The game of golf and, more specifically, the business of golf is in a constant state of change. Over the last five years alone, we’ve seen innovation in how the game is played, where the game is played and who is playing it.
One of the many men responsible for this recent evolution is David Abeles. Now in his sixth year as president and CEO of TaylorMade Golf, Abeles has a passion for the game running through his veins, which he admits is a requirement for someone in his position. Currently in his third go-around with the company, Abeles has shepherded TaylorMade through a split from former parent company Adidas and into a new era, and the golf world has taken notice.
SI.com recently caught up with Abeles as his company prepared to launch its newest line of golf equipment for the 2020 season. Abeles opened up about the state of the game, his relationships with some of the top PGA Tour players in the world and his first encounter with the man he considers the greatest of all time.
SI: David you’re the CEO of a major golf company. Golf is your job. Does the game have to be just as much a part of your life as it is your profession?
DA: Yes, I genuinely believe that because you have to understand how golfers think, and understand the subtle nuances of this game, the language of golf and apply that to the products you make and how you create value for golfers.
I do think it's an important characteristic for any leader in golf to truly have a profound connection to the game. It doesn't necessarily mean you have to be a great player but having a deep and profound connection and a competitive background in golf I think is very helpful.
SI: Do you remember when that connection began for you?
DA: Everybody in this game has a story, right? Whether they were introduced to the game by their father or whether it was their grandfather that took them out. I didn't come from a family of golfers. I grew up in Connecticut, and our neighbors were two twins about 10 years older than I am. I was 8 or 9 years old and they were in their teens. They had their driver's license and they would come home from their summer jobs and jump in the car and head to the golf course. After seeing the joy on their faces going to the golf course, I asked if they’d take me with them, so that's when I was really introduced.
My favorite player was Tom Watson, so I modeled my golf swing after him. Eventually I found an aptitude for the game, got a little bit of instruction and ultimately played competitive all through high school into college.
I've now got three young boys at home. My oldest is 14 and he plays AJGA and younger boys play so it's become part of our family DNA.
SI: Your company resides in Carlsbad, Calif., along with most of the other major golf club manufacturers. How does TaylorMade differentiate itself from the other guys?
DA: Yeah, we're literally a driver, nine iron from each other!
So you can imagine where we all go out to lunch here in Titanium Valley everybody picks their corners within the restaurant and the tables and watches very closely (laughs).
The real reason why we exist, which is really the underpinning of our organization, is to help golfers play better golf. It's that simple. In order to do that, we have to be able to take on the risk to innovate and advance technology and advance the performance of our products across all categories so that when golfers experience them and put them in play, they enjoy the game more and it helps them play better.
Our biggest differentiator is that we actually take on the risk and invest in doing that. A lot of companies, whether it's in golf or outside of golf, talk about the concept of innovation, but they don't live it. It has to be embedded in everything you do. And most companies aren't willing to do it because it's a higher risk.
Whether it’s our new SIM metal woods or our new TP5 Pix golf balls, these are technologies that have led our company forward. We are an innovative company and that's our people, our products and our practices. Not one or the other, all of them.
SI: In a time when golf club manufacturers seem to be veering away from big equipment deals with tour pros, TaylorMade has gone in a different direction partnering with the best players in the world. Currently four of the top six players in the world rankings are playing TaylorMade golf clubs. Can you explain the strategy?
DA: Honestly, it's humbling. We have a very clear strategy as it relates to who we want to work with on tour. And that strategy is built around our corporate values. These athletes that we choose to align with or that choose to align with us, share the same values.
Are they passionate about the game? Are they highly competitive? Are they truly innovative in how they play and are they authentic to themselves? Absolutely they are.
So, when I use those four words and you think about Rory McIlroy or you think about Tiger or Jon Rahm, Jason Day, Dustin Johnson or young guys like Matt Wolff and Colin Morikawa or Rickie Fowler for that matter, we feel very good about the alignment in our values with athletes.
Something that’s misunderstood is many golfers believe that brands go out and seek athletes. The athletes that are part of our team were equally as ambitious in seeking TaylorMade because of our reputation.
These athletes are as much business partners as they are family members. Our relationships are deeply embedded.
SI: You mention the relationships. Do you remember the first time you met Tiger?
DA: Of course. The first time I met him was in the fall of 2016 when he was recovering from some serious back injuries. When Nike exited the equipment business Tiger said he was testing equipment to determine what would be best for this next generation of Tiger.
I had multiple impressions. One is you're standing next to the greatest golfer in the history of the game. I was so impressed with his professionalism. I was so impressed with his humility, genuine humility. And I was equally impressed with his technical knowhow and understanding of golf equipment. That's something people don't know. He is involved with his technology down to the millimeter.
We make products for golfers at every skill level. It isn't just for the best players in the world. But with Tiger, I watched him very closely. He had such a discerning eye for detail and such an incredible feel for the product. I've never seen an athlete with the feel that Tiger Woods has when he hits a golf ball.
Rory is very similar. Jon Rahm is very similar, Dustin Johnson similar. Tiger's just has a bit of a unique outlook on this.
Over the course of the last two and a half years, I've really gotten to know him personally and that's what's inspired me most. He's a tremendous father and a great guy. I feel very fortunate to call him a friend.
SI: What would you say is the biggest similarity between Tiger and Rory McIlroy?
DA: Their competitive nature. They're winners, make no mistake about it. They're wonderful human beings, extremely gifted and talented. Their minds are their greatest differentiators. They want to win, they work to win, and they know how to win. And that's pretty impressive.
SI: What about the biggest difference between the two?
DA: That’s a great question. Many similarities and differences. They are both fiercely competitive and have extraordinary mental and physical capabilities, and simply have a presence that resonates with all of us. Both are completely true and authentic to themselves and so much fun to be around.
They are different. I’m inspired by Tiger’s focus, intensity, and attention to every detail in his game. He’s the ultimate professional, and in my mind the greatest ever. Rory is so relatable. He plays the game effortlessly, is incredibly thoughtful, and exudes with an infectious optimism.
I love hanging with them both. At TaylorMade we like to think our brand values are similar to each of them. They are original, relatable in their own ways, fiercely competitive, and bring a positive attitude to everything they do.
SI: Earlier in your career you were in the golf industry and then left for a while and came back. Where is the industry heading, ten, twenty years from now?
DA: Yeah, it's changed. It's ever changing. We have to look ahead and think out five and 10 years, relative to the game, the industry and how we will serve the industry and golfers that play.
I think the starting point and current state is golf is in a really good place right now. The industry metrics around participation and consumption have stabilized, and we're starting to see actually slight advancements as the industry is growing a little bit.
We’re going to continue to see entertainment at its highest value, which drives the engagement. We're going to see new forms of golf develop, and this is critical. Whether it's gamifying golf at driving ranges, or indoor simulator golf or nine-hole facilities, I think we're making golf more accessible and that's critically important.
It not only needs to be accessible both economically and from a playing standpoint, but we need to make it more fun.
SI: What's the biggest challenge right now for you and for TaylorMade in this ever-changing golf climate?
DA: I think the biggest challenge is the alignment of all of the great thinking and initiatives to help improve the game. To refine that or distill that down to two, three, maybe four programs that attract new golfers and continue to retain existing golfers.
I think the biggest challenge is aligning the series of great innovative ideas and concepts to grow the game into fewer concepts with deeper investment. Align our resources to really impact more people. We're moving in that direction, and I'm really proud of that.