Q&A with Tom Olsavsky, VP of R&D at COBRA Puma Golf
With Leonard Finkel
Tom, you’ve been in the golf business for quite a while. Can you give us a brief history?
I started years ago with Titleist in New Bedford as a golf club engineer. I was a mechanical engineer working in the automotive industry, but I was always working on golf clubs with my dad. I used to rebuild golf clubs a lot. I built custom clubs out of my apartment then. I used to buy components from Golfsmith. I knew how to build a golf club because I had the engineering background. Titleist moved us to Carlsbad in 1993, which was a great move. I left in 1996 and went over to TaylorMade and spent about 17 years there. My last four years have been at Cobra Puma Golf. I’ve been in a number different roles. I’ve spent time on Tour and in product creation, product marketing, R&D, but I’ve really been involved with a lot of key product things along the way.
YAfter being at TaylorMade for so long, how is working at Cobra Puma Golf different?
In the golf space at Cobra, we’re right there with the top companies in terms of innovation. I think the major difference, other than a little bit bigger in size, is that they are much more dominant on Tour as a corporate goal. It’s one of their core beliefs. We have great representation on Tour. We have some of the best athletes in the categories on Tour, but it's not a huge part of what we spend our money on. We think we have to have key Tour validation and we believe we do that very well. But we believe we are also very right-sized in terms of our business size, our goals, our growth, and the number of players we have on Tour.
I think the difference at Cobra Golf, on the club side, is that we know we are a challenger brand. We know we have to be innovative and we lead in a number of cases. We don't get to shout as loud as some of the competitors, but we feel that every time we get in a comparison where people are hitting product, we do very well. In fact, we outsell our market share when we actually get people to try it. We know a lot of golfers just walk into the store and say, "give me this driver," but when people get a chance to try our products, we win a lot more than our market share shows. That indicates that we have great products.
A place like Club Champion, which has a neutral bias in terms of the equipment, how might that benefit a company like Cobra?
We love the high-end fitters in the marketplace today because they are neutral. They don't have strong biases. They’re not building from a predisposition of volume. They’re really about the individual fitting and that's critical for better performance. That will continue to be critical to what the USGA tells us from a rule perspective.
I think when we look at the entire retail marketplace, it’s shrunk pretty substantially in the last two years, maybe more than any time in my 27 years in the industry. So those are strategic giant shifts that are going on in retail, not only in golf, but everywhere. We see all the independent fitters doing very well.
Can you tell us about some of your new product introductions?
We’re really excited about our KING F8 line this year. The entire product line is spectacular, and we have some key innovations. If you look at the KING F8 driver, it has a CNC milled titanium face that has never been done before in golf. That gives it an extremely precise face. Tolerances can be tightened to increase speed a little bit more and give a very precise bulge and roll.
"This hasn’t been done, why not?" We’ve heard that comment from a number of retailers and media people as well, but we are leading the charge. It took us a couple years to figure it out and really put it in a great package with the F8 driver. We have a great new shape and design with the F8 that has much better aerodynamics and you are getting a little more club speed. We know drivers are bought because you need to hit farther and straighter. That's what F8 delivers and we are very excited about that.
Every company says they make YOUR driver and want to get it on Tour and win the first week. We had it happen this year with Rickie Fowler. It went on the USGA list on a Monday and he won that Sunday. He cited improve performance and switched to the F8 right away. These players don't switch if it's not better. Rickie was really excited about that. He put the F8 driver and F8 fairways in the bag and won that first week. That's great news for us and a great start to the year.
F8 irons are a huge step forward for us and we’re leading the industry with the Cobra Connect Technology. The Arccos system is embedded into every grip. Additionally, when you buy a set of F8 irons, we give you the Arccos 360 sensors that you can screw into the rest of your clubs. If you have someone else's clubs in your bag and you don't want to switch, we now give you the full system with the Arccos 360 app. That gives you shot tracking. It gives you the ability to have a great GPS and it’s all provided at no extra charge. It's amazing when you think about this technology. We call it the first smart set of golf clubs and it’s something that is going to be game-changing for the industry.
With F8 irons, we have what we would call best in class for sound and feel. Even if you compared us to last year's products, we sound much better for the standard game improvement iron than anybody else in that price category, great technologies are there. We have a forged power shell face in our irons. They hit the ball long, high and straight with great forgiveness and looks.
