In 2007-2008, Padraig Harrington won consecutive Open Championships and a PGA Championship with Wilson golf clubs. He could have taken his three majors and, like so many touring pros before him, changed equipment companies for more money. Not Paddy, explains Timothy Clarke, General Manager of Wilson’s golf division, in the following interview.
Golf Conversations: Wilson has a much storied tradition in golf. It was the brand in the 1930s, 40s, 50s…
Timothy Clarke: 60s, 70s.
GC: For my readers who may not be familiar with Wilson’s history, can you give me a little review…
TC: We were the dominant golf brand for many years and the game kind of changed when the cast products came out. Ping came out, I guess it was around 1981, with the Eye2. Tommy Armour came out with the 845. Those products were perimeter weighted and forgiving. We were a classic golf company with muscle-back, forged blades that looked great and played well.
We kind of fought the notion that perimeter weighting was going to stick, so as it gained momentum, we kind of got behind some things. Being on top of anything for a length of time is never easy, and as that started to transpire, other things took place.
GC: Such as?
TC: PepsiCo bought Wilson which was a big transition. They used a lot of the Wilson business as a training ground for PepsiCo executives. They would come in, spend a stint as President or Vice President/General Manager of Golf. They’d do it for 9, 10 months and they’d go back to PepsiCo to…
GC: Sell potato chips.
TC: Yeah. So it was a packaged goods mentality and in golf, everybody who’s taken the packaged goods mentality has actually had trouble. Jim Craigie, when he took over Top Flite, was a Kraft Foods guy. They went bankrupt; Callaway bought them out of bankruptcy.
So that got us into the 90s, things were tough, we went through some re-structures. PepsiCo sold us off to Amer Sports. Amer is our parent company – they’re a Finnish holding company.
GC: Which is not to be confused with holding your finish.
When did Amer Sports buy Wilson?
TC: 1985 is my guess. 1985-1986. Wilson was their big acquisition in sports. They now own Salomon skis, Atomic skis, Precor fitness equipment, Suunto wristop computers for diving and hiking. They own Arc’teryx, which is the high-end mountain cloth company. And they own Mavic, which is the Tour de France bicycle racing wheel company.
So that’s where we are today. We’re the biggest sports equipment company in the world, as a holding company, $2.2 billion. Wilson Sporting Goods is the largest portion of that and the most profitable.
So we got re-focused and re-tooled. We made some changes to the golf vision. I’ve been here since 1995. I took this position as General Manager of Worldwide Golf in 2005.
GC: You’ve been here a long time.
TC: Yes, I’ve seen a lot of things. The good news is that I got to watch some of the bad decisions that didn’t work well. And I also got to watch some things out there that were doing very well.
We put a new management group together. My boss, Chris Considine, the new president, took over. We made a big investment in R&D.
GC: When did this happen?
This happened in 1995, late 1994. With that, we’re starting to see some real benefits. We opened up an innovation center in Chicago. It houses all of our R&D people. At Wilson, we make products to hit balls with. We make tennis rackets to hit tennis balls. We make golf clubs to hit golf balls. We make baseball bats to hit baseballs. That’s a core competency that we have and there’s a lot of synergy amongst engineering in the material structures.
In 1996, we opened the innovation center and that’s where the engineers tinker, play, tear stuff apart. Since 1996, 90% of the irons that we’ve launched have won a Golf Digest or a Golf Magazine award. I don’t think another brand can say that 90% of their irons have won that type of recognition.
Padraig Harrington, our marquee European Tour player, won 3 major championships in 18 months. Ricky Barnes, joined our staff in 2009 and finished 2nd in the US Open. And he was number one in top-ten finishes through August of last year. This year Kevin Streelman is on the staff, joining Ricky and Padraig. Mike Small, the head coach of the University of Illinois…
GC: PGA pro champ.
TC: PGA professional champ, and he has joined the staff.
GC: I thought it was interesting that Harrington, if he had wanted to, could have jumped ship and gone to another company with all those majors he’d won.
GC: He stayed with you guys so there must be something about those clubs he’s using.
TC: When Padraig won his majors – and he’ll tell you this – he left money on the table to stay with us. Because of the way we work with him … with the interaction of our R&D team. Ricky Barnes, he’s a great young athlete who’s coming into his own now … a lot of companies would have liked to have had a shot at Ricky. Kevin, wonderful kid from Chicago, went to Duke University, a hard-working guy. I was at the BMW last year and walked by Kevin. He said, “Hey, Tim, I’m coming up to the end of my contract. I really like what you guys are doing. Is there any chance we can talk?”
