For most golf fans, the only reason to pull off I-75 for a cruise through Albany, Ga., might be to get a glimpse of golf legend and local resident Nancy Lopez. But Albany is also where Macgregor Golf Co. has stationed its headquarters for 40 years. A long par-4's length from the Albany airport, just beyond the intersection of Slappy Drive and Pine Place, the Macgregor plant quietly churns out some 3,000 golf clubs a day. The problem is, the company hasn't made much noise in the golf world outside of Albany the past couple of decades.
CEO Barry Schneider, whose private San Francisco equity firm bought MacGregor in 1998, wants that to change. As a 15-year-old in San Carlos, Calif., Schneider played MacGregor clubs for the same reason so many other golfers did -- MacGregor was the name in golf. But it had gone from being the nation's leading clubmaker in the 1940s and 50s to a nearly no-name manufacturer.
Restoring MacGregor to a place alongside such names as Callaway and TaylorMade was no easy task. Having been through multiple managers over the years, the company was drifting strategically when Schneider came on the scene. Some of its clubs were made for the discount market, others for the premium crowd. And it had done virtually nothing to market itself to a new generation of amateur golfers.
BECOMING RELEVANT. So in 1999, Schneider put his investment duties on the back burner to take over as CEO. His goal: "When you ask passionate golfers what clubs they play, I want the majority to say MacGregor."
Schneider's key strategic stroke is to dedicate the company to a broader swath of players. Macgregor had excelled in making beautifully forged irons used by greats like Jim Turnesa and Jack Nicklaus. For their handiwork, its club designers, such as the venerable Don White, have been inducted into the Club Makers Hall of Fame. But for recreational golfers the clubs were much tougher to hit than the forgiving sticks being cast by such competitors as Callaway and Ping.
To make Macgregor more relevant to average players, Schneider says, it had to make more hittable clubs. That's why in March of 2003, he told his troops: "I want this to be the year of forgiveness."
WHAT'S YOUR PTI? Macgregor unveiled new irons and metal woods in January that help users thrust the ball into the air. And it spent about a year testing a new Eye-O-Matic driver designed to launch high, straight shots. From a gray conference room scattered with Macgregor-branded paraphernalia, Schneider and his designers, Dave Wood and Jim Bode, explained the chief goals behind the new driver.
The target market is golfers with swing speeds between 80 and 100 miles per hour, close to a third slower than Macgregor-sponsored tour pros such as the up-and-coming 23-year-old Australian, Aaron Baddeley. Schneider zeroed in on a measurement called the power transfer index, or PTI, which is the speed of the ball coming off the clubface divided by the speed of your swing speed. For example, if you're swinging 100 mph and the ball's coming off at 150 mph, your PTI is 1.5. The higher the PTI, the farther the ball will go.
The design staff spent most of 2003 testing different drivers to arrive at just the right combination of technology for the new club. They built a clubhead with a dual-radius face featuring two slightly different curvatures that help keep the ball in play and gives the clubhead a sleek look.
"THE BALL STAYS UP." They then hunted down the ideal shaft -- a key component. Scores of shafts were tested to see which produced the sort of high launch that makes the ball really roll when it lands. After three months of stroking drivers with a swing robot, Schneider settled on a premium stick by shaft giant Graphite Design, and had it tweaked to fit Macgregor's club.
All this gives the average golfer the kind of flight that will make the ball go farther. Specifically, Schneider's aim is to build a driver that launches the ball at least two degrees higher than the loft of the club. For example, a player using a 9-degree lofted club should hit the ball on an arching 11-degrees angle. Why? "The higher launch in a world with today's low-spin golf balls means a lot of drive," says Schneider. "The ball stays up in the air longer."
With a swing robot, the new Eye-O-Matic propels shots an average of 220 yards. But what about in a real golfer's hands on the course? Well, this reporter accompanied Schneider and his designers out to Albany's Doublegate Country Club to test-drive the sticks. Schneider, a wiry-thin 5-feet, 11-inches in his golf spikes, busted 280-yard drives down the center using the new 420-cc Eye-O-Matic. That was about average for the 14 handicapper. Using a stick of the same size, yours truly snuck one out there within 10 yards of Schneider -- to my glee, a bit longer and straighter than normal.
SOUNDS LIKE A GUN. The driver has found a home on the pro tour. Macgregor pitchman Baddeley has replaced his Titleist with the sleek, new Eye-O-Matic, even though his Macgregor contract doesn't demand it. "This is a completely different driver than the previous one," says Baddeley, who now gets 11 more yards off the tee, according to PGA Tour stats. "I get a domey flight, then when it lands it rolls," he says. "That's why I hit it longer."
The club does have its peculiarities. Retailers say the sound from ball impact is almost annoyingly loud. "It's the loudest sound I've ever heard," says Kerry C. Kabase, sales director of the Edwin Watts Golf chain in Fort Walton Beach, Fla. "It's like a gun going off." But Kabase says the clubs are still flying out the door. "I told Barry, 'You got it right on this one,'" he says. "This driver is one of the nice surprises of the year."
The hot demand has Macgregor's plant pumping out twice as many drivers per day than its normal rate. Schneider says the company is 125% beyond its forecast for drivers shipped in the first quarter. It's early in the Macgregor turnaround. Schneider points out that the company is in only the third year of its renaissance. It has a long haul ahead, but a classic appears to be getting back in the game. By Roger O. Crockett in Chicago