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North 82nd street in Scottsdale, Ariz., is an unlikely setting for a revolution. This sleepy commercial boulevard is dotted with nondescript, low-slung buildings that house everything from ceramic-tile dealers to muffler-repair shops. Set amid the clutter is the gray cinder-block edifice of Hot Stix Golf. You wouldn't know it by looking at this humble structure, but inside some of golf's most inventive minds are quietly plotting a fundamental shift in how equipment will be bought and sold, and in the process they may be altering the landscape of a $3.4 billion industry. � Founded in 2000, Hot Stix Golf began as a 6,500-square-foot retail store with four employees that offered cutting-edge custom fitting. Despite having no advertising budget, Hot Stix quickly developed a cult following thanks to old-fashioned word of mouth. Now more than 100 touring pros are clients. They come to tweak their specs, to double-check that the companies they are paid to endorse have built their clubs properly and to secretly test the competition's gear. Everyday golfers are also welcome, and the seven hitting bays for custom fittings are sometimes booked two months in advance. (Hot Stix is now 13,000 square feet and has 40 employees, and both numbers are expected to double by year's end.) � Because Hot Stix attracts serious golfers who will pay almost anything for an edge, it has since its inception been considered a tastemaker in the equipment industry, especially in the area of premium shafts. Pat McCoy, a PGA Tour rep at Fujikura Golf, says, "In the last five years we have gone from a niche product for better players to a well-known brand, and Hot Stix has been a big part of that. When the best players from any given course go to Hot Stix and then go home raving about a new product, the trickle down is unbelievable. If Hot Stix discovers in their data that, say, one Mizuno driver works particularly well with one of our shafts, and they start selling that combination in significant numbers, that will get back to Mizuno, and it's very likely that Mizuno will start offering that combination to its consumers across the country."
But it is not the relatively small number of customers who visit North 82nd Street that has positioned Hot Stix as such a powerful agent of change. Staked by $10 million in capital from a private equity firm, Hot Stix founder Mark Timms is in the midst of an aggressive expansion that will make his highly sophisticated custom-fitting process available to golfers from coast to coast (and, eventually, around the globe).
Thanks to custom-built machines and proprietary software, Hot Stix has made custom fitting more precise, more personalized and all but foolproof. Your local teaching pro or retail shop may offer something billed as custom fitting, and there may even be a launch monitor on hand to ascertain the raw data of your swing, measured in clubhead speed, launch angle and the like. But deciding on a particular club is often a matter of trial and error plus crude guesswork. By now the drill should be familiar: hit seven or eight drivers and pick the one that produces the best numbers on the launch monitor. But what about the countless drivers you didn't get to test? And what of the hundreds of shafts that could have been married to those driver heads? And how would dozens of different-model balls perform with any of these driver-shaft combinations? At Hot Stix they have the answers.
Since founding the company's research arm (Hot Stix Technology) in December 2003, Timms and his eggheads have robot-tested 52 models of balls, 74 kinds of irons, 407 types of drivers and more than 1,500 shafts, all at different swing speeds. To process all the data, Hot Stix has developed its own software, which is run by its own servers and mainframe computers.
Says Timms, "When custom fitting became a big deal a few years ago, everyone ran out and bought launch monitors, but they didn't know what to do with them. The fitters at a typical shop have the raw data, but they don't have the R and D behind it. Four different people may recommend four different clubs off the same numbers. We take that same data from a person's swing, and in the blink of an eye it gets run through our mainframes, which create an advanced statistical model telling us which club-shaft-and-ball combination will be most effective based on thousands of data points. It's an entirely different level of fitting."
Hot Stix's information is so sophisticated that numerous manufacturers buy it to supplement their own R and D. To take the fitting experience beyond North 82nd Street, Hot Stix Mobile was founded in December 2004. This month HSM takes delivery of its second 36-foot-long trailer--the typical Tour van is 30 feet--and two more are on order. Timms hopes to have six trailers by the end of the year and 20 by the end of 2007. Each trailer is a mini--Hot Stix on wheels, within which a player can test clubs, get recommendations from the computer and then have his or her set built on-site. It is projected that with 20 trailers, Hot Stix Mobile could do more than 25,000 fittings a year, targeting country clubs and resorts across the country.
To further expand its reach, Hot Stix has begun licensing its software to numerous retailers, including industry leader Golfsmith. Two dozen Golfsmith stores offer the Hot Stix custom-fitting system, and all 52 stores nationwide should be on line by April 1. Timms hopes to have up to 500 stores in the U.S. using his software by the end of the year. Two in England are using the system, and talks are under way with retailers in Japan, South Africa, Australia and New Zealand.
"We believe the Hot Stix technology offers an unparalleled experience for golfers," says Jim Thompson, president of Golfsmith. "Not only does it allow them to make more informed buying decisions, but it's also fun and people love it. Going forward, it's hard to imagine consumers purchasing equipment without the benefits of a Hot Stix custom fitting."
at hot stix, innovation never sleeps, or only rarely. On a recent morning Timms was haunting the North 82nd Street shop unshaven and bleary-eyed. He had been at work since 4:30 a.m., but the boss is not the only one going hard during this period of empire building. A couple of shop hands have been so busy that they're still trying to find time to schedule the finals of the company's 2004 match-play tournament.
Much of the recent workload was dedicated to preparing for last week's PGA Merchandise Show in Orlando, at which Hot Stix was an exhibitor for the first time. During the run-up Timms said, "The show will be a coming-out party for us. A lot of people in the industry have heard of us, but they have no idea what we've become, or are about to become." Last week Hot Stix created a huge buzz with its flashy, 2,500-square-foot exhibit, which included one of its 36-foot trailers parked on the floor of the Orange County Convention Center. Throughout the week there were long lines of showgoers eager to test the fitting system.