One January day about five years ago, I called my colleague Gary Van Sickle, who was attending the PGA Merchandise Show in Orlando.
“Hit the new TaylorMade driver today," Gary said.
"How is it?" I asked.
"What's different about it?" I asked.
"It's white," Gary said.
Which explains the unexpected charm of a recent press release announcing that John Daly, 50, is now playing a driver with vertical grooves. The Vertical Groove Driver looks pretty much like your typical titanium-headed design, except for one significant thing: The scoring lines go north and south. In the press release, Daly says, "I've been hitting the ball further and straighter off the tee since putting the Vertical Groove Driver in my bag." Well, who doesn't want that?
Whether it works is a more delicate question. Most name-brand manufacturers have concluded that grooves on thin-faced titanium drivers do nothing except create stress points. That's why most drivers have just trace scoring lines, there mostly for aesthetics, or, at the sweet spot, no lines at all. The good people at Vertical Groove Golf, not surprisingly, will tell you that the problem is one of orientation.
"When people see the vertical grooves, they say, 'Why didn't I think of that?'" Rubin Hanan, one of the entrepreneurs behind the driver, told me. He and his partners secured the patent rights to the idea from the estate of Tony Antonius, a serial golf inventor credited with putting the Velcro strap on golf gloves.
Daly told me that vertical grooves diminish sidespin, and drives that "I thought would be 15 yards in the rough are in the fairway." With no loss of distance. In fact, a gain. Amazing!
Long John has a royalty deal with Vertical Groove. Trying to get a sense of what he was giving up in the way of guaranteed money to play the Vert driver, I asked him what a major manufacturer would pay him to play its driver for 2017. "To be honest with you," he said, "they wouldn't pay me anything. There's no endorsement money on the senior tour." I was surprised. Daly is one of the great drivers of the modern era.
Selling a better mousetrap, in golf or anything else, requires deep reserves of optimism and realism. Years ago, when a partner and I were trying to launch a one-off utility club, I called Pat Simmons, the inventor of the Alien Wedge. Simmons said, "Well, you're going to sell at least 50,000 of them." How do you know that? "Because there are 50,000 kooks in golf who will buy one of anything. You'll know you have a business if you sell 50,001." That proved prescient. We sold 50,000 clubs. My partner almost got his money back.
Numbers are the damnedest thing. Let's say Vertical can make the head for $70 per piece. Then there's the Aldila shaft (roughly $40), the Golf Pride grip (maybe $5), plus assembly (call it $10) at a facility in Jupiter, Fla. You have $125 in your product, and you haven't even reached a customer, let alone shipped him or her the club.
But if you could sell 50,000 clubs at $350 each (VGD's website price after a $50 discount), you'd have $17.5 million in sales. Hanan says more than one million drivers are sold annually and that VGG hoped to get at least 1% of the market in 2017 alone—meaning 10,000 clubs and $3.5 million in sales. Not too shabby.
It's a great thing, to have an idea and a dream. In the meantime the rent check for the facility in Jupiter must be paid, along with the bill for all that bubble wrap. The original Antonius vertical-groove patent expires in about a year. If vertical grooves work, you can be sure TaylorMade and Callaway and everybody else will jump in. "But we'll be the originals," Hanan said.
I asked Frank Thomas, the retired technical director at the USGA, what he made of a driver with vertical grooves. Thomas, who invented the graphite shaft, knew Antonius. "Very innovative guy," Thomas said. But in a lifetime in golf, he never saw a club with vertical scoring lines in play, or even submitted to the USGA.
"I don't get it—I'm not sure how vertical grooves are going to affect spin," Thomas said. He considered the club some more and finally said, "The placebo effect works very well."
It does, and this is the season for it.