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Bob Parsons: The eccentric man behind PXG clubs

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SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. – Littered across the walls of Bob Parsons’ well-appointed office is the history of a life fully lived.

From the Purple Heart medal he was awarded after being injured while on patrol in Vietnam to the faded computer – complete with floppy drive – he used to develop his first accounting program, Parsons’ office, which is located behind one of his numerous motorcycle dealerships, is a reflection of a man who wears many hats.

Parsons is a U.S. Marine, accountant, self-taught computer programmer, domain hosting trailblazer, ordained minister, billionaire and, now, golf club manufacturer.

How influential Parsons may become at the latter remains to be seen. Opinions range from the mastermind behind the domain empire being the modern incarnation of Ely Callaway to a golf junkie – he spent over $350,000 in 2015 on golf clubs – who is in over his head.

Either way, the 65-year-old is committed to Parsons Xtreme Golf (PXG), the golf club manufacturing startup which roared onto the PGA Tour landscape earlier this month when the company announced it had signed endorsement deals with the likes of Zach Johnson, Billy Horschel, Charles Howell III and James Hahn.

Parsons’ vision for PXG is one that is unrivaled in the golf industry.

“It wasn’t, ‘Hey, you guys need to get this done within the next two or three months.’ I said, ‘You guys have as long as you need to get it done well. Spend as much money as you need to and we’ll use whatever process is the best process.’ That’s what they had to launch from,” Parsons told last month.

To that end, he hired some of the industry’s top talent, including longtime Ping designers Brad Schweigert and Mike Nicolette, to develop an iron that looks and feels like a blade but performs like a cavity-back.

Asked earlier this month at the Hyundai Tournament of Champions if Parsons could play the role of “disrupter” in the golf industry, Johnson’s answer was telling.

“He could be, but in a good way,” the two-time major champion said. “He’s going to push the ceiling. I want that kind of person pushing a company that I’m involved with.”

Whether that translates to a successful business remains to be seen, but Parsons’ track record suggests he deserves the benefit of the doubt even in an industry that has been buffeted by economic headwinds for years.

After all, this is the same man who taught himself computer programing and transformed a business he began in his garage into a software giant he sold in 1994 for $64 million.

When Parsons, who grew up “poor as a church mouse” in Baltimore, Md., launched in 1997 his stated goal was, “to make a little money from a lot of people.” PXG, which began selling golf clubs last April, is the polar opposite.

At $300 an iron and $700 for a driver, a 14-club set will run about $5,000, nearly twice as much as a normal set of “performance clubs,” and PXG’s target audience is a relatively well-defined and affluent group.

“The market for this is much larger than anyone can even imagine,” Parsons said. “We’ve had people hit our clubs and say, ‘I’m going to start saving. We’ve had statistics we’ve looked at and golf buyer’s nature. To take the time you need to be able to afford to go to a club and pay the green fees, it’s nothing if you belong to a private club so if you’re looking at how many people are in that situation it’s at least a few million.”

Parsons explains that PXG, “won’t be attacking the competition directly,” a lesson he learned and has refined since his days as a Marine Corps rifleman – which is designated 0311 in USMC nomenclature and serves as the name of PXG’s first set of irons.

His Scottsdale, Ariz., office is dotted with reminders of his time in the Marines, and he pauses in front of a plaque that includes the Purple Heart medal to reflect on what he learned while serving.

“I went to college and graduated magna cum laude at the University of Baltimore. I would never have done that without them,” he said.

Although he considers himself a “misplaced accountant,” he admits his true calling is in marketing and a mind that is naturally drawn to shattering barriers and plowing through stop signs.

It was one of those trailblazing moments that made Parsons a household name in 2005 when he created a risqué advertisement to air during the Super Bowl that included a now-famous “wardrobe malfunction.”

Under pressure from the NFL, Fox pulled the second airing of the same ad, which was scheduled to be broadcast during the two-minute warning, and the resulting media storm produced untold exposure for

“Instead of our ad showing, what happens is much more acceptable to America. There’s a Fox ad for the “Simpsons” and Homer stabbing a baby. You can stab a baby, but lord you can’t have a tank-top strap pop,” Parsons said.

Parsons, who according to the 2015 Forbes 400 is worth $2.1 billion, said golf consumers can expect a similar cutting edge in PXG’s media campaigns, with the initial print advertisements referring to the company’s products as the “duck’s nuts.”

“What we have in our ad that you’ll never see in another golf ad, we have a warning that says, ‘Our clubs are amazing but expensive.’ It explains why they’re expensive,” Parsons said.

In fact, PXG’s Tour staff, which ballooned to a dozen players on the PGA and LPGA tours with this month’s announcement, is a rare nod to the status quo for Parsons, yet even his move into the endorsement landscape came with a signature Parsons moment.

“There is a rumor going around that most of those players I paid them a lot more money than they were making before, that’s not true. Most of them are getting less than what they were making before,” he explains.

“When I was a young man and I started to date, my dad gave me a tip, he called me Robert not Bob, and he said, ‘Robert, the No. 1 thing you want to look for in a girlfriend, the most important thing is you want one that likes you.’”

The golf world got a glimpse of Parsons’ unique, albeit somewhat autocratic, personality in 2014 after he’d purchased Scottsdale National Golf Club, a decision he made after flirting with the idea of buying an NFL franchise (he was leaning toward the Oakland Raiders).

In a letter sent to members Parsons wrote, “Currently our members who use the club the most support the club the least. In fact, many members who are at the club each and every day spend nothing and do not support the club at all. This will not continue.”

Scottsdale National Golf Club

Parsons went on to offer the club’s 175 members a “resignation opportunity,” with full refunds paid to those who didn’t care for the future he envisions for the club, which includes a redesign of the original 18 holes, a new 18-hole layout and what he describes as the “bad little nine.”

Nearly 40 percent reportedly accepted the offer. Although no one was willing to speak with on the record regarding the buyout, one source familiar with the situation said the membership welcomed Parsons’ improvements to an already well-maintained golf course if not his totalitarian approach to running the facility.

Although Parsons declined to talk about membership issues, he did say he’s not trying to create another Augusta National, just a place he can be proud of.

“It was the perfect thing for me knowing that I love golf and I got my own place,” he said. “We can make this as fine as we made the golf equipment and all the other business ventures we’re in. It was just no question.”

It’s that unique business model, and Parsons’ refusal to yield to convention, that now threaten to shake up a game mired in participation declines and saddled with an elitist history.

Whether Parsons’ ambitious mandate is the answer is already a topic of much debate, but he seems to sense the impact his performance-driven approach, regardless of cost, could have on the industry.

“What we have shown is what can be done if you think differently and what I would expect is the other companies, they are all very well run, but I think if they aren’t paying attention now you’ll see their product improve as well,” Parsons said.

Parsons is many things – philanthropist, risk-taker, marketing maverick – but if his introduction to the golf industry is any indication he is not timid.