The development of high-tech, top-quality golf clubs has inspired a vast new industry of imitators – but now the leading manufacturers, angry at being ripped off, are fighting back. PETER HIGGS reports on the battle.
Most weekends during the winter Derek loads his van and heads for a hotel somewhere in the south of England.
He operates on the fringes of the law, risking criminal prosecution and civil writs.
Twice he has been fined for unauthorised advertising, and has received writs and threatening letters from major companies.
Yet the 30-year-old wheeler-dealer will not be deterred, adamant that he entitled to make a living.
For Derek trades in golf club copies, selling clubs which are near replicas of the top brand names but, at £150 a set, cost a quarter of the price.
He is the front line of a multi-million pound counterfeiting industry which has rocked golf.
It is a world-wide issue which has grown dramatically in Britain over the past few months. Now the campaign to stamp out the problem, involving private investigators, undercover agents and specialist lawyers, is being stepped up.
“The public are being conned,” said one leading manufacturer. “They’re confused by being offered clubs which appear to be the real thing when they’re not.”
Escalating costs of the top brands have enabled copies to thrive. The fact that they trade on the image of the leading brands without using the same materials or precision construction angers the manufacturers, who feel their ideas are being stolen and their reputations damaged.
A recent survey by the Golf Research Group revealed that copies are the best-selling irons in Britain. In sales of woods, copies are second behind Callaway.
The imitation clubs are manufactured in Taiwan – where six offenders were recently jailed – and mainland China. Once they reach selling points around the world, the deception takes several forms.
Counterfeiting, in which clubs are sold as if they are top brands, is the most serious. California-based Callaway have set up a special unit, “The Callaway Police”, and spent $3million to root out the conmen, gaining considerable success in America, Japan and Malaysia.
In Britain, where counterfeiting is a criminal offence which could lead to prison, the car boot salesmen and Sunday traders use a ploy of ‘passing off’.
The clubs, known as ‘knock-offs’, are slight variations but carry similar names, appearance and logos to the top brands. The Callaway Big Bertha metal driver, for example, sells for around £250 compared to the Canterbury Big Bursar at £70.
The makers retaliate by taking civil action, claiming infringement of their trademarks and clubhead design. And the writs are flying.
Callaway, whose top player is European No.1 Colin Montgomerie, issued writs against nine British companies this month. Cobra Golf followed with eight writs against UK distributors. Ping, Taylor Made and Lynx are also putting up a fight.
In the past two years Cobra, makers of Greg Norman’s clubs, have spent £150,000 in Britain pursuing 11 successful lawsuits.
The most common copies of King Cobra clubs, which cost up to £950 a set, are King Snake and Lady Viper (at about £150 a set).
“The average golfer is being misled into thinking that these clubs are direct copies of the real thing and will perform the same and last as well. They don’t,” said Peter Thompson-Smith, managing director of Cobra Golf UK.
“Some are even told that the clubs are made by Cobra, which is not only untrue but likely to prove costly if the clubs need repair.”
The discount club merchants claim, however, that the big companies are adopting bully-boy tactics to hit their business.
Robert Rata, whose company Rata and Rata specialises in the cheaper range at 42 stores, has received writs for copying but denies that he sells imitations.
“A golf club is a golf club,” said Rata. “The big companies say that we are ripping them off, but they are ripping off the public by charging such massive prices.”
But on Friday, lawyers for Taylor Made golf clubs issued a statement that Rata and Rata had agreed to remove copies of Taylor Made clubs from their shelves and promised not to put them on sale in the future.
Meanwhile , the big guns’ failure to present a united front is hindering their campaign. An approach by Cobra to join forces with Callaway to fight the counterfeiters was snubbed because they are rivals.
And as Sunday salesman Derek explained: “If I get a writ from one manufacturer, I stop selling those copies and move onto another one.”
Neither the Professional Golfers’ Association (PGA), whose members sell the stock, nor the R&A, who run the game, want to be involved.
Derek, meanwhile, will be out there today, doing business as usual.