Companies tell you they design for their Tour Staff all the time. TaylorMade has spent the last several months talking about all the clubs it’s been designing for Tiger. A couple of years ago, Cobra designed a short-shafted Baffler fairway for Rickie to use at Augusta, and collaborations between Callaway and Phil brought us the PM Grind wedge and the Frankenwood.
Delivering the We designed X for player Y, and now we’re making it available to you message is an integral piece of nearly every golf equipment marketing plan, but (he said, warming up his 30 for 30 voice);
What if I told you that Mizuno, with the hope of adding an impact player to its roster, designed an iron for a golfer who wasn’t on its tour staff?
And what if I told you that before Mizuno could show the iron to that player, he signed with another brand?
This is a story of a bold plan, failure, and ultimately triumph. It’s a textbook example of victory snatched from the jaws of defeat.
Well, maybe that’s overselling it just a bit.
This is the incredible true story of how Mizuno, in an effort to bring tour credibility to its JPX lineup, created an iron for the man they’d hope would become Mr. JPX – only to see that player sign with someone else.
It’s the story of how, in spite of missing out, Mizuno reaped the benefits of an almost incomprehensible twist of fate and along the way saw the first JPX iron it designed specifically for The Tour capture a Major Championship.
The Best Laid Plans
Our story begins sometime in the second half of 2014. Mizuno was laying plans to shuffle the deck on its iron lineup. Like a good bit of the equipment industry, the company’s catalog had grown bloated. An effort was underway to slim its iron count from 8 to 6 while tweaking its release schedules such that new MP and JPX product would launch in alternating years.
A reasonable plan, but Mizuno had a problem.
The previous JPX released featured the JPX 850. It was a good iron, but Mizuno willingly concedes it lacked the connection to better players that is synonymous with its MP line. As a consequence of its lack of Tour play, JPX didn’t bring the same credibility to retail. The bulk of retail iron dollars are spent in the game-improvement category, and while the tour heritage of Mizuno’s MP line is undeniable, that rich history had done little to boost JPX sales. Mizuno wasn’t moving the needle where the real money is made.
If JPX was going to be successful in the U.S., Mizuno would need to expand its reach beyond the game-improvement space. The lineup would need a shallow cavityback offering; something akin to the MP-62, MP-64, or MP-59. So, a plan was hatched. It called for the literal reshaping of the JPX line. The goal was to make a new and different kind of JPX, get it in play on tour, and bring it to retail as a tour-validated product. If it all came together as planned, that validation would trickle down to the game-improvement space where it would help boost JPX irons sales.
Another reasonable plan, but again, Mizuno had a problem.
To a man, Mizuno’s tour staff fit the mold of an MP player. Call it classical, timeless, or fundamental; soft-spoken and understated. Luke Donald was an MP player, the face of the brand too, but not at all what Mizuno envisioned for JPX on tour.
To rebrand the line, Mizuno would need to put a new face to the JPX franchise. The question being kicked around inside Mizuno was can we sign an athlete, a younger, modern, more aggressive player? Mizuno needed a stud, and it wasn’t long before it had zeroed in on one stud in particular.
Landing Mr. JPX
Titleist’s contracts with Justin Thomas and Brooks Koepka were set to expire at the end of the year. The thinking across the industry was that Titleist wouldn’t retain both and most surmised that it would be Koepka who’d be looking for a new equipment deal.
The first part of the plan to bring Koepka into the Mizuno fold involved designing a JPX iron that he would find appealing. Since Mizuno couldn’t work with him directly, Mizuno’s team analyzed his game – shot shape, trajectory, launch monitor numbers…that sort of thing. They also looked at how he dressed, and how he carried himself on and off the course. In short, Mizuno’s team took its best shot at getting to know Brooks Koepka even if couldn’t actually get to know Brooks Koepka.
The iron itself would need to look the part of the player. For Mizuno that meant a radical departure from its previous tour offerings. A JPX Tour iron required a modern look; hard lines and hard edges, but it still needed to be compact. It needed to be everything Brooks Koepka would want in an iron.
By the time the 2015 Players Championship rolled around, the JPX 900 Tour was ready. Mizuno considered bringing it to Brooks that week, but it would have been a breach of etiquette to put it in the hands of a player with the better part of 8 months left on his contract with a competitor. Typically, the new signing season starts in earnest much later in the summer and into the fall. Mizuno would have to wait to show Brooks Koepka the iron it had made for him.
At the same time, the Mizuno team was working to get approval on a proposal to sign a new face player. There’s a culture clash of sorts at Mizuno where the modern pay for play standard of the PGA Tour is often at odds with company leadership’s unwavering belief that there is no greater validation than having your product played without compensation. As sometimes happens, internal negotiations and foot-dragging carried on too long.
Young, modern, and aggressive, it turns out, were also the defining characteristics of the prototype Nike Golf athlete. Before Mizuno could even put an offer on the table, Koepka signed with the Swoosh.
Mizuno never had the chance to show him his irons.
2015 rolled into 2016 and Mizuno hadn’t signed anyone. There would be no Mr. JPX.
Fast forward to August 3rd, 2016. After half a decade of rumors that it was considering pulling the plug, Nike bailed on the golf equipment business. Overnight, a slew of marquee names were equipment free agents.
TaylorMade invested heavily in Tiger Woods and Rory McIlroy, but what no one could have predicted was that Mizuno would be the greatest beneficiary – at least in terms of tour play – of the NEXIT. A couple of those former Nike staffers, Johnny Vegas and Nick Watney (who shot 59 the first time he put the JPX 900 in the bag) signed deals with Mizuno, but many chose – and still choose – to put Mizuno irons in play without compensation. In fact, since Nike’s exit, weekly use of Mizuno irons on the PGA Tour has nearly doubled. This is a source of tremendous pride for Mizuno leadership.
At one time or another, former Nike staffers Ross Fisher, Kevin Chappell, Jamie Lovemark, and Paul Casey have all competed with Mizuno irons in the bag.
And that brings us back to Brooks Koepka…
Heading into the 2017 season, nearly everybody in the equipment biz was sending Koepka product with the hope of signing him to a long-term deal, or at the very least, getting their gear in his bag until someone else did. Fortuitously for Mizuno, by the end of the 2017 California swing, Koepka had put the JPX 900 Tour – his JPX 900 Tour – in the bag, still unaware that it had been designed specifically for him.
The rest is, as they say, history. Brooks Koepka, with the JPX 900 Tour in the bag, wins the 2017 U.S. Open at Erin Hills by four strokes. He claims his first Major, and in doing so, gives Mizuno’s JPX line the tour validation the company hoped he would when it first launched its plan to sign him.
From end to end, it’s an absolutely incredible story. Mizuno wants to sign Brooks Koepka, so they create an iron they think will appeal to him – specifically to him. Before they can show Koepka his iron, he cuts a deal with Nike. Less than a year later, Nike Golf effectively goes out of business and, free to play literally any iron on the market, Brooks Koepka chooses the Mizuno JPX 900 Tour and ends up winning the U.S. Open with it in the bag. And again, every last bit of it happens without Koepka knowing Mizuno made the JPX Tour for him.
Mind blown, right? Not Koepka’s. Sometime after winning the U.S. Open, Brooks Koepka was told that the JPX 900 was designed for him – it was always meant to be his iron.
One year after winning the U.S. Open at Erin Hills, Brooks Koepka continues to play without an equipment deal and continues to compete with the JPX 900 Tour irons in the bag.