If you’ve been paying even a little attention, it doesn’t take high-level editorial or business-specific insight to say the golf industry has changed over the past 30 years. What’s worth considering, however, is the fact an iconic, industry-changing and truly classic iron such as the Tommy Armour 845s could not possibly be made today.
Not the way it was, anyway.
You could write a business school case study on the 845s and how it made Tommy Armour a major force in golf. You could also write a case study on how the 845s, quite unintentionally, led to Tommy Armour’s downfall. It’s a lesson in how tremendous success often sows the seeds of failure.
And it all started with an English teacher.
The Back Story
The very first Tommy Armour irons weren’t made by Tommy Armour at all, but by MacGregor, and for a very good reason: there was no Tommy Armour company at the time. MacGregor introduced the Tommy Armour Silver Scot Tourney in the 1940s, predating the Tommy Armour company by nearly40 years. The company we came to know as Tommy Armour actually started in Ohio in 1910 as the Burke Golf Equipment Company.
During the next several decades, Burke made and marketed golf clubs under a variety of names, eventually moving operations to Morton Grove, IL. From there, the journey takes some pretty crazy twists and turns.
By 1959, Burke sold out to the Comptometer Corporation, a Chicago-based adding machine company. By that time, Burke was marketing clubs under the name PGA Golf under a licensing agreement with the PGA of America. In 1961, Comptometer merged with the Victor Corporation, another Chicago adding machine company. Both companies dabbled in golf (balls and electric carts), and together they created the Victor Golf Company, a division of Victor Comptometer.
By 1977, Victor Comptometer was purchased by Kidde, Inc., a New Jersey-based maker of everything from Jacuzzi bathtubs and Farberware housewares to lighting fixtures, fire protection equipment, and hydraulic cranes.
Troubled waters started churning for PGA Golf in 1982. The decades-long struggle between the tournament players’ group – now the PGA TOUR – and the club pros’ group – the PGA of America – was reaching another turning point.
The PGA TOUR officially adopted that name in March and both sides agreed to create a PGA-PGA TOUR Properties group to sell soft goods under the PGA label. Subsequently, PGA-PGA TOUR Properties wanted out of the equipment deal with PGA Golf and spent the better part of the next three years trying to get its name back from Morton Grove. A deal was finally struck in July of ’85 and, after working out a deal with the Armour family (Tommy Armour died in 1968), PGA Golf officially became the Tommy Armour Golf Company.
PGA Golf had been a mostly unspectacular performer throughout its history, but that former English teacher we mentioned was about to shake things up but good.
Shakespeare Meets Golf
Would it surprise you to learn the man who designed the Tommy Armour 845s started out teaching high-school English? Would it also surprise you to learn he was not an engineer or even an experienced club designer? The 845 was John Hoeflich’s very first effort at designing a golf club.
Talk about hitting a game-winning grand slam in your first at-bat.
Hoeflich’s track record is impressive. He was the guiding spirit behind Nickent Golf and authored several other iconic iron designs, including the Titleist DCI and the TaylorMade RAC.
Not bad for a guy who spent his early working life pitching Shakespeare to teenagers.
“I was an English teacher and I had a friend who helped me get a job as a sales rep for MaxFli golf balls,” Hoeflich told MyGolfSpy. “I did that for 15 years before going to work for PGA Golf and eventually Tommy Armour.”
In 1985, Hoeflich was promoted to VP of Marketing. His first assignment was to develop a new iron. The No. 1 iron in the game was the PING Eye2 so Hoeflich figured he’d start there.
“Before we developed the tooling, I went to a club in Chicago – Sunset Ridge,” he said. “The pro out there was Tom Wilcox and I asked him how many sets of PINGs he sells in a year. He said about 50. I said, ‘if someone doesn’t buy the PING, what are they looking for?’ He said, ‘something that looks like a traditional-shape short iron instead of something that looks like a propeller on a steamship’.”
In other words, a better-looking PING Eye2.
“That resonated with me,” said Hoeflich. “So we incorporated the cavity back on the long and mid-irons and, at the 8-iron, we segued into the traditional profile you’d see in a Wilson Staff or a MacGregor.”
