ORLANDO, FLORIDA | Some days when Henry Rowland wakes up, he’s convinced he is a lunatic.
“I’ll sit there and think, ‘Why don’t I use my degree and get an engineering job with a steady paycheck so I could pad my 401K?’ ” he says. “But other days you get feedback from customers that warms your heart. And you remember why you are doing it.”
This is the internal warfare of an entrepreneur, especially one involved in a golf start-up who is willing to battle established brands that have exponentially more resources. Rowland, a 32-year-old who grew up in Chicago, has a 1-year-old baby in the form of Shapland Sports Company, a throwback brand focused on quality leather golf bags. Although he receives help from family members, it’s more or less Rowland running the show.
If anything can serve as a representation of how the golf industry has evolved, Shapland Sports is it. Its old-school bags cost nearly $400 and can be customized with the logo of your choosing. People are now willing and eager to pay for that. Like all of the emerging niche golf brands, Shapland aims to fill a void that larger companies have neglected.
“Since 2008, you can see there’s been a big focus on cost cutting and all the companies have converged on a similar offering,” Rowland said. “Everything now has to be so lightweight and waterproof. I feel like that takes away from the design of the product.”
So Shapland is out to be what major companies are not. Rowland has created an identity where quality is king. He’s also taken stands like championing gender equality. He’s one of the millennials who believes that customers care why a company sells a product even more than what that product is.
This is a macro trend across all industries. Modern consumers are well informed and passions for niche brands are soaring because of it. From subscription shaving products to this subscription golf news outlet to direct-to-consumer health food, purchases are now identity statements. More people want that declaration to ooze quality. It’s why we are chasing a bevy of new craft breweries and buying personalized, hand-carved Christmas ornaments on Etsy. The highest quality products are right in front of us.
The golf industry is going through much of what the food industry has felt over the past five years. From 2012 to 2017, the top 25 food companies in the U.S. fell $18 billion in market share while small and mid-sized manufacturers accounted for 46 percent of overall industry gains. The organic brunch place down the street is in vogue while mass production doesn’t have the same stranglehold that it used to.
Golf’s equivalent of a farmer’s market is alive and well at this year’s PGA Show. While Rowland is set up in a small booth with his high-end golf bags, a swarm of other companies have carved out a serious place in the market. One is Seamus Golf, which started in 2011.
“I remember I used to have to chase people down with head covers when we first started,” says co-founder Akbar Chisti. “I had to beg people to come.”
That has changed. Among the hand-crafted head covers and golf bags adorning its booth, the Oregon-based company boasts a packed crowd. Its $30 custom ball markers often include a bottle opener. It’s all high-quality products, and the goal is to have a good time throughout the process.
“People were tired of what golf was,” Chisti says of the niche movement. “It was a little too serious and a little too corporate. Our industry has made a huge change in a short period of time. Just look at the brands that are around us. What if we all decide to go in the same direction? Well then it’s time to get out of the way.”
Like Rowland, Chisti’s brand isn’t just about its products. There is a belief system in place and the company is able to connect with a lot of people who share the same values. Seamus is currently building a children’s course in Oregon, the latest example of how they believe golf should be inclusive.
While Seamus has created a cult following in the Pacific Northwest, it has close friends growing with it. Jones Golf Bags, which started in 1971, produced the bags of choice for many players until Ping came out with the L8 and Hoofer bags. Founder George Jones eventually sold the company and it crashed. After years of dormancy, Dean Lemman and his sons Matt and Tim bought the brand name so they could restore a once-beloved bag.
They have led a remarkable comeback, playing off of nostalgia while evolving the brand. Jones has steadily grown 30 to 40 percent each year and can be found in the shops of courses such as Winged Foot. The look is old school and minimalistic, a theme among the niche brands garnering such loyal followings.
“It’s just kind of a purist thing, you know,” says Matt Lemman. “How much more technologically advanced can you get in this industry? It’s evolved back into the old-school stuff. We’re making that cool again.”
There is something to be said for the relatability a smaller company can have in the modern era. Everyone in the Jones office plays golf, and each employee holds a handicap of 1 or better.
“We like to think of ourselves as golfers making golf bags,” Lemman says.
They’ve set out to capture the trust of consumers with the traditional stand bag, but now Jones has branched out to be more of a lifestyle brand. It will customize tournament prizes for a club’s member-guest with coolers and travel bags a part of the selection.
Jones has been a progressive company, but the golf industry can still feel like a glacier.
“We’re still writing down orders on clipboards and giving people paper copies,” Lemman says. “Head pros still want their reps to see the product in person instead of looking at a PDF. It’s a bit archaic.”
While Shapland, Seamus and Jones are riding the wave of traditional, hand-crafted products, other companies are looking to the future. Take Lie + Loft, a brand specializing in minimalistic prints of golf courses.
Luke Davis started the company after attending North Carolina State University’s PGA Golf Management program. Upon graduating, he was hoping to buy golf course maps of all the places where he had interned. When he couldn’t find them, he made them himself.
“There wasn’t a golf home-goods store,” Davis says. “The core of Lie + Loft is making golf feel more at home. We’re here to celebrate the good things about the game, whether that’s being in a private club or connecting a municipal course to its community.”
A couple of years ago, Davis and a friend went on a wild golf trip where they biked down the west coast of the United States, playing iconic courses along the way. Lie + Loft received some positive feedback from the trip, which featured drone videos and several interviews with publications.
More recently, Davis organized an event called “Home on the Range,” where golf and camping collided for a three-day excursion at Tobacco Road Golf Club in the sandhills of North Carolina. That was followed by a night golf event at Pinehurst where golfers from ages 8 to 70 played The Cradle underneath lights.
While the prints are at courses such as Pebble Beach, Whistling Straits and Harbour Town, Lie + Loft has now shown an interest in pottery and leather goods. In an industry so obsessed with revenue projections for each product sold, Davis shrugs at the number-crunching.
“There are no expectations,” Davis says. “The question really is about how passionate are we? If we are passionate about something, we feel like everything will take care of itself. Carving out time to play is important, too. We’re going on cool golf trips and everything we do revolves around how much we love to play.”
Each of the niche entrepreneurs is adamant about how the market is ripe. A common refrain among them: “We absolutely couldn’t have done this 10 years ago.”
Perhaps no start-up has enjoyed the current golf industry climate more than National Custom Works. The Instagram stars are up to nearly 12,000 followers and routinely receive more than 600 likes for a photo of their customized golf clubs.
Ari Techner launched Scratch Golf – a boutique company that would customize golf clubs with stamps – back in 2003 but it went out of business in 2015. However, Techner and his co-worker Patrick Boyd sensed a change in the industry. That prompted them to start a new venture where they would craft irons with customized logos.
It’s now normal for golfers to pay the $350-plus price tag for what is a luxury golf club.
“When we were at Scratch, everyone would ask why our clubs were so expensive,” Techner said. “We don’t get that question anymore. People understand that this is a raw block of steel that someone is crafting for hours. They are willing to pay for that. If you look at the bottom lines from OEMs (Original Equipment Manufacturers) over the past 10 years, they haven’t gotten better. Mass production is hard to do and people are going away from it.”
Techner sees the customized market continuing to grow. Their customers aren’t concerned that National Custom Works produces only about 100 clubs per month. They’ll pay for what they want.
That’s where all of this seems to be heading. Golfers will pay for quality they believe in. And they’ve never felt so much a part of it.
Photo collage (clockwise from top left): Shapland bags, Jones bag, Seamus head covers, Seamus ball markers, Loft + Lie course map of The Patriot. (All photos: Barbara Ivins-Georgoudiou, Global Golf Post)
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