Written by: Tony Covey
The war between TaylorMade and Callaway for the top spot in golf, for lack of a more intellectually-sounding description, just got weirder.
For those of you who haven't been keeping up, here's the the blow by blow recap:
- Callaway released two drivers (RAZR Fit Xtreme and XHot)
- TaylorMade released two drivers (R1 and RBZ Stage 2)
- TaylorMade filed a claim with the NDA over Callaway's use of the phrase "The Longest Driver in Golf"
- Callaway filed a claim with the NDA over a soundbite in a TaylorMade video in which CEO Mark King said the RocketBallz fairway gave the "average" player 17 more yards.
- It was really cold and snowy for a long time.
- TaylorMade cut prices.
- Callaway cut prices.
- TaylorMade cut prices again.
- TaylorMade painted the R1 Black.
- The NDA Settled the 2 cases between TaylorMade and Callaway (On paper TaylorMade won both.
- TaylorMade started selling white "Tour Issue" R1s.
- Callaway released the FT Optiforce.
- Callaway filed for enough Trademarks to fill a tour van (more on this in just a moment).
- ...and finally TaylorMade's SLDR Driver popped up at the John Deere while TaylorMade played coy with the details and retail release dates.
With the exception of late fall/spring business-as-usual releases, at least as it relates to this story, you can basically sum up what the rest of the industry was doing (or doing to each other) with two words: not much.
WHAT'S IN A NAME: SLDR vs. SLIDER
TaylorMade is notoriously good at hiding Trademarks and Patents, and even burying what you might call key technologies in seemingly innocuous and apparently unrelated patents. Callaway's tendency is to play things a bit more straight-forward.
The point of this story: When we looked, we couldn't find any TaylorMade Trademark for SLDR.
My guess is it doesn't exist.
Callaway on the other hand, they've been very busy basically Trademarking the hell out of anything and everything that could potentially describe a similarly designed sliding weight system.
Over a two day period (June 26th and June 27th) Callaway filed for the following Trademarks:
:: CG Track
:: CG Slider
:: CG Shifter
:: Piston Weighting Technology
:: Opti Track
:: Slider Weighting Technology
:: Flight Track
:: Slider Technology
:: Callaway Slider
:: Slider Tech
:: Slider Weighting
On July 8th (13 days after the first Callaway Trademark application), what's being called the TaylorMade SLDR Driver showed up on tour, on Facebook, on the USGA's conforming list, and just about every golf site on the planet.
Is anyone willing to go all-in with an assertion that this is just a bizarre coincidence?
What the Hell is Going On
I think it's reasonably safe to assume that while one company may not have detailed knowledge of everything in their competitor's long-term pipeline (they probably don't have CAD drawings for example). They most certainly have a solid understanding of what's in the short-term pipeline. We're not the only spies in golf.
We know that while TaylorMade remains out-front, Callaway has closed the market share gap (especially in the all-important metalwoods category). We've seen the price war, the beginnings of a release war, and it appears we could be on the leading edge of a Trademark, and potentially a patent war as well.
If it hasn't already, the proverbial shit is about to get real.
I'm fairly certain that at the higher levels of each company there is genuine animosity for the other. Simply put, both companies are keen on winning, and it would seem either would be more than content to step on the other's throat to do it.
The Chicken and the Egg
While it's easy to infer a lot from what's happening, what we can be less certain of is who's on offense and who's on defense...at least where Sliders and SLDRs are concerned.
Which came first?
Once plausible scenario is that in response to the release of FT Optiforce and the onslaught of Callaway Trademark applications, TaylorMade rushed a driver into the "Tour Prototype" phase and gave it a name that could easily be confused with what was covered by the recent Callaway Trademarks. Perhaps they had bad intel and mistakenly believed Optiforce featured Slider, or Opti Channel Technology.
It had to be released now.
It is more than a little curious that TaylorMade would choose to roll out a new driver on tour during a week when their big money staffers were all inactive. This fact alone suggest an element of immediacy.
The timing, according to TaylorMade PR Manager, Dave Cordero has as much to do with the PGA Tour season as anything else. Cordero told me that SLDR is an "incredible technology" that gives TaylorMade staffers "the best chance to win". "Innovation", said Cordero, "can't wait".
When I asked why TaylorMade was rolling the driver out to guys like Lucas Glover, Boo Weekly, and Ken Duke instead of Dustin Johnson, Sergio Garcia, and Justin Rose, Cordero suggested that the Open Championship probably isn't the best time to unveil a new driver, but that other TaylorMade staffers are working with the new driver, getting fit, and tweaking their configurations. It's all but certain that players in the Open Championship field will have the new driver in their bags.
