After Seasons of Sputtering Cobra Hits the Gas
Loggers-on to www.cobragolf.com encounter an animated Cobra logo, supported by throaty audio of a race car revving up. At the end of the introduction, the words COBRA IS BACK appear in large, gold letters.
Like an aging NASCAR driver surging forward from the middle of the pack, Cobra Golf is trying to muscle its way back into something like its old top-5 position in the premium golf equipment business. To do it, parent company Acushnet brought in Jeff Harmet, a proven golf and sports marketing expert, from Wilson. And Acushnet, whose other golf brands are Titleist, FootJoy, and Pinnacle, handed Harmet a pile of resources and left him alone.
In return for that trust, Harmet delivered what he hopes is a claim on an untapped lode of golf business success.
We are clearly not a value company, Harmet said from his Carlsbad, Calif., office. Were not competing in that low-price segment that Tour Edge is in. Our targets are on-course and golf specialty shops. Were offering Callaway quality at Cleveland prices.
Harmets industry shorthand translates this way: Cobra wants to make products the industry acknowledges as possessing top-grade technology, but at accessible prices of the kind Cleveland Golf has been getting for its Launcher drivers ($390) and TA5 ($600 per set with steel shafts).
Were going to appeal to the masses, Harmet said.
And Cobra is betting those masses will comprise mostly golfers with handicaps of 10 and above, players looking for upper-end gear with graphite shafts and a little game improvement built in.
For instance: The suggested retail price for Cobras SS350 titanium driver will be $369. Compare that to, for example, Pings TiSi Tec at $515 (graphite shaft).
No question, the masses like paying less for golf gear. But what about the age-old axiom of premium goods? Regardless of what youre selling, if you underprice yourself, consumers wont consider you cream of the crop. Ely Callaway and Karsten Solheim lived by that principle, and it served them well. Is Cobra making the worst-house-in-the-best-neighborhood mistake?
Harmet says no.
The brand equity we have is tremendous. Customers are saying, This is exactly what you did in the mid-1990s; this is what you should have been doing all along.
It was in 1997 that Cobra took a turn, some would say in the wrong direction. American Brands was jettisoning its worldwide tobacco interests and looking for healthier businesses. Cobra looked like a good fit with Americans Acushnet Co. The conglomerate wanted to ride the golf wave that rose with Callaway and the Big Bertha in 1991, and was expected to swell with the advent of Tiger Woods.
The prospect was worth more than $700 million to American, more than twice Cobras annual sales. When the deal closed in early 1997, the rest of the golf industry stood agape at the amount of money one brand in a changing cottage industry could command.
Once American took Cobra private, Acushnet no longer broke out Cobras annual sales as a line item on financial reports. But it didnt take an income statement to see that sales fell throughout the late 1990s as the entire industry slogged through a 1998 slump from which Callaway, TaylorMade, and Ping emerged as the strongest players.
Titleists own club line, positioned for better players, also did well, perhaps taking some aspirational potential customers from Cobra. Until the Harmet hiring, Cobras mission wasnt entirely clear; a succession of managers and product designers took care of the brand while Acushnet chief Wally Uihlein and his lieutenants strategized.
By the beginning of this century, Cobra sales had slumped to around $75 million per year, industry sources have said. Acushnet critics wondered how long American, now renamed Fortune Brands, would wait for return on its investment.
Hiring Harmet was seen as a step in the right direction. At Wilson, Harmet worked with company chief Jim Baugh and oversaw Wilsons return to prominence in tennis. Prince had beaten back Wilson to just 17 percent of the racquet market Wilson had once dominated. But the Hammer family of racquets got Wilson back to 45 percent. Harmet also got credit for Wilsons success with Fat Shaft clubs, which became a bright spot for the beleaguered brand in the late 1990s.
A bright spot for the new Cobra is retailer acceptance, which seems high even before the April 1 nationwide shipping target. (Some Cobra products are already available in the Sunbelt states.)
Were happy to see [the brand coming back], said Randy Morton, general manager of Pro Shop World of Golf in Skokie, Ill. Cobra was a solid brand for many years until Titleist bought it. Then it was kind of like an ugly stepchild. But now theyre behind it and promoting it.
We think itll be a real good seller, said Edwin Watts, whose eponymous off-course stores cover much of the southeast. The products are good and the prices are good.
But will those seasons as a faltering brand be a hurdle with consumers?
Brands in golf that have been around for years, like this one, with its connection to Titleist Watts said, well, its really hard to destroy a brand.
Cobra hasnt turned around yet, but Harmet is all smiles and enthusiasm so far.
The beauty of this industry is word of mouth, Harmet said. You dont need a billion dollars in advertising. You just need a good product ' and to break through all the clutter.
Or race through it.
What's in the bag: CareerBuilder winner Rahm
Jon Rahm defeated Andrew Landry in a playoff to earn his second PGA Tour title at the CareerBuilder Challenge. Here's what's in his bag:
Driver: TaylorMade M4 (9.5 degrees), with Aldila Tour Green 75 TX shaft
Fairway wood: TaylorMade M3 (19 degrees), with Aldila Tour Green 75 TX shaft
Irons: TaylorMade P790 (3), P750 (4-PW), with Project X 6.5 shafts
Wedges: TaylorMade Milled Grind (52, 56 degrees), Milled Grind Hi-Toe (60 degrees), with Project X 6.5 shafts
Putter: TaylorMade Spider Tour Red
Ball: TaylorMade TP5x
Strange irked by Rahm-Landry friendly playoff
Curtis Strange knows a thing or two about winning golf tournaments, and based on his reaction to the CareerBuilder Challenge playoff on Sunday, it’s safe to say he did things a little differently while picking up 17 PGA Tour victories in his Hall-of-Fame career.
