The golf equipment industry is a tight-knit group of manufacturers that has grown into a billion-dollar industry, annually pumping out new and improved equipment for its eager consumers. Products that promise to improve the average golfer's game are promoted by marketing campaigns and ad dollars across a multitude of media platforms.
Although the industry has excelled in selling an outcome every golfer is hoping for -- whether it's more distance from a driver, more spin from a ball or just lower scores in general -- it has come up short in overall accountability, transparency and delivering on its often immeasurable promises.
While that isn't to say any company has intentionally deceived its consumers, the uniqueness of the industry has allowed for claims that can't be refuted, products that may be of dubious quality, and skyrocketing prices with profit margins going through the roof.
Adam Beach, the founder of MyGolfSpy.com, recognized these faults within the industry and its products and knew consumers were unaware of what they were buying compared to what they thought they were buying.
That inspired Beach to launch MyGolfSpy, an independent and unbiased website that has become like a Consumer Reports for golf equipment. Beach started the site to put the golfer first, refusing ad dollars from large retailers and unapologetically publishing test results rewarding good performance and uncovering poor quality.
"The two goals were to change the way companies marketed products to consumers based on performance rather than just claims," Beach said. "And to also have companies change the way they develop products, and I think we're doing that. I know we're doing that because they call us and say, 'Hey, what can we do to make the product better?' We tell them based on what we see in our tests and then we see those things implemented the next year."
Beach and his 12-employee staff have a dedicated test facility in Virginia, where they conduct thousands of hours of tests on balls, clubs, shoes and even golf bags.
The testing is vastly different from what has been done in the past, where a blogger or reviewer testing a new club set to hit the market typically would hit a few shots and review the results for an audience. Beach and his staff, whether they're testing a ball or club, run through 10,000 shots with humans and a robot, a process that can take up to three months.
That commitment to put in an extraordinary amount of time is based on Beach's desire to ensure the results of the tests are fair, honest and lack human error.
Those results can be troublesome to manufacturers and have shown consumers the divide between product claims and actual product performance. Some results have disrupted the industry and caused changes from various companies.
"Years past, it would've been a call from a [golf manufacturer], a threat from them, a legal letter from them. That's how it used to be in the past and what they learned is we have a legal team," Beach said. "What happened was, five or six years of doing that, they realized these guys aren't going away and the threats aren't going to work. You better have something legal and binding rather than a cease and desist that's only as valuable as the piece of paper you wrote it on."
There's no bigger testament to that disruption and the impact the website is having than the recent golf ball buyer's guide the site published in April. Using a swing robot to ensure consistency, MyGolfSpy tested 36 makes and models of golf balls with a wedge, 7-iron and driver under different conditions and swing speeds over several months.
The balls were graded for overall performance and sorted into five different categories ranging from excellent to poor. The results were revelatory and, in some cases, shocking, when how the balls performed was compared to how they were marketed.
"[The golf ball review] has the potential to be the most impactful review we've done," Beach said. "Meaning what we did is going to clean up the golf ball industry for the next few decades potentially. It's also going to put a better ball in every box for every golfer in the world that buys golf balls from here to hopefully as long as I'm alive. That's impactful because if you go from what golfers would've never known, and that's other than a couple companies, if you bought a dozen balls you would've assumed those dozen balls were all the same, but that's not even close to true."
The Callaway Chrome Soft ball was hit hard in the results, grading out as fair in the performance breakdown, well below what was expected given the success of the ball in consumer markets. Those results then led MyGolfSpy to cut the balls open and reveal that some of the cores were off center and the interior makeup of the balls was inconsistent.
At first, Callaway, which had clashed with MyGolfSpy even before this test, was defensive in the face of criticism of its product and process. However, the company eventually understood this was an opportunity to improve its product and quality-control process. Sean Toulon, senior vice president of Callaway, along with Alan Hocknell, Callaway's head of research and development, flew out to the MyGolfSpy facility to talk with Beach and his employees about the testing process and results and to potentially find some areas of improvement.
"If someone uncovers something that we're doing, and I can promise you we weren't doing things to put one over on the golfer, I can tell you that," Toulon said. "But if they uncover an opportunity for us to get better, we're going to listen, whether it's MyGolfSpy or any kind of consumer group, or a golfer of any sort."