Even if that makes sense, there's still the almost irrefutable assertion that SLDR (and we don't even know if that's the name...because it's just a "tour prototype" and it hasn't been Trademarked as far as we can tell) simply doesn't look like a TaylorMade driver.
Obviously that's a difficult point to quantify, but even out of context (no logos for example) most of us can identify TaylorMade drivers. R1 looked like R11s, which looked like R11, which looked like R9...and so it goes. The SLDR Prototype, if you saw it sitting on the shelf by itself would you think TaylorMade?
If SLDR is coming to retail, is this what it's going to look like? Where are TaylorMade's marketing heavy hitters? Mark King? Sean Toulon, Tom Kroll?
Did TaylorMade rush SLDR or is the first sign of a new release strategy from TaylorMade?
The million dollar question for TaylorMade:
- If SLDR isn't a direct reaction to Optiforce, why is the marketing approach so dramatically different from everything that's been successful in the past?
- Why, if SLDR wasn't a rush-job, why wasn't a Trademark filed on the SLDR name?
SLDR could simply be temporary. SLDR could simply be sloppy.
Given everything we've seen this year so far, it's perfectly reasonable to assume that TaylorMade would react to a new Callaway driver with a new driver of their own. For all of the major players in the industry the pipeline is at least 2 or 3 models deep, and it's not an insurmountable task to move up the release. You can call them prototypes all you want, but what we're really talking about is nearly-finished products waiting for their turn in line.
It's not like TaylorMade would have to design something from scratch to counter Optiforce.
13 days is potentially an issue. That's not much for lead time, but I can also tell you from experience with past releases, two weeks is a viable window provided you've got a design ready (or nearly ready) to go.
The sticking point in this scenario is the name. Even if you believe TaylorMade had a driver ready to go at basically any time (and I do), if SLDR is a reaction to Callaway's Slider Technology, TM would still need to do some retooling for the SLDR name to make it on to the sole plate.
It's not impossible, but it almost certainly shrinks the window.
In this entire story, it's the timeline that's the most difficult to reconcile.
Of course, if TaylorMade had advance knowledge of all of that Callaway's Slider (and related) stuff, then timing is a non-issue.
Callaway Playing Defense?
The other plausible scenario is that Callaway got wind that TaylorMade was about to release something that may or may not be called SLDR. As a response, it's possible that Callaway essentially Trademarked everything they possibly could similar to SLDR.
Did Callaway just try and Trademark TaylorMade into a corner?
The reality is, for all the head down, charge ahead, 5 year war stuff, Callaway has had to play its fair share of defense this year. When TaylorMade cut prices on their metal woods Callaway held out as long as they could, but the retail evidence suggests the cuts made a huge difference at the cash register and left Callaway with no option other to cut prices themselves.
When TaylorMade reacted immediately with a 2nd round of cuts, it no doubt ruffled some feathers at Callaway. It's tough to compete when the #1 Company in golf is selling 2013 models at 2011 closeout prices.
And of course, long before any of that happened, Callaway and TaylorMade filed suites against each other with the NDA.
In that particular case it's an absolute given that Callaway's counterclaim was a direct reaction to the initial TaylorMade action.
Is that what we're seeing here?
I've said this already, from my perspective, FT Optiforce was rushed too. Aspects of the release were sloppy. Did Callaway rush FT Optiforce so they could beat TaylorMade's SLDR punch?
I'm not certain of anything.
What I do know is that Callaway has some interesting patent applications on the table, but nothing filed recently, and nothing we've heard suggests any actual intent to bring a driver with a track-based, sliding weight system to market.
Here's the million dollar question for Callaway:
- If the technology has been in development for nearly a decade, and there are no immediate plans to implement any of it, why the sudden need to file no less than a dozen seemingly related patents less than 2 weeks ahead of the appearance of TaylorMade's SLIDR?
- As long as you're Trademarking everything Slider-related, why not Trademark SLDR too?
They had to know it was coming.
Harry Arnett describes the recent Callaway filings as "standard operating procedure".
Whether it's TaylorMade reacting to Callaway, Callaway reacting to TaylorMade, what's going on here is good old fashion gamesmanship...and where's there's gamesmanship, you know you've got yourself a ballgame.
Which Came First - SLIDR or Slider?
TaylorMade has a story. Callaway has a story too. Both stories leave more questions than answers. What's really going on?
Honestly, I'm not sure.
I am certain that who is reacting to whom is a very important question. I wouldn't want to be on the defensive right now.
The most plausible scenario that I've come up with involves a complicated chess match with plenty of back and forth.
You could make a case that both sides are playing their fair share of offense and defense right now.
It's new territory considering that prior to this season Callaway didn't have much of an offense, and TaylorMade didn't need to play any defense.
It's going to be very interesting to see what happens next, and every indication is that neither side is opposed to crawling in the mud and getting dirty.