Clubmaker George Todd lightens the load for young golfers
He didn't need a new job, just a few sets of knee-high clubs. George Todd never expected to revolutionize the golf equipment market He had plenty to do as the owner and CEO of StrutTech, a Seattle firm that makes industrial parts from plastic composites, but when his kids took up golf and Todd went shopping for children's clubs, he found the cupboard bare. "Adults' clubs were too long and too heavy, and most of the clubs made for kids were toys—plastic drivers and putters," he says. "It was as if kids under 16 didn't exist." So Todd began moonlighting. Using some of the materials and machinery at StrutTech, he built light, flexible clubs for his daughter, Natalie, and his sons, Jarin and Janssen. Todd's kidsticks worked so well that junior players all over town were soon clamoring for them, and in 1997 he founded FirstTour, the first golf equipment company to put first-graders first "Now my wife is going nuts," he jokes, "because my second job takes up so much time."
In mid-May, while Callaway slashed prices and Spalding announced a $13 million loss in the latest quarter, Todd found himself delegating duties at StrutTech to make time for what began as a hobby. FirstTour's lightweight, carefully balanced junior clubs have made Todd's baby one of the hottest firms in golf's fast-sprouting junior market.
Would you saw Mark McGwire's bat in half and hand it to a Little Leaguer? That's what golf has done to kids since Young Tom Morris was a pup. Until recently, equipment makers routinely ignored young beginners, though there are 3.2 million golfers in the U.S. ages five to 17. "With Tigermania, the top companies finally began to see junior clubs as a lucrative market," says Matt Adams, head of Triumph Golf, which got into the kids' market before the giants and has seen its sales triple since 1996. "I love Tiger Woods. I root for him every week," says Adams, who thinks each win by Woods sells thousands more junior woods.
Traditional clubmonger Taylor Made has jumped on the bandwagon this year. So has Wilson, which offers a line of Michael Jordan junior clubs. Titleist just introduced a lighter Pinnacle ball to complement its T-Rex junior clubs. Maxfli, too, has a junior ball. "This is a trend that's good for the game," says Dave Van Horn of U.S. Kids, another clubmaker hoping to succeed by selling short. "Cutoff regulation clubs really hinder kids. Unless they're very strong, kids can't swing cutoffs through the ball, so they get discouraged."
Todd's daughter, Natalie, spends as much time swinging her FirstTour clubs as other teens spend on the phone. "She's saving her babysitting money to go to the Arnold Palmer Golf Academy," says Todd, "and when I took her to Palm Springs for her 13th birthday, she told me, 'Dad, I don't want to shop, just play golf.' For a golfing father, that's as good as it gets."
—Gary Van Sickle
Jennifer Rosales of USC gagged at last week's NCAA women's championship. Seeing her name atop the leader board during Friday's third round, the 19-year-old freshman from the Philippines "got pressured. I thought, 'Oh my god, I'm leading,' and I choked," says Rosales. At the par-3 17th at University Ridge Golf Course in Verona, Wis., she dunked her tee shot into a pond and made a double bogey. Then, after a restless night, she opened her final round bogey-bogey-bogey. "I thought it was the end of the world," says Rosales, who had played four 54-hole NCAA events without finishing higher than seventh. But while Grace Park, Arizona State's freshman sensation, Duke's Jenny Chuasiriporn and other stars huddled in University Ridge's tiny clubhouse to wait out a thunderstorm, Rosales quieted her nerves with a phone call to her mother in Manila, and in the calm after the storm, carrying a statuette of the Virgin Mary in her pocket, she performed a minor miracle. The jittery teenager USC coach Andrea Gaston calls "our secret weapon" birdied numbers 11, 12 and 16 to atone for those early bogeys. At the 17th Rosales gulped, took a deep breath and hit her tee ball safely onto the green, sealing her victory over Park, Chuasiriporn and runner-up Christina Kuld of Tulsa.
Arizona State romped to the team title, the school's sixth in the 1990s. The Sun Devils' 18-shot victory was fueled by Wednesday's composite score of 277, perhaps the best team performance in women's NCAA history. "We came into this to bury the field, and we did it," said Arizona State senior Kellee Booth. She finished fourth, a shot behind Park, who wept after following a record-setting 65-65 start with a 77-76 collapse. "I'll keep the memory of the team championship, but as an individual, I want to erase this from my memory," Park said.
For Rosales, memories of the miracle at Verona will be indelible. She made her splash in college golf, survived the end of the world and set up a glorious follow-up call to Manila.