Scribbles, Wax, and a Porsche
Once Hoeflich and his team had a general idea of what they wanted, Hoeflich went to California to work with R.G. Molds, which created the tooling for most of the investment-cast clubs being made then.
“I told the owner what I had in mind for an iron,” Hoeflich said, “and that was to duplicate the technology behind the PING Eye2 in terms of locating the center of gravity in the same place in each iron, which was kind of a revolutionary concept at the time.”
They had the basic idea down but what was missing was what we now call visual technology, something sales reps – and the consumer – could latch on to.
“No one was using graphic designers or product development people the way they do today. We had to develop a back design, so on the way home I took out some notepaper and scribbled out the little back pads for the irons.”
Those “little back pads” became the signature look of the 845s and Hoeflich whipped up a prototype the old-fashioned way.
“When I got home, I got some candles and melted the wax into the shape of a cavity and those cavity balance weight pads. That was the weighting concept. Those pads changed shape as you went from the 2-iron to the pitching wedge to keep the weight balanced in the center of the club.”
Today, a team of engineers working with computers, wind tunnels, robots, and artificial intelligence create new designs and then the marketing gurus figure out what’s going to sell and how to sell it. Could you imagine a marketing guy today designing the Mavrik irons with some melted candles at his kitchen table?
Naming the 845 is another lesson in the way things used to be. You’d think those numbers – 8-4-5 – represent a math formula or weighting ratio or some such other technical wizardry and was inspired by focus-group input and approval.
You’d be wrong.
“The club that came out before the 845 was actually the 835 Silver Scot metalwood,” said Hoeflich. “That came from the address of PGA Golf – 8350 North Lehigh Avenue in Morton Grove. That’s where 835 came from, so the 845 was just 10 more.”
And that iconic font on the back that put a ribbon and bow on the iconic look of the 845s?
“That came from the back end of my buddy’s car, a Porsche 928,” says Hoeflich.
A Seven-Year Reign
August 1987 was eventful for Tommy Armour, as British conglomerate Hanson Trust bought Kidde, Inc., lock, stock, and barrel for $1.6 billion.
Within days of the sale, Tommy Armour released the 845s.
It was, in every way, the perfect product with a perfect message targeted at the perfect audience at the perfect point in time. And its success put Tommy Armour on a seven-year run like the golf industry had never seen.
“One of the reasons the 845 was so successful is we had a really experienced sales team that loved selling clubs,” said Hoeflich. “But in the early ’80s, the Mark Scot clothing line with Sansabelt slacks was really popular, so the sales team segued into soft goods.
“But they always loved selling clubs. When the 845 came out, the guys just jumped all over it.”
The 845s isn’t terribly “game improvement” by today’s standards, but in 1987 it was top-shelf tech. This blurb from the Tommy Armour product catalog tells the story:
“Everyone from scratch players to 12 handicappers tell us they’re hitting shots one club longer than the clubs they used to play. That’s not surprising since the 845s long irons have been designed for power and accuracy. They look and feel like long irons should, with a straight leading edge, strong top line, generous offset, and a solid feel.”
That sure as shootin’ could have been written in 2020, couldn’t it?
“Every cavity balanced 845s iron has its sweet spot engineered just where it should be – in the precise physical and optical center of the club, resulting in a much larger effective hitting area.”
Spec-wise, the 845s featured a 36-degree 7-iron and light swing weights ranging from C9 to D1 in stiff flex.
The 845s stayed current in Tommy Armour’s catalog for seven years – an inconceivable run considering today’s one- to two-year product cycles. The company squeezed every last dollar out of those sticks, too, selling more than 660,000 sets over that time. That unprecedented success not only changed Tommy Armour’s fortunes, but also those of a key competitor.
The Ben Hogan Company, fearing being left in the dust by the 845s, launched its own perimeter-weighted iron: the Hogan Edge. The Edge became the best-selling iron Hogan ever produced. Hogan and Tommy Armour spent the next several years duking it out for the No. 2 spot in irons behind PING.
