Feb. 8, 2010
Mr. Warren E. Buffett
Berkshire Hathaway Inc.
3555 Farnam St.
Omaha, NE 68131
Dear Mr. Buffett:
I am an SI writer and one of your many fans. Your stock-picking speaks for itself. (Buying railroads in 2009, sir? Very Monopoly, very cool.) And then there’s your candid and witty writing. (From your 2001 annual report, regarding your investment in a cement company: “Try to contain your excitement.”) The wife and I use your GEICO insurance. I see signs of you on the golf trail. When the Ryder Cup was in Louisville in 2008, I dropped in on the Buffett Cup, your bridge competition, at a downtown hotel. During the Masters, I’ve done player interviews beside your locker in the Augusta National clubhouse.
Augusta National — that’s got to be the hardest chipping course in the world, don’t you think? And it is with chipping in mind that I write to you today, Mr. Buffett. I am the inventor of a utility golf club called the E-Club. (For E veryone, from E verywhere.) The E-Club is three clubs in one: putter, sand wedge and fairway wood. It’s on the USGA list of conforming clubs, and I have a U.S. patent on it. I also have a 30-minute infomercial featuring Nick Price, Judy Rankin and various young assistant pros, all of whom can do unlikely things with it. And a storage unit in Feasterville, Pa., with, as I write this sentence, 723 E-Clubs in it. It’s a nice little company — no debt, no other products — which I own with another golf nut. We call it Bantam Golf Co. I’m wondering if you’d like to buy it.
Here’s what you’ll get: The inventory. The infomercial. The U.S. patent rights. The name. The website. The mold to the club. Foundry contact information. And, with each club, a machine-washable headcover, black with red stitching.
I’ve been selling the club for $59. The only better value in golf that I know of is the $20 twilight green fee at the muni in Pacific Grove, up the road from Pebble Beach. Most weeks I’ll sell at least one club, and some weeks two or three. Under your leadership, I believe sales would be more robust.
You, of course, will have your own ideas, but please allow me to explain how I run the operation. I work on the honor system. The chipping desperate find their way to the website, and they send me an e-mail telling me how many clubs they want and where they want them sent. I mail them the goods and they mail me a check. How often do I get stiffed? Never! Often, the clubs and the checks cross in the mail. Repeat customers, and I have several, will sometimes include notes with their checks. They write things like, “Your club’s pretty good.” Or, “The E-Club saved me another shot today — now the wife wants one.”
So what sort of magic does the E-Club pack? (This is the enjoyable, golfy part of the pitch.)
I’m sure you’ve seen golfers putt from off the green. You see it at Augusta National and on many hard, firm public courses, including the Old Course. When Tiger Woods won the British Open there in 2000, he putted from 70 yards off the green. You might know the adage of the yippy chipper: A bad putt is better than a bad chip. Putting from off the green works, but only to a point.
The main problem is that the putter has little loft, and fairway grass can be long and clingy, especially in the early morning dew or in the rain. You have to hit a putt from off the green with enough oomph to get it through the fairway, but then your ball starts breaking speed limits once it reaches the green. Three putts later it’s, Put me down for a 7, Bill. We’ve all been there.
Tommy Armour, the 1927 U.S. Open winner and a Winged Foot member, used to play chip shots by putting with a lofted fairway wood so the ball would skim along the fairway and then go into a controlled and true roll when it reached the green. He taught the shot to Claude Harmon, the longtime pro at Winged Foot, who taught it to his son, Butch, who taught it to Tiger, who played the shot often before he left Harmon for Hank Haney. Years ago I asked Woods why he chipped with a fairway metal. He said, “Sometimes when you’re chipping off a tight lie, you get nervous and you hit the ground before you hit the ball. An iron will simply dig into the ground. You’re done. But with the big sole of a fairway wood the club will bounce off the turf and you can still make pretty good contact.” In more recent years good-to-elite golfers have played that shot with utility clubs. Exhibit A is Todd Hamilton, who repeatedly used a hybrid chip when he won the 2004 British Open over Ernie Els at Troon.
A good shot for those guys, but not for the rest of us. For one thing, the shaft of a fairway wood or hybrid is too long, and the head is too light. It takes way too much skill, or at least it does for this 90 shooter. So it got me thinking about a chipping club that would allow you to stand with your head over the ball, as you do with a putter. A club with a lot of offset, to help your hands stay in front of the ball. With a heavy head, the weight of a sand wedge, so that once you brought the clubhead back, centrifugal force would return it somewhere near the ball. And with a head shaped like a small, playable four-wood. The club really does work, Mr. Buffett.
Don’t take my word for it. (This is the tacky, name-droppy part of the pitch.) A PGA Tour pro I know once spent a weekend with George H.W. Bush playing golf. Forty-one had an E-Club. The pro told me later, “Every golfer over the age of 60 should have that club.” Lee Trevino, all on his own, used the E-Club at his final British Open, in 2000 on the Old Course. Here’s a man with thousands of clubs in his garage, and somehow the E-Club was plucked from the stockpile and dropped in his quiver.
Trevino wouldn’t know me from Lady Gaga, but last year at a Champions tour event I found myself in an elevator with him. He remembered the club immediately.
“That’s a hell of a club you made, young man,” he said. (I’m a chip shot from 50 years old.) “My friends will say, ‘Where can I get me one of them?’ And I say, ‘Damned if I know.'”
And that’s the problem. When we began, in 1999, we had 70,000 heads made at a foundry in Taiwan. (The shafts are True Temper, and the grips are Golf Pride.) Selling almost exclusively by way of the infomercial on Golf Channel, we sold 50,000 clubs, at an average price of $130 a club, in less than a year. That was almost enough for us to break even.
But then we were stymied. The desperate and the needy had found their way to the E-Club, and the only golfers left were the hopeless (can’t sell to them), the Ã¼bertalented (couldn’t sell to them) and the overly proud (a tough crowd).
A note regarding the number 50,000: In the golf biz they say there are 50,000 kooks who will buy one of anything and that you’ll know you have a business when you sell unit number 50,001. We were done at 50. Golf Channel rates were getting too expensive — with a robust economy and the Tiger phenomenon — and we called it a day. We liquidated most of the remaining stock. I bought enough clubs to fill that storage unit, and now my stash is down to 723. Hold it, just checked the e-mail. Make that 722. (Want to help Michael Bamberger deplete his stash? Order your E-Club at eclubgolf.com.)
I realize, Mr. Buffett, that you would not be interested in a golf company that sold one specialty club to the desperate and the needy. But there’s a huge potential pool there, if you could sway the overly proud. Gene Sarazen invented the sand wedge and made it popular by winning with it. Look at what Tom Kite did for the lob wedge, what Paul Azinger did for the seven-wood, what Bernhard Langer did for the long putter. Nick Price was a wonderful and generous spokesman for us, but he didn’t need the club. He was too good.
What the E-Club needs is a trusted spokesman who will give the club legitimacy by using it in public, in the heat of battle. How about an owner-operator who could be the club’s pitchman, too? That, Mr. Buffett, could be you.
Picture this: shot of you in an intense $5 Nassau with, say, Arnold Palmer. You’re 20 yards off the 18th green, the match is even, you’re chipping with the E-Club. Your shot finishes a foot or two from the hole. You look into the camera and say something like, “The E-Club. It’s pretty good.” You know, in the tradition of your GEICO spots where the old-timey ad guy holds up a card that reads, MULTI-CAR DISCOUNTS. THEY’RE THE BEE’S KNEES.
Try to contain your excitement.
Thank you for your time, Mr. Buffett. Happy chipping.