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John Letters is not the biggest name but if you've never thought of buying its products, you should reconsider
Word is getting out that big-name, superstar endorsing golf clubs aren't necessarily the best buys and, with prices for irons apparently having no upper limit, the search for affordable, playable, well-made clubs is on. So next time you're in the market for a new set, take just a few minutes to shop around because there are companies out there offering value-for-money and John Letters is most definitely among their number.

But before looking at the company in a bit more detail, let's just consider the money-go-round that is modern club making. First, the major manufacturers in the marketplace used to bring out one new set of irons and a new driver or wedge or putter every season. Now, they will probably bring out at least two new everythings a year, and not because their designers have suddenly had remarkable inspiration twice in a season but simply to keep pace with everyone else. Set two will be the same as set one with a few twiddles but for the equipment freak who must have the latest 'hot' irons or woods, that doesn't matter.

Second, big name manufacturer pays Tiger, Ernie, Phil or whoever millions of pounds to play, or endorse, its product. It then spends even more millions advertising to you that Tiger, Ernie, Phil or whoever plays their product. It wouldn't take Newton to therefore figure out that you spend probably three times as much as you need to in order to buy that particular set of irons - you pay for the clubs, you pay for the manufacturer to pay the star to play them, and then you pay for the manufacturer to tell you that the star plays them.

Third, virtually every major company in the world uses the same far-eastern factories to make their clubs and if you could find out what it actually costs to produce a full set of irons, for which you might well pay £500 or more, you'd have a hairy fit but to give you a ball-park figure, it is almost certainly less than £100 and in many cases not even half of that.

So what's wrong with this picture?

Well, if money's no object and you are happy to believe everything that advertisers and marketing people tell you, nothing. But if buying a new set of clubs is a major investment for which you may well have to make one or two sacrifices, it's a lot.

Nevertheless, before we completely lose our sense of perspective, one thing needs to be made clear. I am not suggesting that these 'big name' clubs are inferior, or poorly made or not up to the job. On the contrary, in the mid 1990s I was launch editor of a magazine that looked critically at golf equipment, and which measured and analysed clubs against the manufacturer's own specifications - which meant that if they said their 5-iron had 30 degrees of loft and was 38 inches long with a lie of 62 degrees, we measured it on the most sophisticated equipment available to see if they were right. More often than not, they were, and it was reassuring to see how many companies sold exactly what they said they were selling, in terms of specification (okay, there were some rogues but fewer than you might imagine).

The point being, if you buy a set of clubs from a reputable name the chances are that you will be buying a well-made product. But can the prices some of them charge be justified, and will a £700 set automatically be twice as good as a £350 set? That's the question you need to ask yourself when next on a buying binge and, to save you some time, the answer might well be 'No'.

Which brings us back to John Letters. This is a good company, making some good and some extremely good equipment, that cannot afford to pay megabucks for star golfers to endorse its gear (and probably wouldn't want to, even if it could afford it) and yet it almost certainly isn't the first name you might think of when you're next in the market for new clubs.

The company has a history of innovation, has a product range of quality and employs one of the best designers in the business. For example, it was the first company to introduce an iron with a weight port behind the hitting area - a concept subsequently adopted by many of the world's major golf club manufacturers. It has brought out a parallel grip system, which encourages a more relaxed grip by having the same thickness under each hand, rather than tapering towards the bottom of the club handle. And it has at least two putters in its range that stand up on their own, so the golfer can set the club behind the ball and then stand away to check his or her alignment (not recommended on a windy day).

Managing director Gordon White says: 'Gordon Rennie, our chief designer, really is our ace in the hole. Because of him we design all our products from scratch and don't buy models, moulds or designs from China or anywhere else. We invest a great deal of time and money into our research process because we have to be sure a club will sell before we bring it to the market, which means a lot of development and testing. If, after all that, the club doesn't play well, there's no use us going into production with it.

'In addition, if the quality control is poor, it will come back to us from a dissatisfied customer, so we have to get that right, too. As a consequence, Gordon spends a lot of time in China checking the process so that we can be certain that our components are well-built. One tiny example, when clubheads are produced there are often drops of liquid metal on them that have to be scraped off. Many manufacturers put them back into the smelt for the next batch to be made but we won't do that because every time you do, the overall quality of the steel is compromised. Only a little bit, but enough for us not to want to do it.

'And Gordon is responsible for many of the designs that are now industry standard. For example, just about ever driver in the world has a clubhead made from three elements - soleplate, head and face, and Gordon was the first man to do that. His design is almost certainly involved in the driver you, or anyone else plays, assuming you bought it in the last 10 years.'

Gordon White and Gordon Rennie took over the company in June 2000. Mr White (sorry to be so formal, but all these Gordon's can be confusing) has a background in design and paints golf courses and sells the prints, mainly in America. He originally did some freelance work for John Letters - brochure design, that sort of thing, and when the then owner wanted to retire and asked if he was interested in buying the company, both Gordon's thought it was an opportunity to try and rebuild the name. So does Gordon think they have succeeded

'We have definitely raised the profile with the retailers, public and golf pros,' he says. 'We're a lot more active in the market itself and there all sorts of things we have done to bring the company to people's attention. Our projection for 2004 is for sales to have trebled. And that represents more than twice that numbers of clubs because we get less now for each club or set we sell. We are also getting a lot more people coming to us, rather than us having to go to them.'

