By Adam Schupak
At the U.S. Open in June, 13 players in the field put the Ping G400 driver in play during the first week the club was available. Pros tend to be somewhere between picky and “don’t bother asking” about switching equipment during golf’s biggest events, which made this mass switch all the more remarkable.
“It was the ultimate validation,” says John K. Solheim, president of Ping Golf.
It was further confirmation of how Ping has emerged as a real player in the battle royale for driver supremacy, changing its reputation from being a category after-thought to a market leader.
Every equipment company sprung out of a core competency. Titleist can stake its claim to being the No. 1 ball in golf, TaylorMade gave birth to metal woods, Callaway to the over-sized driver with Big Bertha, Cleveland’s lineage is wedges, and Ping is known for its custom fit irons (particularly Eye2) and perimeter-weighted putters. There’s a natural desire for an equipment-maker to fill in the blanks away from its core competency. Ping was late to the game in metal and titanium woods, which exploded into the game’s most lucrative equipment category.
“Those were some dark times,” John K. Solheim concedes.
Ping turned the corner in 2005, when the G2 was the top-selling driver for eight consecutive months according to Golf Datatech, which tracks golf equipment sell-thru data for the U.S. Ping consistently has made quality drivers, but it’s hard to change a reputation. There’s an old saying that golf clubs aren’t made to be bought; they are made to be sold. Ping always has been the definition of a substance-over-style brand. Splashy marketing campaigns aren’t in its DNA. It is why the company scores well with customers for loyalty and trustworthiness, but it also may be responsible for the time lapse until consumers caught on that its driver deserved their attention, too.
“Consumers put products in buckets,” says Chance Cozby, Ping’s director of tournament player relations. “If I’m going to buy a TV, it used to be a Sony. Now, I think Samsung and LG, but it took a while to get there.”
He didn’t say it, but implied or otherwise, Ping has joined the conversation with Callaway and TaylorMade as the “must try” driver at retail. Look no further than the G30, which spent five months as the top-selling driver in 2015. The best thing that happened to Ping was the era of TrackMan and simulators that provided measurable numbers for a side-by-side comparison.
“In our store, in particular, you win in the hitting bay,” says Randy Peitsch, PGA Tour Superstore’s senior vice president of operations. “When Ping started winning battles against some of the other driver companies, that’s kind of what really took them to the next level.”
The Ping G400 outsold the G30 in its first five months at retail, according to Pete Samuels, Ping’s director of communications. The latest Ping driver is the G400 Max, which sports a sleek, aerodynamic speed-inducing shape(available February 8, 2018). The domed crown combines with bolder turbulators (first introduced in the G30) to reduce drag and generate significant clubhead speed and ball velocity thereby ensuring distance with stability. It has a deeper profile than the G400 and a thinned crown that positions the CG low for maximizing MOI in the multi-material 460cc design.
“These turbulators are not just marketing speak,” Pietsch says. “They actually work and they are reducing drag and creating more club head speed.
To John K. Solheim, leadership in the driver category is a barometer for what company leads in innovation, and it can cast a halo effect that produces sales in additional categories.
“Customers think if they can do a good driver, they can do fairway woods and irons too,” he says.
So while Ping’s heritage as an iron and putter company may still be the lifeblood of the company, it is its ability to shift into a driver company that has helped it survive golf’s equipment-company consolidation at a time when Nike and others have closed up shop. Ping has become part of what Casey Alexander, a senior vice president and research analyst for Compass Point Research and Trading, calls the core four — alongside Callaway, TaylorMade and Titleist.
“When you remove 800 off-course specialty stores out of the market, green-grass (pro shops) is more relevant than it used to be, Alexander says. “Those shops aren’t going to carry eight brands. Being in that driver conversation makes them part of the ‘oligarchy of four.’”
Where do you think Ping fits into the landscape of club manufacturers? Let us know in the comments below!