The Demise of the Custom Clubmaker
One of the great life lessons may be that everything changes. Golf is no different than life. The days of the skilled custom clubmaker are slowly coming to an end. What once was a thriving sub-industry of the golf equipment business has taken a steady nosedive since 2005.
Although there is still a market for knowledgeable and skilled equipment professionals, the market is becoming very small. The demand today is more for adjusting or altering and reshafting name-brand equipment. Even in the day of very easy and affordable access to custom clubs from the big OEMs, golfers still buy ill-fitted clubs, so there will always some business for the custom shop. A small percentage of clubmakers saw the inevitable, and adjusted quickly enough to satisfy a changing market by offering more services and refined adjustments to equipment to help golfers.
There are several reasons for this gradual transition. One reason would be the industry foresight about consumer demand. Knowing that fitting was becoming more popular, the large equipment manufacturers responded reluctantly by adding custom club departments to their assembly facilities. Turnaround times became a priority, as well as more fitting options. Today, is not unusual to have six or seven shaft options and fitting specs for any OEM iron head and dozens for drivers. Another reason was the advent of the modern day fitting cart. The ability to swiftly switch shaft and head combinations for a better fit was something new for the large OEMs. The custom clubmaker initiated this technology as long ago as 1994, but having the money and name of a major corporation behind the idea proved to be the key factor for advancing this concept.
Golfsmith, the former giant of the custom industry, saw the inevitable coming. They changed CEOs and philosophy several years ago and now have become a massive retailer for the OEMs, their line of custom clubs almost nonexistent. The Golfsmith and Golfworks catalogs now mostly consist of shafts, grips, and supplies. There are still some custom suppliers like Wishon Golf, and there are still some golfers who seek out the personalized touch of the skilled clubmaker. But, the market share shrinks almost monthly, probably to the point of almost being nonexistent in three more years.
A few other reasons contributed to this situation, such as the OEMs having clubs assembled in Asia instead of importing the components and doing the assembly in the US. This has led to the offering of full sets of clubs – both woods and irons – with a golf bag for less than $300. To the trained eye, these are not high-quality clubs by any means, but it is a much less expensive way for someone to get started in the game. This entire market segment used to be satisfied by the custom clubmaker, except at a higher price. But, as we know about other products in our life, it is nearly impossible to compete with cheap labor from Asia. Another reason was the Internet. Mostly unqualified people started to glue together heads and shafts and sell them on eBay for very little markup. Since it was a cyberspace store with virtually no overhead, the key was volume, not quality.
The custom clubmaker has played a key role in the history of golf, going back to the origin of the game. Sadly to some, though, the obituary is beginning to be written today.