(This feature first appeared in Flagstick Golf Magazine in 2010. Due to interest in the topic from several readers we are reprinting here at Flagstick.com for easier access)
Story & Images – Scott MacLeod
It sounds like a dream job. Short of playing on the PGA or LPGA Tour, how about getting paid to travel with the tour, hang out with the players, and be a part of the inner circle of the golf world? Sounds great doesn’t it? Or is it?
Working as a golf manufacturer representative out on tour would be at the top of the desire scale for golf gear heads but like all jobs, you must work at it and the circumstances in which you do that are not always favourable. But that does not stop thousands of golfers from wondering and dreaming about being the next representative on the PGA Tour for a company like TaylorMade, Callaway, Ping, or Titleist.
For those golf fans not familiar with the situation, almost every professional golfer in the world has some ties with a golf equipment manufacturer. Some are year-long or multi-year all-encompassing contracts while other situations see players using clubs from a variety of manufacturers. This includes companies that make complete clubs, and others that make shafts, grips, training aids, clothing and more. And to service those hundreds of touring professionals, both tour members and qualifiers for each event, manufacturers employ representatives to follow along with the tour each week. Depending on whom they work for these reps can work out of anything from a car and a golf bag, all the way to a multi-million dollar rolling workshop in a semi-trailer.
With golf equipment sales so heavily tied to endorsements and consumers wanting to play “what the pros play” this is a very important part of the golf manufacturing business, especially as far as marketing is concerned. The tour also acts as a living laboratory, where the best golfers in the world work with new club designs and engineers can determine how effective those designs might be.
Avid golfers are well aware of this part of the golf business. Many thousands of hard-core golf equipment fans congregate online to talk about new equipment yet to be released to the public or prototypes only available to tour professionals. They scramble to dig up the latest details and photos of equipment, very much akin to ardent automobile fans.
Intrigued at what this profession might offer we sought to get past the velvet rope and see what the job and the life on this side of professional tours is all about. And fortunately for us, two equipment representatives happen to have ties with Eastern Ontario.
“It’s a like a travelling circus,” Gawain Robertson tells me on wet Fall day as we huddle near the tour vans at the PGA Tour’s Turning Stone Championship contested at the Turning Stone Resort, about a half hour east of Syracuse, New York. It’s a Tuesday, usually the biggest day of the week for PGA Tour reps but this one is a little different. The pounding rain and chill in the air has sent most of the pros off to seek the warmth of their locker room. Instead of testing equipment with the world’s best players Robertson is left to show me around.
A former CPGA Head Professional, Robertson is now a partner in PGMC, a company that distributes shafts and grips for other manufacturers to a dealer network, but the company also owns and markets the ACCRA brand of premium golf shafts.
As we look down the line of semi-trailers emblazoned with manufacturer names we talk about the week-to-week staples on the PGA Tour. “Most guys will travel on Sundays to ensure they are here first thing Monday morning. Most players will get to a tournament by Tuesday so that is usually when all the action happens. Depending who you are and what company you work for you might be doing a lot of different things.” Equipment reps are usually gone by Wednesday afternoon and they will work almost every hour they are on-site. Sun up to sundown.
As a shaft manufacturer Robertson’s explains that their role in dealing with players is a little different than “company men” like Shawn Mullin, another former CPGA Ottawa Zone member who now works for industry giant TaylorMade-adidas Golf. “They have a lot of players on their staff that they need to take care of; we spend more time working with the companies and their reps to try and get our product tested or in play with their guys.” To have any success – one that converts into a getting a pro to actually put their shafts into tournament action, is not always a simple process.
The ultimate standard for the Tour Reps is the Darrell Survey. An independent company polls the players’ bags on the first day of each event and records what they have put into play. This covers every category from shoes to shafts. These surveys are the basis for many of the marketing campaigns that assert the “position on tour” that so many consumers buy into. As a result, everyone working for a manufacturer is hustling early in tournament weeks. “It’s all about relationships, opportunity, and timing,” says Robertson who has been fortunate to have almost 100 top pros put their shafts into play over the last number of years. “Of course, the products have to work the way the guys want them to or they will be on to something else. They have lots of options out here.”
