Every year the golfing industry looks anxiously forward to the publication of the Darrell Survey's yearly almanac, usually referred to as the "count". The Darrell Survey is an independent market research company run by Susan Naylor and her brother John Minkley, providing a listing of the equipment found in a tour player's golf bag. This ranges from the different clubs, shafts, grips, etc which are counted and documented on a weekly basis. The weekly counts are also published, so the annual survey doesn't come as too much of a surprise to industry watchers. As one can imagine, the 'count' is of great importance to club manufacturers. Cricket Musch, the tour representative for Ping, put it to the point when he said "It validates your equipment, it tells people that it does perform, that's important to us." But does it? Well, more on that later.
Since the weekly score is openly available the top brand clubs always know where they stand, similar to the manufacturers rating in Formula 1. So what does it take to get to the top of the ranking? I'll give you a hint, it starts with the letter 'm' (and ends with 'one). The big guys in the business pay players good money to use their equipment. One example of this is 'tee up money', meaning some companies pay $1000 per game and more to players who use their drivers. Titleist matched that and offered an additional $1000 and more to their players who made the cut. To stay on top, Callaway paid $50,000 to a player who won with their driver, and these figures may well be outdated for this season. This is only for the driver, and it goes on and on for other clubs, especially putters. "The goal for us is to win the count -- drivers, fairway woods, irons," TaylorMade's senior director of global sports marketing, Joe Moses, told Golf World magazine. "The way you get the count is through tee-up money."
Is it worth it?
For the manufacturers: yes. For the players: maybe yes. For the game itself: I'm not sure. For the consumer: I think not. Allow me to explain this in some more detail:
The manufacturers all run very professional enterprises, so if it wouldn't make them money they wouldn't do it. For them having a successful tour player promote their equipment is the best advertisement. It implies to all of us that, if you use the same equipment, you can play as well as the tour player. It works great for the bottom line of the brand name manufacturers, but has this actually worked for you?
The players benefit as this struggle for the count's top spot helps them earn money - something they well deserve! The reason why I stated above 'maybe yes' is best explained using two of many real-life examples: Billy Mayfair won the U.S. Amateur and five PGA Tour titles, including the Tour Championship at Southern Hills. He even had a playoff victory over Tiger Woods at the Nissan Open. For 15 years he was sponsored by Ping, who has their headquarters near to his home in Phoenix, Arizona. But then in 2002, it all came to a halt. Ping, in a change of company policy, required all their sponsored players to use their driver. Previous to that it only required the use of 12 Ping clubs, with the putter being the only one mandatory - the driver was the player's choice. Mayfair had problems with the Ping drivers and had two choices: to jeopardize his game or to keep the sponsorship. He chose to be true to his game: "It was all driver-related," Mayfair said. "I understand from their business standpoint. I left them because I felt more comfortable with the TaylorMade driver. I tried. I tried so many drivers, it was getting to the point where I was getting frustrated." I am sure this was a very tough decision, and I salute him for being true to himself and to the game of golf.
Another laudable example is Tim Herron, who won the Honda Classic as a rookie and was with Ping since he joined the PGA tour in 1996. "Playing golf is the bottom line," he said "It's not just about money, but attitude and confidence." Not holding grudges he still carries 12 Ping clubs, although he is no longer under contract with the Phoenix-based company. "I had a little bit of an issue with the driver," Herron said. "They make a great driver, I just couldn't get comfortable with it." How many players are this true to their game? How many can afford to be? This leads directly to the third point I made above.
Does the game of golf really benefit from the relationship the manufacturers have with the players they sponsor? Top players are in a position to tell their sponsor off, and it is in the sponsor's best interest to keep their 'poster boy/girl happy. But what about the ones that rarely make the headlines? Would they be able to improve their own game if they were allowed to use the clubs that best fit their game, rather than having to adapt their game to the club they are supposed to use? If they could shine with clubs that best suit their game they would be able to advance the game of golf, yet they may not be able to do so as they rely on their sponsorship money to i.e. feed their family, travel to tournaments, etc. In this light sponsorship in the way described above holds back the improvement of the game. This sounding is quite bleak you may wonder why I said 'not sure' earlier. Well, on the brighter side much advancement in modern golf technology is in direct response to feedback from players to their sponsors. Manufacturers go to great lengths to ensure their top players have their equipment in the best possible configuration. Tour vans are like well-equipped golf club factories, your average club fitter in your favorite mall would pale in comparison. The knowledge generated thru the player's feedback is very much like the improved expertise at Formula 1 races, and how it eventually filters down to everyday cars driven by you and me. In golf, the most notable advancements are the interchangeable weights in the clubhead and the oversized clubheads, both of which have greatly improved the game for many.
From a consumer's point of view, this sounds worthwhile, but it could as well have been achieved by the big guys listening closer to us small fries. Many recreational players like myself have offered feedback to manufacturers, yet how much was actually taken into consideration remains elusive. If we were taken seriously, and maybe we are, the argument that manufacturers have to pay the big bucks to their top tour players in order to drive equipment development forward becomes less of an issue. Advancement can very well come from the 'grassroots up, and it is difficult to comprehend how a small number of already good players can really help us, recreational players, to get better thru changes in equipment that help tour players go from a 63 to a 62. What remains then is the fact that manufacturers pay a lot just to establish or keep up their brand names. Is this good for us? In my eyes - of course not. All the money spent on sponsorships is going into the price for the clubs. Don't just take my word for it, a recent calculation by Golf Digest estimates that a $500 driver actually costs about $77 to produce ($55 for the clubhead, $15 for a graphite shaft, $3 for the grip, and $4 for assembly). The remaining $423 covers overhead and other expenses as well as promotional activities. The more a company spends on promotion, the higher the cost of selling the clubs. In other words, the manufacturer passes the additional costs on to consumers in the form of higher prices.