I’ve decided to end the year with a recounting of what could have been the biggest story in the golf equipment world in 2017. The details were always sketchy, mostly unbelievable from a risk/reward perspective, and our attempts to investigate ultimately went nowhere. I’ve decided to tell it anyway because I think it provides the quintessential example of how absurd the golf equipment industry can sometimes be. To use a cliché, it exposes a bit of the seedy underbelly, while also detailing the lengths to which some companies go to control the media and the message.
I was originally going to tell this story on Twitter, and while I think it’s WAY too long for that medium, I’m going to try and keep it unpolished and simple. Perhaps that means this will have a bit of an old-school MyGolfSpy vibe.
The story begins with a tip that slid into my DMs on Twitter (that sounds naughtier than I’d like). The source isn’t someone I know personally, but I have every reason to believe that he’s been in the industry for a while, is connected to retail, and would certainly be in a position to have come across the information he passed along.
What he told me was that a rep from a golf company – we’ll call it Company A, was telling his accounts that a competitor (Company B), had deliberately placed non-conforming driver heads in its fitting carts in an attempt to dupe consumers into buying more of its clubs. With nearly every retail location offering some sort of launch monitor fitting experience these days, it’s easy to understand why winning the launch monitor distance battle is crucial to selling golf clubs.
As an aside, we’ve found plenty of evidence to suggest that some manufacturers routinely jack lofts above and beyond their already jacked lofts in their fitting cart irons, so it’s not like there aren’t some in the market who cheat to win. It’s a strategy that can work in the right environment (big box, in particular), but competent fitters are more likely to check lofts and bend the fitting cart irons back to spec, and to pay more attention to launch and spin, peak height, and descent angles than the guy who watches you bang balls at a less knowledgeable shop. Point being, cheating doesn’t guarantee winning.
So anyway, we’re confident that some companies re-jack their fitting cart irons, but juicing driver heads? That’s filthy. Should the story prove true and Company B were to be exposed, we’re talking really bad PR, probably lawsuits, and perhaps even the end of the business. We’re talking serious risk that likely exceeds the value of any reward.
At face value, the story was improbable, even absurd (welcome to the golf equipment world), but Company A’s rep was telling at least some of his accounts that not only was Company B cheating, but that his company (A) had acquired several of Company B’s fitting heads and almost all of them had tested over the USGA limit.
Holy shit…maybe…probably not.
Now would be a good time to point out that, as with any population, there are good golf sales reps and bad ones. The good ones shoot their accounts straight – they may even discuss the relative strengths and weakness of their products to help the retailer better understand who a given product will work best for. Bad reps lie. They don’t deliver, and they make excuses and tell stories to explain why their product isn’t competitive and why, ultimately, consumers are buying the other guy’s stuff.
So, do we have a rep revealing damning inside information, or do we have a guy talking shit to explain why his product isn’t selling as well as he’d hoped? That’s what we needed to find out.
After discussing the story internally, we decided to start with a two-pronged approach. First, we discretely reached out to several of the fitters and retailers we know and trust. We asked if they had noticed anything unusual (unrealistic/absolutely mind-blowing performance) from their fitting heads. We also asked them to do some quick testing of fitting heads against some of their on-the-shelf inventory to see if there was any appreciable discrepancy in performance.
At the same time, I attempted to reach a source inside Company A who I not only trusted but who I believe has the integrity to shoot me straight about what is obviously a delicate situation. In situations like this, speaking to the right person is everything. Much to my disappointment, the discrete and non-specific voicemail I left in his cell phone was returned via email by Company A’s PR department and consisted of little more than a reminder that any and all contact with Company A should be run through him.
Yeah…No. If this was twitter, the middle finger emoji would go here.
This brings me to my 2nd aside – PR, Chain of Command, and the Ignorance Gap.
The reality is that inside most any golf company, particularly large ones, the PR team is often out of the loop. What PR works on is often need to know. That is to say, PR learns about new products and other goings on when it’s time to prepare for release or when there’s a message to send out to the world. It would be unusual for PR to have advance and detailed knowledge of a next generation product, and PR would almost certainly have no idea if the guys in the lab are dropping the pendulum on a competitor’s fitting heads. While Company A has traditionally insulated and isolated its departments more than most, this kind of thing is true for most any company.
When I worked in IT, for example, the Marketing department wasn’t aware of what we were working on in the server room from one day to the next. I was clueless to what our Executive team was working on, and almost nobody outside of sales understood how products and services were bundled for customers. Point being, in every company, people have roles, and they don’t often know much about what people in other departments are working on. The golf equipment world isn’t any different.
So, given the sensitivity of the information, it would have been absolutely reckless for me to loop in somebody I was confident would be absolutely clueless about the situation.
With that in mind, let’s move to an aside within this aside. Golf companies – more accurately some golf companies not only love their chain of command, they expect everyone on the outside will abide by their internal guidelines. To a degree this isn’t wholly unreasonable. Communication is ultimately PR’s job, and if you’ve got media constantly banging away at your R&D and product teams, then work isn’t going to get done, and you’ve got a problem. That’s the theory anyway.
