Most great ideas come when you least expect them. For Erik Heltne, that just happened to be earlier this year as he was dozing off in bed. The Minnesotan, who works in the commercial real estate sector, had started to notice an uptick in golf brands creating classic, retro gear for consumers — from the reemergence of Jones Golf Bags to the meteoric rise of Seamus Golf’s wool headcovers and hand-forged ball markers.
In his opinion, the industry was chock-full of great offerings, but there was one particular piece of gear Heltne felt deserved the retro treatment.
“How cool would it be if there were classic-looking alignment sticks to round out, say, a Jones or MacKenzie bag with Seamus covers?” he thought.
The following morning, Heltne went to the local hardware store and purchased paint and wooden dowels to create his own alignment sticks.
“It was one of those ideas where I just wanted to see if it had any traction,” he said. “Most golfers, myself included, went to Home Depot and fashioned the goofy bright orange and bright yellow alignment sticks as training aids. They work, but I’ve found if you use them consistently, the fiberglass starts shredding and you could catch a piece in your hand if you aren’t careful.”
After seeing the initial prototype set Heltne created, it didn’t take much convincing to get two golf buddies at his local country club on board. In fact, one of them knew a locally-based company in Minnesota that could produce the sticks and paint them. And just like that, BubbaWhips USA was born.
Nine months later, Heltne and his partners have started to make inroads at some exclusive clubs in Texas, California and Florida that plan to offer the sticks, including famed Seminole Golf Club. That’s in addition to college golfers in the Big Ten who are currently carrying the product.
Made from genuine 3/8-inch hickory, the 45-inch alignment sticks are priced at $49 (two per set) and come in three hand-painted colorways on the company’s website (https://www.bubbawhips.com/) under names that should resonate with golfers: Amen Corner (yellow and green), Old Glory (red, white and blue) and Black Knight (black and white). While the sticks are made out of wood, Heltne noted each set has a weather sealed matte finish to keep them from wearing out over time. A silver nail cap is also added to the end of each stick to give it a clean, finished look.
Things were going along at a manageable pace for BubbaWhips until a few months ago when Claude Harmon III and Sam Torrance gave the startup an unexpected boost. Through contacts within the industry, Heltne was able to get a set in the hands of Harmon III, who currently coaches, among others, Brooks Koepka, Dustin Johnson and Rickie Fowler.
Fowler and Johnson liked the sticks enough that they put them in the bag during the Ryder Cup — even though they were hidden under alignment stick covers during the biennial matches. At least four other players on the U.S. team went on to use the sticks as well, which were outfitted in red, white and blue paint. Heltne also sent a set to former European Ryder Cup captain Sam Torrance, who took to the product and had a blue and yellow version made for each player on the squad.
“It was pretty cool seeing Rory McIlroy, Paul Casey, Ian Poulter and a bunch of other guys on the European team with the sticks in their bag without the covers,” Heltne said. “It’s kind of surreal as we’ve only really been at this since March. To get the sticks in the bags of some of the biggest names at the Ryder Cup was something I never imagined would happen this early on.”
The rise in popularity of BubbaWhips has forced Heltne and his partners to reassess the company’s current business model and figure out where they want to go from here.
“We’re at the point now where we’re trying to figure out what’s next,” he said. “Do we want to keep it niche and quiet? Or do we want to throw some marketing dollars at it and turn this thing into a Seamus, MacKenzie or Jones?”
In the startup industry, that’s a good problem to have.