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A tinker's tale.

While marketing muscle and fashion most often drive golf club sales, it was a technology breakthrough that moved little-known Orlimar swiftly up the industry's leader board.

Jesse Ortiz offers profuse apologies as he excuses himself to take a call on a cell phone just outside the conference room at his company's new headquarters in Hayward, CA, about 30 miles southeast of San Francisco. "It's one of our lawyers," explains the 46-year-old president, chief executive, and chief designer of Orlimar Golf. Some of the conversation, easily overheard, concerns the technology behind the firm's new TriMetal irons.

An arcane facet of design technology is part of the reason Callaway Golf - one of several industry big dogs based in the Southern California enclave of Carlsbad - has filed a lawsuit against Orlimar. Charging patent infringement, the firm also has beefs with Orlimar's advertising. The facts of the case are mildly interesting; that Callaway would even bother with this upstate upstart is a far more engaging tale.

Two years ago, not even that Taco Bell Chihuahua would tremble over a firm selling but $1.2 million worth of clubs. With its Big Bertha product line, Callaway dominated the driver and fairway wood market for most of the 1990s. But with the introduction of its TriMetal fairway woods in 1998, Orlimar took flight like a John Daly drive. During a year when overall golf equipment sales fell by nearly 20 percent, Orlimar's net boomed past $70 million and is headed for $110 million in 1999.

While an annoying and possibly expensive affirmation, the lawsuit nonetheless signaled that Ortiz, and the company founded by his father in 1960, had finally arrived. "I guess we're a 38-year overnight success," says Jesse, who before puberty stood at the side of his father, Lou Ortiz, and helped handcraft elegant persimmon-headed woods. And then, with a wry smile and confessional tone, he adds, "I sometimes have this fantasy about one of the CEOs in Carlsbad, looking at his $20 million R&D budget, and just screaming at his scientists because they're getting clobbered by a little father-and-son shop."

Well, the reality is that Orlimar is no longer so little. Were it not for the son's savvy research and development work, the company would still reside in the backwater of an industry that had passed it by. And ironically, just as technological advances enabled Callaway to fashion titanium into oversized club-heads that revolutionized the driver business, it's the technology behind the TriMetal that transformed Orlimar into a premier equipment seller.

In fact, technology is a huge component of today's entire golf business. It has changed the way architects design courses and how superintendents maintain them. It's the reason we see ever-changing dimple patterns, composition, and differing flight patterns of golf balls. And it can help instructors give lessons, with video machines that show a player's swing as a bio-mechanical schematic.

Of course, none of this really helps a lick when it comes to sinking a six-foot putt. Although equipment, instruction, and course conditioning have continually improved, the typical golfer hasn't. In fact, the average handicap has remained at 15 for decades. Then again, no one ever claimed that playing golf was a logical pursuit.

However, it is this game's inherent difficulty that enables manufacturers to develop "better" and more expensive equipment that promises improvement, and which in turn entices consumers to happily buy the stuff. This golfing truth is at least as old as Old Tom Morris, who sold sticks out of his shop at St. Andrews nearly 150 years ago. It's just that technology cycles are coming 'round as fast as a Scottish twosome.

This wasn't always so. During the first four centuries of golf, balls were made of feather-stuffed leather, and "play clubs" were long-nosed, curving instruments made entirely of relatively soft wood. Before the turn of this century, as harder and more durable balls came into play, metal-headed irons and woods with harder heads were developed. Until the 1930s, these drivers and irons typically came with hickory shafts, until steel replaced that material. Today, steel shafts compete with graphite and other materials.

Until the 1970s, drivers and fairway woods had heads made, of course, of wood. Then came stainless steel driver heads, which took over the market during the 1980s. In the early 1990s, out came oversized steel-headed drivers. By 1995, the use of titanium allowed club-makers to craft even larger driver heads that were thin-walled, light, and, when combined with longer shafts, allowed golfers to swing the club at higher speeds. That translated into more distance off the tee.

