TaylorMade CEO David Abeles on Rickie Fowler’s golf ball, working with Tiger and more

March 9, 2019

GOLF.com’s Dylan Dethier recently spoke with TaylorMade CEO David Abeles about the company’s outlook, working with its Tour staff, Rickie Fowler’s golf ball and much more. The conversation has been lightly edited for clarity.

GOLF: TaylorMade generated some buzz for the decision not to attend the PGA Show this year. Why didn’t you guys go?

David Abeles, TaylorMade CEO: Like any good company, we assess areas of investment on a year-to-year basis and ensure those areas of investment are best served for our business’s core strategies. We’ve been part of the PGA Show for decades and we take our invested dollars very seriously. These are dollars earmarked very carefully to launch new products and to generate new momentum for the TaylorMade business. When we went through the assessment of where the PGA Show fits in among all our different sales and marketing initiatives for 2019, the answer was that it doesn’t quite serve the same purpose for us as it did in prior years.

Instead, we’re doing something different. We are taking every dollar we would have invested in the PGA Show and investing directly back in the PGA of America and PGA Golf Professionals. Those dollars are being used in trial-based initiatives across both the equipment and golf ball businesses. That decision hinged on us thinking we could do better for our customers.

We’ll be growing our TaylorMade club professional staff by 20 percent in 2019. We’ll conduct over 4,000 trial events on our equipment. We’ll also conduct over 100,000 golf ball tests and fittings through our professional staff, which we’ve never done. So yes, we are sad not to be at the show, but we’re equally excited to reinvest those dollars through these plans.

David Abeles TaylorMade golf ball debate
TaylorMade CEO David Abeles is bullish on the company’s future in the golf ball space.

What do those trials look like?

Abeles: We work very closely with club professionals, whether or not they’re TaylorMade staff. And we’ve hired about 50 individuals that come into golf facilities and come in with launch technology to work one-on-one to ensure they’re providing fit with the most objective data. We’ll conduct more than 4,000 days like that both on and off course, and each day we touch between 10 and 15 golfers to go through a very professional fit.

The golf ball seems like this it’s a point of emphasis for TaylorMade going forward. Does that feel like a shift for you guys?

Abeles: I would say it’s an addition to the mission of our company, which is to be the best performance golf brand in the world. This year we’re celebrating 40 years in the industry, which is hard to believe. I’m really proud that people think of us as this contemporary modern company, when we’ve also been doing this for a while.

We were founded on the premise of the metalwood — even the term itself came from TaylorMade. In 1979 we started to transition the industry from laminated persimmon woods into steel-constructed metalwoods, and over the last 40 years we’ve advanced that technology into titanium. We’ve been at the forefront of major changes: We brought movable weight technology to the market, adjustability in flight control (loft and lie), we brought a thermally compressed composite, we brought T-track technology, and now we’ve got Speed Injected Twist Face as well. Most golfers think of TaylorMade first and foremost as a metalwood company, which we won’t shy away from.

If you look at competitors in the space, they’ve largely been following us. TaylorMade has been leading innovation. But when I came back to the company four years ago, I wanted to take the world-class technology from our metalwoods and our irons and take that same mindset into wedges, putters and the golf ball. I said, what if we decide to make measurably better products in terms of form and function into those other areas and compete for leadership there, too?

What came out of that thinking is the red Spider putter, which has become the most-played putter on the PGA Tour for the last year and a half. Our high-toe wedge products are being played by top pros all over the place. And our commitment to the cast-urethane golf ball, the first and only 5-piece Tour ball in golf, has led us to what I believe is unequivocally the finest-performing ball in golf. I couldn’t say that five years ago, but I can say that now. Our golf ball business has doubled over the last two years, and it will double again over the next two years as it continues to certainly be an area of focus for TaylorMade.

In terms of gaining market share and measuring up in terms of perception — how aware are you of your competition and your relative standing in terms of golf balls? Where do you guys stand?

We actually don’t believe it’s very difficult to differentiate golf ball technology from one another. It’s more efficient than ever before. The reason we’re so bullish is because the advanced performance can be proven out. We can show optimum speed, spin and launch parameters. We’re actually disproving the theory that every golf ball is the same because they’re not, and we’re excited to be able to prove that.

There have been some wonderful golf ball products and there will continue to be in the market. But we will continue to invest in these trial events and continue to grow. Our business has doubled, and our market share has too, so we now have double-digit market share in the U.S. for the first time in the history of the company. And sometime in the next 24 to 36 months, we’ll have close to 20 percent of the total market. Over time, we have the potential to challenge for leadership in the golf ball space.