It’s a delicate balance and a tougher proposition that you can imagine. “It takes a couple years to develop the skills for the job,” relates Gawain who now actually has another long-time industry veteran, Mike Biviano, fulfilling the full-time rep role for ACCRA. “It takes a while to build a reputation with the players and prove you have the ability to deal with them and deliver results for them as far as products that work.”
For reps like Shawn Mullin, his company has many, many players secured into contracts that lock players into playing their TaylorMade-adidas products. Instead of just hustling to get new equipment into play for these and other non-contract players, his TM team has plenty of other responsibilities. They spend the first part of each week stuffing players’ lockers with the supplies they will need for the week – golf balls, gloves, hats, and anything that they may have requested. And they often have a lot of requirements. You have to witness the cell phones constantly being worked for calls and texts between reps and players for yourself to believe it. Quite often reps will have two phones, with one always in use while the other recharges. They work at a dizzying pace. Most of the time.
“There is a lot of waiting around at times,” Mullin tells me when I ask about his day to day grind. Quite often the reps are waiting for players who have requested clubs to arrive at the range or in the tour trucks. But once they do the reps are in full flight.
Trail a PGA Tour Equipment rep around for a day and you are certain to get your fill of exercise. Save for a few out on tour, most are in good shape for a reason.
I found that out this past March when I hooked up again with Robertson, Mullin, and a few other manufacturer reps at the Florida PGA Tour stop near Tampa Bay. Unlike at Turning Stone this Tuesday was blessed with sunshine and the range was bursting with players.and manufacturers.
Behind the players a long line of golf bags lays out like a buffet of golf equipment candy. Every imaginable club manufacturer is represented and the pros often wander over to have a look. And then the fun begins.
Undoubtedly the player will need a club built specifically for them. Reps try and keep clubs made with the most common options but when they begin to work with a player very often they will need a different loft, shaft type, flex, or some other customization. At The Transitions Championship that means something different than most tour stops. At most PGA Tour events like Turning Stone, the manufacturers are able to set up their work trucks directly adjacent to the driving range. This ensures a short hop between range and workshop for the tour reps. Not so at The Transitions where the trucks are tucked away in the forest, well down the side of 10th fairway, and a long way down the hill from the practice area.
In the end, being a manufacturer rep is all about service and you do what you have to take care of the players. If that means running up and down a few hills, or scrambling to get a few clubs out to a player in the middle of a practice round, that’s what you do. During some stops that might even dropping into to a local golf store or custom repair shop to fulfill an unusual request or make up for a product missing on the tour van.
Watching equipment tour reps deal with players is interesting, to say the least. Understandably few reps will go on the record to talk about their relationships with players – to do so would be job suicide but when you hang around the range there are a lot of legendary stories told. In a lot of cases the reps become close with the players – they see each other all year long after all, but sometimes the relationships can be icy. This is a place of healthy egos from both directions and with so much weekly interaction nerves can often get frayed. Players will not always take responsibility for their poor play, often the blame goes on their equipment.
That brings us to the players themselves. It’s certain that most appreciate the work the tour reps do to enhance their games but each player has a varied relationship with their equipment. Some players are simply satisfied with what the reps give them and trust that it is suitable to for their games. These are often the loyalists who stick to a brand, whether because of contract, friendship with the rep, or otherwise. Others like to tinker with anything new, spending loads of hours on launch monitors or just hanging out in the equipment trailers. It is not unusual to find a tour player changing their own grips or even putting a special grind on a wedge.
And then there are the tinkerers. These are the guys who make the reps bristle. They might change their iron shafts five times in a week or have five drivers made and then reject them all. For reps it is part of the price for trying to get those Darrell Survey numbers a little higher, and they accept that as part of the job.
