Gary Adams was a visionary, the son of a club professional who followed his father into the family business, but whose interests and enthusiasm for the game extended way beyond curing club members of their slice and re-gripping their clubs. In his desire to revolutionise golf he believed he had a secret weapon.
In the main reception area of TaylorMade’s HQ, there is a glass case display charting the various stages of development of the club that changed the sport. It begins with the a metal-headed driver that Adams designed, had manufactured, and then transported down to Florida for the 1979 PGA Merchandise Show.
Viewed in a modern context, what is remarkable about the club is just how small it is. The head is no bigger than a 4-iron hybrid you might buy in the shops today. Yet there is a beautiful simplicity to the clubhead. The lines are clean and, despite the fact that the sweetspot must be tiny (at least to the eye of the average handicapper in this era of game improvement clubs), it does look rather inviting to hit. It was called the M1…
Fast forward 35 years, and we’re stood outside what looks like a safe door deep inside TaylorMade’s global HQ in Carlsbad, California. It’s thick. It’s black. There’s a lock on the front that has the TaylorMade ‘T’ carved into it, and you need a code to get in. They don’t want any ideas creeping out of here into the hands of their rivals.
Still, there is no harm in asking.
What’s the next great innovation? “We are continually working on better products,’’ says our guide. Why so shy? “Carlsbad is a very small community,’’ he says with a smile. “Things get around very, very quickly. All I’d say that the next model of driver we make has to be longer and straighter than the last one.” Longer and straighter – how? “If I told you I would have to kill you.”
Fortunately for us, two of the company’s most senior executives are happy to talk to us – Benoit Vincent is Chief Technical Officer; Sean Toulon is Executive Vice President of Product Creation and Product Marketing – and give us an insight into the planning, development, endorsement and techniques involved in bringing new products – like the brand new M1 driver – to life.
What does a typical week look like for you?
ST: Long before we launch a product to the market, I’ll be out on tour with the team, seeing how the players are getting on with it. I’m looking at performance numbers, but also what the players say; what they like and don’t like. More often than not we’re trying to understand what they don’t say, or trying to interpret what they mean when they say something, which isn’t always easy to do! It’s all about making sure the products are behaving the way they’re supposed to.
BV: My team is in charge of making the products, so we’re pouring steel, designing the products and testing them. We have about 100 people in Carlsbad and additional teams all over the world, most of whom are mechanical engineers. They are all very passionate about this and a lot of them are very good golfers.
How does the idea for a brand new product come about?
BV: The performance we’re trying to improve comes from golfers telling us about the gaps in the products. They’re saying, ‘I’d like to do that with my driver’, ‘I’m missing this’, or ‘this shot is difficult to hit with this club’. That’s where the performance target improvements come from, but the technical solutions often come from outside golf. We borrow ideas from the bicycle industry, for instance, and our new cosmetic came from the motorcycle industry. These industries are dealing with mechanical problems like we are, so we all borrow ideas from each other. The way we process titanium has people from the aeronautic industry saying they don’t know how we do it because they don’t even do that in their field, so it’s very advanced.
What does a product have to offer to make it to market?
ST: It has to perform better than what it would replace so it has a meaningful place. We have a philosophy that both our teams adhere to and that is ‘Products are only capable of telling the truth’. Marketing and sales people can fabricate a story, but a product either works or it doesn’t and it’s proven out here all day every day. There’s TrackMan, GC2 and all kinds of diagnostic equipment, so when we bring out a new driver it’s got to go further, launch higher, spin less, feel good, sound good, look great and perform better in every way or it can’t come out. It’s all performance based.
How long does it take for a new club to go from initial idea to the shelves?
BV: The timeline varies hugely from product to product. I think our SLDR – the moveable weight that we introduced in the SLDR track – we patented that in 2006, but it didn’t hit the market until 2013. That’s an example of a long-term project. But if you look at our first moveable weight, the patent was filed in 2002 or 2003 and the product hit the market in 2004 – that’s how different it can be.
You’ve both been in the industry for over 20 years. What has been your proudest moment?