What was the winning pitch with Rickie? He’s obviously among the game’s most high-profile players.

We pinch ourselves that guys like Rickie would choose to come over to our company. Quite candidly, we never pitched him to come to TaylorMade. The influence came from Rickie playing golf with Dustin Johnson, with Jason Day, with Jon Rahm and others. He had the chance to see the distance qualities in the TP5x, how stable it is in the wind, and why other top players have made the change. Now not only is he hitting the ball longer but with as much if not better spin qualities around the green. We didn’t pitch Rickie to come to TaylorMade. We built the product that will allow players to perform at their best and he chose that product. It was a peer group influence more than anything from us.

Rickie had been testing golf balls for the last 4-6 months and trying to identify what’s best for him moving forward. He had experiences with some of our athletes at the Ryder Cup and had that “Wow!” reaction, realizing the ball wasn’t just good, it was exceptional. He’s made it clear just how much he wants to continue to win golf tournaments and how he wants to become a major champion. He’s going to be very involved with the golf ball at TaylorMade going forward.

Rickie Fowler TaylorMade
Rickie Fowler’s golf ball decision made waves in early 2019.

Beyond being really good golfers, when we talk about Team TaylorMade it’s a striking thing looking around and seeing some of the best, most high-profile athletes being there. What are some of the characteristics of this team and these guys and how they interact with each other?

Abeles: We like to think we have a very discerning perspective when it comes to aligning ourselves with professional athletes. First of all, we look at shared values: Are they innovative in their approach? Are they passionate about the game? Are they highly competitive? And, importantly, are they authentic to the game of golf? We think our guys satisfy those.

Plus, they have great influence in terms of their audience. They’re loved by many, many fans all over the world, not just for on-course performance but how they handle themselves, too. But they’ve chosen us, too. They came to the company for one primary reason and that’s performance from our products, plus of course support from our team and the shared desire to continue winning.

We’ve seen this trend recently, more acceptance of players going a la carte, playing with mixed bags or even as equipment free agents. What does that mean to you in the equipment space? Do you feel like that’s true, that players are approaching their deals and bags differently?

Abeles: I’ve always believed that if there were no contracts in golf, more athletes would be playing TaylorMade than any other company in golf. That’s actually kind of what’s happening. For example, when Nike left the business they had roughly 25 contracted athletes playing their clubs and ball. Now 22 of those 25 have decided to play TaylorMade. That was a serious point of validation.

And another point of validation is the performance of those athletes coming to our brand. Three of the four major winners last year had TM in their bag — and they weren’t contracted TaylorMade athletes. We can’t use their name and likeness, but you know who they are.

If you look at, say, the field at Torrey Pines, 70 percent of the metalwoods that were in play were TaylorMade. I’m interested to see how the evolution of sports marketing plays out over the next few years, but I love the position we’re in.

And when it comes to Team TaylorMade, it’s far more than just the five or six superstars you see in some of our promotions. It’s a lot broader than that. The no. 1 player in women’s golf is S.H. Park. She’s a TaylorMade athlete. PGA National Champion Ryan Vermeer is a TaylorMade athlete. The club pro at senior level is, too. The roughly 3,000 club pros that play TaylorMade, and they’re “Team TaylorMade,” too. It’s not just these six superstars but these other influencers too to give consumers the best opportunity to get those experiences.

People want to know — what is it like working with these guys? Let’s start with Tiger — what’s that been like? You guys are similar in age, and he’s obviously been world-famous for more than half his life. What has surprised you about working with Tiger? What has stood out?

Working with Tiger has honestly been simply extraordinary on multiple levels. First of all, to be able to work with an athlete with the depth and understanding of equipment technology that Tiger does has been fantastic for us. It’s helped us make better products, develop better products that are even more effective in performance than ever before, his understanding of the game and how to play it more broadly has made us a better company. He’s become a close friend of mine, and I’m thrilled about that.

Here are a few things I’ve learned from working with Tiger specifically.

One, he’s got an incredible eye for product in terms of the design language of the product. Two, he also has a real understanding of how advanced technology can help him perform better. He’s starting this year with an entirely new bag. He’s got a new M5 driver and 3-wood in play, a new set of P7TW irons, and milled wedges, too. So he’s realizing that as much as he’s helping us, we can help him at this point in his career too. We’re gonna see a lot of great golf out of him over the next 12 months. It’s been fantastic working with the greatest of all time, talking over products, business strategy, how to think of our brand differently, and more. His engagement has been invaluable.