And even when a rep puts great effort into assisting a player there is no guarantee of a return. This is particularly true for independents like shaft manufacturers or companies without staff players. Gawain Robertson tells of working with one player for several hours to dial in a three wood shaft. Eventually, after many club builds, the player was striping ball after ball and seemed completely satisfied with the results. Even his caddy was telling him it was the best he had ever hit a fairway club. But the player dismissed the club. The reason? It was the official colour of a school that was a rival to his college team. Simple as that. All that work, a successful fitting, and still no new shaft in play for Robertson and ACCRA. The tour rep life can be a fickle one.
As could be expected there are also the prima donnas. During one of my visits to the range I witnessed a one-time PGA Tour winner, whose game was heading in the wrong direction, admonishing a rep because the club he wanted to try was out of stock. Although the rep told him he could get one rushed in for the next practice day, it didn’t seem to satisfy him.
Minutes later the rep shrugged off the confrontation as he worked to sneak a meal in the caddy area. That’s right, the caddy area. Despite the close player-rep relationship you don’t find the PGA Tour millionaires ushering their rep buddies into the restricted family dining area. Reps fend for themselves at most events, and not always on the company dime.
And then there is the travel. Shawn Mullin says that from his home base in Mississauga he will be on the road up to 40 weeks a year. That’s a lot of air miles and days away from family and friends. For the people who work directly in the trailers, they don’t have the luxury of flying. Each week they must pack up their rolling office and drive it to the next tournament, sometimes across the country. Oh, the glamour.
Of course when they arrive at a tournament with the tour trucks they will also have to deal with more than just the players and their fellow reps. Often interested fans will try to get into the trucks out of curiosity or even with the mistaken assumption that they can buy equipment directly from them. Even the authorized visits can develop into a nuisance. The trailers get very busy, up to a 100 players a week might be trying to work with their equipment. For the larger companies that can mean up to 40 or more staff players crowding into the truck over various parts of a three day period. Some of the newer vehicles now incorporate lounge areas to keep guests well separated from the flying sparks and other activity of the condensed workshop areas.
So who are the people that work as reps and what are their backgrounds? In many cases they are golf professionals or people with some experience in club fitting or repairs. Very often the reps might be the ones building a club or adjusting a lie angle. Some companies have a bevy of technicians for this but the rep and the repair man might be one and the same for some smaller brands. A few independent vans usually work the tour and cover off repairs and builds for a number of smaller manufacturers.
And the tour rep world is a very small one. “Usually the companies like to hire somebody who has done the work before,” says Robertson. His “new” man on tour, Mike Biviano, has done stints with several companies including Callaway Golf and MacGregor Golf. Past player relationships from situations like this might just make a difference between having a player consider trying your gear or not even giving it a chance.
So what keeps a person out of tour doing this type of work? A few guys I talked to simply like the lifestyle. It’s not for everyone but judging by the length of time some of the reps have been out on tour, there has to be some draw. Among the reps are past tour players who have kept the tour life but exchanged the gamble of playing for a more certain pay check. For others, the tour feels like home in many ways. That includes making a lot of friends, even players. Paul Loegering, Tour Manager of TaylorMade, is so friendly with players like Corey Pavin that he has even subbed in as Pavin’s caddy on occasion.
Of course, some of the reps are true gear heads themselves and the lure of working with leading edge golf equipment and the best players in the world is too compelling to pass on.
Overall though, it is the players who are leading the grandest lifestyle and making the big money. The tour reps are just part of the action and get a nice front row seat. Just for practice days though – they are gone by the time the real golf starts each week. Sure they might get to traipse to great destinations sometimes but like players the usually only get to see the golf courses and the hotel rooms. There is not a lot of time to play tourist.
As Paul Loegering tells me when I ask if it really is a dream way to make a living he is pointed in his response. “Equipment guys think it is the ultimate job but when it comes down to it is just that, a job.