Small golf-product companies ace their markets

A new generation of yuppie golfers and the popularity of corporate-sponsored golf tournaments are bringing prosperity to many small, golf-oriented businesses despite flat sales at big golf equipment companies.

"We are having our best year ever -- business has been fantastic," said Bob Hopper, founder of Sir Christopher Hatton, an Altadena, Calif., company that designs and sells custom woven golf towels.


While major American golf equipment makers are reporting "stagnant" sales, many small, niche businesses are doing well, according to Bob Rickey, executive director of the Golf Manufacturers & Distributors Association in Cincinnati.

"Most major equipment manufacturers are having a very hard year," Rickey said. "In this economy, buying a new set of clubs is not a high priority."


Overall, golf equipment sales dropped from $1.35 billion in 1989 to $1.28 billion in 1990, according to a market report released by the Sporting Goods Manufacturers Association.

Although about 25 million Americans play golf, the economic slump has prompted golfers to think twice before buying new equipment. However, golf tournaments and courses are buying lower-priced items such as Sir Christopher Hatton's velour golf towels, and wealthy executives are buying a new type of portable golf club designed for travel.

"Our business . . . has doubled in the past two years," said Hopper, who named his 15-year-old company after Sir Christopher Hatton, a distant relative who was rumored to be one of Queen Elizabeth I's favorite lovers.

Sir Christopher Hatton is a true mom-and-pop business. While Hopper focuses on the textile side of the business, his wife Karen designs the 16-by-25-inch towels. The towels, used to clean clubs, retail for $10 to $15. They are made by a Belgian textile factory and sold internationally by 25 sales representatives.

In recent months, Hopper's biggest customers have been major corporations sponsoring televised golf tournaments. "Television exposure has given golf a very wide audience that it didn't have before," said Hopper, who has created custom towels for the PGA West tournament, Kemper Insurance and the Pebble Beach golf course among others.

His advice to small-business owners interested in serving the golf market: "The most important thing about the golf business is that you have to provide a very high-quality product." Hopper said the small golf businesses that flourish not only provide unique products but offer personalized customer service and quick turnaround.

The number of companies making golf products far exceeds the space available at industry trade shows. According to Rickey of the manufacturers association, new companies often wait years to get their products into a show.

Companies producing clubs and balls face another hurdle. Every year, more than 700 types of golf balls and 225 kinds of clubs are submitted to the United States Golf Association's test and research center in Far Hills, N.J. The USGA works with the Royal and Ancient Golf Club of St. Andrews in Scotland to set and NTC maintain worldwide standards for golf equipment.


Although about 98 percent of the balls submitted pass the tests, only about half the clubs are approved, according to USGA officials.

"If we were marketing to the pros, we'd have to have USGA approval for our clubs or we'd die," said Mike Spencer, co-founder of ATI Inc. in Louisville, Ky. "But our market is guys like me who travel."

VoyagerMC clubs are designed for traveling executives who hate to lug around heavy standard clubs. Spencer, who sells medical equipment for a living, and his partner, Louisville dentist Charles Vittitow, spent three years developing a two-part, stainless-steel master shaft. The shaft and club heads, including irons, a pitching wedge, putter and two woods, slip into a nylon tote bag that fits in an overhead storage bin on an airplane. The 12-pound set retails for about $695. In less than a year, ATI has sold about 2,000 sets.

From the start, Spencer's two-part club has met strong resistance from golf pros and golfing officials. "As it stands right now, it's an illegal club because the top part unscrews," Spencer said. He said his greatest obstacle has been trying to break into golf's "closed society."

"The big guys get all the breaks," he said. "But, we are going out there and getting our noses bloodied." Golfers and golf pros who try the VoyagerMC clubs say they play much like a traditional set of clubs.

But they haven't helped Spencer's golf game.


"When I shoot 95 to 100, I have a major celebration," he said.