Greg Hopkins, a true veteran of the golf industry, retired as CEO of Cleveland Golf in September 2012 after 16 years on the job. After taking some time to relax, he’s coming back with his new wedge company, aptly named Hopkins Golf. The company is set to open for business very soon and THP wanted to be the first to offer an inside look into what it will have to offer.
Recently, I had a chance to spend an afternoon talking to Mr Hopkins about retirement, his new company, working with tour players, and some of his experiences from his career in the golf industry. I was also able to ask a number of questions about Hopkins Golf that I’ll be sharing today. One thing that really stood out to me during our time talking was the huge amount of passion that he was showing for this project.
First of all, I wanted to say thank you for taking the time to sit down and talk with us today. It looks like you’ve been really busy for a recent retiree! How does the lifestyle of a business owner compare to that of a CEO?
Well, it means I’m mad at my wife because retirement was a lot more fun!
I had 16 years at the helm of Cleveland Golf and was tired. The difference is that at the helm of Cleveland, there was so much supervision and delegation. Now, I don’t have anyone to delegate to. The good news is that I’ve been there before. Cleveland wasn’t always a big company, and prior to that I was with some start-ups. I’m answering my own phone. The flip side to that is I get everything done exactly the way I want it, so there are plusses and minuses to it. I’m definitely putting more hours in.
You’re launching your new line of custom wedges under the Hopkins Golf name in the coming weeks. Tell me a little bit about why you are doing this and how the idea came to reality?
(After retirement) I’m playing golf every day and cleaning the garage, but eventually I ran out of things to do. I was lying on the couch one day and my wife came in and said, “This isn’t working. You need to do something. I don’t care what it is.” I only know how to do one thing, so there you have it.
Talk about your passion for wedges and how it relates to this project.
I’m passionate about all clubs actually. I’ve been a golf club freak since I was a club pro back in the early 80’s. I love equipment. I’m probably no different than all your readers in that regard. I’m a golf nut!
I’m obviously more known for wedges because of all the shaping and design work I was involved in at Cleveland. For 16 years, those were basically my shapes. In starting a company, wedges were an obvious place to start because it’s what I’m most known for. I mean, I’m the guy from the commercial in the argyle sweater.
What are you going to bring to the market that consumers don’t have available today?
I’ve always said that what happens on Tour influences everybody. People have always been fascinated by Tour Trailers. You go to an event and see people just staring at them like they are Willy Wonka’s chocolate factory, wondering how they can get the golden ticket to get inside. When you look at the grinds and the customization that are offered in there, you can’t get that by walking into a golf store.
We started a bounce system at Cleveland , but grind is actually more important than bounce. Grind dictates bounce. You look at what happens on these vans, and how they change things based on where they are playing and the type of grass – go try to buy that. If you can get it customized the way you want, if you can, you’re going to pay $200 to $250 or more, and it’s going to take three weeks to get to you.
So, let’s reach in to the Tour Trailer and give it to golf nuts like you and me and do it with a business model that makes it substantially less expensive. I’m going to let you go inside the Tour Van. Whatever is in there, you can get. We aren’t limiting the number of initials. There are a lot of limitations that companies have, but you don’t have that limitation on the Tour Van. You get your own Tour Van. It just happens to be on the internet.
So, consumers will now have easy access to Tour Authentic equipment through www.HopkinsGolf.com. How will customers go about designing and customizing their wedges on your website? Do you plan to educate consumers on the features and benefits of the various grinds you are offering?
Once you get into the process of building your wedge you’ll answer a series of questions. For example, say you’re a right handed golfer and play in Phoenix. You’ve got seven or eight grinds here and don’t know what you need. So, you click on a map and I come up and say, “You play in the Southwest and you’re going to face these types of conditions. If you want to play two wedges, these are the grinds that are generally used by Tour players in this region. If you play a three wedge system, here’s the configuration that will give you the most versatility.”
So, we give you a recommendation- doesn’t mean that you have to use it. If you already know what you want, you can pick anything. It starts with a map, with 10 different regions. I talked with different greenskeepers and sat down with our Tour staff trying to get their thoughts. Willy Wood lives in Oklahoma. He knows what kinds of grinds belong in Oklahoma. Gene Sauers is down in the Southeast. So, I used my experience and theirs to identify it.
So, you have guidance if you want it, or not. Say you already know you want a 60° with a channel grind, a NS 1050 shaft, blue paint and a white grip for Millikin University, and your grandkids initials in a snowflake pattern. Order it and you’re going to get it. It’s as easy as that.
We’ll have each of our Champions Tour staff there as well and they’ll tell you how to hit bunker shots, how to hit the ball backwards from against a tree – if you’re looking for some instruction. It’s educational, instructional, and you can fulfill an order.
What does your manufacturing and finishing process look like? Are you doing your custom work locally in CA?
