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Connecting the Dots

By: Tony Dear


Bill Bailey just got off the phone with Japan. His man there is confident the Glove Connection is going to be a hit with golf schools and instructors. But he has to bide his time, take things slowly. This isn't going to happen overnight his associate tells him. It's a familiar refrain. "Yeah, I've heard that a lot," says Bailey. "It's been a tough road. You've got to be patient in this game."

The Glove Connection

The "game" Bailey has been "playing" for the last six years is golf training aids - a highly competitive arena from which only a select few emerge unscathed. To give you an indication of just how many training aids are available today, one Florida-based online store offers a staggering 380 different items designed to improve some aspect of a golfer's game. Almost 200 companies that manufacture training products will be exhibiting at the 2014 PGA Merchandise Show in Orlando.

A handful of hopefuls can hope to earn the status and riches they dreamt of when devising their concepts, but for most it is a desperately frustrating existence, tinkering in vain while plowing life savings into gadgets and contraptions they are convinced will revolutionize golf but which are either unsellable or just plain don't work.

Bailey and the Glove Connection occupy an area somewhere in the middle of the two extremes. The product definitely works but, six years after its launch and after putting in hundreds of hours, Bailey has yet to unlock the formula for success.

The Glove Connection was invented by Joe Holdridge, co-owner of an indoor golf lab in Bellingham, Wash., where customers can play on simulators, get custom-fit for new clubs, have their current clubs repaired or take a lesson - Holdridge is a PGA instructor and a former head professional at Old Del Monte in Monterey, Calif.

During his many years as a teacher, Holdridge discovered countless students were guilty of the same swing flaw that more or less prevented any chance of their making solid impact. Their hands were disconnecting, or separating, at the top of the backswing. "That forced them to re-grip the golf club on the way down, changing the face angle of the club at impact," says Holdridge.

The habit was so deep-seated in one pupil, Holdridge actually began duct-taping his hands together. "It was a little unconventional certainly, but the results were remarkable," he says. "The guy quickly began hitting the ball squarely and became so much more consistent."

To avoid having to tape his student's hands together every time, Holdridge stitched some Velcro on to a pair of gloves and the first, crude version of the Glove Connection was born. Bailey, a member at Sudden Valley Golf & Country Club where Holdridge had been the director of instruction, saw it in action one day and was immediately impressed. "I was seized with the idea of taking them to market," he says. "I told Joe we needed to start manufacturing these things."

Joe Holdridge

Though not gripped with excitement to quite the same degree as Bailey, Holdridge certainly wasn't averse to the idea and gave his friend the go-ahead to draw up a business plan. Bailey got to work, convinced the Glove Connection would be a sure-fire hit.

There was one problem, however. A big one. Bailey had no business experience whatsoever. For 30 years he had worked as a videographer and cameraman shooting and editing news and sports for KCBA in Salinas, Calif., and KING in Seattle, Wash. He had accomplished much, winning an Emmy for breaking a story about a boat full of illegal Chinese immigrants ("I felt so wretchedly sorry for them - they had no water and were all horribly seasick") in 1993. But when it came to setting up a business, he was the proverbial fish out of water. "I'd never done anything even remotely close to this before," he says. "I was really starting from scratch."

They needed money too, of course.

Fortunately, Holdridge had a friend who immediately saw the merit of the Velcro-ed glove, and who wasn't short of a bob or two. Al Koch had retired in 1998 from Santa Barbara Research Center (now Raytheon Company), where he had worked as a staff engineer specializing in electro-optical instruments for earth-observing satellites. He was the sole proprietor of a company that provided Computer Aided Design services to various automobile, medical/dental and defense companies. He was the Chief Financial Officer and owned 50 percent of K2 Enterprises Inc., a construction company specializing in single-family residential homes. And, last but not least, he was the majority owner of Joe's Professional Golf Lab LLC., which Holdridge had operated successfully since it opened in August 2006.

"Al was on board right from the get-go," says Bailey. "He put up a lot of the initial capital."

A fair chunk of the cash went to a Chinese factory that produced 5,000 pairs of the Glove Connection, which Bailey first exhibited at the Seattle Golf Show in 2008. Unlike the PGA Merchandise Show in Orlando, Fla., the Seattle show welcomes consumers who are able to test the new equipment on display. The Glove Connection booth saw a fair amount of traffic.

"We were pretty busy," says Bailey "We saw about a hundred people over the three days and probably sold gloves to three-quarters of them. We got some very positive feedback, and deemed the whole weekend a success." A website (www.thegloveconnection.com) was soon established where the gloves could be purchased for $29.95, a price Bailey thought was reasonable given their costs and anticipated sales. He assumed they would fly out the door.

