It’s generally accepted that nine out of every 10 drivers sold come from Callaway, TaylorMade, PING, Titleist and Cobra – the so-called Big Five. It’s a ratio that hasn’t moved much, if at all, this century. Sure, there have been individual clubs that have stood out for a season or two but, by and large, the status quo remains unthreatened.

The Big Five’s domination is so complete that there’s precious little room at the table for the “challenger brands.” Companies such as Wilson, Cleveland-Srixon, Mizuno, PXG and every other company that makes drivers are fighting and scrapping for just a sliver of that last 10 percent of the driver market.

As far as the Big Five are concerned, the challenger brands are more of an annoyance than anything else.

Against that backdrop, Tour Edge’s five straight years of record sales and 33 straight years of turning a profit are, on the face of it, remarkable. At the very least, it’s worth a deeper dive to find out why.

Tour Edge: A Little Background

David Glod started Tour Edge in his garage outside of Chicago in the mid-1980s. A college teammate of Lee Janzen and Rocco Mediate, Glod was equal parts golf pro and entrepreneur. Like any good entrepreneur, he found a large gaping hole in a lucrative market: high-quality, low-cost clubs for the average recreational golfer. By 2000, Glod decided to expand into premium equipment aimed at the better player and in 2005 introduced the ultra-premium Exotics line.

“When Exotics started out, David wanted something high-priced,” says Tour Edge Marketing VP Jon Claffey. “He had the only $400 fairway wood on the market and he did that to get attention. From there, guys like Kuchar and Snedeker and JB Holmes and Brian Gay and a few others chose to play our 3-woods and sometimes our hybrids for no compensation.”

Tour Edge

Exotics chalked up 10 PGA TOUR victories over the first 10 years but the last few years have been a bit of a redirect for the company. The value-priced, super game improvement Hot Launch line is still alive and kicking but Exotics has been completely rebranded as a value-priced, premium performance line.

At the same time, Tour Edge has embarked on a Golf Channel ad campaign and has established a major presence on the PGA TOUR Champions.

“We have four Champions Tour guys on staff,” says Claffey. “And we have 100 guys who’ve played us over the last three years for no compensation because our clubs work for them.”

Tour Edge and the PGA TOUR Champions: Filling Another Void

Luck, it has been said, is the residue of design. In 2018, Tour Edge stepped in a heaping pile of good luck when it decided to be a player on the Champions Tour.

“There had been a big void on the Champions Tour ever since Adams left,” says Claffey. “And the very first day we went out there, TaylorMade pulled its Champions Tour program. It was literally the first day we went out there.”

So, with Callaway as the only other OEM presence, Tour Edge decided to plant its flag with the Champions and make it their Tour home.

“Within three weeks, we picked up a dozen players,” says Claffey. “Contractually, there’s a lot more room in their bags for different clubs. At first, it was fairway woods, hybrids and utility irons but that grew into drivers this year. We had 20 different guys try our driver and put it into play and not one of them was under contract to do so.”

In 15 events this year, Tour Edge had more than 500 clubs in play with 45 different golfers. It was the Exotics EXS 220 and EXS Pro drivers, however, that made the needle move.

“You know how hard it is to get a pro to switch drivers,” says Claffey. “A player would come by our trailer on the range and say, ‘yeah, I’ll try this out.’ We’d get them on TrackMan and put our driver up against their gamer. To gain 20 different guys playing our drivers over 15 events? That was eye-opening.

“That’s the whole point for us being out there – that we can go toe to toe with anybody. They were looking only at performance and we won a lot of those battles. And they all stayed in play.”

What About the Big Five?

You’d think maybe – maybe – five straight years of record-setting sales, a growing PGA TOUR Champions presence and 33 straight years of profitability would worry the Big Five.

Hardly.

The status quo is one stubborn mistress. It doesn’t want to budge. What’s more, we golfers really don’t want it to move. And the reason won’t make you happy.

It’s marketing. More precisely, advertising.

The Big Five spend big bucks every year across every media platform you can imagine telling you about their new products. Sure, it’s to entice you with the latest and greatest. But even if you try to ignore it, advertising has an effect. Psychologists call it the mere exposure effect – the more you see something, the more likely you are to have a subconscious positive feeling towards it.

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So, yes, in a micro sense advertising is transactional. But in a macro sense, it’s attitudinal. Big Five advertising does want to sell you stuff but more importantly, it’s to remind you they are, in fact, the Big Five. They have the R&D juice, the innovation, the materials and the wherewithal to provide you with the best-performing golf gear on the planet. They tell you that every year until at some point it becomes a baseline fact of life. Callaway and TaylorMade make long drivers. PING makes forgiving drivers. Cobra makes innovative drivers and Titleist makes the drivers more players on Tour use.

Mizuno, Srixon-Cleveland and Wilson? Just watching.

We like to think we’re immune to it but we’re not. Advertising’s subtle and long-lasting impact influences our attitudes and behavior without us even realizing it and it’s why the Big Five sell nine out of every 10 drivers.

And this is what a company such as Tour Edge – and the other challengers – are up against.

A Math Exercise

In MyGolfSpy’s 2020 Most Wanted Driver testing, the Tour Edge EXS 220 was named Best Value with an original price of $349.99 (it’s currently $249.99). It finished fifth overall in carry distance behind the PING G410 LST, TaylorMade SIM, TaylorMade SIM Max D and Callaway Mavrik Sub Zero – all priced between $500 and $550. Overall, the EXS 220 finished sixth in strokes gained, 0.027 strokes behind the winning PING G410 LST. That’s $150 for 3/100s of a stroke gained.