Tiger Woods bunker shot WGC-Mexico
Tiger Woods hit an awesome bunker shot during the second round at WGC-Mexico.

Did it take little while to build up trust with him, because he is so particular with product? I imagine there’s a growth period there.

Abeles: I think any relationship takes time to develop. I believe 50 percent of relationships are always in development. That’s true of our existing group — Jason, Dustin, Rickie, all of ’em — but we have a mutual trust between the athlete and the company that we’re learning more about each other and continue to challenge each other to get better.

Look, almost every company uses innovation as a buzzword. “Most innovative product.” “Most innovative technology.” There’s a lot of great innovation going on. But the way TaylorMade thinks about it, innovation starts with the cultural ideation of the company. We have to continue to move forward if we’re going to get better. Making hard decisions around, say, the PGA Show innovating the way we think about trade models and consumer models…we innovate across every platform of everything we do. It’s not just product technology.

What are your goals for 2019?

It’s pretty simple: we want to continue to get better across the things that matter most to us. That means continued improvement in product performance for golfers at every skill level. It means continued improvement in representing our brand to consumers, showing them the great value that we bring to golfers around the world. Continued improvement with our Tour players to make sure they’re winning golf tournaments and major championships. And continuing to improve our operating strategies so we can deliver better service to our customers at every level. We are one of the best, if not the best, companies in golf. There’s nothing more that we want than to help golfers play better golf — that’s why we exist.

The new Injected Twist Face technology in our metalwoods, I’m so proud of this technology. To design drivers past the legal limit and then dial ’em back to the exact legal limit in every single driver we make is an operational and manufacturing breakthrough better than I have never seen in my 20 years in this industry. And I expect others will have to try to follow. So I think we’re in a really great place, I’m humbled by the momentum we’ve created in our brand and for golfers everywhere.

What has been the feedback for Tour players on the new M5 and M6 drivers? I know it’s been two years of high-profile rollouts of your new tech stories.

Abeles: The adoption rate at the Tour level literally happened overnight. The first full-field event that featured our athletes, every one of them had an M5 or M6 driver and an M5 or M6 3-wood. It was the most successful transition we’ve ever had. More importantly than what happens on Tour, we’ve improved the equipment you get when go into a golf shop. Before, you’d find a bell curve in every brand, including ours, because manufacturers were challenging a lower standard than the legal limit. But we challenged convention — why make drivers that are all below the legal limit? What if we were able to design them past the legal limit and then bring them back? Last year, if you looked at three you’d see one that was faster, one that was moderately fast and one that was less fast. You’re no longer going to have that variation, every one of them will get faster, tuned to the legal limit, and that’s a win for everyone. That’s what Injected Twist Face is designed to do.

TaylorMade's recently released M5 and M6 drivers.
TaylorMade’s M5 and M6 drivers.

Is there any one player that stuck out as being particularly excited? I know Dustin said it’s like Christmas opening up new clubs, and he gets sad when the testing day is over.

Abeles: Jason Day’s jubilation about the technology was just incredible, Dustin was going on about it being Christmas, Tiger’s face when he put it in his hands before he even hit it, the grin on his face. Rory picked up a bunch of ball speed and yardage, which is crazy for a guy as long as him, and Jon Rahm, you saw it went right into his bag, which says it all. This is the greatest design breakthrough in 20 years in the design business and in my 15 years at TaylorMade. It’s never been done before and we’re very proud to be the ones to do it.

And now you expect your competitors to follow in some form to follow suit?

Abeles: Much like other technologies that we’ve led, we expect others to come after us. But actually having the manufacturing capabilities will be a challenge for our competitors. I mean, the construction of these products is a Popular Mechanics cover story. It can only be done with world-class techs like we have at TaylorMade.

Let’s talk TaylorMade PGA Tour staff, word association. Dustin Johnson.

Superhuman athlete.

Jon Rahm.

One of the most competitive players I’ve ever met.

Rory McIlroy.

Simply extraordinary.

Jason Day.

World-class player and an even better friend.

Tiger Woods.

Greatest of all time.

Rickie Fowler.

Going to be an incredible part of our TaylorMade family. We’re just getting to know him, but he already is an incredible member of the family and a perfect representative for us.

What gets you up in the morning — and what keeps you up at night?

Other than my three boys, professionally, what gets me up is being so inspired by our TaylorMade employees and the desire to help golfers at every level win.

What keeps me up at night is ensuring that we keep doing these things we’ve been talking about. It’s tough, waking up every day with a new approach. But to help golfers be better, to connect with the game more, connect with the company more, to enjoy this game even more than they already do, we try to keep that one of the cultural focuses here.