Inside the Club(s): An Interview With Golf Veteran Greg Hopkins

Greg Hopkins is a 33-year veteran of the golf industry, having begun as a salesman for TaylorMade back in the days of “Pittsburgh Persimmon” and recently retiring after 16 years as president of Cleveland Golf. He’s also a fine player, presently a scratch handicap, who has qualified and competed in the Senior British Open as well as Senior PGA Championship, six Champions Tour events, and was a member of the Senior European Tour for six years. A well-known straight-shooter (off the course as well as on), he’s the perfect guy to answer some of the equipment industry’s most vexing questions and shed light on its most pressing issues. He spoke to us from his home in Newport Beach, California.

Have irons changed all that much since Karsten Solheim designed the first perimeter-weighted Pings in the 1970s? Not really. Most companies still utilize the cavity-back designs Solheim made so successful. But some things have changed. Today’s clubs use a softer carbon steel: the 1980 Ping clubs were made with 17-4, which tends to have a harder feel but makes no real performance difference. Also, lofts today are much stronger: A 9-iron today plays like a 1980s 8-iron. In fact, that created the market for wedges today because we still need to fill the distance gaps. And there are cosmetic differences: clubs definitely look better than they used to. There are undercuts in the back of the irons Callaway developed, which help iron design somewhat, and at Cleveland we were the first to develop visco-elastic materials to dampen vibration. As an industry we figured out how to place the center of gravity more precisely using computers to design and test clubs.

I once asked Byron Nelson how he would have performed with modern irons. He said, “The middle of the club face is still the middle of the club face and I didn’t miss the middle very often.” He was the wrong guy to ask.

Who stands to benefit more from custom fitting, the 2handicap or the 20? Most likely the lower handicap because he has a more repeatable swing. If the 20 had a repeatable swing he likely wouldn’t be a 20!

Does ordering “custom fit” guarantee that you’ll get clubs with the correct specifications? Odds are good that you’ll get the specs you want, but there’s no guarantee. For years I’ve watched the Tour players, who work with the best club builders, check and double-check the clubs they receive and, more often than manufacturers like to admit, even those specs are off. In fairness, sometimes it’s due to different calibrations between machines. But sometimes the club builder, for whatever reason, misses the mark. So if you do order custom-fit clubs, have them checked as soon as you receive them.

Is it true adjustable drivers almost never get adjusted after the first week? After the curiosity wears off and the golfer gets tired of messing around with extreme adjustments just to see what they’ll do, the club gets set and is never changed. Which is probably how it should be.

What’s your take on the long-putter controversy? In the great scheme of things, long putters are a small issue. But I worry that it has real potential to be the issue that leads to the bifurcation of the rules if the PGA Tour doesn’t go along. I’ve heard some very upset and defiant voices among Tour players that they will take action—in the courts, if necessary—to stop the USGA from determining what is legal on Tour. I’ve yet to hear any compelling arguments or see any statistics from the USGA that back their desire to ban anchor-type putters. If Keegan Bradley, Ernie Els, and Webb Simpson had finished second in the majors each of them won recently, would we even be having this debate?

The USGA is on a mission to protect the game of golf, right or wrong. But it’s the ball, dummy!

Since you brought it up, do you think the USGA will throttle back the ball? I find it odd that the USGA hasn’t said and done more about the ball. I ran a business that sold golf balls so I had a better view than most, and I didn’t see much. But it’s simple: The distance issue goes away if they slow down the ball. Why haven’t they taken that path? I don’t know.

Regulating the ball solves the problem—or what the USGA thinks is the problem—of the past 5–10 years. But I think the real problem is that the USGA spends too much time worrying about the best 200 golfers in the world. If they roll back the golf ball 3 to 5 percent each year over the next few years, we’ll all hit the ball shorter but the pros still hit it longer then the rest of us! You can’t change that.

In the early 2000s, Mr. Nelson told me the biggest reason golf has changed and scoring got easier was course conditioning. And guess who has been the leader in that area? The USGA.

How effective are Tour pros in selling equipment? The PGA and Champions Tour are the most effective tools we have for branding and equipment validation. From a business standpoint, Tour players make a cost-effective billboard on television. We all look into the bags of the players, we notice the logos they wear, the balls they play, the shoes on their feet. We all dream about being a Tour player, and it is just a dream. But we can look like them and play the same brand of equipment they play, so at the end of the day the Tour makes a measurable difference in buying behavior. In my opinion, the two players who provided the best cost/exposure value over the past 10 years were Vijay Singh and Jerry Kelly.

Now that you’re no longer working for Cleveland, what equipment are you playing? Because I was very involved in the club design while I was at Cleveland, I was always happy to say I was playing my own clubs. And I’m going to be able to say that again soon as I’m starting a new club company, called Hopkins Golf, that will be selling directly to the consumer. Our first clubs, beginning with wedges, will be available very soon.

What’s the hardest thing about working in the golf business? It’s the nature of golf to move slowly and conservatively. As a business, it is not a cutting-edge industry, it isn’t a fast mover when it comes to materials, equipment concepts, or business methods. I would have preferred a faster, more creative industry but it’s hard for a businessman or company to swim alone against the current.

That said, the biggest headache is your friends wanting free stuff from you!