“Where there’s smoke, there’s fire,” said Justin Rose, cryptically, in November last year when asked to confirm rumours of his impending split with TaylorMade Golf—the equipment manufacturer that he’s been associated with for over two decades. The break-up happened in typical millennial fashion: with a tweet. And just like that, Rose, coming off the most successful year of his career—that saw him crowned the FedEx Champion and the world’s top-ranked player with over $12 million in earnings—started 2019 by dumping the tools he’s used since turning pro in 1998.
For professional golfers, when it comes to equipment, the predicament is precisely the opposite of what afflicts amateurs: they’re expected to change too often. How long have you been playing with the clubs you have? I’ve had the TaylorMade MBs in my bag since 2011; along the way, I changed to shafts to Project X 5.5 flighted, which are easier to hit into the air, and have more ‘feel’ than the stock Dynamic Gold S300s that the clubs came fitted with. This year, I was seduced by the look of Mizuno’s new bladed irons, and spoke to Rahul Bajaj, a pro golfer, about getting a new set. After hearing me out, Bajaj proferred the sanest advice, “Why change them if they’re performing well?” My irons are old, with abrasions on the sweet spot on the mid- and short-irons, but the grooves seem intact. They don’t look particularly lovely, but they do the job just fine. On this occasion, very reluctantly, I’ve decided to stick with them: Bajaj’s warnings that confidence in a set of clubs is worth a great deal more than having new irons which look like a million bucks but which may, or may not work for me, has done the job.
Spare a thought, then, to our touring pros, who have hefty equipment endorsement deals with manufacturers. It sounds great in theory: imagine being given the latest clubs on the house to put in your bag year after year. The question, though, is what if you’re a pro golfer who doesn’t want to change?
By all accounts, that’s precisely the predicament that Rose found himself in. After ascending to the top of the world rankings in 2018 on the back of a sensational season on the PGA and European Tours, Rose has started the year dumping the clubs that propelled his vault to the top and signed up with Honma Golf. The Japanese manufacturer, very well known in Asia, is relatively unknown in the US.
Unsurprisingly, there’s been plenty of shock and speculation amongst the Twitterati on the reasons behind Rose’s move. And that emanates from the English pro’s ambiguous tweet announcing the separation. Here are the interesting bits: ‘New Year’s resolutions: 1) play a club that looks exactly how I want, and 2) play a club that feels and performs exactly how I want.’ While it’s not possible to verify the terms of Rose’s contract with TaylorMade, the company is rumoured to expect all its contracted players to switch to the latest lines of irons. If that’s the bone of contention, then it can be safely assumed that Rose wanted more leeway in which clubs he wanted to put into the bag.
There’s also the matter of ex-TaylorMade CEO Mark King taking over Honma’s operations in North America. King and Rose enjoy a comfortable relationship and that is likely to have played a significant role in the decision for Rose to go with the Japanese brand. Whether it was more control over the clubs in his bag, more money, or a comfort level with King, the bottomline is that Rose will now play with Honma irons.
Enough conjecture. For those who may not know, Honma, set up in 1959 in Sakata, Japan, is a well-known premium brand that rides on the Japanese reputation for craftsmanship, especially when it comes to forged irons, and embellishes that with a luxury element. Ergo gold-plated drivers and irons, with some full sets retailing for as much as R30-40 lakh. Pawan Munjal, MD & CEO of HeroMotoCorp, and one of golf’s biggest sponsors on the international stage, has played with Honma clubs for many years now. On the pro scene, though, Honma has had scant representation apart from the Japan and Korean Tours. With Rose’s induction, the company has a significant leg to stand on in the West.
Honma currently retails one line of player’s irons, but it’s a fair guess that Rose’s arsenal will be entirely bespoke and handcrafted. Ask any enthusiast and you’ll hear legendary stories about Japanese brands, including Miura, Fourteen, Mizuno and Honma hand-forging clubs for top players that were then stamped with different sponsor logos. At least two Major championships—won by Retief Goosen and Jose Maria Olazabal, respectively—have been won using clubs hand-crafted by Miura. If it comes down to customisation and the quality of forging, then it’s a fair guess that Rose’s irons are likely to be the most bespoke clubs in the bag of any tour pro.
Now, if all this talk of forged clubs is making you itch to go get a set, then, like your columnist, it might be a good idea to seek sage advice before taking the plunge. Why are forged clubs better? To put it simply, the higher density of the soft metal on the face of these clubs gives more feedback to the better player. That, in turn, enhances their abilities to make the club do more in terms of the spin that’s imparted and, consequently, the desired ball flight. Straight off the bat, that’s Greek to at least three-fourth of all people who play the game, if not more. Still, there’s something to be said for a gleaming set of player’s irons in the bag that scream calibre. I think I’ll get a set just in case I get better; or perhaps the clubs will inspire me to be a better player. Honma, feel free to call. Like Rose, I’ve got no qualms pulling the plug on clubs that aren’t tailor-made for me.
-A golfer, Meraj Shah also writes about the game