The mandarins at the United States Golf Association - the game's arbiters of rules and equipment standards have expressed concern that clubs and [TABULAR DATA OMITTED] golf balls are getting too good. Last November, the USGA announced its intent to enforce a rule that prohibits club heads from having a "spring-like effect." Jesse Ortiz thinks the USGA missed the point. "Graphite shafts added way more yardage to drives than the heads on these clubs," he explains. "And the USGA hasn't said a word about shafts."

Faced with losing what little advantage they have in a horribly hard game, the world's hackers are angry. Manufacturers are rabid. If the USGA gets tough on this rule, consumers are going to be reluctant to spend $400 on a club that might get outlawed next week. And the business already has its share of problems without golfs governing body putting a kibosh on technological development.

That's because at the end of 1997, after four years of record sales, the golf equipment business began to head south. "That year got off to a rough start mainly due to El Nino weather," says Shawn Milne, an analyst who studies this market for Hambrecht & Quist, a San Francisco-based investment-banking firm. "But the market was also saturated with too much product, which left manufacturers with large inventories."

This forced some of them to send goods to discount outlets, which undercut sales of front-line clubs. And while Asia used to soak up some excess supply, the region's economic problems virtually wiped out that market. Several well-known equipment makers such as Lynx Golf, Black Rock, and Snake Eyes either went bankrupt or threw in the towel and became house brands for retail chains.

Still, the golf boom that started in the early 1990s hasn't completely deflated. The PGA Tour has a handsome new television contract. And there remains a growing interest in the sport among women, aging baby boomers, and juniors who wanna be like Tiger. It's just that few beginners spring for top-of-the-line clubs. And now even hard-core golfers, who typically replace clubs every four years, resist expensive new sticks.

"Golfers will buy new clubs if they feel good and seem to improve their game," observes Ted Johnson, an editor with Travel & Leisure Golf and an equipment columnist for "But the thing is, with advances in materials science, the cycle of innovation keeps getting shorter." When those advances come too often, club buyers start feeling as if they're being taken for a sucker. Great new technology could languish on the pro shop rack.

However, future breakthroughs may be fewer and even more far between. For one thing, materials can do only so much. For another, since golf club making has been a tinker's art for a long while, there's little in the shape of a golf club that wasn't on the market by 1905 and hasn't been back a dozen times since. The success of Jesse Ortiz and Orlimar is the result of that tinker's knowledge, materials, technology, a keen eye, and timing.

Before its TriMetal transformation, Orlimar was a morn and pop shop, founded by machinist Lou Ortiz in the basement of an old stable on San Francisco's Harrison Street. (Mrs. Ortiz still works for the company.) At the time, the Basque immigrant didn't even play golf, but was persuaded by a friend and partner to design and make quality woods. He also forged precision irons of classic beauty, in styles once favored by the likes of Tony Lema, George Archer, and a young Johnny Miller.

Ortiz earned a reputation as one of the best club makers in the Bay Area, and at 73 remains involved with the firm. "Some of the top pro golfers used to visit the shop," recalls Jesse, who started working as his father's assistant at the age of 10. "To see him with these important people was heady stuff, and it was all because of golf."

Even while earning a degree in marketing from the University of San Francisco, Ortiz figured on taking over the business. "I always want to create, and I enjoy working with my hands to make something beautiful," he allows. But while drivers made of persimmon are beautiful, they aren't much in demand. Concedes Jesse, "I really began to worry if I could provide for my family as well as my father did for his."

Late in 1995, two investors approached Ortiz and offered to be partners in an expanded Orlimar - if Jesse could create the products. Ortiz looked for materials and technology that could converge into an idea. "I was on a business trip to Japan and found a golf club made with 'maraging metal,' which is usually a blend of steel, chromium, nickel, and other kinds of metal," Ortiz recalls. "It was stronger and harder than titanium, but way too expensive." Later, he ran into a Pennsylvania-based alloy company that could make a whole family of maraging metals at a reasonable price. Ortiz overcame a final hurdle when he found a brazing process that would allow him to affix the maraging metal to the face of the club head.

