Golf is slow to change in many ways, and the structure of the equipment industry has only recently started to reflect the changing times. It wasn’t long ago that the main ways to buy a new set of clubs or dozen balls was at your home course’s pro shop or one of a handful of big-box-type golf retail stores. Ordering directly from a manufacturer was simply out of the question – those companies would wholesale to those traditional retail outlets.
Now, you can order a TaylorMade SIM or Callaway Mavrik driver direct from each company’s website, cutting out the middleman. You’ll still pay retail prices, but the evolution in how these companies sell their equipment is a reaction to the rise of e-commerce, and particularly a group of potentially disruptive brands that rely entirely on the Internet to make them a market.
Direct-to-consumer golf brands are here to stay.
Direct-to-consumer golf balls: a growing menu
Retail may not be dead (yet), but it’s definitely been knocked to the canvas.
Amid an already strong trend of consumers buying online rather than in person, the coronavirus pandemic has only accelerated that shift. Even with the economic uncertainty and mass unemployment wrought by COVID-19 in the last several months, the U.S. Census Bureau measured a nearly 32% increase in e-commerce spending in the second quarter of 2020, a total of $211.5 billion against $160.3 billion in the first quarter of the year.
Even assuming daily life returns closer to normal in the coming months, this shift in consumer behavior is largely here to stay, and it plays into the hands of the growing direct-to-consumer product space.
If this term is unfamiliar to you, “direct-to-consumer” or “DTC” brands avoid selling their products through traditional retail channels. You’ll never find them in Wal-Mart, Macy’s, Best Buy or PGA Tour Superstore.
By skipping this step in the traditional buying process, instead of charging a big-box store wholesale prices which are then marked up for the consumer, DTC brands market the products to the consumer, and generally charge something closer to what the wholesale price would be.
For example, the dozen top-of-the-line golf balls that retail for about $48 a dozen nowadays? Their wholesale cost is usually between $36 and $39 a dozen. The roughly $10 extra you pay helps keep the lights on and the employees paid at the store.
If you’ve been paying attention to the growing list of DTC golf ball companies, you’ve probably noticed that they’re touting tour-quality golf balls right around that sub-$40 price point.
11 direct-to-consumer golf ball brands worth looking into
All things being equal, I haven’t found a golf ball I trust more than the Titleist Pro V1. I’ve played it pretty consistently for the 20 years it’s been on the market. I don’t mind paying extra for it because it delivers a mix of distance, spin and feel that agrees with my game. I would (and have in the past) gladly game the TaylorMade TP5x, Bridgestone B330 series, Callaway Chrome Soft and other name-brand golf balls if the need arose.
That said, if for some reason the big OEMs’ golf balls were no longer available to me, I would have no shortage of excellent golf balls to play, thanks to the growing direct-to-consumer space. You’ll see that all of these golf ball brands, with one exception that I’ll note below, see themselves as competitors to the likes of the ProV1 and company, but at about 50% to 75% of the cost.
In my experience, almost every ball I’ve hit that costs, say, 80% as much as a ProV1 has been at least 80% as good as the ProV1, and often closer to 90% as good.
If you’re not sweating that marginal difference in light of lower cost, here are the golf balls to look into:
Between stints at Titleist and TaylorMade (after beginning his career in the aerospace industry for BF Goodrich), Dean Snell became one of the most knowledgeable and experienced golf ball designers in the game. He hung his own shingle in 2015, kicking off the recent direct-to-consumer golf ball trend. Five years later, his company’s products have a reputation for high quality at a relatively significant discount to the OEMs. They paved the way for a host of other such brands, and continue to be very popular golf balls in their own right. Their bulk pricing has also been adopted by their competitors.
Based in Germany, Vice’s brand is heavy on hip, with a strong Instagram presence and irreverent ads featuring golf influencer Erik Anders Lang underpinning a serious commitment to selling golf balls. Their bulk pricing takes $10 off per dozen when you buy five or more (which the company considers roughly a year’s supply). The new “Drip” color scheme available on their Pro and Pro Soft ball might make some purists dismiss it as gimmicky, but all dozens with the unique color schemes have sold out. Other available colors, a collaboration with the NBA and extensive lines of apparel and accessories, seem aimed at making Vice as much a lifestyle as an equipment brand, and their strategy seems to be paying off.
