Henry Rowland cares a lot about golf bags. He left a career in engineering to start his own brand of golf bags, Shapland Golf, in his native Chicago in 2015. On Shapland's website is a video of a 14-year-old Henry gushing over the receipt of a new PING golf bag as a birthday gift.
PING's iconic L8 stand bag, long favored by college teams for its simple silhouette and comfortable carrying posture, has served as the inspiration for Shapland's Stand Bag 1.0 and 2.0 production runs. Rowland makes the bags distinctly his own through the use of premium materials, including durable water-resistant nylon and leather and brass accents. One subtle touch: a row of red stitching on one of the bag's two straps serves to remind a golfer or caddie that that is the strap to put over the right shoulder.
Subtlety is the overwhelming aesthetic of both Shapland's Stand Bags, as well as their even more stripped-down Sunday Bags. There's no flashy branding, only the option to add Shapland's attractive shield logo or a monogram. The build quality and clean look justify a premium price. I paid $355 for my Stand Bag 2.0 - a Christmas gift to myself - and the Sunday Bag sells for $275.
One might think Rowland would struggle to sell his wares at a higher price than his competitors, especially with less name-recognition on which to trade, but it's not true. He's found a market, and it's growing. It took 18 months to sell the first production run of Shapland's Stand Bags, but only five to sell the second. The Sunday Bags are currently sold out as well, with new production runs coming in May.
Shapland is one several ascendant direct-to-consumer golf bag brands. Aside from a few limited accounts with private clubs, Rowland sells his bags through his austere but well-laid-out website. The vast majority of promotion happens via social media, anchored by Shapland's Instagram account.
"As a self-funded business that plows every available dollar back into new products and additional inventory, I didn't have the luxury of spending money on advertising," Rowland said of his approach to building his customer base. "Getting the bags into the hands of the right people who believed in what I was doing and were willing to vouch for me in their foursomes was all that I could hope for. It has been humbling to see the results of those efforts over the past few months."
Golf bag behemoths like PING and Sun Mountain have built-in marketing and fulfillment advantages over Shapland and other direct-to-consumer shops, but Rowland knows there are ways in which his model can help him eat into the bigger companies' market share.
"Being accessible and able to communicate directly with your customers allows you to not only ensure you provide exceptional customer service, but it also allows you to be that much more responsive to the changing demands in the market," he said, adding that the direct-to-consumer approach "allows you to control the messaging on why. Why should someone choose to buy from you over a competitor? Why is your product better for them than another? Why should they care?"
Learning and internalizing consumer preferences and concerns allows Rowland to refine his products by fiat, rather than by committee, where competing interests can stifle change. It also enables entrepreneurs like Rowland to shape the narrative around the brand in a way that will be relatable to prospective customers. Golfers who are in the market for a new bag in 2021 and appreciate the traditional aesthetic would do well to consider Shapland when the new production run drops.
8 other direct-to-consumer golf bag companies
If you watch a lot of pro golf, you may have noticed in the last couple years that many players' bags - both staff bags and larger stand bags - are looking a little sleeker and more muted in color. In many cases, these are made by Vessel, a California-based outfit whose more minimalist approach is a bit more modern than, say, Shapland's. White and black are the main bag colors, with a contemporary look and some model names - VLX, LUX XV - that invoke automobile manufacturing. Like Shapland, their pricing is above that of the big retail brands, again emphasizing quality as the differentiator.
Former college and professional golfer Sam Goulden founded this brand, which blends contemporary tech into a golf bag in interesting ways. True to the company name, he offers one model of stand bag, in either black or white, with features like a dedicated smartphone pocket positioned for easy filming of the owner's golf swing, as well as a built-in solar-powered battery pack and a bluetooth speaker attached to the bag. MNML keeps the party going with a pocket that can hold up to six cans of a golfer's beverage of choice. At $229, the bag is priced to compete with most larger-brand stand bags.
Deborah and Erica Bennett helm the Ft. Lauderdale, Fla.-based ORCA brand, which brings valuable female representation to the marketplace. Like women's clubs, women's golf bags have often been an afterthought, featuring scaled-down versions of male-focused bags with "girly" colors. ORCA's product line, with premium-quality stand bags and staff bags that range from $335 to more than $500, is eye-catching and substantial without playing to stereotypes. The LPGA recently announced a partnership whereby ORCA will design bags for its member professionals and the LPGA Amateur Golf Association.
Mackenzie was in the vanguard with its approach to higher-end, direct-to-consumer golf bags. Its initial all-leather, no-stand wares appealed to avid walkers and traditionalists with some cash to spend; those bags come with a price tag around $1,000. More recently, Mackenzie has incorporated less costly materials into its designs, and its ballistic nylon offerings - made to order with a 4- to 6-week time from order to shipment - come in at a relatively more reasonable $425.
Based in Kansas City, Nelson Hill is following in the Mackenzie mold of handmade, premium offerings that appeal to serious, tradition-minded golfers. The brand's Edition No. 001 bag, made of a stylish combination of Holween leather and waxed canvas, sells for $850. In an effort to stimulate local purchases, founder Eric Riner offers to hand-deliver bags purchased by customers in the K.C. area. Other purchasers receive free shipping.
Flag Bag Co.
Pin flags tend to be made of resilient nylon, which happens to work nicely for golf bags. The novel concept of sewing used flags together to form the body of a simple, Sunday-style golf bag cropped up and went semi-viral on Golf Twitter last year, with several golf course superfans ordering colorful bespoke bags. As you would imagine, the one-of-a-kind designs are not cheap, but their conversation-piece potential is off the charts.
My wife @TaraMcLayKidd takes birthdays VERY seriously! This year she went all out and got the guys @FlagBagGolf to make me the most amazing gift. I spent over $75m and 20+ years to assemble the flags that made this bag, could it be the most expensive golf bag ever? #birthday pic.twitter.com/6yWMhhaPHg— David McLay-Kidd (@DavidMcLayKidd) December 12, 2020
Amid golf's recent surge in attention to short courses and casual play, Sunday Golf offers a feather-light, skinny bag that only accommodates a few clubs, geared toward par-3 courses or golfers who sometimes favor a 5- to 7-club "half bag" setup. At $100, its Loma bag series combines easygoing austerity and a value price point.
CatFore was founded by the Bennett brothers of Pinehurst, N.C., last summer. True to the brand's punny name, weather resistance is the main mission. CatFore's Torrent 14 line of waterproof golf bags ($230) comes in six eye-catching color schemes, including one called "Born Lucky" that incorporates the colors of the Irish flag.