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One foot in the future

The last 12 months have been a rollercoaster ride for FootJoy, golf’s leading shoe and glove manufacturer, with the demise of the legendary Classics model and the high-profile success of a new flagship range. Dominic Pedler spoke to company President, Jim Connor, about staying one step ahead in turbulent times.

All good things come to an end, but FootJoy’s decision to shelve the most revered golf shoe of the last 50 years and close their historic US factory sparked not merely a wave of nostalgia but a flood of controversy among golfing purists.

The hand-stitched, leather-soled Classics, carefully crafted in Brockton, Massachusetts, were not just the top choice of many tour pros and discerning amateurs, but an enduring symbol of traditional workmanship and production values at the last factory in the former Shoemaking Capital Of America.

FootJoy President Jim ConnorBut FootJoy has regularly risen to the challenge of change throughout its 152 year history and their Asian-based operations soon proved a point with the new FJ Icon flagship that looks set to reinforce the company’s market dominance in 2010. FootJoy President, Jim Connor, talked to Golf International about how tough times demand tough decisions, while maintaining the company’s continued commitment to excellence across the range of golf shoes, gloves and outerwear.

Gi: Can you summarise FootJoy’s decision to discontinue the Classics line, arguably the most famous golf shoes on the market since 1959.
JC: Classics were, partly, a casualty of the recession but, more fundamentally, a reflection of a steadily changing worldwide market for golf shoes over many years. Classics were the dominant shoe from the early Sixties through to the late Eighties when new materials – such as thermoplastics and waterproof leathers – allowed lighter and more flexible constructions to emerge.We got into this new category with DryJoys, and rapidly exceeded sales of Classics which then began a long, slow demise to the point where they were generating less than 3% of our business. The demand is no longer there.

The 1929 US Ryder Cup team, under the Capaincy of Walter Hagen (holding the Cup) Hand-stitching of FootJoy Classics
The ever-stylish Walter Hagen saw to it that his 1929 Ryder Cup side were decked out in only the finest, just one of the many chapters in the story of the most revered shoe in golf’s history.

Sadly, the bespoke process of cutting leathers and hand-stitching the shoe to create the classic brogue-like platform upon which so many of golf’s great moments have played out could not survive the changing worldwide market.
FootJoy Classics

Gi: Despite the constant exposure they enjoyed from so many tour pros?
JC: Yes.We had over 60 per cent of tour players wearing the product right up until the end. But the average golfer still elected to buy lighter, more flexible – and, of course, more affordable – golf shoes. Tour players get their shoes for free, but the market would no longer pay $350 a pair. From a peak of 400,000 pairs, production volumes would have dropped to below 50,000 this year, making it impossible to support even the 100 workers we had left in Brockton.

Gi: Were you surprised by the wave of feedback arguing that the level of workmanship in the Classics – and even the high price point – set FootJoy apart as the market leader?
JC: We wrestled with this and feared a backlash that FootJoy had lost its way and its ‘point of difference’ in the marketplace. We don’t believe that to be the case.We have always stood for the finest products in whatever category we have competed in, and we feel that our new flagship shoe, the FJ Icon, takes our design and quality to another level.

FJ Icon - an icon in the making

FootJoy's new flagship is an entirely new category of golf shoe targeting golfers looking for the highest quality performance footwear with a traditional design. As well as an all-new look, and several contemporary design twists (as seen here, left), the FJ Icon draws on established FootJoy technologies such as the proprietary waterproofing technology of DryJoys and the comfort and stability concepts of the SYNR-G. The first unbranded prototypes were tested on tour by players such as Ian Poulter and Camilo Villegas in spring 2009 and refined to perfect the following key features in the shoe that retails at £200 (£220 in MyJoys, also available with a Boa Lacing Option):
High stability. The outsole has been carefully crafted with a traditional profile that nevertheless incorporates tri-density TPU and a perforated alloy bridge that combine to anchor the foot firmly during the golf swing. The latest generation Champ Stinger 3 cleats provide exceptional traction, while the Dual OptiFlex zone in the sole offers flexibility when walking.
Waterproofing. The latest generation DryJoys technology ensures a far more effective protection than Classics ever did, yet without the membrane construction that has compromised the breathability of many waterproof shoes down the years.
Styling. The FJ Icon is clearly a good-looking shoe that manages to combine traditional and contemporary elements to provide broad appeal across the market. All models feature particularly smart, fashionable detailing on the calfskin leather uppers.
Comfort. A total of 6 options through MyJoys (XN-XXW), 2 widths available through the stock line, with comfort and fit further enhanced by memory foam strategically placed around the collar (a feature already successful in the SYNR-G) and also under the tongue. Not forgetting full leather linings and PU-cushioned footbeds.

