The Water Cooler: Battle for the bag – From a guy in a suit in the corner to an 18-wheeler in the driveway.
In the 1950’s, 60’s, and 70’s the relationship between equipment companies and the PGA Tour Player was relatively casual. Equipment companies employed some basic strategies to entice players to use their clubs and while representation contracts were certainly in place, almost every player had opportunity to put into play any clubs they chose. The marketing strategy of the day was built on “Pyramid of Influence”, meaning equipment companies believed if a consumer saw their favorite player using their clubs, they would buy one. So, golf companies wanted PGA Tour pros to use their equipment. This created the need for companies to have representation at each PGA Tour event, consequently the PGA Tour Representative became a job description - Tour Rep. In what many people would consider the “heyday” of the Tour Rep, the pre-80’s Tour Rep was a fun and important role sought by many but offered to few. There weren’t that many of these fellows. Remember, in the 70’s two of the largest companies in golf today, TaylorMade and Callaway, didn’t exist.
The main players in pre-80’s golf, the companies that had a full-time Tour Rep, were Titleist, Wilson, Hogan, and Spalding. Occasionally, during important events or events that were near their corporate offices, Pro Group (Arnold Palmer) and Northwestern would send someone to schmooze with the players. The full-time Tour Reps knew the players and the players knew the reps. The job had a few parts, one of the odd ones was the suit and tie while in the locker room. They mostly walked through the locker room and dropped gloves, balls, hats, or whatever it was their company manufactured at the player’s lockers and then stood in the corner waiting to be asked for something.
Leave the locker room and the job changed. Now your role as the Tour Rep was to make sure the players that already represented your company had the equipment they needed and that it was in perfect condition AND you had to try and get other players to use your company’s products. So, if you were the MacGregor Tour Rep and Tom Weiskopf needed new grips on his irons, “no problem Tom, right on it”, and off you would go to the PGA Tour’s equipment trailer to change Tom’s grips. Then, if Hale Irwin approached you and asked, “how’s this sand wedge compared to my current one?” You had to be VERY careful how you answered. Tell him your club is “way better than his” and you could create an uproar, not only would the player be insulted, but also the competing Tour Rep. The go to answer, “Your club is the second best on Tour, the only thing that might be better is the one I represent.” Say it with a smile. If someone were playing well, the other guys on Tour would be curious about the clubs he was using. That would get the Tour Rep an audience with almost anyone, but once you had that audience, you had to be careful what you said, and to whom you said it.
Some players felt they knew just about everything about equipment, so you had to be careful how you conversed with them. David Graham and Jack Nicklaus knew so much they actually designed clubs later in their careers. Say the wrong thing to Greg Norman or Lee Trevino and, nice as they may be, as an equipment representative you could get dressed down in a hurry. Others, some of the nice guys on Tour like Loren Roberts, Nick Price, Tony Sills, or Larry Hinson would hold long conversations with the Tour Reps, not only about equipment, but anything that came up, treating them like one of the guys. Others still, had no idea about equipment, “hey, you know that 3 wood Johnny was using? Let me try that.” Hand him one and off he’d go to bang a few 3 woods. If he liked it, you’d never get it back.
Into the 80’s, as new companies entered the industry the “battle for the bag” escalated. TaylorMade’s Gary Adams brought the metal wood to the Tour. Callaway soon followed. Ping cast their irons and made putters players couldn’t ignore. You may be old enough to remember the first Pings were very hard to ignore, they rang out with a loud “ping” when struck. The shaft companies added a complexity to the business that turned club manufacturing from a game of checkers to chess. Most drivers at the time including the early metal woods were steel shafted. Graphite was just being introduced as a shaft option and the graphite shaft companies, specifically Mizuno, had a Winnebago full of shafts, most of them painted gold, and were starting to have success giving them to as many players as possible. This did not sit well with the U.S. golf companies. The U.S. company reps looked upon the Japanese companies at the time as spies of the golf industry. Thinking the Japanese were looking to learn what was hot then create copies. But ironically, Mizuno helped create one of the bestselling clubs of all time because of their gold shafts.