Missteps and Mistakes
The 845s may have spent seven years at the top of the charts, but its legacy is that of a One-Hit Wonder. You can say its success ultimately led to Tommy Armour’s demise and you’d be right. But you can also say the company was a victim – a pawn in a much larger chess match between corporations and personalities that didn’t know their own limitations.
In 1995, Hanson spun off several of its companies, including Tommy Armour, to a New Jersey-based group called U.S. Industries. The sale left the new ownership somewhat leveraged and U.S. Industries had Tommy Armour on its shortlist of assets to sell off to help recoup some of its new debt.
On the other hand, Tommy Armour’s sales had doubled to nearly $50 million since the launch of the 845s. That was the good news. The bad news is an old business truism that says manufacturers rely on new products for long-term, sustainable growth. And there had been nothing compelling in Tommy Armour’s pipeline since the 845s launch.
The company had high hopes for the EQL one-length irons introduced in 1989 but they never gained traction.
“Sales reps would go into accounts to show the EQL,” said Hoeflich. “They’d also show the 845 and the customers would say, ‘I’m only going to stock one club, do you want it to be the 845 or the EQL?’ The sales reps were no idiots. They wrote the 845 business and the EQL was kind of shoved into the background.”
Another business truism is that rapid growth is a double-edged sword. Management loves the top line but the necessary investment in production capabilities, assembly personnel, customer service, sales, marketing, warehousing, accounts payable, accounts receivable, and other overhead can put serious stress on the bottom line and on working capital. It’s also known as out-kicking your coverage.
Day Late, Dollar Short
When Tommy Armour released the 855 Silver Scots in 1995 to counter the new and incredibly popular King Cobra irons, they were more than a little late to the party. Weak advertising support combined with production problems compounded the issue, creating months-long backorders and impatient customers with money to spend but no Tommy Armour product to buy. Cobra happily filled that void.
Hoeflich was long gone from Tommy Armour by then. His next iron design – the Titleist DCI Gold – was another home run and, not coincidentally, had the same basic offset and profile as the 845.
“We then launched the DCI Black which was a less-offset version of the Gold. I think if Tommy Armour had launched a less-offset version of the 845, it would have run for another three or four years.”
That didn’t happen for several reasons. Remember that stress on working capital thing we discussed earlier? Tommy Armour management either wouldn’t or couldn’t pull the trigger on another $10,000 for new tooling. The mindset, apparently, was if it ain’t broke, let’s not spend money we don’t have to fix it. Safe? Absolutely, but when the competition innovates and you don’t? You can guess what happened.
The Unraveling Begins
1995 was the beginning of the end for Tommy Armour, even though it didn’t look that way. In February, U.S. Industries bought Odyssey Sports of Carlsbad, CA, (yes, that Odyssey) for $17 million. As part of the deal, Michael Magerman – Odyssey’s 33-year-old co-founder and president – was named Tommy Armour’s president and CEO. His plan? Get aggressive, invest heavily in R&D and sign tour pros.
The plan paid immediate dividends with staffers Jim Gallagher and Davis Love III copping wins that first year. Magerman was bullish on Tommy Armour’s future, saying, somewhat prophetically, “this company will look very different a year from now.”
Actually, it took two years and one teardrop, but Magerman was spot-on correct.
Just not in the way he meant.
Magerman was an avid tennis player and oversized tennis rackets were all the craze (as was the King Cobra), hence the 855 irons and Magerman’s pet project, the full titanium Ti-100 irons. The company bet the ranch on the Ti-100 in 1996-’97 and lost badly, as the Ti-100s set a new standard for golf industry flops.
By mid-1997, U.S. Industries was losing its appetite for golf and wanted out. Callaway came with a big check – $130 million – that July and bought Odyssey (the rest is history), and ownership put the word out that Tommy Armour could be had if the price was right.
Lonely Tear Drops
At that same time, the TearDrop putter company was riding high, thanks to Rudy Slucker. TearDrop had been a financial mess until Slucker – who made so much money in the hardware business he was able to retire at age 40 – came to the rescue.
“I needed something to do,” he said at the time.
Slucker turned TearDrop around almost immediately and must have figured he could do it again. By the end of ’97, TearDrop purchased RAM Golf for $10 million and Tommy Armour for $24 million. That both companies were relative bargains should have been a warning.