The last piece of that, which is certainly not a small thing, is One Length, which has been a great success for us in 2017. If you looked at our F7 irons, we had variable length and One Length, and One Length is about 60 percent of that mix. Everybody is surprised when they hear that number, but as a challenger brand, we don’t shout out loud like everyone else. When I think about playability, any golfer that’s not a single digit handicapper should be playing One Length because it’s going to make them more consistent. We know every golfer’s not going to move into One Length, but they should try it. There was a lot of doubt by people in the industry. They said this isn’t going to work and Bryson's going to go away. Well he won on Tour at the John Deere, partly because he was so accurate with his irons. We know that One Length has improved accuracy for golfers who buy them. We see that as continuing to be a success story in the industry today.
How important is the Tour to your company?
Rickie Fowler is one of, if not, the most popular player on Tour. Rickie is a great guy. We love working with him. He's a great golfer and person. We love the interaction with him. He's great with fans. He's great with social media. He's great with other players. He’s also very keen on equipment and he understands it very well. Obviously, he's helped us lead back into some places with baffler technology. He's keen on driver performance and if you look at pound-for-pound distance, it's him and Justin Thomas for longest driver in the game. You see these players' great skills, but also a great aptitude for helping us both sell and market our product while having fun with it. One of the great things we love about Rickie is he has fun with everything, whether it's playing golf, talking to fans, talking about equipment or spring break. Whatever he's doing, he's having fun, and that really fits well with what we do at Cobra Puma Golf.
How important is custom club fitting not only to Tour players but to the general public for Cobra?
Club fitting for us is huge. We know that from a technical perspective, the key to the industry today with golfers is that they have to get the right golf club. That's where custom fitting comes in. We know it's critical. When you get into a fitting scenario with a good fitter, you’re going to get that player better performance in every club in their bag. There are tough rules by the USGA and the R&A, limiting us to do certain things. But every time we see people go through a fitting and their fitter gets them into the right head settings for loft and lie, the right weight settings, the right model, shaft and grip and all those things are critical.
One thing that's a misnomer in the industry is golfers who don't think they're good enough for custom fitting. I would say you need custom fitting more if you're a weaker player than if you’re a better player. Those are really critical things for us. We love fitting. We build our clubs around the fitting process. We put in movable weights. We put in adjustable lofts. We give you shaft choices. That's about giving you the option to work with things that Tour players have had forever. We’re providing those to the market so fitters can do a great job fitting the customer.
Can you talk a little bit about your R&D department and how products are developed?
At Cobra R&D, we have a great, fun team. We have some industry experts that have been in the industry for 15-20 years, like me. We have some young kids right out of school. We really love and have fun making golf clubs. The cool thing about what we do is, we get to sit around almost every hour of the day thinking about golf clubs. It's a lot of fun and we get some great ideas.
The challenge in this industry, in my 27 years, is not always the original idea. It's trying to figure out how it works, how to make it work and how to produce it. The cool thing is the napkin sketch of the idea. The tough thing of R&D is how you take that napkin sketch and turn it into something. The genius is, how do I do that? It's a lot of hard work between what we do in design on the computer, getting feedback from golfers, working with our manufacturing team, and our vendors in Asia to help us make a better product. A lot of these things are what engineers do in every industry, whether it’s automotive, aerospace, or electronics; you constantly think about how to make the product better.
I remind everyone that every year we’re going to get a little bit better. If you're buying a driver every year, you might not see how much that little bit is. That might be a yard or two or three. Most people buy drivers every four to five years now on the average, so golfers should get a nice big performance bump within those years even though we have a coefficient of restitution (COR) and characteristic time (CT) rule. Why? Because I'm going to make the center of gravity (CG) better. I'm going to make the aerodynamics better, make the moment of inertia (MOI) better, and make the shaft better. I’m going to make all these things better, so when you buy every five years, you should see a nice performance bump.
Is there any other information you'd like to share with our readers?
We all consider ourselves to be very lucky to be in this industry, on the OEM side. It's a lot of fun and hard work, but the industry is something we can apply our passions, expertise, and education to. The golf business, the golf industry is challenging at times. It’s tough to make money, but it's great fun because we’re doing things that people like. They like to play golf and play longer in their life than any other sport they would play.
My mom just stopped playing last year at 93 years old. But she loved golf and she would play today if she were able. We meet so many great people through the golf business. That's one thing that we are truly blessed with and the fact that it's a lot of fun day in day out. I've been very lucky to be able to be in this business for 27 years and we’re very excited about where we are with Cobra Puma Golf moving forward.
Now available at Club Champion are the Cobra F8 & F8+ Drivers, the F8 Smart Iron, the King Black Wedges and the new 2018 Forged Tec Black and One Length Irons. Club Champion will find the perfect fit for your unique swing. Experience the Club Champion difference! Call us at 888-340-782 or request an appointment online.