Countering the Counterfeiters

By: Tony Dear


It could be argued that the war on golf equipment counterfeiters has gotten steadily easier in recent years. A decade and a half ago when golf's major equipment manufacturers began having their components produced less expensively in factories and foundries overseas, predominantly China, those companies could do very little to prevent opportunists from stealing designs and producing inevitably poor-quality copies in very short order.

Now, seven years after five of the companies (Titleist, Callaway, Ping, Cleveland and TaylorMade) united to form the U.S. Golf Manufacturers Anti-Counterfeiting Working Group, otherwise known as the Anti-Counterfeiting Group, golf's top brass uses its considerable financial and legal clout to enlist the support and cooperation of the Chinese authorities - the Public Security Bureau (PSB) and Administration for Industry and Commerce (AIC) specifically - in identifying the perpetrators and bringing them to justice.

"The level of cooperation from the Chinese authorities has certainly improved over the years," says Jud Hawken, Associate General Counsel for Ping. "As the global problem of counterfeits has increasingly come into the media spotlight, the central and local governments in China have begun to direct greater enforcement efforts towards intellectual property crimes."

Hawken adds that a network of investigators and lobbyists is also at work trying to stem the flow of counterfeits. "In a majority of cases, investigators working for the Anti-Counterfeiting Group search out and develop leads on underground counterfeit factories and retail operations," he says. "Once the leads are properly developed, the investigators will consult with local police and administrative agencies who initiate enforcement actions. In other cases, the local police or administrative agencies might develop their own intelligence on suspect factories and then reach out to the brand owners to support their enforcement actions."

Although he concedes these actions will likely never cease production of counterfeit goods altogether, Hawken insists progress is being made.

Last year, the Anti-Counterfeiting Group reported that approximately 25,000 counterfeit golf clubs, bags, shoes, balls, etc., had been seized during raids carried out by the PSB in Beijing, Shanghai, Guangzhou and other major Chinese cities - the most significant of them being September's swoop on Beijing's Yashow Shopping Center when over 7,000 items were removed from a booth belonging to a Mr. Wei-Sixu, who was later found guilty of counterfeiting and sentenced to a year and a half of jail time.

This year, however, over 86,000 items were seized during four raids in September alone. On the 7th, over 60,000 counterfeit clubs and other products were taken during raids on five separate sites in Dongguan City owned by a company called "Simple Golf," the founder of which, Mr. Zeng Hong, is now in custody awaiting trial. On the 21st, 500 clubs and more than 2,000 fake accessories were found at the Pudong Yatai Xin Yang Market in Shanghai. The manager of the store in which they were found, Mr. Li Chungang, attempted to escape during the search but gave himself up the following day. And on the 29th, Beijing's Ya Xiu Market was the scene of another successful operation in which over 23,000 pieces of bogus equipment were found in the possession of wholesaler Liu Qiqiao, who was detained for questioning.

"The number and location of these recent raids send a strong message to counterfeiters that we are committed to shutting them down," said Michael Rider, Senior Vice President and General Counsel for Callaway, in a press release the group issued November 2nd. Jud Hawken's boss, Rawleigh Grove, Vice-President and General Counsel of Ping, said the group was striking back at the illegal operations, hitting them where it hurts.

"We're confident this will be a deterrent for counterfeiters in the future as we keep pushing to keep golf real," he added referring to the group's website - www.keepgolfreal.com, which went live in July and seeks to educate consumers on how to spot a fake. It has been attracting an average of 2,000 hits a month thus far. "We have had a positive response to the website even though it is only a few months old," says Hawken. "The ultimate goal is that it will show up in searches online for golf equipment so that consumers can be warned about internet counterfeiters."

The problem for Hawken, Grove, Rider and everyone else involved in the fight against the forgers, fakers and fraudulent, however, is that the criminals have gotten ever more sophisticated, producing clubs that increasingly resemble the real thing. Even seasoned golfers can be fooled if they do not have the genuine club with which to compare the fake.