That’s a good question. The equipment is the same everywhere. UPS is my operational partner in this. My first factory was built in Mira Loma, CA inside the UPS factory, so that when we build the club, the order comes in and goes right to the facility; it’s built, and is turned around and put right into a truck or an airplane right across the room. By removing the layers, I can give you a Tour Authentic product for $100-200 less than everybody else.
Are you going to offer multiple finishes?
Right now we’re starting with the raw finish, which are the same heads used on Tour. Later this fall we’ll have a Black Oxide finish and Chrome. We’ve only been working on this since January and I have a great team, but there’s only so much we can do. There’s a need to keep things fresh as well, so there will be multiple finishes available in Fall.
Obviously, custom grinds are a key feature that you are offering. Talk a little about what you’re offering and why.
Again, going back to the premise of the company – going inside the Tour Van. The biggest thing going on there with wedges is grinds. Also, there are 5 to 8 different grinds that are always done and repeated. We’re taking those popular grinds and giving them to everybody. It’s a little technology that people haven’t been able to get.
It’s not that grinds are magic, there’s nothing magic in a golf club. It’s about making it available and the understanding of how to use it. Understanding that a heel grind isn’t always right for every condition. Or maybe standard is the right grind. Take the toe grind. Say you’re a guy that lifts the heel up to chip with the toe of the club. You’re not going to want that on a 60° wedge, you’re going want it on a 52°, because that’s more of a chipping club. A lot of it is how you play and a lot of it is the conditions you play. That’s the fun part – people discovering all of that – discovering it on their own, through our Tour staff talking about it, through me. It’s not rocket science, but you need to get the right fit.
We’ve heard that Hopkins Golf is going to offer a price point that should make Tour Level, custom wedges more accessible to consumers. Do you have a base price set at the moment?
Some people don’t want any customization; they just want a standard club. When you go into a store, most off the rack wedges right now are $119 to $139. Ours are going to be $99. Now, you start adding in grinds, and colors and initials, other companies are at $200-$350. We’re fully loaded at $150.
You’re doing direct sales via your website for the new line as opposed to having a green grass presence. How will you be able to make sure that your customers are satisfied in the absence of a ‘try before you buy’ environment?
If you don’t like it, send it back. 30 days. I don’t expect many people will, but they can. I’m going to be on TV saying it. You may have the wrong grind. Send it back and we’ll give you a new one in 30 days. We’re trying to be very customer conscious. I want to treat people how I’d like to be treated. It’s a lot easier to start that culture from the beginning than with a company that already exists.
I look at it this way. You can go to a store and hit a wedge into a net, but I don’t know what that or a launch monitor is going to tell you. You can (do that) on the golf course and on the range. The ultimate demo program is to take it for 30 days. If you don’t know what you want, play it for 30 days. Send it back.
We will over time start creating club level staff pros that can provide guidance. If you have questions, we have software that will allow you connect with local pros. They’ll get a text to contact you, so you’ll have a connection to club pros in your area that have demos or can answer any questions you have. It’s kind of like building infrastructure for anything, so I can’t get 1000 staff pros in a startup phase. We’re starting here in Southern California with 20 staff pros and in the next 2-3 years we’ll have that available (elsewhere). Then, effectively what we’ve done – guess who’s now my customer service department? 1000 golf pros. Not a person that doesn’t even play golf. Again, it’s going to take a few years to roll this out, but ultimately you’re going to have your customer service contact being a golf pro in your area.
When are you going to start taking orders and shipping?
We go live June 24th where anybody in the country can order. We’ll have ads on The Golf Channel and we’re going to target some test markets in Michigan and Southern California with some intensive TV advertising.
It appears that you’re already building a stable of professionals that are using the product on the Champions Tour. How’s that going?
I had to pick one tour and picked the Champions Tour to focus on at first. We had 27 wedges in play at the Sr. PGA Championship last week and I’ve only been out there a month. Obviously, many of these guys know me. There’s credibility there. Jay Don Blake put them in the bag the week of a major after trying them out for three weeks. I’m giving people the same stuff that’s being played on the Champions Tour.
You’re quite an accomplished golfer yourself. What grinds you are currently playing?
I have a home in the desert and one in Newport Beach – two different kinds of turf conditions, so I have two different sets of wedges.
In Palm Springs I have a 60° with the Channel grind. The sand is really hard and there is virtually no bounce on it. The grass conditions there are really firm and I can really get down on it. On the 56 I just have the standard grind and on the 52 I have the heel/toe grind. It’s my chipping club.
In Southern California where it’s Kikuyu grass I have a wide sole 60°, because that helps – the wider the sole, the quicker it gets up, and that’s the key to Kikuyu grass. I put a heel grind in my 56 and a standard grind in my 52.
So, that’s my two set configuration. I’m like a kid in a candy store!
We’d like to thank Greg for taking the time to speak with us. Stay tuned to THP for more information on the Hopkins Golf launch.