Written By: Tony Covey
It sounds almost inconceivable, but it seems that TaylorMade is creeping closer towards blowing the lid (and the walls) off the oppressive little 460cc box the USGA has stuffed the golf equipment companies into.
Reputable sources are telling us in no uncertain terms that TaylorMade is planning to launch a line of non-conforming golf clubs.
If it proves true, I don’t think it’s overstating to say that TaylorMade would be poised to flip the entire equipment industry ass-end-up, while setting up what could be a very tense showdown with the USGA over its governance of the recreational game.
This is potentially nothing less than the biggest equipment story since...well…maybe ever.
A Brief History of Suggestion
As you may recall, TaylorMade CEO, Mark King, In an interview with ScoreGolf’s Rick Young suggested that if the anchoring ban passed TaylorMade would give serious thought to continuing production of belly putters.
So far that hasn’t happened, but that’s hardly the end of it.
Adding fuel to the fire, Golf Digest recently published excerpts from an interview with Sean Toulon, TaylorMade’s Executive Vice President. In that that video (also from the PGA show) Toulon further suggests that TaylorMade might consider releasing non-conforming clubs.
The timing of this week’s Golf Digest STX article is particularly curious. There’s enough happening in the equipment industry right now that there’s zero practical reason to publish an 8 month old interview that focuses on TaylorMade potentially dropping the hammer…unless well…you have pretty good info that TaylorMade is about to let go of a seriously big hammer.
If we’re hearing chatter, one would think Golf Digest is too.
Reality and Bullshit
Rumors of a non-conforming line underneath the TaylorMade umbrella have been swirling for months. While one reliable source recently put the probability of a non-conforming line at 100%, I’d personally be shocked to see a single USGA illegal club with the TaylorMade logo on it. Adams is a better possibility. Was non-conformity the ultimate objective in acquiring the Adams brand? And while it’s a long shot, TaylorMade still owns the rights to the Noodle brand as well.
Is there a better name for a non-conforming club than Noodle?
Around here, we’re fond of saying “It’s bullshit until it’s not”, and so until a manufacturer of repute actually releases a non-conforming club, no matter how good our source, we can’t be completely certain that anybody in the golf industry has the stomach to actually take on the USGA, but nevertheless, it’s a fascinating proposition.
A Fine Line Between Insanity and Genius
Since we first heard the suggestion that one of the giants of the golf equipment industry might be giving serious consideration to creating an offering for the less rules conscious among us, we’ve batted around the potential implications.
Would the weekend hackers and other strictly recreational golfers respond positively to mainstream equipment truly designed with them in mind?
Would the purists, and traditionalists, and self-appointed protectors of the game respond with outrage and contempt for the first mainstream company to create what will surely be viewed by some as clubs for cheaters?
There’s a lot at risk here.
If rumors become reality, there’s reason to believe the USGA might be forced to finally acknowledge the chasm between the competitive golfer and the exclusively recreational crowd. The first company in…doesn’t matter if it’s TaylorMade or someone else, will absolutely be risking the credibility of their brand.
It’s equal partS insanity and strategic genius. It’s the equipment industry’s ultimate risk reward scenario. A well-executed move into the non-conforming space has the potential to not only spawn a new category of equipment, but lead the industry into a new era of innovation – and innovation is the real key to all of this.
A poorly executed plan, or simply a poor plan, could put you out of business. Golfers have long memories. Whoever goes first has the one and only shot to fundamentally change the game.
We are the Minority
Before you form your opinion (assuming you haven’t done so already), I’d like you to take a moment to consider a few things.
If you’re reading this, you are not the average golfer. The average golfer, at least in terms of the raw numbers, doesn’t spend his time in golf forums reading rumors like this one.
If you play by the letter of the USGA’s rulebook, always keep score, and compete in tournaments, you are not the average golfer either.
The real average golfers, and in fact the majority of golfers are the weekend duffers; the recreational crowd. They play by their own rules. They keep score loosely, if at all. They don’t play in tournaments, or even for money. They believe the foot wedge is the unsung hero of the golf bag (they might be right), and I can assure you they don’t give a damn what the USGA thinks about any of it.
For them, golf is simply about having a good time (crazy, right?), and in that context, there’s absolutely no practical reason why those guys should be limited by the USGA’s authoritarian approach to the golf equipment industry.
They are the masses, and yet, because of the USGA’s rules on equipment, nobody with any real skin in the game is actually designing clubs with them in mind.
Think about this too. The USGA has effectively told the golf manufacturers that they must ignore a sizeable portion of the golfing population (and a sizeable population of their potential customer base) because it would cause an inconvenient problem with the same rulebook that the golfers in question ignore.
Would that fly at your office?
And so for a moment, put yourself in a golf company’s shoes. How do you respond to an organization seemingly incapable of drawing the obvious line between competitive and recreational play, and because of that inability inhibits your ability to truly innovate, reach more customers, and potentially make the game more enjoyable for more golfers?
The way I see it, you have two choices.
You can be a good dog, roll over, and take whatever your master gives you.
Or…if you’ve got the stones for it, you take the blue pill, and get serious about making the game more enjoyable for more golfers.
The USGA Has Over-Stepped
As trustee for the rules of golf, the USGA has grossly over-stepped in their management of the equipment space. It’s one thing to create rules defining competition-legal equipment, it’s quite another to issue a mandate effectively prohibiting golf companies from producing anything that doesn’t conform.
We’ve talked about Major League Baseball governing Little League or the NFL forcing its rules on Pop Warner (that ball is not regulation, kid), but the closest parallel I can find to golf is competitive cycling.
