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Monday, 23 September 2013

All’s fair in love and (golf ball) war

Golf, it seems, used to be such a gentlemanly game, especially when talking about the way it was played in the marketplace.

Intense? Certainly. Competitive? Without a doubt. But even the strongest opponents managed to go at it with a some semblance of decorum and respect.

Things have become very different, however, especially as the battle for market share in the $725 million wholesale U.S. ball market has heated up.

And many of those fighting it out appear to have dropped all pretense of good behavior in favor of launching very public barbs at their business rivals.

Accusations of patent infringement fly. Research tests are openly demeaned. Marketing campaigns are ridiculed, and product quality is questioned.

This is golf? Why, there is more fraternity in a cockfight, more order in the streets of Tirana and less jawing on a Brooklyn basketball court.

Consider some of the sniping that went on during the PGA Merchandise Show in Orlando, Fla., in February. Taylor Made, for example, chose to counteract quickly the introduction of Callaway’s new golf balls by televising a robot test that not only touted the superiority of its own product line but also chided Spalding for its recent decision to sell premium Strata balls through mass merchants by pulling the one used in the test out of a Wal-Mart bag.

Duck hunters call that a twofer, as in two birds with one shot.

At a cocktail party that same night, a major golf company executive systematically derided the golf balls made by a couple of his competitors to a group of journalists, even going so far as to suggest some days later that one of those companies might be engaged in highly unethical – and fraudulent – activities.

Military types call that a cluster bomb.

In fact, it never seemed to take much prodding during the show to get workers from one company to start yapping about their competition. And their words often sounded a lot like those negative campaign advertisements politicians say they will never resort to, yet always do.

Even Ely Callaway got into the act one day, interrupting the Merchandise Show news conference for his new golf balls to diss his chief rival from Titleist, Wally Uihlein, asking, “Anybody seen Wally?” before a crowd of nearly 1,000 journalists and guests.

“I don’t really understand what is going on,” said one equipment company executive. “There is so much trash being talked, so many attacks of the facts. People used to think that the best way to go was to judge your company and products on their – and your – own merits. But that no longer seems to be the case.”

What’s behind this increasingly mouthy behavior? Sociologists might point to a general breakdown in etiquette and decency, but the primary cause seems to be good old-fashioned competition and the fact that more and more people are fighting desperately for a piece of the golf ball pie. As a result, the stakes for them all are huge.

So it is not hard to understand why some of those in the trenches lose their heads on occasion and start barking rather loudly.

But that doesn’t mean they sound – or look – particularly good when that happens.

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