Callaway happened to be three-and-a-half years into a $50 million golf ball plant renovation that the company believes will ultimately end up with Callaway making the best-performing golf ball in the world. But Toulon admits that because of MyGolfSpy's tests and reviews, Callaway has altered certain aspects of the renovation and even pushed the update along.
Ensuring core concentricity -- that the cores are in the center of the ball -- is one focus. Another is improving the testing and quality-control process.
"We had initially planned on one or two extra X-ray machines, not testing every single golf ball but testing definitely enough that you could come up with a metric that you could look at and judge quality against that," Toulon said. "Now, every single golf ball, I think we'll be at at least five X-ray machines, which will allow us in the United States, coming out of our Chicopee, Oklahoma, plants, which is all of our Chrome Soft business, we will now X-ray every single golf ball. That definitely has, we've been impacted by MyGolfSpy in a really good way and we're thankful for that."
Toulon notes that Callaway isn't going to agree with everything MyGolfSpy says, and isn't going to agree with every methodology the site uses to review products, but remaining on the defensive and not taking its test results seriously would be foolish.
Especially given how much the website has grown in popularity and readership, more and more brands are taking notice of its findings. More important to Beach, though, is that his readers can trust the content the site produces and the information it's placing in front of consumers.
When he first started out, that trust was his currency. It was the only way the site would work and make the impact Beach was searching for.
Beach has been involved in the golf industry for over 20 years, dating to 1998, when he founded his first website, GolfIdeas.com. After walking into a pro shop with his father and seeing a lack of equipment to buy, Beach got ahead of the curve and started one of the earliest golf e-commerce businesses.
He eventually sold that business and founded MyGolfSpy, which has been on a mission to eradicate the issues within the industry ever since.
Those issues included shaft companies watering down tour products made available to consumers while keeping their profit margins high, and performance claims that relied on exceedingly fine print.
When companies would advertise a new club and add a specific number of yards, MyGolfSpy would enlarge the fine print in those claims, often finding very specific details that were used to justify that claim.
"We used to call it the fine print police where we would go out and find these ridiculous claims these companies were making and put those products to the test," Beach said. "That has pretty much ended since we started doing that. That conversation and that verbiage has ended, for the most part, because we held those people to those claims."
Outside of holding companies accountable, Beach also wanted to show consumers that it shouldn't matter how much a company is able to spend in ad dollars as long as it makes quality products.
Being brand agnostic is something the site preaches, that golfers should use what best fits their game and helps them on the course the most, independent of how extensive a company's marketing strategy is. The Kirkland Signature golf ball is a perfect example of putting the spotlight on a brand that might not get recognized without a site like MyGolfSpy nudging consumers toward it.
In 2016, Costco brand Kirkland Signature released a dozen golf balls for $15, roughly $30 cheaper than most premium balls. MyGolfSpy published a review on the ball and found the Kirkland Signature compared favorably to a Titleist ProV1 in many categories.
"The Kirkland test dropped a massive domino that the average consumer just did not take alternative product seriously," Beach said. "For whatever reason, it took the Kirkland golf ball test to make people understand a little more that it shouldn't matter that you're playing a Callaway, TaylorMade or Titleist or whatever, it's what is going to make you No. 1. Why are you promoting these brands when you're the one paying for them?"
The Kirkland test had a different impact than the most recent ball buyer's guide, which revealed that some companies have built a quality product while others have built an inconsistent product that didn't match its claims.
Manufacturers have taken notice, and not all have been as open to collaboration as Callaway has become. Several major manufacturers declined to discuss the website for this article, which may speak to the impact it has made and the influence it is building. A few brands, including Callaway, have recognized the value in working with MyGolfSpy rather than trying to deflect attention from its results, and are working to improve their products and processes.
The genesis of the site was a desire to give power back to the consumer, to give an unbiased review of golf equipment and help educate golfers to where they can make smarter decisions for their game. Beach believes he and his staff have met their standards and upheld that original vision by disrupting a billion-dollar business and pulling back the curtain to level the playing field.
"I can offer you multiple examples of companies that have offered lots of money to us and we've turned it down, because once you sell your soul, it's only for sale once," Beach said. "If you buy a product tomorrow and you find out the same thing to be true of what we told you, you're going to trust me more tomorrow than you did yesterday. We are trying to make the cream of the crop rise to the top and all the s--- go away."