Written by: Tony Covey

Today TaylorMade, in introducing the R1 Black Driver, made what some will see as as one of the least significant announcements in company history.

The R1 Black isn’t a new driver. It’s the R1, except it’s black, and…and…well, that’s basically it.

It’s the same damn club.

The performance of the head is the same. The shaft is the same. The price ($399/$499 TP) is the same.

The difference…the only difference is that it’s black. And for what it’s worth, so is the wrench.

I should probably also mention that while TaylorMade isn't calling the R1 Black a Limited Edition model, they certainly aren't doing a full production run either. It seems pretty clear the intent is to all but guarantee there will be more demand than supply.

At least it has its own predictable, hashtag (#backinblack). I guess that's better than #black-IER.

PRE-Order the TaylorMade R1 Black Now

In fairness, the R1 Black (available June 10th) is exceptionally well done. While I’m sure some would have preferred a matte finish, PING more or less owns that right now, and integrating TaylorMade’s classic high-gloss finish with highly muted R1 graphics strikes a perfect balance that pays deferential respect to the traditional without compromising TaylorMade’s modern approach to crown graphics.

The truth is it's beautiful.

It would be easy, at least it should be easy, to be mostly dismissive of the R1 Black. Check out the paint, and move along. There’s nothing to see here.

I’m a cynical bastard by nature, but I’ll cop to feeling a little nostalgic when I saw the white TaylorMade logo set against glossy black paint. It’s practically impossible not to think about your first TaylorMade driver, or at least the last one you loved..the 580, the SuperQuad, or the SuperDeep. You know…before all this white nonsense started.

But this is still just paint. Some would call it lipstick on a pig.

If this were anybody else in any other year, painting what was once black, white… and then painting it black again, wouldn’t be any kind of story, but this isn’t anybody else, it’s TaylorMade and it’s 2013, which why all of this is worth discussing further.

Why Black?

It’s almost comical that the golf industry has reached the point where we have to ask why any company would make a black driver, but we do. So at this risk of making a horrible, yet obvious pun, I’ll start by saying that over the last three years TaylorMade has basically painted themselves into a corner.

When the release the R11, TaylorMade put a lot of effort into selling the consumer on the idea that a white driver was better than a black one. They called it The Science of White.

If it’s science it must be real, right?

The story of white wasn’t in the paint itself, it was about the contrast between black and white, the illusion of a larger head leading to more confidence, and that confidence translating to faster ballspeeds.

White is better. It’s that simple. Ditch your Titleist, and your Callaway, and your PING, and your everything else. White is where it’s at. There’s no reason to ever play a black driver again.

If you don’t have white, you don’t have white.

So if white performs better… if white really is, as we’ve been told for 3 seasons now, better, why the hell would TaylorMade release a black version of the R1?

The answer, as I see it anyway, is actually pretty interesting.

The Perfect Storm

It’s reasonable to assume that TaylorMade has kept the black driver in their back pocket since the R11 was released. If it doesn’t work we can always paint it black. And if R11s didn’t work, paint was an option then too. And if R1 – the riskiest of all TaylorMade flagship designs - didn’t work, yup…we’ve still got that bucket of paint in the corner.

And so here we are. The R1 Black is officially scheduled for release, and the natural assumption is that some of what you’ve read in the golf forums is true; The R1 was an unmitigated failure. The graphics didn’t work, and TaylorMade is desperately scrambling to fix the biggest disaster in company history.

For those what have been (im)patiently waiting for TaylorMade to jump the shark, this is the absolute fantastic, feel-good story of the year.

The problem is it’s only half true.

I have it on pretty good authority that the black option has been on the table since before R11s. That’s almost certainly 100% accurate. That other stuff…R1 being a failure, a giant disaster for TaylorMade…it’s a great story, particularly if you’re not a fan of TaylorMade, but it’s not one that’s even loosely supported by reality.

Here’s what is real…

Winter Was An Unmerciful Bitch

Talk to anybody at almost any golf company and they’ll tell you what TaylorMade and others have told me. The unusually long winter took a huge chunk out of the retail market. A good portion of the country got a late start, guys in Minnesota and New York’s Adirondacks are still shoveling snow, and even those of us who have it pretty good, are still dealing with 50 degree temps and occasional frost delays. Did I mention it’s almost June?

Somebody get Al Gore on the phone. Global warming, my ass.

