STICKS & STONES

Top-Flite InfinityBig Bertha set
to devour Top-Flite

By Kiel Christianson,
Senior Writer

CHICOPEE, Mass. (July 28, 2003) -- So I'm standing around at the 2003 Tylenol Par-3 Shootout, and I happen to ask Lee Trevino if he hopes to continue his endorsement deal with Top-Flite, now that he's curtailed his playing schedule.

"Well," starts Trevino, "I just found out yesterday that Top-Flite has declared bankruptcy and is going to be purchased by Callaway. So I don't know what they have planned for me."

I don't know if Trevino noticed the look of confusion dart across my face, but my head was swimming. This news came on the heels of the previous installment of Sticks & Stones, in which I detailed the aggressive plans that Top-Flite had for growing its presence in the golf industry.

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Hurriedly thumbing through my notes from that column, I saw that I had indeed asked Lou Tursi, Top-Flite's Executive VP of Sales, Marketing, and Customer Service, if, given the soft golf market of late, Top-Flite could compete as a stand-alone golf company. Despite having asked the question, I realized, of course, that Mr. Tursi was in no way compelled to answer candidly: "Heck no. In fact, we'll be declaring Chapter 11 any day now."

Follow-up with Top-Flite

As it turns out, the timing of the previous column was unfortunate. If I had procrastinated another two weeks, Sticks & Stones would have had a nice little scoop. As it was, however, I settled for a private follow-up interview with Mr. Tursi.

The first question was whether the recent sale of the non-golf portion of the company -- essentially the revered Spalding name brand -- was a prelude to the bankruptcy. "Yes," responded Tursi. "About a year ago, we went through a lot of options. Since no one would buy the whole company, we pursued a route whereby we would sell the sporting goods, Etonic, and golf divisions separately."

It is not a done deal, however, that Callaway will end up the new owner, according to Tursi. "For the entire four years that I've been here, people have been interested in the golf division," he explained. "Callaway has placed an offer [of $125 million in cash plus a detailed operating plan] and wants to run Top-Flite free of debt, liens, etc." The Chapter 11 and so-called 363 option, which allows a purchasing company to acquire all assets without any of the company's old debt, is therefore exactly what Callaway needed to get Top-Flite minus that company's current debt load.

Top-Flite Pitchman Lee TrevinoThe sale will be via public auction, at a location and date (likely in late August) yet to be determined by the court. "Any other company could come in on the one-day auction," said Tursi. "If no one else shows up, then Callaway wins."

Are there other interested parties? "Yes," says Tursi. "I can't predict who would show up. There have always been rumors." Over the years, several parties interested in purchasing the big name and diverse equipment lines of Top-Flite, Ben Hogan, and Strata, which have always been profitable. The issue has been the large debt incurred in 1996, when Spalding acquired KKR Sporting Goods. "Servicing that debt has been the issue," explained Tursi. "No one wanted to take it on."

Now that bankruptcy has removed that debt, the folks at Top-Flite hope that Callaway wins the auction. According to Tursi, Callaway's present plans are to run two separate divisions. "Top-Flite's plant helps Callaway's ball production," says Tursi.

This is a big plus for Callaway. According to Ron Drapeau, Chairman, President and CEO of Callaway Golf, "the consolidated golf ball operations will provide Callaway Golf and its shareholders with the solution to the profitability drain that has dogged our golf ball business since start-up."

In addition, Callaway intends on keeping Top-Flite's western Massachusetts facilities, going forward with the huge marketing scheme for the new Top-Flite Infinity golf ball, and keeping 95% of its tour presence.

No word as of yet, though, about the future of Lee Trevino.

What ever happened to liquidmetal?

Raw LiquidmetalWith giants like Top-Flite getting gobbled up by juggernauts like Callaway, is it any wonder that smaller golf equipment companies struggle to eke out a tiny niche in one of the most competitive markets imaginable?

Take Liquidmetal Golf. You might recall TV commercials from not too many years ago with a nerdy scientist-type guy dropping ball bearings into plexiglass tubes. The ball bearings would bounce and bounce, clicking irritatingly on small slabs of steel, titanium, and some alloy called "liquidmetal." Eventually, the bearings on the steel and titanium would come to rest, while the one on the liquidmetal was still hopping around like Sergio Garcia in a Madrid disco.

Liquidmetal, a proprietary alloy of zirconium, titanium, nickel, copper and beryllium, was developed and patented by Liquidmetal Technology, who used it as a springboard to enter the golf equipment market. Cutthroat as that market is, however, the folks at Liquidmetal Technology decided in 2001 to change their business strategy and just make the faceplates for other companies, who were better armed to market and distribute golf clubs.

A group of former Liquidmetal employees then formed their own golf equipment company, called LMG Sports, Inc.. LMG has now swung into full production of a complete line of equipment, all utilizing the liquidmetal material. LMG claims the unique molecular structure of the alloy, which is two to three times harder than titanium, increases performance not only of their drivers, fairway woods, and irons, but also of their new putters and balls.

We tested a 3- and 5-wood recently (MSRP $179 each), playing with them ourselves and passing them around to golfers of various levels at local golf courses. Our impression was that this liquidmetal stuff is not just a gimmick. When my driver went balky on me, I switched to the LMG 3-wood and lost almost no distance. A local high-school golf team member hit the same 3-wood and was amazed to watch it carry as far as his Taylor Made driver. An assistant pro at Hickory Ridge Country Club in Amherst, Mass. (hickoryridgecc.com) smacked one piercing shot after another with the 5-wood, as far as his 3-wood, he said.

If LMG's new LS-370 Driver, Liquidmetalâ II Irons, and other equipment performs as well as the fairway woods, they will doubtlessly earn a devoted following. But in a sluggish economy and crowded market, the golf business can be pretty rough.

Just ask Top-Flite.

For more information on Top-Flite, go to topflite.com. For more information on LMG Sports, Inc., go to lmgsportsinc.com.

Any opinions expressed above are those of the writer and do not necessarily represent the views of the management. The information in this story was accurate at the time of publication. All contact information, directions and prices should be confirmed directly with the golf course or resort before making reservations and/or travel plans.

 

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