Wilson Golf

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Both Streelman and Harrington have re-upped with Wilson. R&D Director Michael Vrska says another Touring Pro, as yet unnamed, may soon join the Wilson stable.

“He’s been playing (our V4 irons and V4 Utility Irons) for a month now,” says Vrksa. “We haven’t paid him a penny. He could play any irons he wants, but he chose ours.  That’s not because I told him to do it, I’ve never met the guy…He did it because he looked at a bunch of irons and he loved ours. He knows Kevin, tried his and said ‘Wow, how good is this!’”

Does Success on Tour Sell Stuff?

“Yeah, Majors do,” says Clarke. “Regular Tour wins validate your brand and what you’re doing. You go from a position where we didn’t do a lot of things right and maybe lost some of the faith of consumers, tour wins are helping us climb that mountain. Someone says ‘Wilson is a boxed-set company?’ Well, we have 3 Tour wins this year (Streelman in Hartford, finishing with 7 birdies in a row, Marcel Siem on the European Tour and Harrington this month in Indonesia) with our FG Tour irons. I’m proud of that.”

As any MyGolfSpy reader knows, brands have their lovers and their haters. I asked Clarke which brand he looks to as a model.

“I have the ultimate respect for Ping. Ping has done it slow and steady,” says Clarke. “I respect how they run their business. The Solheims do an unbelievable job protecting their portfolio and managing that brand. If I was to look at a company doing it the way I wish we would have done it, and in some ways how we’re trying to do it now, it would be Ping.

“They’re very disciplined. They watch where they sell their stuff, they focus on the high end and they have very loyal tour staff, which we’re starting to accomplish.”

The 2015 Lineup

Wilson’s 2015 offering features the new D200 irons, metal woods and hybrids as well as the FG Tour V4 irons (an update to the V2 irons, one of MyGolfSpy’s highest rated irons ever) and V4 Utility irons. Last year’s M3 irons and FG 100 blades remain, in keeping with Wilson’s commitment to 2-year product cycles.

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“D helps any golfer hit it further,” says Clarke. We have the Feel, which is what our Tour players play, and the Control is kinda the crossover…Most consumers get that immediately. We can get you into the right equipment fast without a whole lot of marketing mumbo-jumbo. It’s F, C and D. It’s simple.”

Vrska adds driver development will be a top Wilson priority moving forward.

“It’s a halo product,” Vrska says. “If golfers like your driver then suddenly your irons taste better. There’s no tangible correlation but there is a mental correlation…we need (great drivers) for our Tour players (Barnes, Streelman and Steele do not game Wilson drivers), and as your driver sales increase suddenly your wedge sales increase, your irons sales increase and people want matching fairway woods to go along with it.”

“We’ve had stores that do independent testing say our D200 irons are the best iron they’ve ever tested in their (game improvement) category. And the D200 driver is the 2nd best driver they’ve ever tested, period. We didn’t even know they were testing. They just used samples that were rattling around in the back of the salesman’s car.” – Michael Vrska, Wilson Golf

Step Into the “Right Light”

Wilson continues promoting the “right light” with the D200’s. Vrska says it reflects a growing trend on tour – lighter head weights and shaft weights.

“That’s something we believe in not just for D (Distance) players, but for all players. We’re looking over the past 10-15 years to today (on Tour) – we got some interesting data on how much lighter drivers and fairway woods have gotten, how hybrids are just a little lighter. Irons are pretty much the same but maybe a little lighter and wedges not at all. We started to think how that would benefit the average golfer.

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“If I give you a Wilson driver, or a company X or company Y driver, your swing won’t change. You won’t suddenly get on your left side better and start swinging like Rory or Padraig or Kevin. So how are you getting those 1, 2 or 3 MPH swing speed increases? It has to be the weighting of the club.” – Michael Vrska, Wilson 

“The ‘right light’ is a way for us to make clubs as light as possible, but still have the sound, feel, launch and spin to maximize distance. It’s not a race to the bottom. You can make clubs too light…you can’t get mass inside the head and you lose performance.”

“We touted (the right light) in our D100 line, which was a huge success. With D200 – we’re obviously in pre-books and don’t start shipping until January – but we’re up over double-digits in percentages. (We’ve added) adjustability to the D200 driver, the ‘Speed Sole’ technology to the irons, with CT’s in the 230’s, which is really incredible. We really feel there’s a weight that lets players swing it faster, and we’re going to continue to push that.”

D100’s a Success. The M3’s? Not So Much…

“There was a slight flaw in the sound,” says Clarke of last year’s FG Tour M3 driver. “We got consumer feedback that the sound wasn’t right. We had retail partners saying they needed to get out of them because they weren’t moving, so we did discount them.

“Make no mistake, that’s painful for me. I would much rather have not done it, but they just didn’t do as well as we had hoped, plus the fact that everybody flushed drivers out in the summer – that killed us. All the new stuff that came out when M3 came out was already liquidated in June.

“You hate to call it a perfect storm, but you had a horrific spring in the Midwest and Northeast, so nobody’s stuff sold. You had TaylorMade discount aggressively, you had Callaway doing giveaways and we were trying to stay disciplined. It just didn’t work so we had to adjust to the market conditions.”

