One in a weekly series of stories about golf gear to run each Wednesday.
ST. SIMONS ISLAND, Ga. – Every January at the PGA Merchandise Show in Orlando, Fla., there's a host of new innovators who dare to dream.
But the odds of grabbing a foothold in the golf-equipment business, dominated primarily by the “core four” behemoths – Titleist, TaylorMade, Callaway and Ping – are about as good as winning the Mega Millions lottery.
“Everyone thinks they've come up with a major breakthrough and they're going to make a million bucks," said Luis Pedraza, the founder and creator of Axis 1 putters, a torque-free putter that places the center of gravity on the center of the face, perfectly aligned with the axis of the shaft.
Brothers Greg and Stephen Harrison haven't struck it rich yet either, but they have scored the dream scenario. They started SIK Golf out of their garage in Tallahassee, Fla., similar to how the late Karsten Solheim launched Ping. The Harrisons not only landed an equipment trendsetter to use their product on the PGA Tour, but the player has turned into one of the hottest golfers in the world thanks to his improved prowess on the greens (lottery ticket!). Bryson DeChambeau has won five times since switching to a SIK Pro C-Series 39-inch putter in March 2017 and swears by its patented technology, crediting the club for much of his success.
“I would say I’m putting the best of my life,” DeChambeau said after he won the Memorial Tournament in early June.
The accompanying attention and publicity lifted sales of SIK putters, causing the fledgling company to struggle to stay up with demand. It's a good problem to face, but it begs a bigger question: Can a niche player in the industry really capitalize on Tour success these days?
But first, let's start at the beginning with the name: SIK. It has a double meaning that dates to the days when the Harrison brothers had a fitting facility at a Golf Etc. location in Tallahassee. After hours, they'd hold putting competitions on the indoor putting green. One day, Stephen's putter was stolen, so he decided to build his own. Kyle Hammond, now a Mizuno tech rep on the PGA Tour, used to be their repairman in the shop. Whenever someone made a putt, he used to say, ‘That's a sick f---ing putt.’ It kind of stuck in our heads, and so we started looking for an acronym," said Greg, the company's director of tour operations. “We came up with Study in Kinematics, the study of motion, which explains what the technology actually does.”
The technology in question is called descending loft technology, or DLT. SIK has created a four-planar putter face on which each plane’s loft descends 1 degree – starting at 4 degrees high on the face to 1 degree low on the face – to counteract changes in shaft angle at impact. The concept is simple: the horizontal grooves on the face, which are shades of a Rife putter, help produce similar loft angles at impact despite imperfections in the putting stroke. The result? The putter more consistently produces optimal launch angle and roll.
SIK mills computer numeric-controlled two-piece putters from 303 stainless steel blocks, allowing its five head shapes to be tailored to the sight lines with the hosel – plumber's neck, slant neck, post neck (double-bend/face-balanced) – that sets up best for the golfer. Their fitting studio is at Orange County National in Winter Garden, Fla., and their putters retail from $379 to $429, the same premium boutique price point dominated by Scotty Cameron and competitors such as Bob Bettinardi and Toulon Design, which is owned by Callaway. (The DeChambeau model retails at $600-$800, depending on the shaft.)
On paper, it's not a fair fight. If SIK Golf were a public company, you'd be wise to sell short. But what if I told you that one of the top-5 golfers in the world would win four times in his past 12 starts with a SIK putter, giving it the type of exposure and TV time (plus the Ryder Cup) that money can't buy?
“You can have the best product in the world – which we think we have – but it does take someone to put it in the spotlight,” Greg said. “It’s a tight business and a small community. We don’t pay players. We can't compete with the companies offering club deals.”
SIK Golf was founded in 2009, and its progress was slowed when it spent three years in a lawsuit over its patented technology with former three-time PGA Tour winner Kenny Knox. At the 2010 QBE Shootout, Fred Funk became the first player to put a SIK putter into play at a PGA Tour-sanctioned event. World Golf Hall of Famer Sandy Lyle, former World No. 1 David Duval and Tour winner Ryan Moore all stuck it in their bags for a time, but DeChambeau’s surge in the world rankings finally moved the needle for SIK. The Harrison brothers now are known in golf as the scientists behind the “Mad Scientist.” (They also double as his putting instructors.)
DeChambeau, who already has drawn attention for his willingness to think outside the box with his single-length clubs, attempted to double down on his rep for the unconventional by putting face-on, or side-saddle, in late 2016 at the QBE Shootout. A mutual acquaintance suggested that DeChambeau should meet the Harrison brothers, and the ever-curious DeChambeau drove directly from the Naples tournament to their studio, where they built him a putter.
“He’s always looking for an edge, for a way to one-up the competition,” Greg said.
DeChambeau ranked No. 194 in strokes gained-putting before he switched putters, and improved to No. 146 by season's end. For the 2017-18 season, DeChambeau ranked No. 41.
How much has DeChambeau's success helped SIK's business?
“Tough to say," Greg said. “I can't put a value on it.”
As the kids would say, it's been pretty sick. By August 2017, when DeChambeau still was perceived as a one-hit wonder with only a victory at the watered-down John Deere Classic, SIK Golf couldn't keep up with the demand.
SIK Golf has beefed up production and also has struck distribution deals in South Korea and Japan, where premium-priced equipment is in high demand. But it isn't sold at any golf big-box stores yet, and its focus on custom fitting may make a rapid expansion problematic.
Bobby Grace (with Nick Price winning the 1994 PGA Championship with the Fat Lady Swings) and SeeMore Putters (with the late Payne Stewart winning the 1999 U.S. Open and Zach Johnson winning the 2007 Masters and 2015 British Open) experienced surges in putting sales, but can the success of one player make a putter company commercially viable for the long run?
SIK Golf will serve as a great case study.
Adam Schupak has written about golf since 1997 for the likes of Golfweek, Golf.com and The New York Times. He is the winner of the National Sports Media Association's "Golf Article of 2017," and the author of Deane Beman: Golf's Driving Force. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org; Twitter: @adamschupak