Gi: Can you confirm the FJ Icon is not just a cheaper replacement for Classics, courtesy of lower production costs in Asia?
JC: The Icon is a completely different design and construction premise that draws on the best features of various models over FootJoy’s 150-year history. We believe it suits golfers’ needs far more than the Classics ever could. Yes, the Classics were very stable hence their use on tour, but the Icon gives nothing up in this department and, at the same time, is more flexible, lighter, more waterproof and more comfortable [see sidebar for full specs – Ed.]


Gi: How important is to see Lee Westwood – formerly the ultimate Classics fan – provide some immediate credibility for the FJ Icon by wearing them en route to becoming Europe’s top golfer?
JC: It is an enormous boost. Indeed the top three in Dubai last autumn [Westwood, Ross McGowan and Rory McIlroy] all wore Icon, while almost all the other Classics players on our roster have now also made the transition to the new shoe. We think that within a year it will emerge as the iconic shoe in golf – pun intended!

Gi: Though presumably, from a commercial point of view, it is important to have some tour players wear other models in the FootJoy range?
JC: It is good to have a spread, but it is up to the individual player. For example, Padraig Harrington and Steve Stricker wear the SYNR-G, our maximum stability shoe, as that is their main priority in terms of performance. SYNR-G offers even more platform stability and more torsional rigidity than the Icon.We believe it is the most stable golf shoe that has ever been created.

Gi: What new forms of expertise does FootJoy draw on when designing the latest range? Buzzwords like biomechanics and other orthopaedic concepts are increasingly filtering down to the consumer.
JC: We began using outside biomechanical research in the early 1990s working with the American SportsMedical Institute in Alabama, and alsoMIT (Massachusetts Institute of Technology). Today, we have a partnership with the University of Massachusetts which does biomechanical research and testing to verify that all our designs perform the way we expect; and also competitive testing against rival products. It is a major part of shoe development that didn’t exist 20 years ago.

FootJoy FJ ICON MyJoys

Gi: How have online customisation initiatives like MyJoys changed the golf shoe business in recent years?
JC: MyJoys is the beginning of what we see as a long-term trend towards ever greater customisation. The golfer has responded with incredible enthusiasm to the idea that they can sit down in front of a computer and design a product from scratch that suits their individual tastes and needs. The success over the last four years has far exceeded our expectations and we see a tremendous opportunity for further growth as we continue to expand the materials styles, colours and options. The ultimate goal is to create custom shoes on demand: from individual fit to custom design, the golfer will control the manufacturing of his personal golf shoes.

Ian Poulter in his FootJoy FJ ICON MyJoys, with the Singapore Open trophyGi: The Put Yourself In Their Shoes promotion also caters to the immediacy of the online market.
JC: Yes, this is the start of an initiative that will allow you to buy the exact model of shoes worn by the player winning the prior week’s event. Or you can just pick your favourite player. [For example, Ian Poulter’s FJ Icon MyJoys, in the brown/orchid asymmetrical pattern, which he wore when winning the Singapore Open - Ed]

Gi: How important to FootJoy is someone like Ian Poulter who is almost guaranteed so much media exposure?
JC: Ian is very important both to the MyJoys concept and to FootJoy’s fashion capabilities in general. He takes a great interest and is constantly working with our designers on new ideas for patterns, materials and colours.We have a constant dialogue with him about where he is going with his clothing line, but it goes far beyond just matching his shoes to his slacks. He is invaluable, but we have regular input from many other players, too.

