Inventor levels the playing field: Dennis Wong takes on the big boys with putter that includes an alignment feature
By Lowell Ullrich, Postmedia News May 3, 2013
By aligning properly over the ball, a red line will disappear and a white one will show, signifying that the putter is perfectly flat. Photograph by: RICHARD LAM Richard Lam , PNG
The scenario facing Dennis Wong and his Richmond company would be the equivalent of playing in a foursome in which you are paired with Tiger Woods, Rory McElroy and Phil Mickelson.
It happened for real last year at the PGA Merchandise Show in Orlando, Fla., and has been repeated occasionally at PGA Tour stops along the way. Five of the game's greatest manufacturers are on site showing products in which millions have been spent on research, development and production.
Next door is a significantly smaller firm from the edge of the golf universe, which has developed a putter that is simplistic in design but incorporates an alignment feature that works effectively if given a chance.
Little guys don't usually have the necessary staying power, let alone a competitive marketing budget, to make an impression in a business which often can devour the most innovative. Nike, Ping and Odyssey have endless full-page testimonials in Golf Digest. Wong has a postage stamp-size ad in the classifieds.
But the signature product of Innovations Golf, the USGA-approved baby of a Richmond-based packaging operator, has turned at least a few heads. The Clearball putter will turn even more if it can meet the proclamation of its creator.
"This putter is the cheapest way to get your score down," said Wong.
The uniqueness of the putter lies in patent-pending alignment in the rear portion of the design. By aligning properly over the ball, a red line will disappear and a white one will show, signifying that the putter is perfectly flat by using a levelling concept that would be familiar to any carpenter.
A few strokes of the mallet, which also has a blade-style cousin known as Clearblade, and you are indeed left wondering why the big box research teams didn't come up with the idea first. Wong says he has received enough notice to know the product works, and has sent purchase orders to addresses that happen to match the test facilities of Callaway, TaylorMade and Cobra Golf to know the big boys are also curious.
But with only an estimated $150,000 in sales from Wong's first full year in 2012 of marketing the product, which is manufactured in China and assembled in Richmond, what Innovations Golf is for the moment is a lab experiment of lasting power against the heavyweights. Endorsements don't come easily when most tour pros all have equipment contracts lined up.
Advertising doesn't come cheap either. Wong invested in Golf Channel spots last year but currently is focusing on online sales. Pro shop product placement is steady but slow.
"We don't have to come off the gate like Ben Johnson on 'roids. What's important is that every step we take is a solid one," said Brent Sharman, the firm's part-time sales manager. "So far, I haven't seen one step backward."
Part of the appeal lies in test results that suggest the putter has a half-inch wide sweet spot, which is better than competitors, Wong said.
It's the kind of project that would figure to show up on Dragons' Den, the hit CBC series for budding capitalists, and Sharman admits he's given the idea some thought. Wong, however, says exposure comes well before money on his wish list.
Wong knew he was in for a challenge when he showed the putter to LPGA regulars Paula Creamer and Lexi Thompson at last year's Canadian Open at the Vancouver club. Provincial junior champion Adam Svensson was also obliging, then told Wong he was locked up in an endorsement deal for two years.
"This happens often," he said, admitting his venture ranks as something of a long shot.
It does not, however, lessen his resolve. He's prepared to give the project at least a year or two more, and figures he might have to focus on European and Asian markets. Wong earned a degree in chemical engineering at the University of Alberta, but also developed a belief early in life that Canadians often don't embrace success until it is achieved abroad.
"It's brainwashing," he said. "A pro shop in Denmark bought 300 putters. I asked them why. They said 'whatever works, people will try.' Here, if you're not big-name, people don't even want to try you. Because of the mentality here, a $300 putter has got to be better than a $150 putter."
It might mean the endgame strategy is to take a buyout offer, and another independent manufacturer has already made an approach.
For now, though, there's comfort in playing with the manufacturing equivalents of Rory and Tiger until enough people notice who is also in the same foursome.
Clearball and Clearblade putters retail from $129 to $199 at innovationsgolf.com
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