So yeah…everybody, including TaylorMade got off to a slow start at retail.

Unsustainable Momentum

This time last year TaylorMade owned more than 52 percent of the metalwoods (drivers, fairways, hybrids) category.

FIFTY TWO FREAKIN PERCENT

Think about that for just a second. Titleist, Callaway, PING, TourEdge, Mizuno, Nike, Adams, Bridgestone, Cobra, and everybody else…these are all companies that make a perfectly good metalwood, and despite quality products, and the whole strength in numbers thing, TaylorMade sold more metalwoods than all of those companies…COMBINED.

That my friend is the very definition of unsustainable, and I can assure you that there’s not enough Kool-Aid in in all of Carlsbad for the guys at TaylorMade to think that FIFTY TWO FREAKIN PERCENT would be the long term reality.

R11s more than held its own, the Rocketballz fairway wood was a retail juggernaut, and the rest of the TaylorMade lineup (RBZ driver and RBZ hybrid) rode its coattails to phenomenal, and let’s be honest, unrepeatable success.

Declining Market Share

This year, predictably, TaylorMade’s share of the metalwoods market is down. That’s not in dispute. And it’s not just down; TaylorMade is double-digit down in the category. It sounds bad, really, really, bad right?

Let me be really definitive about this: It is bad…and it isn’t.

If it had been my call to make, I wouldn’t have gone all-in with crown graphics. Go crazy with one, but diversify - leave the other normal. That said, I’m probably not as smart as I think I am, and it probably wasn’t paint that hurt TaylorMade this season.

“Everybody’s stuff is just a shitload better this year” – Highly-placed industry insider

The reality is that 2013 is an absolute banner year for metalwoods. It’s almost certainly the best I’ve ever seen.

Callaway gained ground with Xhot, Cobra made a statement with AMP Cell, PING and Titleist are steady as ever, and even Nike made some early season noise with Covert. And that’s just the beginning of what’s out there this year. Basically everyone took a page out of the TaylorMade playbook, and actually finally built some product buzz of their own.

It’s not that TaylorMade has bad product, or is performing poorly. As one highly-placed industry insider explained it to me, “Everybody’s stuff is just a shitload better this year”.

For the first time in recent memory, TaylorMade is being challenged – and according to TaylorMade’s Product Evangelist, Tom Kroll, that’s actually a good thing.

“They’ve closed the gap…it’s going to drive us to run faster, run harder, and get better ourselves” – Tom Kroll

Early Season Desperation

While I’m sure there were some uncomfortable days, nobody at TaylorMade is going to use the term desperate, (I tried…they didn’t bite), or convey that there was any sense of panic inside the walls at HQ when metalwood sales got off to a slow start.

What TaylorMade has been upfront about is that in the interest of jump-starting sales, they did some things they would have preferred they not have to do.

They went absolutely full Wal-Mart in April; rolling-back prices on the entire RBZ Stage 2 lineup. We’re talking about a brand new club line with less than 2 months of shelf time. Everybody cuts prices…eventually. Nobody does it in April.

You never go full Wal-Mart…not when you’re the biggest name in golf…and definitely not in April.

But that’s exactly what TaylorMade did. And sure, there was plenty of forum chatter about both R1 and RBZ Stage 2 not selling. Desperation was the buzzword and the story we heard from retailers is that TaylorMade was doing some very un-TaylorMade-like things (larger sales incentives, discounts on wholesale pricing, relaxing new product pricing policy, and not forcing retailers to take on more inventory to offset price drops) to hopefully get their 2013 product moving.

It’s certainly not the position you want to be in when you’re the number one company in golf – not in April (did I mention it was only April?).

It’s bad, but, it’s not.

Whatever early ground TaylorMade gave up with metalwoods, they’ve mostly made up for in other places. The big picture includes tremendous success in the iron category (up 35% on the strength of RocketBladez), gains in the ball category (up 21%), and the best-selling shoe (adizero) in the history of adidas golf.

So while stiff competition and declining market share in the metalwoods category does suggest a down year for TaylorMade, the fact of the matter is that right now, TaylorMade still enjoys a comfortable lead. The R1 driver is the best-selling driver in golf, and the RBZ Stage 2 is right behind it at #2. All that and they’re diversifying. The beast might actually be getting stronger.