Gi: While FootJoy has always had a huge tour presence over its history, the brand has, ironically, rarely been associated with the #1 player in the world. For example, Bobby Jones, Hogan, Palmer, Nicklaus, Watson and Woods.
JC: Our philosophy has always been about plurality, having a large number of players defining the brand’s acceptance on tour rather than purely the best player. The brand is not built on marketing, it is built on a finest product pemise – and has been ever since we got into the golf shoe business in the 1920s. We have occasionally had the best player, though admittedly not at their peak: Hogan came to us late in his career, Tom Watson has rejoined.

Gi: Your rivals in recent years have emphasised athleticism in golf shoe design often at the expense of styling and fashion.What is your philosophy about balancing these often competing demands?
JC: Some of our competitors say that, as golf is a sport, design is all about athleticism. But we believe it its also about looking your best and making a fashion statement. We’ve always gone overboard with styling, offering a large range as we feel it’s important to let the individual select rather than steer them into a particular look. As FootJoy is only in golf we don’t have an athletic heritage that we have to protect, or a ‘street’ or fashion heritage. Yet we can draw on all these different design ideas within our range. This is a point of difference that allows us to compete on a level that others can’t.

The Forgan Golf Clubs Works in the 1880s
The MyJoys microsite details the (literally) thousands of customisation style
options available

Gi: The new FJ Sport range seems to be an ambitious combination of the two extremes: a cutting-edge athletic design finished with a trendy ‘street’ look?
JC: FootJoy has always been an adventurous, entrepreneurial brand that is known for taking risks.We have gone into areas that people said we shouldn’t go, such as outerwear, socks and gloves. Of course, we’ve had some mistakes as a result – you can’t be successful in everything. The FJ Sport range is a good example of where some people don’t think we should be, but which we believe will be a great success. It demonstrates the brand’s elasticity.

Gi: Is it true that some 80 per cent of golfers wear golf shoes that are too big for them?
JC: Fitting is one of the main areas for improvement in the footwear industry in the world today. It is true that the majority of individuals wear shoes with the improper fit – especially width – whether it be street shoes, athletic shoes or golf shoes. This is partly a lack of education about footwear, partly a lack of access to fitting technology and partly a preference for looser fitting shoes. But, with golf, you do need a snug fit to hold the foot in place as it rotates through the swing. In this sense a well fitting golf shoe is every bit as important as a custom-fit club.

“We think FootJoy is a brand that is worn. It’s about fit, comfort and performance. We will never be in clubs or balls, but we will certainly continue to experiment – in outerwear, for example” - Jim Connor

Gi: FootJoy pioneered the laser fitting system many years ago, but this has only ever been available in very few outlets. When will see a more practical, portable fitting system that can be rolled out to every retailer?
JC: We are in the process of testing a number of digital scanners in the United States to be available soon on a worldwide basis, certainly in the US, Europe and Asia. This will be able to scan every nuance and contour in an individual’s foot, making it an essential first stage towards perfecting the customization process. The standard view, “that’s what I’ve always worn”, won’t be good enough in the future.

Gi: Padraig Harrington once claimed that the correct golf shoes gave him an extra 15 yards. Is there any science to back this up?
JC: Distance is a combination of a lot of factors, with swing biomechanics and footwear playing a part but we don’t claim that our shoes will help you drive the ball further. We don’t doubt Padraig’s claim, but people can produce wonderful, powerful golf swings with a variety of footwear if it is comfortable and well fitting. That’s the most important factor.

Gi: What are the new R&D frontiers in shoe technology? Presumably there are inherent trade-offs between various design goals?
JC: Yes, the ability for the shoe to flex properly in a walking motion is somewhat diametrically opposed to the need for a stable lateral support that the golf swing demands. We will probably never make the perfect golf shoe because we are always trying to balance those two extremes, but the R&D challenge is to try and minimize those trade offs. Another example is in the waterproof construction requirements. We eliminated waterproof membranes in the 1990s, as we found they compromised breathability, but needed to replace them with technology that ensured absolute waterproofing in all climates. We worked with Pittards of England on developing special, high-cost waterproof leathers that provided the ultimate in comfortable, waterproof performance.

