James Ledford became president of Golf Pride in 2012, taking control of a brand that lays claim to more major golf titles than any other grip company. More than 80 percent of tour professionals play with grips made by Golf Pride, which was selected by the NGF as one of the top 100 businesses in golf.
Ledford recently took time to talk with the NGF about his time in the golf industry, Golf Pride’s history, evolution and approach, and the construction of the company’s new corporate headquarters in Pinehurst, North Carolina.
What is your background in golf and what has your experience in the industry been like to this point?
By golf industry standards, I’m still the new kid on the block, I guess. So many guys have grown up in the golf industry. I grew up playing golf and loved the game, but I didn’t necessarily expect to be working in the golf business. It just happened by chance.
I took a little bit of a different path; I was going to school and working in Europe for a while and then spent several years as a strategy consultant. I worked for Starbucks in new ventures and business development. It was while I was at Starbucks that Callaway called me and asked if I’d be willing to do some of those things to help Callaway. That was the door opening for the golf business. I joined at a difficult time, just before 2008, just before the great recession, so my timing wasn’t good. But the long-term decision I made was really good.
It’s not easy at times to make a living in the golf business, but boy it sure is a lot of fun.
What is special about Golf Pride’s place in the golf industry?
Golf Pride is a unique brand in the golf space. A lot of guys have grown up playing Golf Pride, and their kids have since grown up playing Golf Pride. The company was founded in 1949, when golf grips were leather. But once we came out with a slip on rubber grip, things started to change in the 1960’s. Since that time, we’ve been a market share leader.
We may not have the same top of mind brand awareness that a Titleist might, but we touch a lot of golfers every year and they’ve played with us for a long time. Guys may have switched clubs over the years, say to a TaylorMade driver from a Callaway driver and back to a Callaway driver, but they’ve always played Golf Pride grips. We’re the only part of the club they hold. It might not be quite like a baseball glove, but golfers really get used to the feel of the grips in their hand, so we’re kind of a unique brand in the golf industry.
How is your side of the industry evolving?
One of the things we’ve focused on for the last five years is developing and transforming the grip category so that people see it less as a handle for their golf clubs and more as an equipment choice to really optimize their performance.
We’ve probably launched more new products over the past five years than Golf Pride launched in the previous 20 years. We’ve tried to dial up simple but important technology pieces that can really help people.
We’re also spending a lot more time on the design of the grip, trying to make them more fun and more exciting. Grips in some ways have a lot of parallels with footwear. There’s a performance element with footwear, keeping you connected to the ground to create leverage in your golf swing. The grip keeps you connected with your golf club so you can transmit power to the club head; there’s some personal fit and feel dimension. And more and more there’s a style thing. We do still make black grips, but more and more we’re adding a lot of color and a lot of design, letting players express a little bit of personality with their grips like they may want to do with their shoes.
Has anything changed with the company’s approach in recent years?
We’re trying to get past education a little bit.
I felt like we did a lot of ‘public service announcements’ in the past: like you should change your grips every year. That doesn’t get people excited. The reaction is, ‘Okay, good, I know I should do that but I still don’t.’ So we’ve been focusing on education and excitement. I guess it’s another side of the same coin, but if you feel a new grip that’s phenomenal — there are guys who get pumped up to try new equipment because they want to rather than they have to.
One of the numbers that Golf Pride points to quite often is that around 80% of tour professionals use your grips – and use them without being paid. How valuable is that kind of validation for the brand?
It’s really unique. We do supply them with grips, but we don’t ever run any kind of contracts or endorsement deals. Even Titleist, which pays for usage from a ball-count standpoint, doesn’t reach those kinds of numbers. It’s pretty unusual out there on tour. A lot of people don’t know because we don’t have name and likeness rights.
People ask is if we should start paying endorsement deals so we can start using names and likeness; while that may be easy, we love the fact that these guys play our grips because they want to. We just want to tell that story more: that they can play anything they want, but they choose to come to our stuff. You really don’t want to change that, I think it’s the best validation you can find.
You’re in the process of building a new corporate headquarters in Pinehurst that has both an R&D lab and a consumer grip fitting studio. It’s a noteworthy step in the company’s 70-year history; how exciting is that undertaking?
It’s really great from a couple of perspectives. For our parent company, Eaton, this is highly unusual. This is a huge show of support for us from them. This is not the kind of building they would normally get behind, but they were happy to do it based on what they saw. We’re really pleased about what it says about our parent company endorsing our future.
As the crow flies, we’re like two miles right now (in Southern Pines) from Pinehurst No. 2, but it doesn’t sound like that to a lot of golfers around the world. So we really wanted to relocate to Pinehurst — the home of golf in the U.S. It connects, in a sense, Golf Pride with Pinehurst.
We also wanted to be right by the golf course, Pinehurst No. 8, because we’re doing a massive amount of consumer product testing. A lot of times we innovated based on what worked on tour and then took that out to consumers. We’re inverting that model a little bit. We realize there are a lot of golfers out there and their games are a lot different than tour players. We’ve been on a huge learning curve; you can do that better sitting next to all that traffic rolling into Pinehurst No. 8. And there’s not a lot of real comprehensive data on how subtle changes in grips influence performance. There are a lot of stories about how grips influence performance, but you’ll find that not a lot of that is backed by hard data. Part of what we want to do with this grip-fitting studio is we want to build the database that’s really going to help us link subtle changes in grip design to actual performance. For us, it’s kind of a generational move; we hope this sets us up well for the next 20 to 30 years.