Bill Bailey

Online sales were surprisingly slow, however. "I was a little confused by the limited response," Bailey says. "We sold a few hundred pairs but nothing like as many as I had expected."

Realizing the Glove Connection needed another push, Bailey hired Hand Crank Films, a multi-award-winning Bellingham production company, to make him a TV commercial that would be shown on the Golf Channel. It cost $10,000 to make but, Bailey assumed, would ultimately be worth every last cent. "It was a great-looking ad," he says. "Some friends wondered why I hadn't made it myself being a videographer. But Hand Crank had all the bells and whistles, all the fancy graphics and video tricks to make a really outstanding film. It looked state-of-the-art, and I thought it might be the catalyst."

The commercial aired for the first time in November 2009. Bailey was set for a major upsurge of orders but, again, it didn't happen. "I thought the phone would ring off the hook once people saw the commercial," he says. "I thought everyone would want a pair. We put the ad out in the Phoenix area, hoping to attract the massive influx of snowbirds down in Arizona for the winter. But the response was kind of disappointing."

Bailey also took the Glove Connection international, negotiating a distribution deal with a Japanese entrepreneur based in Tokyo (but who also had an office in Cupertino, Calif.) and introduced to him by a friend from Malaysia. Japanese golfers are true fanatics that take the game incredibly seriously. Surely they would jump at this chance to improve their ball-striking so affordably.

In March, 2011, however, the magnitude 9.0 Great East Japan Earthquake shook the country violently, causing a devastating tsunami that resulted in an estimated $235 billion worth of damage. Approximately 4.4 million households were left without electricity and 1.5 million without water. Nearly 16,000 people were killed. Golf gloves with pieces of Velcro attached in strategic positions to help a golfer improve his swing suddenly seemed monumentally trivial. "After a tragedy like that, golf-training aids become so unimportant," says Bailey. "I don't want to sound heartless, but the truth of it is it probably set our business back 18 months."

Still, something obviously wasn't clicking. Bailey had had some bad luck with the timing of the Japanese tsunami, but he knew this beautifully simple product could have a profound effect on an average golfer's game. He had seen it happen dozens of times. And he'd received nothing but positive responses from everyone who had tried it. He had obviously miscalculated somewhere.

Perhaps Tommy "Two Gloves" Gainey might be the answer. "We played with the idea of having Tommy endorse the product," says Bailey. "But his agent wanted more money than we were prepared to spend at the time. We had to put it on hold, but it could still happen."

Eventually, after giving it much thought, Bailey figured he'd been targeting the wrong people. "The biggest mistake I think I've made in all of this has been trying to market to the regular golfer," he says. "I'm not sure the typical amateur is in tune with his golf swing sufficiently to know that he may be disconnecting at the top of the backswing. And I don't think he knows what the results of this disconnect are, or what he can do to correct the fault. I'm convinced approaching golf schools will be the way to go from now on."

Bailey also thinks he took too much on himself. Joe Holdridge invented the product, Al Koch made the initial investment, Bailey's wife Mary, an artist, created the logo, and Hand Crank Films produced the TV commercial. Besides that though, Bailey did everything - marketing, distribution, ad-buying, accounting, not to mention spending hours on the phone with Japan.

For someone without a business qualification or, indeed, any business experience whatsoever, it was asking a lot to establish the Glove Connection in so implacable a sector. But don't think for a second Bailey has given up.

In January of 2013, he sent 500 pairs of the Glove Connection to Japan with instructions to get them in the hands of instructors. "I feel very confident that when the Japanese get on board, they will really start selling," he says. "I'm still fanning the flames. I know it can still take off. I'm close to working out the formula and, once I have, I think it will be plain-sailing. I certainly haven't lost hope."

Tony Dear is an Englishman living in Bellingham, Wash. In the early 1990s he was a member of the Liverpool University golf team which played its home matches at Royal Liverpool GC. Easy access to Hoylake made it extremely difficult for him to focus on Politics, his chosen major. After leaving Liverpool, he worked as a golf instructor at a club just south of London where he also made a futile attempt at becoming a 'player.' He moved into writing when it became abundantly clear he had no business playing the game for a living. A one-time golf correspondent of the New York Sun, Tony is a member of the Golf Writers Association of America, the Pacific Northwest Golf Media Association and the Golf Travel Writers Association. He is a multi-award winning journalist, and edits his own website at www.bellinghamgolfer.com.

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