I can sit here and pontificate on how well we’re doing … but to me, that’s the real sign of change, when a guy like Mike Small, he’s won 8 Illinois PGA section championships. He’s won 4 Illinois Opens, he’s won 3 national club pro championships. This guy wins. Coaching a top-ten program at the University of Illinois, in a cold-weather climate.
GC: Yeah, how do they practice in the winter?
TC: He and Steve Stricker, who are very good friends, raised money for this practice facility. They can hit 60-yard wedge shots inside.
GC: Maybe I should try that. I know I can’t hit 60-yard wedge shots outside.
TC: I think the biggest thing our brand has is people. Look at our history: Sam Snead, Gene Sarazen, Arnold Palmer was playing our stuff at one point.
GC: I think Mickey Wright played Wilson.
TC: Absolutely. Vijay Singh won his first major championship with us. We’ve won more major championships in irons than any other brand. 62 and counting. Nobody’s close to us. And that’s with our staff members.
The heritage is great but we’re excited about the future. We’ve got products that perform, people are talking about us. This year, we made our biggest single annual spend in advertising with a multi-million dollar deal with Golf Channel; we’re the presenting sponsor of the European Tour. So our visibility is going to be much, much improved.
GC: What are the new clubs you’re excited about?
TC: The Di11. It’s a game improvement product. The bottom line is: this thing is the longest and straightest iron. Our engineering team did an amazing job in optimizing the weight position in the club head. And the shaft design works great with the club head. They have knocked it out of the park.
The Di11 just went to the market about 12/15. The feedback has been fantastic. At the demo day yesterday, people were amazed at how far they could hit it.
GC: Is that going to be available soon?
TC: It should be in shops and retail stores now.
GC: What’s Wilson doing with club fitting?
TC: You can see right behind me is our new fitting system. It’s the most elaborate in the business. You have 1,056 fitting combinations. 20 heads, 40 shafts, all interchangeable.
GC: If a golfer is interested in getting fitted for Wilson irons, what’s the best way to go about it?
TC: This will be available around 3/15 of this year.
GC: You’ll have demo days around the country?
TC: We’ll have demo days. You can go online and locate dealers that have our products. We’ll also have fitting days. So if your PGA professional doesn’t have a day set up, you can go on our web site and see when and where there’ll be a fitting day in your area.
GC: I know you have all these great professionals who endorse your products…
GC: I was wondering: Do you need any crappy players like me to endorse your product? I’d be happy to do it for a hundred bucks.
TC: There you go! We actually thrive on feedback of the average player.
GC: Well, that’s who you’re selling to.
TC: That’s who’s buying. We work on segmentation in our business strategy. There are 3 types of players: There’s an “F” player, which is 15% of the market. There’s a “D” player, that’s 55% of the market. Then there’s a “C” player, that’s about 30% of the market.
An “F” player is a feel player. Mike Small would be an “F” player. Or your local PGA professional, a low-handicap, or scratch golfer. They’re looking for something that looks good, feels good. When they set it up, they want to feel like that club sits right behind that ball and they can really stripe it.
The “D” player – we call it “D” for distance. Their biggest challenge in golf is they don’t hit it far. When you talk to the top instructors, it’s very hard to teach distance. Either a player has distance or they don’t. So we have game improvement technology that lets that player hit the ball further and straighter.
We do that with a combination of different shaft technologies. One is our “Y” tip, which is much more stable. The other is our new patented “HALF & HALF.” The bottom portion is steel, the top portion is graphite, so it’s a 50/50 shaft. This allows the player to swing faster and he can pick up 3 miles an hour of club speed with this shaft.
The “C” player is the crossover player. It’s a player that was a “D” who decided he’s going to be serious about golf and work on it. Or it’s an “F” player like me who’s starting to get older and doesn’t swing as hard…
GC: Say it ain’t so, Tim!
TC: So as I start slipping, the game improvement club is something I rely on today. So that’s our business philosophy. It’s very straightforward. Wilson had a great year this year: we finished up 23% in the U.S., we finished up 10% worldwide. Not a lot of golf companies can have that kind of growth in such a difficult economic climate.
