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The Premium Putter Battleground


Titleist's Scotty Cameron defined the high-end milled putter category, but competition has never been fiercer for sales of the pricey money clubs. In 1995, Titleist and putter designer Scotty Cameron teamed up to introduce a line of high-end milled putters and scaled a then-unreached price plateau: the rarefied air above $200.00. Even Titleist officials concede they wondered if anyone would buy such an expensive club, which to their chagrin produced low margins to boot. But buy they did, and the putter world changed.

Cameron spurred a host of imitators eager to harvest sales in the category's new frontier. However, he staked the territory as his own, forcing rivals to peck away at the periphery - still seeking super-premium prices but charging less than Cameron in an effort to undercut the Titleist craftsman. The covetous group currently includes Bobby Grace Faceoff by MacGregor, Heavy Putter, Never Compromise's Gray Matter 2 Exchange and TaylorMade's Rossa Inza.

But now Cameron's dominance is being challenged like never before. Putting powers Ping and Odyssey are reaping sales this year with milled putters priced at a Cameronesque $250. And Nike Golf jumped into the category with high-end offerings of its own.

This market dynamic comes at a time when putter sales have slowed with the sole exception of the category's high-end. Research firm Golf Datatech provides evidence consumers are paying higher prices for putters. In the past two years the $200-plus tier has accounted for 12 percent of unit sales and nearly 24 percent  of dollar sales at on- and off-course retailers. But retailers say the addition of these entries is outpacing demand.

Milled putters' surge in popularity parallels their increased usage on Tour. Fifteen years ago, only a handful of Tour players used milled putters. Now 60 to 70 percent of a 156 man field at a Tour event is using a milled putter. We all know the public likes to play what the pros play. No one has capitalized on Tour preferences better than Cameron. It hasn't hurt business that Tiger Woods has used a Cameron putter throughout his professional career. The Cameron Newport 2, which Woods has used since 1999, has been the one irreplaceable club in his bag. Mark Bazely, director of golf at Tiburon Golf Club in naples, Fl., compares the impact of that affinity with the Michael Jordan effect on sneakers. "Everyone wanted to be like Mike with Nike shoes. Well, everyone wants to be like Tiger with a milled putter."

Even Ping, which earned its reputation casting putters, has joined the fray - again. The company first entered the high-end milled putter category in August 2003 with its JAS line. Priced at nearly $400, it failed to gain traction in the marketplace. But the company's second go around may prove to be more rewarding: With Mark Calcavecchia paying full retail for a Redwood Anser at Edwin Watts during the PODS Championship and then winning the event, and Angel Cabrera capturing the U.S. Open with the same milled model, Ping has scored Tour validation. The Redwood is Ping's most played series of putters on Tour. Priced more competitively in the $250 range, it's off to a promising start at retail.

It's still too early to tell if any of the new competitors will gain and keep significant market share. The lack of a name designer fronting their products might undermine some of their efforts, retailers say. Such branding has become an almost essential point of distinction for milled putter success. Otherwise, it's akin to selling $50 per dozen golf balls against Titleist. However, retailers say consumers are giving the new entries a try.










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