In Covington, Georgia, a town with four Waffle House restaurants and 13,000 residents, the Bridgestone Corp. factory churns out 36 million golf balls a year.
The company wants Matt Kuchar to hit one of them into the cup on the 18th green this weekend to clinch a U.S. Open victory.
Kuchar, a 35-year-old American, represents Bridgestone Golf’s best chance of ending the brand’s nine-year Grand Slam title drought. While the golf ball maker, which shifted all of its premium ball manufacturing to the U.S. two years ago, has climbed to No. 2 in ball sales behind Titleist, the company remains winless in the sport’s biggest events. A victory in Pinehurst, North Carolina, would generate about $10 million worth of exposure in the $1.1 billion golf ball market.
“Everything we do is aimed at closing the gap with Titleist,” Dan Murphy, Bridgestone’s marketing manager said. “The publicity would be very valuable. Credibility and visibility. That’s why we do this.”
In 2004, when Bridgestone balls only existed under the Precept brand name, the company ranked fourth in sales behind Titleist, Callaway Golf Co. (ELY), Nike Inc (NKE) and Top Flite. During that time, five players won a major title using a Precept ball, including Nick Faldo at the 1996 Masters and Lee Janzen at the 1998 U.S. Open. Bridgestone’s lone major victories have been limited to Paula Creamer’s 2010 U.S. Women’s Open win and Fred Couples’s 2012 Senior British Open title.
Kuchar, the No. 5 player in the Official World Golf Ranking -- one spot behind Tiger Woods -- is currently listed as 20-1 odds to win golf’s second major tournament of the year, according to the Las Vegas Hotel’s SuperBook. Rory McIlroy is the favorite at 10-1, followed by Adam Scott (12-1) and Phil Mickelson (15-1).
“If you haven’t won a major, you sure want to be a part of that conversation,” Kuchar said in a news conference this week. “We all certainly put a little more meaning toward these major championships.”
“I can’t hardly think of a single reason that Matt Kuchar couldn’t win the U.S. Open,” former U.S. PGA Tour player Brandel Chamblee, now a golf analyst with Comcast Corp. (CMCSA)’s NBC network, said. “He’s playing some of the best golf of his life. Every part of his game that was weak in the last two, three, four years, he’s improved.”
According to brand analysis and research firm Repucom, Bubba Watson’s 2012 win at the Masters Tournament -- typically golf’s most-watched event -- generated $14.2 million in media value for Karsten Manufacturing’s Ping, his primary corporate sponsor. Kuchar tied for fifth in this year’s Masters, generating $3.2 million of exposure for Bridgestone, according to Repucom.
Since first establishing a U.S. presence in 1990 under the Precept brand, Bridgestone has been chasing Titleist, which was purchased by Fila Korea Ltd (081660) in 2011.
“They’re the 800-pound gorilla,” Murphy said of the Fairhaven, Massachusetts-based company.
Titleist has been the most-used ball at the U.S. Open for 66 consecutive years and has three ball-production plants. The company opened its newest in Thailand in 2010 to meet demand for its Pro V1 ball, which has been used by players to win seven of the past 10 major titles, including by Watson at the Masters.
As Titleist has added production of its top-selling line of balls outside the U.S., Chuo-Ku, Japan-based Bridgestone closed its Malaysia plant in 2012 and now makes all balls selling for more than $19.99 per dozen at Covington. Today, 75 percent of all Bridgestone balls are made in the U.S., up from 50 percent two years ago.
Plant manager Doug Purnell said the shift has improved quality control and efficiency.
“Some of the products are much more complex,” Purnell said. “We have higher-skilled labor here and the U.S. workers are better educated and have a better work ethic.”
The expanded production at its Covington facility created 20 additional jobs and increased annual output by 40 percent, the company said. Titleist produces about 240 million balls annually, about five times as many Bridgestone balls from Georgia.
Bridgestone’s decision to move almost all of its production to Georgia comes as U.S. manufacturing jobs continue to stagnate around 12 million, about 12 percent less than the 13.7 million when the U.S. fell into recession in December 2007. In 2000, there were 17 million manufacturing jobs.
While Purnell praises U.S. workers, manufacturing in the U.S. still requires a constant need for improving efficiency to justify the move. All of Bridgestone’s plant is lit with motion-sensing lightning to reduce costs. Much of the work area remains dark throughout the day. Through water recycling, the plant cut its water usage to 450,000 gallons a month, from 900,000. In May, the plant installed variable-speed air compressors to reduce usage during non-peak production times.
“You’ve got to look to improve the process every day,” Purnell said. “People have to accept change and constantly improve to stay in business.”
The company typically operates the plant with less than 30 people and began promoting its increase in U.S. production with a “Made in USA” campaign earlier this year.
The marketing effort has contributed to a boost in sales, according to Dick Sullivan, chief executive officer of PGA Tour Superstore, which operates 20 retail locations across the U.S. Bridgestone’s share of sales in Sullivan’s stores has increased 3 percent this year, he said. He declined to provide specific data.
“I would bet that there are customers at the end of the day, if all things are equal and a ball is made in the U.S., it sways their decision,” Sullivan said in a telephone interview.
The company is betting that a U.S. Open victory by Kuchar, or another Bridgestone player, has an even bigger effect.
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