GC: For the really good player — the anti-Blumenthal — do you have a muscle-back product?
TC: We do have an FG 62 which is a true muscle back. It’s brand-new here at the show. That’s the iron Mike Small saw and loved.
Padraig and Ricky and Steve Webster and Kevin Streelman are all playing the FG Tour cavity-back version.
GC: You also make drivers, right? You’re not just irons.
TC: Absolutely. We’re a full-service golf company. We have a new line of drivers and fairway woods called DXi. The driver was built around Padraig Harrington. He won all three of his majors with our driver in his bag.
What we did was incorporate a 5-zone wall thickness in the face. That really expands the sweet spot. The tests on this thing have been fantastic. On TrackMan, we’re as fast and as long as anything in the marketplace.
We’ve taken that same design concept and moved it into the fairway woods and hybrids. We have a 3-wood, 5-wood and hybrids. Padraig plays the 19° and 22° hybrids. We also have a 25° for the person looking for some higher loft.
GC: I ask this question a lot to people who work in the industry: Do you ever get a chance to play golf?
TC: That’s a good question. There used to be a slow season in the golf industry. Now with product development cycles and the time and energy you need to devote to it … my real downtime is in June and July. So I always try to make time in those two months to get out. I probably get in 25 rounds a year if things are good. But not nearly as much as people imagine.
GC: People think that people in the golf industry are out there 4 or 5 days a week and leaving early.
TC: We do get to play-test new stuff a lot. We’ll go to the range or our flight center. But it’s not really a golf experience. It’s “hit this hybrid with this shaft.” The thing I get to do that people would enjoy hearing about is, I’m the guy that signs all the tour players. I’ve played golf with Padraig, I’ve played golf with Ricky.
Now to a lot of people, that sounds like fun. I will tell you, it’s an exceptionally stressful event. It’s just so humbling. I was pretty long but Padraig is 65, 70 yards in front of me on every shot. So the one time I played with him, I shot 78 – I’m a 7-handicap.
GC: That’s very good.
TC: A very good day. I think he shot 63. So you can imagine … every time you hit a good shot, he’s standing there waiting for you. And this goes on for 4 hours. But he’s a wonderful gentleman and a great brand ambassador. You hear it a lot: he’s probably one of the nicest gentlemen on either tour: US or European.
GC: That story they had about him a few years ago in one of the magazines … he spends the winters with his coach, Bob Torrance. He hits his balls and then goes out and picks them up and cleans them in a sink. I can’t imagine any professional player … I can’t imagine any amateur doing that … I can’t imagine any college player doing that.
TC: What’s exciting about Wilson is that we have really good players that have worked very hard to earn their opportunity. And I think that’s a little bit of a reflection of our brand.
After we re-signed him three years ago after the majors, Padraig said, “There’s a lot of great marketing companies in golf. But there’s not a lot of great product companies and Wilson is truly a great product company.”
And that’s why we have withstood the test of time. There is no more Tommy Armour, there is no more Ram, there is no more MacGregor, there is no more Spalding. If you go back to the original companies …
GC: Old Tom Morris is gone.
TC: Tommy Morris is gone. So basically, we’re it. And not only are we it, we’re actually thriving. If you go over to Europe, our iron position is number four in the U.K.
GC: At least in the U.S., it’s all about marketing.
GC: If you don’t have a big marketing budget, it’s tough to compete against that. Again, the fact that Padraig stuck with you guys. He could have taken his 3 majors and said, “Fellas, start the bidding.”
TC: And he didn’t. He had offers, unsolicited, that were big. Wilson is one of the original founding companies to participate in the PGA Show back when it was a trunk show. We’ve never missed a PGA Show. We’re the official football of the NFL. We’ve been in every Super Bowl ever played.
GC: Didn’t you guys have a football called “The Duke”?
TC: Yeah, it’s still called “The Duke.”
GC: When I was a kid, if you had a “Duke,” you spent a lot of money.
TC: We’re the number one racket sports company in the world with Roger Federer and Venus & Serena Williams.
GC: I had a Wilson Jack Kramer wood tennis racket. With a wood press. You talk about how Wilson has never missed a PGA Show. I haven’t missed a PGA Show in the 21st century.
TC: That’s impressive. That’s impressive.
GC: Tim, thanks for your time. Continued success to Wilson Golf.
TC: Thank you.