The original Tour Edge EXS driver was named Best Value in 2019. Out of 24 drivers tested, it was ninth in overall distance and 10th in carry distance. If your price-value matrix includes dollars-per-yard, consider this:

  • The longest drivers ran anywhere from $2 to $2.49 per yard.
  • The EXS was $1.26 per yard.

The longest driver in the test, the Callaway Epic Flash, was a shade over 3.5 yards – 10.5 feet – longer than the EXS. At launch, it was $230 more than the EXS. That’s nearly a $66-per-yard premium.

Best Drivers for 2020 - Tour Edge EXS 220

Several other value-priced drivers – the Wilson D7, Sub70 839D, Tommy Armour Atomic and Cleveland Launcher HB Turbo – were all within nine yards and 4/100ths of a stroke gained of the leaders. You’d think with performance that often outperformed Big Five drivers – and with much more attractive pricing – the challenger brands might start crashing the Big Five’s party.

Obviously, that hasn’t happened. The reasons are many. First, if a golfer doesn’t consider a challenger brand when shopping, it never gets to the hitting bay. Second, if a custom fitter doesn’t offer a challenger brand, it never gets to the hitting bay. And third, the retailer has to want to sell a challenger brand or it never gets to the hitting bay.

The Tour Edge Retail Gambit

“Retailers have to understand we’re not cannibalizing their $500 drivers,” insists Claffey. “They worry a guy testing this $250 Tour Edge against a $500 TaylorMade will walk out with the $250 club. They want to sell the $500 club.”

With EXS, Tour Edge is targeting golfers who want performance but have price limitations. Those golfers typically wait for end-of-life-cycle closeouts but Claffey says Tour Edge appeals to golfers who aren’t – in his words – “brand snobs.”

“A huge percentage of golfers out there are discerning customers and care about new technology,” he says. “But they’re not going to pay $600 for a new driver. It’s not in their wheelhouse.”

Tour Edge

Those golfers, however, are right in the Tour Edge wheelhouse.

“In our focus groups, we find there are more discerning golfers on a budget than most realize,” says Claffey. “We cater to the anti-brand guys. As many people who play Pro V1, there are as many who don’t because they’re Titleist. We’re the company that’s going to meet you in the middle. Not only do we have something that’s good, it’s half the price.”

Retailers, however, thrive on a common consumer mindset: if something costs more it must be better. The brain simply can’t process the notion that something way less expensive can be just as good. Call it brandwashing, call it marketing run amok or call it just plain dumb if you want but it afflicts the consumer in all of us at some point.

Think you’re immune? Ask yourself if, while reading the previous section of this article, you thought to yourself, “I’ll just wait a year and buy the Callaway/TaylorMade/PING when it goes on sale instead.” Then ask yourself why you thought that. After all, the Tour Edge or equivalent is most likely on sale, too.

Tour Edge

How Do You Fight the Big Five?

That’s a million-dollar question right there. You can’t really outspend them and you can’t copy them. If you’re Wilson or Cleveland and try to act like Callaway or TaylorMade, you’ll just look silly.

You can take the PXG approach and charge a premium price and make money on what you sell. You may not move a lot of units but you will make money. Then there’s the Mizuno approach, where you claim the high ground in one specific category and ride that horse for all it’s worth. Or there’s the Wilson-Srixon-Cleveland approach, where you position yourself as premium but offer value in the biggest-selling categories. You get your share and make some money but growth is incremental.

In each case, you’re never going to turn the Big Five into the Big Six or Big Seven – it just doesn’t work that way. You grow a little, you make money for your ownership and then you grow a little more.

A photo of Tour Edge Hot Launch 521 Drivers

Tour Edge is taking a different approach with its EXS and the new Hot Launch 521 series. Trim some margin, offer value at a low price and target your niche.

“There are always going to be people who want to support smaller companies,” says Claffey. “That’s what we’ve been harping on the past few years with our marketing. We assemble in the U.S., we’re a Midwest company going against the industry’s behemoths. We’re tiny compared to these companies but we’re getting market share.”

Units Versus Dollars

Depending on how you keep score, Tour Edge is making market share noise. This past July, when the golf industry set a record for monthly sales, Tour Edge scored a 12-percent market share in metalwoods sold off-course. That’s tied with Cobra, well ahead of Titleist and behind only TaylorMade, Callaway and PING.

That share, however, is units, not dollars. While it’s nice to sell a lot of units, how you sell them and for how much matters. Much of Tour Edge’s July sales came in the form of boxed sets for beginners so the average selling price for those metalwoods was very low.

But still, volume is volume and it can be profitable if you play the game right.

“We’ve never not made money,” says Claffey. “We run this business like a business and we need to make a profit every year. We’re all about getting more units out there. We definitely pay really close attention to where everything is priced and we always want to provide more performance and more technology per dollar than anyone else does.”

At the end of the day, the obstacle that challenger brands face isn’t to take on the Big Five. They know they can’t. Instead, it’s about making money and growing enough to make it a worthwhile enterprise.

“We’re kind of on an island by ourselves with this price-point game we’re playing,” says Claffey. “We sacrificed margin with the original EXS driver so we could get units going and get word of mouth going and have that grassroots marketing take hold.

“People like to talk about how good their products perform and they love a deal. When someone gains performance and they get it for half the price, they start spreading the word. That’s how we make our hay.”

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