When Mark King is in the house, you know it. He's a little guy, Midwestern to his core despite his SoCal address, with an uncanny ability to command attention. He shares some significant traits with his buddy Donald Trump. Like Trump — like all great salesmen — he's a good listener, and a better talker. Trump, at the end of the day, is selling his surname. King, at every turn, is selling TaylorMade golf clubs and the people who make them.
What the TaylorMade CEO most wants to sell are drivers. The National Golf Foundation might talk about 29 million recreational golfers in America, but the really important number, King will tell you, is 750,000 — the people who buy, on average, 1½ drivers per year. Yes, golf nuts buy balls, bags, shirts, shoes and little in-your-pocket ball washers that somehow don't soak your pants; and all these goodies (and so much more!) will be on abundant display at the PGA Merchandise Show in Orlando next week. But the thing that has given Mark King maverick status is his ability to sell drivers.
Whatever the latest model of TaylorMade driver is, it is (Mark King will tell you) the biggest and baddest driver on God's green earth. The sticker price (typically $399) is close to meaningless to the people who must have the newest new thing. Oh, the lengths we'll go in our search for two extra yards. Of course other manufacturers make superlong drivers too. (Thank you, House of Callaway, John Solheim and his peeps at Ping, golf-crazy New Englanders at Titleist and folks everywhere with graphite dust on their hands.) But here we focus on Mark King for his take on the game and for his ability to express it as a plus-four talker.
Maybe you saw him on Undercover Boss. He kills on the lecture circuit, in sales meetings, with his staff. He can be comically, wildly profane, or not, depending on his audience. ("I'm a chameleon," he says.) If you've missed the Mark King Show, here's one choice sample:
"To sell drivers, you have to be the Number 1 driver on Tour. That means, you have to win the driver count. Which we do almost every week. Forty to 50% of the players on Tour are using our driver. Now, if you have any kind of Tour status, somebody is going to pay you a minimum of $50,000 a year just to play a driver. So paid endorsements, they're a wash. What does that leave? Performance. The reason we have 92 Tour players under contract is because the players like the way our club performs. Now even with a big number like 92, you still need some name players. So we have Sergio García, because he drives it great and plays all over the world. We have Justin Rose because he's a straitlaced guy. We have Dustin Johnson because you know he's having a great time, and we have customers who are going to identify with him for that. That kind of thing."
I spent four days with King last month. I was never bored.
At the 2011 PGA Merchandise Show, King was talking about his new version of golf, in which holes would have a diameter of 15 inches (10¾ inches bigger than the current cup). At last year's show he continued to push the 15-inch hole and was waving his arms about various threats to the game, urging the USGA to do something now.
"And what did they do?" King asked me rhetorically. He was launching into one of his favorite set pieces. We were on a course near the TaylorMade offices in Carlsbad with Hank Haney and two duffers who, through a charity auction, had paid to be there. King, not waiting for an answer, will tell you exactly what the folks in Far Hills, N.J., did: They announced a 2016 ban on anchored putting and continued their protracted study of slow play.
Now is this a fair assessment of all the good work done by Mike Davis and his people at the USGA, to say nothing of their honorable intentions? Of course not. Does Mark King know that? Of course he does. But that's not going to stop him. Because he has a point he feels compelled to make: Golf needs to wake up and be realistic about its place in the modern global sporting universe.
At next week's PGA show, King will, as is his wont, be working the room. He will announce the names of a half-dozen courses that are ready to experiment with a 15-inch hole. He's going to talk about the game as if it is on life support. He's going to get in your face and ask you a few pointed questions: Do you like holing 30-footers? Do you like playing in three hours? Do you like breaking 80? If so, then get on board with the 15-inch hole!
I plan to be disruptive," King told me. The d word. He uses it hourly.
It all sounds so innocent, in King's earnest Dairyland accent. He's 54, half-schlubby, oddly charismatic, open and honest and loose, a 75-shooter who will play golf anywhere and with anybody. He bought his suburban Carlsbad home for $800,000 cash, never goes to the beach, spends half his nights in hotels (often a Holiday Inn), is twice divorced and actively involved in the lives of his two daughters. Lauren, 20, is at the University of Washington. Alison, 23, is a recent Princeton grad now working on campus for an organization called Christian Union.