“When TaylorMade is discounting, they’re usually doing it to get something else in.  We did it out of respect for our business partners. I understand they can’t sit on inventory, and we needed to help them move through. (Taylormade’s discounting) is a tough game to follow. Over time is does catch up to you and we probably saw that this year with the backup of TaylorMade equipment at Dick’s.” – Tim Clarke, Wilson Golf

“2014 was an awfully hard golf year for drivers,” adds Vrska. “Everybody was discounting heavily and we just kinda got lost in the shuffle…Obviously Wilson is gonna lose on that and that’s okay. We want to make sure we’re good partners first and foremost to our customers – the golf public – and then second of all to our retail partners. They have an opportunity (to make up for discounted pricing on M3) with golf balls or other products, different mix and match ways to make them whole. We didn’t want to cause them problems as maybe has happened in the past from other people.”

Feeding The 4-Headed Monster

Comparitively small budget marketing has its challenges, and it’s a four-way balance.

“You gotta have distribution, right?” explains Clarke. “If I don’t have distribution and I don’t have consumer demand, I’m in trouble.  So I gotta get distribution and I gotta get consumer demand. So we move big ad packages through Golf Channel, which helps our distribution and our ‘Pro’ image and our sales.”

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“Then I gotta get to the retail person who maybe hasn’t seen us in a while. I gotta get the floor staff trained on our stuff when they do get it because they haven’t sold it in a while. Then I gotta get it validated, so I gotta have Tour staff. It’s a 4-headed monster and you’re constantly balancing that mix as your business changes.

“Are we where we want to be in distribution? No. But do we have more doors today than when we had 0.6% market share? Absolutely!”

Epilogue:

So after two days meeting virtually everyone there was to meet from Wilson’s business side, I came away learning one thing:

After all this time, I finally “get” Wilson Golf.

Wilson Sporting Goods is a $600 million spoke in the multi-billion dollar Amer Sports wheel.

Wilson Golf 2.0, on its own, is a small company – roughly ⅕th the size of Wilson Sporting Goods. And it’s being run as a small company, with all the budgetary constraints one would expect of a $120 million outfit. For Wilson, “one-golfer-at-a-time” isn’t just a catchphrase, it’s a fact of life.

“We talk ‘one-guy-at-a-time’ all the time,” says Clarke. “We love all-company demo days – they’re our favorite. You know, play ‘em all! You think Ping is a better iron? Go hit it. And them come back here.”

“There were a few years, around 2002, 2003, where going to an all-company demo day was not a good thing for us. Now, you give an all company day and you give me a fair assessment of how our product performs? I’ll put ours up against anybody. And that’s a nice place to be in this business”  – Tim Clarke, Wilson Golf

“We did a retail event with Kevin Streelman last week,” adds Clarke. “There’s this young kid there, on his high school golf team. Nice, nice kid. He sees Kevin and Kevin tells him (the Wilson V4’s) are the best clubs he’s ever played. The kid brought his competitive set to compare, but says the V4’s look great.

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“Kevin goes ‘hey, how did you get here?’ The kid says ‘I’m with my Mom, she’s over there.’ Kevin says ‘You follow me to my house, I’ve got an extra set of Wilson FG’s I’ll let you take and play.’

“So Kevin brought the young man in his car, with Mom following, to his house and Kevin gave him his extra set of irons. Those are the types of things we’re really proud of. They don’t change the world, but those are the one-at-a-time moments. That kid had the experience of a lifetime. Hey, hopefully he’ll end up a Wilson fan and play Wilson the rest of his life. Maybe he won’t, but it was an unbelievable gesture by a world-class guy that’s also a world-class golfer and part of our family. And that’s the Wilson brand.”

So Who Is Wilson?

Wilson isn’t one of the “big boys” at the dance – when you’re pushing barely 3% market share you’re not the big boy anywhere. But when you look at Wilson Golf realistically – as a 7-year-old reboot of a 100-year-old brand – you can start to understand who they are and, as Clarke says, what they stand for.

Can they spend big bucks on top-name tour stars?

No, they can’t.

Can they pour huge piles of cash into advertising in every golf magazine and buy out all the back-nine ads on Master’s Sunday?

Nope.

And can they create a gargantuan marketing machine to bombard you with multi-media artillery promising 17 more yards or #ridonkulong distance?

Not anytime soon.

But those are things you’ve told us you don’t like in a manufacturer.

I doubt you’ll hear any crazy distance claims from Wilson Golf, and they have a fiscally sound strategy for spending on Tour players. Wilson’s R&D budget is, by my math, roughly 3.5% of sales, which is the same ratio as Callaway’s. And they’re running a lean business operation while showing slow, steady growth in a very down golf economy.

And they’re now turning a slight profit.

If they were named “Watson” instead of “Wilson,” and started from scratch in 2007, what would you think?  You can judge Wilson Golf anyway you wish: irrelevant former dynasty, former dynasty on the comeback trail, or a small company making interesting equipment at pretty good price points.

Take your pick. All three are probably accurate.

But if the big names in the industry turn you off, and you’re sick of #ridonkulong, 17 more yards or ads claiming the longest, biggest or #1 choice on Tour, well, you have options.

Wilson 2.0 is a small equipment manufacturer hacking its way through the golf industry jungle. Everyone I spoke with is proud of Wilson’s hits yet frank and candid about their misses and the lessons learned.

Clarke spoke of ebbs and flows in business, and Wilson Golf has certainly ebbed and flowed the past 30 years. But it was Doug Thiel, Wilson Golf’s Global Marketing Director, who put those ebbs and flows into perspective.

“Yeah, Wilson certainly isn’t Taylormade,” says Thiel. “But then again, there was a time when TaylorMade wasn’t Wilson, either.”

In Case You Missed It

Part I – How The Wilson Staff Empire Crumbled
Part II – Wilson 2.0 – Rebuilding the Wilson Staff Brand