As with golf, the UCI (cycling’s governing body) has rules that cover every aspect of the spot, including equipment. There are bikes that are deemed competition-legal and bikes that are not. The difference between golf and cycling is that if I just want something to ride around the neighborhood, my choices aren’t limited to UCI legal bikes.
I’m free to buy a non-conforming bike from any number of reputable, top-tier companies, and nobody is going to accuse me of cheating anyone or anything.
How is that any different from a recreational golfer who plays non-conforming clubs?
And you know what…while cycling has its share of problems; recreational cyclists, and kids jumping mounds of dirt on Huffys aren’t among them.
Why should guys who aren’t competing against anyone be forced to make a choice between playing competition legal equipment, or non-conforming clubs from a relative nobody?
Why should the USGA dictate what equipment is available to the recreational golfer?
There is Zero Real Innovation in Golf
We hear complaints all the time about how the golf companies haven’t done anything truly innovative in years. It’s all the same and worse yet, it’s the same as it was last year, and the year before that.
While I would argue that things like adjustable weights and hosels, speed slots, and more consistent faces are actually innovative, and have incrementally improved the performance of today’s equipment, nobody (well, nobody other than their creators) is suggesting that any of these new technologies have revolutionized the equipment industry.
Everything is incrementally better, but the increments are getting smaller.
Non-Conformity is the Gateway to Innovation
More than anything else, a line of non-conforming clubs would give the golf companies something they haven’t had in a while; complete and total freedom to innovate. As it is in nearly any other industry, imagination, not regulation, becomes the limiting factor.
Since a non-conforming line wouldn’t be bound by any of the conventions of what a golf club is, what it looks like, what it’s made from; golf companies would be free to experiment with new materials, new geometry, and completely new ideas.
How is this bad for golf?
The recreational market, I believe, would be much more accepting of designs that don’t fit the traditional molds. The possibilities are limitless. I’m talking about an untethered breeding ground for actual innovation.
You want to bring the excitement back to the golf equipment world? This is where it starts.
And here’s the rub…for the conformists among us. Those of us who do play by the letter (mostly), and who compete in tournaments, but who still want some really cool shit in our golf bags, I’m all but certain that some of the really innovative ideas born from the freedom of non-conformity will work their way back into conforming lines.
Non-conforming equipment means better conforming equipment.
Non-Conforming Equipment is Good for Golf
You think I’m insane? I’m just getting started.
Mainstream non-conforming equipment could ultimately be good for the health of the game. While I’m not one to believe that slow play is killing golf, or long courses are killing golf, or the cost of equipment and tee times is killing golf (nothing is actually killing golf), I think there are some pretty simple steps we could take to improve the overall health of the game, and letting golfers play gear that makes the game more enjoyable is certainly one of them.
+ You want to mitigate the impact of longer courses? Let guys hit the ball farther.
+ You want to speed up play? Let guys hit the ball straighter and keep them out of the damn woods.
+ You want to attract new golfers? Make the game more fun, and part of that means giving non-competitive golfers the ability to play whatever it is that makes the game more enjoyable for them.
And what about the guy who can’t bend over, or who got hurt and lost 50 yards?
What’s the greater tragedy, having somebody who used to love the game walk off the course and never come back, or allowing them to play (recreationally, of course) with anchored putters and juiced up drivers?
Non-Conforming Equipment is Bad for Golf
I’ve heard the arguments against bucking the USGA. If we allow non-conforming clubs to penetrate the market, guys will start using them in tournaments. Guys who play by the rules will become frustrated and leave the game. The cheaters will take over, and the integrity of the game will be compromised.
Non-Conforming clubs from big golf companies will destroy golf.
I love a good slippery slope argument. Actually, I’ve never heard a good slippery slope argument, but you get my point.
The truly great thing about golf is that it’s a game of personal integrity. Mainstream availability of non-conforming clubs won’t change that because the guys who will buy them will be guys who have no intention of competing with anyone.
The existence of non-conforming clubs should be fundamentally disconnected from any supposition that it will lead to widespread cheating. Golf is a game of integrity. The capabilities of the equipment won’t change that.
The position that non-conforming clubs for recreational golfers are bad for the game comes from a place of fear…and fear is the enemy of progress and innovation.
Brand Integrity on the Line
Make no mistake about it. If this is real, if one of the big golf companies actually releases an entire lineup of non-conforming clubs, there will be credibility issues.
Would that company be perceived as a brand that aggressively seeks to make the game more enjoyable for the masses? Or would we perceive them as a brand that complicity supports cheaters and thieves on its way to destroying the game of golf.
Perception…and in this case that means marketing will be everything.
There will be backlash. That is a certainty. Hell, we felt the backlash after we published an article about spin reducing lube. Traditionalists hammered us for condoning, even supporting cheating. They proclaimed that no “real golfer” would ever use it, and they vowed never to return to MyGolfSpy again.
I thought that was kind of harsh.
Any big brand releasing non-conforming equipment would certainly face similar scrutiny and more of it. Competitors would have a field day…picnics, games, the works.
The thing is, the guys who get worked up about such things aren’t the guys who generally buy equipment from brands who would have the stones to be the first ones in with a non-conforming line (in my mind there’s only 2 or 3 that would). There’s very little harm in alienating a consumer that was never going to buy from you anyway.
I think it could work…maybe.
A company could succeed through non-conformity. It sounds insane given how some golfers cling to their notions of tradition, but I believe that’s a very small and declining minority. I’m also certain we wouldn’t even be talking about it unless somebody hadn’t already figured out that the demand exists.
Big brand non-conformity is almost certainly going to happen, and it’s probably going to happen soon. This is not the first company we have been hearing might release a non-conforming line of clubs. It's just a matter of time.
But like I said, it’s all bullshit until it isn’t.