"I'm a giving person, but I'm not a person who really needs other people," King told me on Day 2. "That has caused problems in my relationships with wives and girlfriends."
We were driving back to Carlsbad from a sales call in a meeting room at the Santa Ana Country Club. King and a half-dozen TaylorMade colleagues had pitched a group, headed by a man named Al Morris, from the Roger Dunn — Edwin Watts — Golf Warehouse consortium. TaylorMade, of course, wants more floor space, more hitting nets, more this, more that. Every manufacturer wants those things. The whole pitch was done in a jocular, boys-club way, but this was the message to Morris and his people: Get on the TaylorMade bus. At one point Morris said, "We're on everybody's team." Gang TaylorMade, led by King, just kept on pitching.
It's part science and part art, this business of launching products, marketing them to wholesalers, enticing golfers to buy them. In 2011 TaylorMade came out with a white-headed driver. It killed. For '12 the company expanded production. "So I started thinking, What could we add to white for 2013?" King said. The answer was bold racing stripes across the crown. They became part of the pitch, part of the campaign, part of new-and-improved. How 'bout them racing stripes! Turns out, King said, "A lot of customers didn't like them. They were too aggressive." Sometimes, King will tell you, you try and try and you still get it wrong.
King discusses his foibles — and his relationships professional and personal — with a striking, casual openness. He has the ability to make people feel comfortable. He's surprisingly new-agey, even if the package suggests otherwise. Really, you can't believe this guy is a central figure in the golf biz, not by appearance, not by message, not by anything. When I joined King at a University of San Diego basketball game, he wore a hoodie, ate a hot dog with no napkin and seemed to take it personally when plays broke down.
King played football, basketball and golf at Green Bay West High, two miles from Lambeau Field, and American Legion baseball in the summer. He'll shoot pool with you all night long. He knows sports. But King is not stuck in some mid-1970s jock-mentality version of himself. At King's urging, he and other top TaylorMade execs see a psychologist who makes regular office visits. When you get down to it, can your mental health ever be good enough? King believes that good mental health can relieve stress and help job performance. Walking with King through company headquarters, it seems like a happy place to work. He dispenses high fives like John D. Rockefeller handed out dimes.
When King was a high school student, his eight-year-old brother, Matthew, was killed. He was sitting on his bike in front of their house when he was struck by a car. King's mother (a piano teacher) and his father (who taught secretarial arts at Green Bay West High) never discussed the tragedy. The bologna sandwiches, dripping in mayonnaise and held together by two white pieces of sponge, just kept coming. As an adult, King has learned the value of talking things out. The perfect spacing of his shirts and trousers in the walk-in closet in his spotless home … he's working through that. But his boyish, consuming devotion to the Packers … that's not open to discussion.
It's hard to imagine another American CEO quite like him. He rose through the ranks at TaylorMade, starting there in 1981. Hanging out with King, you'd never know he makes millions per year. (He has given 85 speeches over the past several years through the tony Washington Speakers Bureau at $25,000 a pop, and he says he gives away almost all of that to charity.) You'd never know that TaylorMade, owned by Adidas Group, is a division of a large, global, publicly traded company. When he returned to Green Bay to tend to his ill father, a cousin, in his down-home Green Bay way, said to King, "I'd a thought you'd dress better."
If you get to the show next week, you'll hear this guy before you see him. He's going to tell you the time has come for bifurcation, different rules for us and for them. (Do we really need a stroke-and-distance penalty for hitting it OB? Do we really need summer rules? Roll it over year-round!) He's going to push his 15-inch hole. He's going to tell you about TaylorMade 3.0, the system by which every employee has a seat at the table and an incentive to make the company better.
"And what we're going to do at that show, see, is announce TaylorMade 3.0 for the whole golf industry," King said the other day. INN-dah-streee. "You got an idea on how to improve golf? We want to hear it, and we want to find a way to implement it."
Mark King wants to be an agent of change. He wants to be disruptive. Not for himself. For the sake of the game.