ORLANDO, Fla. – The Kirkland Signature golf ball craze at Costco that swept the golf world late last year seems to have cooled down as the supply has dwindled. But the concept of a tour-performance golf ball at an affordable price is the business model espoused by Dean Snell, who launched Snell Golf in 2015 after spending 28 years in the ball business at Titleist and TaylorMade.
"The Kirkland ball opened some eyes that there are some choices other than the big guys, where you can get tour performance at an affordable price," he said.
Costco, the wholesale membership club, emerged as a disruptor breaking into the highly profitable golf ball industry from the lower end of the price curve ($15.99 per dozen), but could Snell Golf be the long-term winner?
Snell Golf's direct-to-consumer online model takes a page from Warby Parker in eyeglasses and Dollar Shave Club (without the automatic monthly payments) as a cost-efficient and convenient alternative to buying balls through traditional channels.
Those high-performance balls selling for $40, $50 and even $60 per dozen? Snell's scrappy New Bedford, Mass.-based family-operated startup still uses thin, cast urethane cover technology to produce a premium multilayer ball with a low-compression core. The MTB (My Tour Ball) sells for $31.99 per dozen plus free shipping in the U.S. (the value-pack of six dozen reduces the average price to $26.33 per dozen).
Snell's concept, which also is being used by Nicklaus Golf and Vice Golf, could signal that the classic consumer-products business model for golf balls is about to change, with retailers and suppliers preparing to encroach on their traditional positions along the value chain using a digital connection with the consumer. Snell has eliminated marketing and advertising expenses, and the cost of paying endorsement contracts to PGA Tour and other top pros.
"Those guys do validate the product, but they cost a lot of money and bitch all the time and get everything for free," Snell said.
Snell has always been a straight shooter, and one of his goals is to educate golfers about how to find the right ball. Lesson One: don't buy a ball based on driving distance, he says. It's a belief that goes against most industry advertising, and bears explanation.
"It's the wrong message," Snell said. "They all go the same distance these days. Trust me. You're still not going to win a long-drive contest, but you do have to finish the hole from 150 yards. The average golfer misses 17 greens in regulation. You need performance around the green. If you hit a wedge 5 feet closer, that may be one less three-putt and save you a full stroke."
Snell says his best-seller, the MTB, was designed for optimal control around the green.
"Go test from 100 yards and in,” he said. “That's where you should pick the performance difference.”
Snell doesn't expect Costco to continue to shake up the golf ball market with its sold-out ball because only a limited number of factories are capable of supplying cast urethane.
"If they were able to get an unlimited supply of cast urethane for golf balls and continue to sell them for $15, it would hurt the whole golf ball industry, for sure,” he said, “but they won't be able to get the volume to do it. It's a short story in a long novel."
Time will tell whether Snell Golf can write an opus and take business away from its former employers. So far, Snell reports sales grew nearly 400 percent in the company's second year. Less than six months into the new year, he nearly has matched his sales from 2016.
"I was hoping it would be a crawl, walk, run business, and it's been crawl and sprint," he said.
Adam Schupak has written about golf since 1997 for the likes of Golfweek, Golf World and The New York Times. He is the author of Deane Beman: Golf's Driving Force. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org; Twitter: @adamschupak