The reality is that golf equipment industry does a reasonably good job of keeping those guys insulated. In the US, there are probably fewer than a dozen golf media companies who routinely get direct access to Product and R&D. Most golf media simply haven’t made those contacts, doesn’t have the direct access, or don’t tell the kind of stories which require that access. Basically, I’d wager most of us leave the R&D guys well-enough alone, and the fact of the matter is that some PR people have an almost pathological need to feel in control.
That said, in general, we make an effort to follow the chain of command – at least as long as it makes sense to do so. I can’t say my experiences dealing with golf equipment PR absolutely mirror that of my colleagues at other outlets, but I’d wager that while the names may change, if you asked around you’d get a list of PR people who are exceptional, PR are people who are so bad they’re detrimental to the brands they represent, and plenty of in-between. In fairness, I’m sure PR would say the same about those of us in the media.
Perception is a two-way street, I get that.
Bottom line, when the day to day communication stuff is working and things are getting done, then I’m fine with the mandated chain of command. When things aren’t working, when PR isn’t getting it done, or when what I’m working on necessitates I speak with someone a little higher up, well, let me be clear – screw your chain of command. I’ll call, text, or email anyone I damn well please, whenever I please. No double-standard, I’d expect the same from anyone else if I'm not getting the job done.
And not for anything, any decent journalist will tell you that, when you’re looking for real information, when you’re looking to get the absolute truth about what is a potentially incendiary story, the last place you call is the PR department.
With this story sufficiently off-track, why not take an aside within an aside within aside to briefly dig deeper into the access golf companies provide to information. When you’re not on the naughty list – or when you’re kind of on the naughty list but the company that put you there still has the foresight to understand that even if it doesn’t like you, it’s probably still in its best interest to tell you its story – they’ll give you some time with either Product teams (a layer that exists somewhere between R&D and Marketing), their R&D guys, or they’ll rely on PR to retell the tech story. In many cases, it’s a 45-60 minute phone call, or some time carved out during a media event. Other companies almost always insist on sitting you down in a conference room for 4 to 6 hours with members of the R&D teams. There’s usually not much rah rah hyperbole inside R&D conference rooms. They give you every last seemingly innocuous engineering detail, and often a competitive breakdown before sending you out to the range or the golf course to try the product for yourself. The longer sessions include a lot of back and forth. They provide opportunities to ask real questions and to try and poke holes in what you’re being told. Generally, the longer sessions also produce more meaningful information, a more realistic assessment of what golfers are actually getting for their money, and ultimately a better story for our readers. It’s the difference between, for example, “we made some very specific modifications (x, y, and z), that may get some golfers just little bit more ball speed on low face contact”, and “HAMMERHEAD!”.
Overlapping with our previous aside and moving back to the chain of command stuff; it’s certainly noteworthy that the companies who ask us to sit down with engineers and not marketers are the same ones who don’t appear to be the least bit concerned when we reach out to engineers and other sources directly. When the foundation of the product is built on small but appreciable advancements and not hyperbole, I suppose it’s much easier to trust the R&D guys to tell it right.
So getting back to the meaty part of the story - I’ve got a serious accusation of big time fitting cart shenanigans, I’ve got an inside guy who ratted me out to PR, and I’ve got a PR guy who I’m all but certain wouldn’t have a clue about what might be going on in the lab. Basically, I’ve got nothing to go on.
Meanwhile, the fitters are starting to report back with their results. To a man, nobody can find anything to suggest juiced heads. I’m hearing things like, “it [Company B’s driver] wins its fair share, but it loses some too.” I’ve done some sniffing around at a couple of local shops and found nothing, and I’ve reached out to Company B (outside the proper chain of command, I might add) and have been told the story is horse shit.
Every bit of information I have suggests we're dealing with a rep telling a story to discredit a competitor, but I figured, why not take another shot. I send an email up the ladder at to Company A, first asserting that I’ll continue to contact whomever I’m so inclined to contact, but that I’m hearing that they might have some info about a competitor’s fitting cart. I'm here if you want to talk about it. I never heard back.
MGS’s owner, Adam Beach, took the matter further up the chain, which resulted in perhaps the most absurd exchange ever. Apparently dubiously chalking up the returned call to a butt dial, the brief conversation ended with Adam being wished “Good luck in all your endeavors.” A fitting ending if ever there was.
As I said, I’m particularly fond of this story because, despite it being a giant waste of my time, it includes so much of the absurd, nonsensical, and sketchy side of the golf equipment industry. There’s a lot of good in this industry, but there remains plenty that shady AF.
This isn’t an isolated case. Golf companies constantly tell stories about their competitors. Tales of inventory manipulation and book-cooking, for example, are omnipresent. That’s a story for another day.
In this case, either we have an account rep telling a false and incendiary story to discredit a competitor (the probable scenario), or we have a company engaging in some seriously unethical shit to dupe the consumer (less likely – in this specific case). We have a golf company mandating an unreasonable chain of command request without regard for the reality that some things are well above PR’s pay grade, and you have MyGolfSpy doing things our way.
One way or the other, we have yet another example of the lengths some companies will go to win with apparently not much regard for where the consumer fits in the discussion.
For us, we have a good bit of time wasted on a huge story that ultimately went nowhere. That’s the nature of the business, and so sometimes all we can do is shake our heads and laugh.