Best ball: Vero X1 ($39.99)
You wouldn’t think Buffalo, N.Y., would be a likely spot for a successful startup golf ball company, but there you have it. OnCore was one of the earlier DTC players along with Snell and Vice, and has cultivated a following while making some clever strategic decisions, including stocking the nascent PopStroke “golfertainment” concept with their product on a somewhat experimental retail basis. I was impressed by the smooth feel of the brand-new Vero X1, and I have also hit the traditional flagship ELIXR model, which at $29.99 a dozen (as little as $25.99 if you order 6 dozen or more) offers close to the most golf ball per dollar in the game, and their loyalty programs can get superusers discounts of up to 25%.
Best ball: Cut DC ($29.95)
Aggressive pricing is Cut’s stock in trade, as their piece of the DTC golf ball space includes the slogan “The Best Damn Golf Balls Under 20 Bucks” for their Cut Blue and Cut Grey models ($19.95). Their four-piece, “high”-end Cut DC is a relative newcomer to their lineup but still comes in under $30 a dozen.
Best ball: F18 Tour ($32.99)
This upstart brand out of Texas generated some buzz recently based on some video reviews from popular golf equipment YouTubers Rick Shiels and the club fitters of the Toronto-based Tour Experience Golf (TXG). The TXG guys liked the F18 Tour but the more mid-market F35 Control ($27.99) shocked them during their indoor launch monitor tests, where it flew several yards further than both the F18 Tour and ProV1. Quantix’s bulk-pricing scheme knocks as much as $4 per dozen for those who buy 5 or more dozen at a time. The brand also encourages fans to become ambassadors, offering incentives for talking up their products on social media.
Best ball: Bison Soft, V, X, XL ($32)
Trust is the in-house golf ball brand of Kerichem Materials Science Co. Ltd., a Taiwan-based company that has supplied materials many of the major golf ball OEMs have used in their product for the last quarter-century. They tout end-to-end control of the manufacturing process as the reason golfers should give them a try. All four of their golf ball models cost the same, segmented by swing speed, implying an equivalent commitment to all golfers, rather than reserving their best offering for elite players.
Birds might occasionally confuse golf balls for eggs, but this one actually comes from an incubator, at Ireland’s Institute of Technology in Carlow. The per-dozen price puts Seed close to the major OEMs, but if you “subscribe” to their golf ball so that you receive a pre-set amount every month, two months or quarter, the per-dozen price drops to $31. I stumbled upon a sleeve of the SD-01 a few months ago and was very impressed at how they handled.
Best ball: RZN HS Tour ($34.95)
Golfers who keep an eye on equipment trends know “RZN” – it was the model name of some of the last golf balls manufactured by Nike. Tiger Woods played them, and other Nike athletes won with them as well. Indeed, the current RZN brand is the independent version of that group, working with the same technology but no Swoosh logo. Now, it’s a sub-brand of Adtech D&D, which also sells range balls and refurbishes used golf balls. RZN’s four-piece HS Tour is the flagship offering, but they also sell three-piece MS-Tour and Distance models, as well as a two-piece Speed ball.
Best ball: Honey (subscription)
FreeBalls does not exactly give away their product, but their contention is that their subscription model is as close as golfers can get to such a scenario. It's $15 per month, and subscribers can order golf balls whenever they want or need them. They just pay $10 for each shipment. So the balls are free, but you pay for their transportation. My colleague Jason Deegan has hit them, and was impressed.
Best ball: Fifth Avenue 4PU Pro ($24.95)
A four-piece golf ball for less than $25 a dozen is quite an aggressive pricing stance for this California-based company that, somewhat anachronistically, names each of its ball models after streets in New York like Wall Street, Broadway and Madison Avenue.
What Ferrari is to cars, Clear seems to aspire to be for golf balls. They originally launched a couple years ago on a subscription model that priced their golf balls closer to $90 a dozen. Their spare-no-expense message certainly has some validity if the notoriety of PXG is any indication, but it does make them a DTC golf brand that bucks the value trend.