How important is it, ScottishGolf wondered, to have a Scottish name and history?
'Most of our sales are in Europe and on the continent it's a pretty young golf market,' Gordon White says. 'John Letters was in its heyday in the 60s and 70s but people coming into golf now don't know who Lee Trevino was, for example, and that he - one of the greatest shotmakers who ever lived - played John Letters clubs for a long time. The heritage can work both for and against you; we're proud of it being Scottish but I don't know that it's a big selling feature and we can't expect people to buy from us just because we've got a history.'

And how does he see the golf marketplace for the smaller companies up against a few pretty formidable corporate monoliths?

'I would use the analogy of perfume making,' he says. 'All the perfumes made anywhere in the world use the same essential ingredients or components, but stick a big name on the bottle - and you will have an idea of the sort of names I'm talking about - and people will pay up to three or four times the money for a product that is almost identical to the others.'

What Gordon will not say, but is an open secret in the golf industry, is that virtually every golf club manufacturer in the world uses the same far eastern factories to make, and in many cases assemble, their clubs. John Letters is determined to ship the components to Scotland and have clubs assembled there for two reasons - to be able to honestly stick with their Caledonian heritage and truthfully be able to say 'Made in Scotland' and because it means they keep a firm grip on quality control, about which the company is passionate.

Of the current product range, the T5 Trilogy (pictured above and over) is a big success this year and shows signs of being the biggest ever in the company's history. In the first six months more than 4,000 sets have been sold, which was the company's projection for the entire year, and if anything demand is increasing, not slowing down.

So why it has been such a runaway best-seller? Gordon White says: 'In short, it's a damned good club for the money. It's cast in 17/4 stainless steel, has a wide, deep cavity back and is one of the most forgiving and playable clubs out there. Just as important in today's competitive market, it looks very attractive. In steel it costs £349 and in graphite £399, which is pretty remarkable for a club of those specifications and quality. They have a wide sole and big sweet spot that makes them very easy to hit, especially the long irons, which of course is where many golfers struggle.'

And they have your parallel grips?
'And they have our Parallel grips, that don't taper towards the bottom of the handle because Gordon Rennie wondered why we have less club to grip with our right hands than with our left. Grips are a market of their own nowadays but one big development has been the arrival of soft grips - when you take hold of one you really feel the difference.

'We're so pleased with the parallel grip that we've decided to sell them separately so that even people who don't have John Letters clubs can still benefit from having this bit of kit. It's also marketing, of course. Give people one piece of JL equipment that they like and there's a chance they will come back for more. And in terms of the profit the pro can make selling them, it's also a good deal for him or her, without ripping off the customer, and we need to get pros on our side. High Street shops and golf superstores don't want to be re-gripping clubs.'

But can he really call himself the owner of a Scottish company when the components are all made in the Far East? 'We design and research and assemble our clubs in Scotland but yes, the components are made in China,' he says. 'We want to retain our ability to custom-fit, which is important to us, and you can't do that if you ship fully-assembled sets of clubs. We can bring in some assembled sets because there will always be people who want to buy off the shelf, and who don't have particular fitting needs but the vast majority are assembled in Glasgow.'

We asked if the golf club manufacturing industry was what he thought it would be and Gordon replied: 'It's no surprise that we see so many golf equipment manufacturers set up and then disappear almost immediately. There are probably a couple of dozen around now that weren't here four years ago. And yet, the number of people playing the game - the market - isn't increasing at all.

'I wonder if it isn't a bit like the scenario of owning a football club - people go into it out of love of the game but that alone, and even that and a few million pounds, won't by any means guarantee you success, or even a future. So roughly the same amount of new companies that enter golf every year, also leave it.

'There's also a major problem looming with the Internet, if it isn't already here, and a few cowboys ruining it for everyone. For example, someone sets up a website and wants to attract visitors so they deliberately offer a set of clubs at a ludicrous price - on which they will lose money - just to get the headline and attract visitors. They cannot supply the clubs at that price - they might sell one set at a loss but most don't even bother to do that. But once that price is in the public domain, people won't pay more for the goods because they wrongly believe they can be obtained cheaper elsewhere. It's a nightmare and there will have to be some regulation soon because I don't think it's just golf that's being affected.

'But the Internet is an important selling tool and cannot be ignored. You can no longer rely only on pros, or high street stores, or the Internet - you need them all.'

What you also need is good gear and this, John Letters has. But time to be absolutely honest and declare an interest. ScottishGolf, not unnaturally, believes in promoting Scottish brands and companies, but we wouldn't do it if the service or goods were inferior. Also, it would be ludicrous to assert that John Letters is the only smaller manufacturer out there producing good and affordable kit, there are several, with names like Fazer and Ben Sayers springing to mind.

But John Letters invited us to visit them, to ask any questions we wanted and to let us test their equipment - and more of that in subsequent features - so we were more than happy to say 'Yes'.

The only conclusion we can offer is that it's your money and you will spend it where you think best - which is why we think it's important that you spend it wisely.

©    9 - JULY 2004

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