Word got back to Gary Adams of TaylorMade, “hey, Mizuno is giving pros gold graphite shafts and the players like them, we need a gold graphite shaft!” TaylorMade Tour Gold was born. Wednesday evening before the PGA Championship Larry Nelson approached the TaylorMade Tour Rep and asked to try one. Because it was a major, TaylorMade had a trailer there that week and luckily the trailer had stayed late so they were able to provide a Tour Gold with Larry’s specifications. He hit a few balls and based solely on that session put the club in play the next day. He won the ’87 PGA Championship. Snap, TaylorMade Tour Gold became the hottest driver in the world, and everyone who owned one wore off the paint where their bag rubbed against the shaft. (Tour Gold is the reason you get an extra-long headcover for your driver today AND why most golf bags have a fur lining at the top. It was an Aldila shaft, hastily painted gold to meet TaylorMade’s request and it rubbed off easily.) Naturally, others wanted to try the club. Next week the TaylorMade Tour Rep had players 3 deep in line waiting to get their hands on a Tour Gold Driver. It didn’t take long before another win happened at the Las Vegas Invitational in 1988 where Gary Koch put the club in play and won the tournament. Gary Adams could show up to a Tour event with a Barrel of Tour Gold metal woods on Monday and leave on Wednesday with an empty barrel.
Companies couldn’t meet every player’s requirement (demands) for specific shafts, flexes, lies, swing weights, and grips with the supplies they gave their Tour Reps and it was difficult to try multiple options. The process was to take an order from a Tour Player, find a pay phone, place the order, wait a couple weeks, figure out where the player was going to be in a couple weeks, and ship the club there. Then hope. Did the club arrive? Was it made correctly? Did the postal service break it? Does the player actually like the club? It wasn’t a rare occurrence to go through the whole process of having a company make a Tour Pro 2 or 3 special clubs or sets and then have the player not like any of them. Tom Weiskopf was a great example of manufacturer exhaustion. He’d be willing to try other company’s irons but he never changed. He always went back to his MacGregor irons. (Side note, MacGregor had some of the most talented craftsmen in the industry. Their club shapes were iconic.) Larry Hinson, a Tour star of the early 70’s, had a garage so filled with clubs sent by hopeful companies he couldn’t park his car in it. (He eventually gave just about everything away.)
As the battle for space amongst the 14 clubs available in each player’s bag got more and more aggressive, naturally driven by the money coming into the industry and the new competition from TaylorMade, Ping, Callaway, Cleveland, and others, speed of delivery and customization became paramount. The players had expectations. First it was, “get it to me next week”, then it was “get it to me tomorrow”. Ping was the best at this. If a player asked for a putter or a set of irons on the range Tuesday of a tournament Ping would have it by his locker Wednesday. Sometimes a player just had to have clubs quickly. Chi Chi Rodriguez would fly from his home in Puerto Rico 3 or 4 times a year to Albany, Georgia to get a set of clubs from his favorite clubmaker. Once, he famously sent his pilot by himself, told him the specs, and asked him to return as soon as possible. As the competition on Tour continued to get tougher so did the competition between equipment companies. Being tops on Tour meant being tops in sales. Pyramid of influence was never more vital.
The answer was to bring the equipment companies to the player, after all, not everyone was Chi Chi Rodriguez. It wasn’t enough to outfit your Tour Rep with a few clubs, some extra grips, and maybe a few shafts. It wasn’t even enough to ship clubs overnight. Now companies had to basically manufacture clubs on site. Mizuno had the early concept with its Winnebago. The Tour Trailer was born. In its infancy in the 70’s and 80’s, companies experimented with vans and trailers, by the 90’s and 2000’s the big companies had graduated to 18 wheelers. Today, every major equipment company has a trailer, some larger than others, and all of them capable of building a custom golf club, even a full set, in about half an hour. They are stocked with a variety of shafts, grips, and clubheads. Oh, and wrenches, grip tape, saws, and 5-minute epoxy!
So now a player can hit balls on the range with an equipment specialist using a Trackman, walk to a manufacturer’s trailer, place an order, hang out for a few minutes, get handed his brand-new club (or repaired one), and off he’d go. You’d think that would be enough, right? Well, how’s this for service? You might have noticed that the Honda Championship didn’t have that great of a field. What’s odd about that is the number of residents that didn’t play even though they live in the neighborhood. If the players in The Honda’s zip code held a resident’s only block party people like Tiger, Rory, Justin Thomas, Daniel Burger, Brooks Koepka, and Dustin Johnson could attend. For one reason or another, none of these guys played the Honda. (Tiger and Brooks are hurt.) I don’t know if any hot dogs were served, but TaylorMade basically threw said party. They drove the TaylorMade Tour Trailer, which is one great big 18-wheeler, from The Honda to DJ’s house, parked it in the driveway and made sure the #1 player in the world was happy with his equipment. No word on which neighbors came by, it was a private party.