ST: Mine was with Sergio Garcia in 2004. We took the new r7 driver to show him and I said, ‘Sergio, this is going to be your new driver. It’s going to change your life.’ He clearly didn’t quite believe me, so we went out on the range, assembled the club right in front of him and let him hit it and play with the adjustability. He said, ‘It does everything you said it would do, I can’t believe it!’ To see someone go from sceptic to that much of a believer in 45 minutes was a total validation of what we do. We try to bring out clubs where the best in the world can see a difference and improve their performance, and it happened right in front of my eyes with one of the best ball-strikers in golf.
BV: I have two. One was adjustability. Adjustability was something that we could never dream about in golf. It was in nobody’s mind, and the day we started to move the shaft of a golf club was a magical moment. The day we could take the head and the shaft apart and put another combination together and see an immediate difference in performance, that was a revolution. It used to take two to three months to deploy a new driver on tour, because you had to give the player four to five shafts with a different loft or face angle, let them play all that and then do more alterations, get more feedback, and then glue it all together. Today, it takes less than two weeks. The second thing was fairway woods. RocketBallz was the opening for a fairway wood to deliver the same performance as a driver. They launch the ball like a driver and spin like a driver, which was a revolution compared to the old ballooning trajectory you used to get from 3-woods. It changed the way fairway woods are designed and will be designed in future.
Is there a product you would like to take back and redesign?
ST: JetSpeed. Not the performance, but the aesthetics. It was a really good performing driver, but it was uninspiring to look at.
BV: I agree. JetSpeed is maybe the product that triggered a succession of bad decisions for a while, because we couldn’t endorse, like or sustain the product. I think we’ve learned that when we are not happy internally with a product, the market sees it and tells you about it. We learned the hard way. Every product is the result of so many interactions within the company, so if those interactions are not good, we can give birth to something that is not at the level we would do individually. We’re humans and we make mistakes.
How do you deal with criticism – people saying they don’t like a product or saying you release too many new products?
ST: The criticism is really powerful. We take it seriously and we try to understand why. I take the criticism as a real opportunity. In terms of product cycles, we’ve heard that criticism for a long, long time. If we bring something out and it redefines the performance of a product category, I don’t think anybody criticises us for bringing that out too quickly! If there are products that aren’t performing to that level, then I think you open yourself up to criticism like that.
Looking 10 years into the future, what will a Tour player’s bag look like?
BV: If it’s Dustin Johnson, it’ll be one driver and 11 wedges! A 5-wood today performs like a 3-wood did five years ago in terms of distance, because we are capable of bringing distance with higher lofted products. We are capable of delivering the distance of a 5-iron with a 7-iron, not by lowering the loft, but because the club is delivering faster ball speed. I would say all clubs will shift by two to three degrees in loft.
With Tour players hitting it further and further, do you fear for the future of classic courses like the Old Course?
ST: It’s not our responsibility to protect that. Our job is to find performance and to help the best athletes in the world perform at a higher level.
What’s the craziest idea you’ve come up with that didn’t make it to market?
ST: The Mother of All Drivers (MOAD). We developed a prototype of club that would self-adjust during your swing so it would be able to sense if the face was coming in too open or too closed and deploy a weight during your downswing that would change that. We’d go to R&A jail for that one but it was pretty cool! Another one is adjustable sound. When you got the club to impact and it made contact with the ball it would yell, ‘I’m the man!’ That would be pretty cool; I kind of want that one!
BV: We also developed a golf ball that would change colour when you hit it, getting heated from the energy transfer at impact. So Dustin Johnson with his 183mph ball speed would hit it and the ball would turn bright red, whereas Mike Weir, who doesn’t have quite the same clubhead speed, would see it turn pink!
What’s the biggest challenge facing golf?
ST: Attitude. It got really pessimistic that golf was shrinking and it takes too long. People just need to enjoy the game for what it is and why they fell in love in the first place – to be outside, playing with your family or your friends, or a place to compete. Just go be a golfer, go enjoy it. There are reasons to be optimistic about golf. It’s a wonderful game; it has issues, but it’s awesome.
BV: It’s strange that we complain so much about something that is pleasurable! I don’t know what happened to some golfers!