By 1999, Tommy Armour released the TA 845 EVO line, the first true replacement for the 845s. The golf world reacted with a collective yawn. Sales dropped 16% that year and the bottom-line ink turned a deeper, darker shade of red.
Slucker’s magic touch was failing him so he turned to the golf industry’s time-tested Bad Decision Playbook. Page One says “cut expenses by slashing R&D and marketing to the bone.” Page Two says “cut prices to make the sales numbers look good to investors, margin be damned.”
Both plays worked to perfection, if by “perfection” you mean “disaster.” With no marketing money, the company couldn’t promote new products, which was fine because R&D had no money to develop new products. And cutting price to move volume left them with no margin to fund new R&D and marketing efforts.
It’s called the Bad Decision Playbook for a reason.
Gilford Securities Analyst Casey Alexander put it bluntly to Crain’s Chicago Business that year. “The company is highly leveraged in an extremely competitive industry. They can’t afford for too many things to go wrong. They’re walking on a tightrope.”
Too many things did go wrong for TearDrop. Sales plummeted 42% and the sea of red ink kept getting deeper. TearDrop filed for bankruptcy, having never turned a profit during its three-year stewardship, leaving behind an army of unpaid creditors.
The Gen-X and Huffy Years
Next up in the ownership chorus line was the Canadian scooter and snowboard company Gen-X, which bought now-bankrupt TearDrop/Tommy Armour in early 2001. Gen-X had no background in golf so it teamed up with GolfWorks and Ralph Maltby in hopes of turning chicken-you-know-what into chicken salad.
It wasn’t a bad move.
Maltby brought back the original mass properties of Hoeflich’s design and developed an entirely new line of 845 irons. During the next two years, Maltby introduced eight models based on the 845, with all assembly done by Golfworks.
Unfortunately, the ownership game of hot potato was about to enter the lightning round. By late 2002, Gen-X was sold to Huffy, the bicycle, and sporting goods company, for $19 million in cash plus five million shares of stock. Huffy Chairman Don Graber said, “This acquisition is a significant step forward toward our strategic vision of positioning Huffy for future growth as a diversified, branded sporting goods company.”
Turned out it wasn’t.
Less than 18 months later, Huffy sold Gen-X – minus the Tommy Armour brand – back to its original owner for an undisclosed amount, but we’re guessing it wasn’t at a profit. Huffy, as it turned out, was sinking faster than anyone realized. The New York Stock Exchange gave Huffy the boot in August 2004 when its stock price bottomed out at 58 cents. By October, Huffy filed for Chapter 11.
That, ultimately, is how Sports Authority came to own the Tommy Armour Brand. The sports retailer snapped up Huffy’s assets within days of the Chapter 11 filing. Sports Authority was no golf authority, however. It reduced Tommy Armour and the 845s to an embarrassingly low-priced, low-quality house brand.
Karma – or maybe the ghost of the Silver Scot himself – had the last laugh as Sports Authority filed for bankruptcy in March 2016. Dick’s Sporting Goods bought Sports Authority’s assets that July and is steadily trying to rebuild Tommy Armour into a high-quality, high-performing, high-value house brand.
Long and Winding Road
Icons just won’t go away. That’s what makes them icons. At 56 years old, the Ford Mustang is still as cool as ever. We still love the Beatles and, even though Elvis has been dead for more than 40 years, he’s still Elvis.
Dick’s apparently understands what it has in the 845s, which is why the namesake is making a comeback next month. For some, the name will bring back fond memories of a long-lost love; for others, it will be just another store-brand club at a big-box retailer. But if you appreciate history and the people who made it, the 845s is a reminder of simpler times when real people, like John Hoeflich and his team, created real things that mattered.
But, ultimately, any club carrying the 845 name has to do one thing and that’s perform.
“I hope they don’t screw it up,” said Hoeflich. “The club itself was a labor of love for a lot of reasons and I’m proud to say I took part in the development and launch of that product – I’ve always had a soft spot in my heart for it.
“There were a lot of people involved in the success of that club but I’m really excited to see what Dick’s does with it.”