FootJoy Contour Reel-Fit FootJoy Boa Lacing Technology
Left: the FootJoy Contour Reel-Fit - right: Boa Lacing Technolgy

Gi: The laceless Boa Lacing technology that debuted in the ReelFit range is one of the most genuinely radical golf shoe developments of recent years – yet it seems golfers have been slow to embrace it.
JC: Boa Lacing is a technology that we continue to have high hopes for in the long run but it takes time for the majority of golfers to understand the concept. It is a ‘word-of-mouth’ product: you can’t advertise it effectively, you have to try it. It is not just an easy-lacing system but also a support mechanism that cossets the foot by wrapping the upper around the contours of the instep, making the fit snug and extremely comfortable. Frankly, I think ReelFit is the most comfortable shoe we have ever made. Steve Stricker, Davis Love and Scott Verplank still use the Boa Lacing concept [which will continue as an option in the Icon and Contour ranges – Ed].

Gi: We have seen the rapid rise of synthetic cleats over the last decade. Yet, ironically, several top pros still insist on metal spikes. Is there still a performance gap?
JC: I admit I was one of the doubters when I saw the first plastic cleats in the early ‘90s. But I was proven wrong. The real breakthrough came around 2000 with designs that flexed and ‘arms’ that extended their coverage to provide more than adequate traction for the vast majority of swings. And, of course, there is now far less damage to greens and clubhouse floors. But, yes, there are some tour pros who still feel that having the foot anchored by a 6 or 8mm steel spike gives them greater traction than a plastic cleat. In some cases this is just perception, but in some very aggressive swings, it might provide added insurance against any undesired foot movement.

FootJoyGi: Are there any rules restrictions on shoe and glove design that FootJoy might lobby the authorities to relax. I’m thinking about the controversial Weight-Rite shoes of the 1990s and, more recently, strategically padded gloves.
JC: The Weight-Rite shoes fell foul of the rules outlawing the building of a stance. They were constructed with the feet pronated slightly inward so they would not roll so much during the swing. But because of this they were not ideal for walking in! Similarly, a glove cannot have pads to assist the correct grip, or markings for club placement. But, otherwise, we don’t have an imposing set of rules like the clubs and balls manufacturers do. The only limitation is our imagination!

Gi: Lee Westwood and Steve Stricker have given great exposure to the Pure Touch range of FootJoy gloves. Can any glove justify a £20 price tag?!
JC: Pure Touch is the only product that we don’t want to see flying off the shelves because we simply can’t make enough of them! It is a very laborious process involving selecting the finest cabretta skins in the world for their thinness, texture and suppleness before being sewn by a highly skilled team who work only on that one product. The Pure Touch fits the hand in the way no other glove does. It is expensive to make and really is not targeted to the average golfer as it is not available in large quantities. If you are fortunate to find one – and can afford it, you will enjoy it.

Gi: Does FootJoy have any plans for further diversification, for example, golf bags?
JC: We think FootJoy is a brand that is worn. It is about fit, comfort and performance. We will never be in clubs or balls, but we will certainly continue to experiment, and if the golfer indicates that they believe in the product then we will go there. Outerwear is a great example. In the ‘90s we felt we had some innovative concepts. Golfers endorsed it, bought it and justified the diversification.

Gi: You are on the board of the National Golf Foundation that provides insights into the golf business.What are the main challenges facing the game?
JC: The game of golf is challenged on a number of levels – certainly on the economic front. Participation levels in western countries are not growing, which is a concern to the industry as a whole, while the balance of supply and demand of golf courses around the world is also very much an issue. The three main impediments to the growth of golf are the relative high cost compared to other leisure activities; the time it takes to play; and the difficulty in acquiring the skills to actually enjoy it. In competing for the individual’s leisure time and discretionary spending, the golf industry is at a distinct disadvantage in today’s world.

March 2010

Reproduced with kind permission of Golf International Magazine

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