While Jon Rahm and Andrew Landry were “battling” through four extra holes, Strange, 62, tweeted his issues with the duo’s constant chit-chat and friendly banter down the stretch at La Quinta Country Club, where Rahm eventually came out on top.
Watching Andrew Landry and Jon Rahm in playoff. Walking off tee talking to each other. Are you kidding me ? Talking at all. ?— Curtis Strange (@golf_strange) January 22, 2018
The two-time U.S. Open champ then engaged with some followers to explain his point a little more in depth.
0 words— Curtis Strange (@golf_strange) January 22, 2018
The issue is I don’t want to make you a bit relaxed or comfortable. High pressure, good.— Curtis Strange (@golf_strange) January 22, 2018
Did you watch the end of the NFL games yesterday ? Enough said.— Curtis Strange (@golf_strange) January 22, 2018
I didn’t say you couldn’t be friends and competitive. But in a playoff, 1 tiny mistake and you lose, and that devastated me. Friends before and after, competitors during play.— Curtis Strange (@golf_strange) January 22, 2018
Did you win ? It’s all about surviving the competition to test yourself.— Curtis Strange (@golf_strange) January 22, 2018
So, yeah ... don't think he's changing his perspective on this topic anytime soon ever.
Randall's Rant: The Euros won't just roll over
The Ryder Cup may not be the King Kong of golf events yet, but you can hear the biennial international team event thumping its chest a full eight months out.
As anticipation for this year’s big events goes, there is more buzz about Europe’s bid to hold off a rejuvenated American effort in Paris in September than there is about the Masters coming up in April.
Thank Europe’s phenomenal success last weekend for that.
And Rory McIlroy’s impassioned remarks in Abu Dhabi.
And the provocative bulletin board material a certain Sports Illustrated writer provided the Europeans a couple months ago, with a stinging assault on the Euro chances that read like an obituary.
McIlroy was asked in a news conference before his 2018 debut last week what he was most excited about this year.
The Ryder Cup topped his list.
Though McIlroy will be trying to complete the career Grand Slam at Augusta National come April, he talked more about the Ryder Cup than he did any of the game’s major championships.
When asked a follow-up about the American team’s resurgence after a task-force overhaul and the injection of young, new star power, McIlroy nearly started breaking down the matchup. He talked about the young Americans and how good they are.
“Yeah, the Americans have been, obviously, very buoyant about their chances and whatever, but it’s never as easy as that. ... The Ryder Cup’s always close,” McIlroy said. “I think we’ll have a great team, and it definitely won’t be as easy as they think it’s going to be.”
McIlroy may have been talking about Alan Shipnuck’s bold prediction after the American Presidents Cup rout last fall.
Or similar assertions from TV analysts.
“The Ryder Cup is dead – you just don’t know it yet,” Shipnuck wrote. “One of the greatest events in sport is on the verge of irrelevancy. The young, talented, hungry golfers from the United States, benefitting from the cohesive leadership of the Task Force era, are going to roll to victory in 2018 in Paris.”
European Ryder Cup captain Thomas Bjorn won’t find words that will motivate the Euros more than that as he watches his prospective players jockey to make the team.
And, boy, did they jockey last weekend.
The Euros dominated across the planet, not that they did it with the Ryder Cup as some rallying cry, because they didn’t. But it was a heck of an encouraging start to the year for Bjorn to witness.
Spain’s Jon Rahm won the CareerBuilder Challenge on the PGA Tour, England’s Tommy Fleetwood started the week at Abu Dhabi paired with American and world No. 1 Dustin Johnson and won the European Tour event, and Spain’s Sergio Garcia won the Singapore Open in a rout on the Asian Tour.
And McIlroy looked close to being in midseason form, tying for third in his first start in three months.
Yes, it’s only January, and the Ryder Cup is still a long way off, with so much still to unfold, but you got an early sense from McIlroy how much defending European turf will mean to him and the Euros in Paris in September.
The Masters is great theater, the U.S. Open a rigorous test, The Open and the PGA Championship historically important, too, but the Ryder Cup touches a nerve none of those do.
The Ryder Cup stokes more fervor, provokes more passion and incites more vitriol than any other event in golf.
More bulletin board material, too.
Yeah, it’s a long way off, but you can already hear the Ryder Cup’s King Kong like footsteps in its distant approach. Watching how the American and European teams come together will be an ongoing drama through spring and summer.
Quail Hollow officials promise players easier conditions
Quail Hollow Club - a staple on the PGA Tour since 2003 - debuted as a longer, tougher version of itself at last year’s PGA Championship, receiving mixed reviews from players.
The course played to a lengthened 7,600 yards at last year’s PGA and a 73.46 stroke average, the toughest course in relation to par on Tour in 2017. As a result, it left some players less than excited to return to the Charlotte, N.C.-area layout later this spring for the Wells Fargo Championship.
It’s that lack of enthusiasm that led officials at Quail Hollow to send a video to players saying, essentially, that the course players have lauded for years will be back in May.
The video, which includes Quail Hollow president Johnny Harris and runs nearly five minutes, begins with an explanation of how the first hole, which played as a 524-yard par 4 at the PGA, will play much shorter at the Wells Fargo Championship.
“I had a number of my friends who were playing in the tournament tell me that tee was better suited as a lemonade stand,” Harris joked of the new tee box on the fourth hole. “I doubt we’ll ever see that tee used again in competition.”
Harris also explained that the greens, which became too fast for some, will be “softer” for this year’s Wells Fargo Championship.