It’s enough to make a TaylorMade hater give himself a swirly.

More importantly as the season has progressed, the numbers suggests that going full Wal-Mart (FYI, in case there is any doubt, that’s my phrase, not TaylorMade’s) absolutely paid off. They now have the two best-selling drivers in golf, and the anecdotal evidence suggests that while TaylorMade’s competition is losing momentum, TaylorMade is actually gaining steam.

When Callaway announces a $50 price drop on 2013 drivers, you’ll have all the proof you need that TaylorMade has rebounded but good.

Demand and Supply

I know what you’re thinking…if everything is really rainbows and unicorns at TaylorMade, why would they go against their own science and release a black driver? It looks desperate.

TaylorMade isn’t oblivious. They do market research. They read things. They know there’s a pent-up demand for a black driver – and TaylorMade believes that demand will produce an over-sway of sorts to the black model.

Simply put, the damn thing is going to sell…and sell fast.

We can talk about science, and performance, and one-hundred other things, but regardless of anything that’s quantifiable, golfers simply want what they want, and there’s a segment of the market that just wants a black driver. There’s no need to go super-special limited edition, paint it black, and it’s gold.

When we put up our Black vs. White post, a staggering 87% of people who voted told us they prefer black over white. Now granted…the R1 Black we used wasn’t the actual TaylorMade version (that one was matte black, the real TaylorMade is traditional high-gloss). Nevertheless, the results are compelling.

TaylorMade’s Tom Kroll told me that the company “spends a great deal of our time with our finger on the pulse of the 0 to 4 golfer”. TaylorMade’s own research has shown that a measurable percentage of that group is never going to play anything other than a black driver.

TaylorMade isn’t about to abandon those guys. Kroll made it clear that TaylorMade wants all golfers to experience the performance of R1.

“We didn’t want paint color to be the barrier for those guys never to try this club” – Tom Kroll

I’d be remiss if I didn’t continue to point out the ongoing disconnect between some of what TaylorMade says and some of what TaylorMade does. We continue to hear about TaylorMade’s focus on the 0 to 4 market, and yet the huge majority of their products are clearly designed with the average golfer in mind. The R1 Black is no different.

You can’t fault them for it. Zero to four is the performance story nearly every golfer wants to hear, but the money will always be in the middle.

The Timing Is Right

If you look at what has happened with the golf equipment market so far this season; a brutally long winter and stronger competition leading to a double-digit drop in metalwood market share, it’s easy to look at the R1 Black and see it as TaylorMade’s desperate (there’s that word again) attempt to right the ship.

They’re getting killed, right?

Like I said, it’s a good story, but the latest retail sales data suggests that TaylorMade has weathered the worst of it. While some of its competitors remain strong in areas where they traditionally perform well (Titleist, for example, continues to dominate the ball market), amazing as it may be considering the slow start, TaylorMade has perhaps the industry’s only real momentum right now.

The R1 Black isn’t about saving TaylorMade’s season, or even getting them back to where they were. The R1 Black is the lead foot on the accelerator. It’s TaylorMade full-steam getting back to the business of being TaylorMade.

The bail-out worked, and now they’re refocusing on growing their lead..again.

As simple as the concept is (paint it black), the TaylorMade R1 Black driver is almost without question the most compelling product that any manufacturer has in its near-term pipeline.

The demand is certain. It’s a guaranteed can’t miss.

Begun, The Price Wars Have

What’s coming next is a full-on price war. TaylorMade’s biggest competitors are going to cut prices too, and they’re going to do it very soon. They’re going to do whatever they can to steal back the momentum from TaylorMade.

It’s not going to work. It might have before the R1 Black was announced, but it won’t now. Unfortunately for the industry it is going to take a bloodbath to prove it.

We wondered how TaylorMade would respond when somebody finally stepped up to challenge them. This time around the response was swift, effective, and plenty strong-enough keep TaylorMade comfortably in the number one spot for at least another season.

For those looking for the competitive upside, the proverbial chink in the armor; the difficult start to the season forced TaylorMade to use the biggest weapon in their arsenal. They can do black again next year…maybe even as an out-of-the-gate alternative to white, but the impact will never again be what it is today.

This year, as it was 3 years ago, paint will be the story. Next year they're going to have to innovate.

PRE-Order the TaylorMade R1 Black Now

TaylorMade R1 Black Driver