North 82nd streetin Scottsdale, Ariz., is an unlikely setting for a revolution. This sleepycommercial boulevard is dotted with nondescript, low-slung buildings that houseeverything from ceramic-tile dealers to muffler-repair shops. Set amid theclutter is the gray cinder-block edifice of Hot Stix Golf. You wouldn't know itby looking at this humble structure, but inside some of golf's most inventiveminds are quietly plotting a fundamental shift in how equipment will be boughtand sold, and in the process they may be altering the landscape of a $3.4billion industry. ¬∂ Founded in 2000, Hot Stix Golf began as a 6,500-square-footretail store with four employees that offered cutting-edge custom fitting.Despite having no advertising budget, Hot Stix quickly developed a cultfollowing thanks to old-fashioned word of mouth. Now more than 100 touring prosare clients. They come to tweak their specs, to double-check that the companiesthey are paid to endorse have built their clubs properly and to secretly testthe competition's gear. Everyday golfers are also welcome, and the sevenhitting bays for custom fittings are sometimes booked two months in advance.(Hot Stix is now 13,000 square feet and has 40 employees, and both numbers areexpected to double by year's end.) ¬∂ Because Hot Stix attracts serious golferswho will pay almost anything for an edge, it has since its inception beenconsidered a tastemaker in the equipment industry, especially in the area ofpremium shafts. Pat McCoy, a PGA Tour rep at Fujikura Golf, says, "In thelast five years we have gone from a niche product for better players to awell-known brand, and Hot Stix has been a big part of that. When the bestplayers from any given course go to Hot Stix and then go home raving about anew product, the trickle down is unbelievable. If Hot Stix discovers in theirdata that, say, one Mizuno driver works particularly well with one of ourshafts, and they start selling that combination in significant numbers, thatwill get back to Mizuno, and it's very likely that Mizuno will start offeringthat combination to its consumers across the country."
But it is not therelatively small number of customers who visit North 82nd Street that haspositioned Hot Stix as such a powerful agent of change. Staked by $10 millionin capital from a private equity firm, Hot Stix founder Mark Timms is in themidst of an aggressive expansion that will make his highly sophisticatedcustom-fitting process available to golfers from coast to coast (and,eventually, around the globe).
Thanks tocustom-built machines and proprietary software, Hot Stix has made customfitting more precise, more personalized and all but foolproof. Your localteaching pro or retail shop may offer something billed as custom fitting, andthere may even be a launch monitor on hand to ascertain the raw data of yourswing, measured in clubhead speed, launch angle and the like. But deciding on aparticular club is often a matter of trial and error plus crude guesswork. Bynow the drill should be familiar: hit seven or eight drivers and pick the onethat produces the best numbers on the launch monitor. But what about thecountless drivers you didn't get to test? And what of the hundreds of shaftsthat could have been married to those driver heads? And how would dozens ofdifferent-model balls perform with any of these driver-shaft combinations? AtHot Stix they have the answers.
Since founding thecompany's research arm (Hot Stix Technology) in December 2003, Timms and hiseggheads have robot-tested 52 models of balls, 74 kinds of irons, 407 types ofdrivers and more than 1,500 shafts, all at different swing speeds. To processall the data, Hot Stix has developed its own software, which is run by its ownservers and mainframe computers.
Says Timms,"When custom fitting became a big deal a few years ago, everyone ran outand bought launch monitors, but they didn't know what to do with them. Thefitters at a typical shop have the raw data, but they don't have the R and Dbehind it. Four different people may recommend four different clubs off thesame numbers. We take that same data from a person's swing, and in the blink ofan eye it gets run through our mainframes, which create an advanced statisticalmodel telling us which club-shaft-and-ball combination will be most effectivebased on thousands of data points. It's an entirely different level offitting."
Hot Stix'sinformation is so sophisticated that numerous manufacturers buy it tosupplement their own R and D. To take the fitting experience beyond North 82ndStreet, Hot Stix Mobile was founded in December 2004. This month HSM takesdelivery of its second 36-foot-long trailer--the typical Tour van is 30feet--and two more are on order. Timms hopes to have six trailers by the end ofthe year and 20 by the end of 2007. Each trailer is a mini--Hot Stix on wheels,within which a player can test clubs, get recommendations from the computer andthen have his or her set built on-site. It is projected that with 20 trailers,Hot Stix Mobile could do more than 25,000 fittings a year, targeting countryclubs and resorts across the country.
To further expandits reach, Hot Stix has begun licensing its software to numerous retailers,including industry leader Golfsmith. Two dozen Golfsmith stores offer the HotStix custom-fitting system, and all 52 stores nationwide should be on line byApril 1. Timms hopes to have up to 500 stores in the U.S. using his software bythe end of the year. Two in England are using the system, and talks are underway with retailers in Japan, South Africa, Australia and New Zealand.