"All these things allowed me to have a strong and light face, and move around weight where it was most needed," says Ortiz, who figured he could make the biggest initial impact with a fairway wood. With a low profile and traditional sized head, the TriMetal ran counter to the trend toward ever-larger clubs. It is made mostly of stainless steel and uses copper tungsten as weighting. The "Alpha Maraging Metal" coating its face is a blend of steel, chromium, and nickel.

"Probably the most important thing about the club is that it sounds good," says Ortiz. "I could make a club that hits a ball five or 10 yards longer. But if it doesn't sound good, the golfer won't believe or even care that it performs better."

What's more, Ortiz knew that along with aural aesthetics, the visual aspect of the club had to speak as well. "A club has to talk to a consumer," he explains. "Even if a sales rep is not around, the club has to have a look that says 'pick me up, swing me, feel my balance.' You can put all the technology in the world into a club, but if it doesn't talk it won't sell."

Not content to be a one-hit wonder, the company must now hope that its TriMetal irons talk as well as did its fairway woods. "I never once thought Orlimar would stop at woods," says Ted Johnson. "Jesse and his family have always made putters, wedges, irons, and drivers for serious golfers. They've got a reputation for quality. I don't think it ever occurred to them not to be a full-line manufacturer."

That's true. Soon, Orlimar will release two more sets of irons designed for better players. One is endorsed by CBS analyst and former U.S. Open champion Ken Venturi, and is actually retro. Forged and muscle-backed, the irons are similar in style to blades that were popular before the advent of the perimeter weighting and cavity backs, or so-called "play improvement" features. "These should appeal to purists," says Ortiz.

Then again, one observer swore he overheard the attractive Venturi prototype talk. The darn thing kept insisting its design was cutting edge. "And if you don't like it," said the club, "so sue me."

The Grass is Greener

Certainly the most overlooked and under-appreciated individual in the golf industry is the course superintendent. Responsible for manicuring fairways and greens and keeping the entire course in shape, the superintendent usually gets nothing but grief from players who complain about brown spots, bumps, and what have you. Few have a clue about the difficulty of the job.

However, technology is making life a bit easier for superintendents. Genetic breeding has led to new strains of grasses that create finer and more durable putting surfaces (and been a boon for such companies as Tee-to-Green and Pennington Seed). Sensors buried under the course can reveal moisture content, which then controls sprinkling and helps keep down water use and thus cost. And if you ever have a question about your lawn at home, head to your local golf course. There's no one in town who knows more about the science and technology of "plant fertility" and growing grass than the superintendent.

The Science of Architecture

When modern golf course architects consider the tools now at their disposal, it only increases their appreciation for the work of legends such as Alister MacKenzie, Donald Ross, and A.W. Tillinghast. Of course, those designers worked with precious God-given layouts such as Cypress Point on California's Monterey Peninsula. And the old master didn't have nearly as many environmental and other concerns as do today's designers. But no matter the era, any technology that helps in the design and construction of a golf course is clearly heaven sent.

"Science is a remarkable help," says Michael Hurdzan, an Ohio-based architect, author, and former president of the American Society of Golf Course Architects. "Satellite photos can show you vegetation patterns and other factors influencing the environment of a site. For a site survey that used to take two to three weeks, the Global Positioning System enables you to complete it in two days. And though there's still some hand-drawing with a stubby pencil while routing holes, computers now do much of the work in the likes of calculating slopes and drainage contours."

Indeed, Hurdzan remembers well the tedious chore of figuring how to balance "cuts and fills," the term for all the earthmoving that's required to shape a new course. "When you're moving 300,000 to 400,000 yards, it seemed like it took forever to calculate the right volumes. You'd always put too much in one place and too little in another. Now you've got it perfect before the bulldozers even start."
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Title Annotation:Orlimar Golf; includes related articles on the use of technology on golf course designs and maintenance
Author:Stuller, Jay
Publication:Chief Executive (U.S.)
Date:Aug 15, 1999
Previous Article:Formula for retention.
Next Article:Learning curve.

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