"We believethe Hot Stix technology offers an unparalleled experience for golfers,"says Jim Thompson, president of Golfsmith. "Not only does it allow them tomake more informed buying decisions, but it's also fun and people love it.Going forward, it's hard to imagine consumers purchasing equipment without thebenefits of a Hot Stix custom fitting."
at hot stix,innovation never sleeps, or only rarely. On a recent morning Timms was hauntingthe North 82nd Street shop unshaven and bleary-eyed. He had been at work since4:30 a.m., but the boss is not the only one going hard during this period ofempire building. A couple of shop hands have been so busy that they're stilltrying to find time to schedule the finals of the company's 2004 match-playtournament.
Much of the recentworkload was dedicated to preparing for last week's PGA Merchandise Show inOrlando, at which Hot Stix was an exhibitor for the first time. During therun-up Timms said, "The show will be a coming-out party for us. A lot ofpeople in the industry have heard of us, but they have no idea what we'vebecome, or are about to become." Last week Hot Stix created a huge buzzwith its flashy, 2,500-square-foot exhibit, which included one of its 36-foottrailers parked on the floor of the Orange County Convention Center. Throughoutthe week there were long lines of showgoers eager to test the fittingsystem.
But even as HotStix becomes a national brand, the store on North 82nd Street will remain thesoul of the operation. The young, energetic staff members all wear white labcoats, ostensibly to protect their clothing while they build clubs. But theuniforms also lend them an air of being mad scientists. Machines and computershave given Hot Stix a technological advantage, but it is the golf-obsessedpeople who work there who complete the shopping experience. Says PGA Tourveteran Jonathan Kaye, a Phoenix resident who spends a lot of time hanging outat Hot Stix, "Many of my friends work there--guys who used to play golf andgave it up but still wanted to be in the business."
Around Hot Stixthey still laugh about the time Kaye hawked a Scotty Cameron putter to acustomer who had mistaken him for a staffer. "Some lady was hitting putts,and I gave her a tip and she started making 'em," says Kaye. "I don'tknow if she eventually bought the putter, but I tried to sell it to her."And what was his magic tip? "She was pretty well-endowed, and she was kindof getting in her own way. I told her she needed to swing more around herbody."
The commingling ofTour talent and weekend dreamers is part of what makes Hot Stix special. On theday I visited, a random Friday in January, Ryder Cup captain Tom Lehmansauntered in to pick up a couple of wedges, and Champions tour regular HowardTwitty was methodically testing sticks in one of the hitting bays. Next toTwitty, a silver-haired woman with an athletic swing was being fitted. Afterevery rip, she intensely studied the numbers on the computer and asked probingquestions of her fitter. Clearly she wasn't there for giggles, which is nosurprise, given the prices. A woods or irons fitting costs $150. Putterfittings go for $75, and a fitting for only the ball costs $50. If you want apackage, the whole shebang--woods, irons, ball, putter--is $375 and takes aboutthree hours. Pretty steep, but then again, it's probably costlier to keepplunking down big bucks for the wrong equipment.
Though Hot Stixhas gone a long way toward turning a game into a science, the process is stillsubject to the vagaries of the individual player. Timms recommends thatcustomers come in for a fitting once a year, as their bodies and swings evolve."It's like going to the doctor for an annual checkup," he says. Onlymore important.
Here's what Hot Stix Golf founder and president MarkTimms says is the best gear of the year so far in 2006, and why
NIKE SASQUATCH Says Timms, "Moment of inertia is anumeric value for forgiveness, and this driver is the most forgiving we've evertested. It's big and ugly, but it works great."
TAYLORMADE R7 425 "From our testing it fits a muchbroader range of golfers than the first-generation R7. It's a lot moreforgiving and produces a slightly higher spin rate, which makes it better forslower swing speeds."
CALLAWAY FUSION FT-3 "The pros have been usingprototypes for some time, but the FT-3 finally is in wide distribution. It'sreally hot, and Callaway's first really good driver in a while."
MIZUNO MX-900 "They're awesome--atraditional-looking forged set that transitions beautifully into hybrids forthe long irons. The trend of incorporating hybrids into a set will, I believe,lead to the disappearance of individual hybrid clubs."
CALLAWAY FUSION "The clubs are extremely forgivinggiven that they're not that bulky. They are probably the best example of theconcept of mixing different materials to better distribute weight withouthaving to manipulate the shape of the clubhead into something so big that it'sgoing to get caught in the grass."
MITSUBISHI RAYON "They've added a bunch of newstuff to what was already a great line. Very high quality, very consistent inall the testing we do."
FUJIKURA ROMBAK "This is a new line developed inconjunction with TaylorMade, but the shafts are so good, you're going to seeguys playing with a Callaway head and a TaylorMade Rombak shaft."
ODYSSEY WHITE STEEL TRI-BALL SRT "The trend is tomallet-style, game-improvement putters. Everyone is trying to move the centerof gravity back and down to create better spin parameters."
TAYLORMADE MONZA "Putters are like drivers in thatyou're trying to optimize launch angle and spin rate. Same as with drivers,we're seeing adjustable weights in the head, plus adjustable weight in the buttend."