In an nbcsports.com video shot earlier this year, Ping's Director of Golf Club Design Brad Schweigert brought attention to the cosmetic similarities between a real G15 driver and its fake counterpart, saying the differences probably wouldn't jump out at you right away. And Lisa Rogan, Director of Brand Protection for the Acushnet Company, which owns the Titleist, Pinnacle, Vokey, Footjoy and Scotty Cameron brands, says that fakes are usually very convincing, visually at least.

"Scotty Cameron Putters, Titleist AP2 Irons and the Pro V1 ball are our most copied items right now, and the counterfeits look very much like the authentic product," she says.

But that is where the parallels end. The dodgy Scotty Cameron putters are often made with a cheap zinc alloy that dents easily, while stainless steel doesn't, and the fake Pro-V1 has a hard Surlyn - rather than soft urethane - cover. The core is often off-center, too. The irons, meanwhile, are simple cast copies of Titleist's forged multi-material design. "The real AP2 features a forged face with a tungsten backweight," says Rogan. "But the counterfeit usually has a one-piece, cast, stainless-steel head. It offers very few, if any, of the performance benefits you get with the real thing."

Jud Hawken says the customer service department at Ping often receives clubs from angry consumers whose irons were fitted with cheap plastic inserts (by counterfeiters wanting to copy Ping's elastomer cavity badge and soft Custom Tuning Ports) that have fallen off.

As for the Ping G15 driver, the fake that Schweigert demonstrated had a back-breaking swingweight of E8 - 15 swingweights heavier than the company's intended D3. The head was very poorly welded together, had a thicker crown, and a clubface that was uniformly thick - unlike the real McCoy whose face is of variable thickness. And the shaft, supposedly a regular, had the flex of a ladies' model. "For the player looking for a regular-flex golf club, this is not going to yield the performance that they want," Schweigert deadpanned.

It's not just the false club's "improved" appearance that dupes consumers though. Far more realistic prices than we were used to seeing just a few years ago also deceive us into thinking the clubs are legit. Vendors have learned it no longer pays to sell their substandard imitations for half the price of the clubs it aims to supplant and set their prices high enough to avoid suspicion, but low enough to encourage interest. "If some counterfeiters price their equipment closer to retail levels, that makes it harder for consumers to tell the difference," says Anti-Counterfeiting Group spokesman, Jason Rocker.

Not surprisingly, the vast majority of counterfeit golf equipment is sold over the Internet through retail or auction websites that post misleading images, do not offer risk-free trials, don't allow returns and give vague contact information. Hawken says it's impossible to estimate the number of sites peddling suspect clubs. "Last November we reported on our website that five retail sites had been shut down by Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) Homeland Security investigations," he says. "But others probably popped up as soon as they went down [in a Golf.com article dated June 25, 2010, writer Josh Sens likened this phenomenon to a game of Whack-a-mole]. There are probably dozens of illicit sites out there."

Rogan believes there may actually be hundreds of them, but however many there are they are all contributing to the game's top manufacturers losing an estimated $6.5 billion worth of business a year.

The "success" of golf's counterfeiting industry, said to be producing over 2 million imitation clubs every year, begs the question why the five manufacturers that make up the Anti-Counterfeiting Group don't set up their own plants in China and employ full-time workers on a wage that reduces their temptation to steal and copy designs.

Lisa Rogan has the answer: "We aren't foundry owners because we're not foundry experts," she says, simply. "I believe some companies have attempted to become vertically integrated by owning their own foundry, but each has found it difficult to be an expert in both the design and manufacturing fields at the same time."

Investment-casting is centuries old, Rogan adds, but thanks to research and development in a competitive environment, the technology has been pushed to levels considered impossible 15 years ago. It's doubtful a company that focuses on design would have been able to adapt quickly enough to keep up with the rapid improvement in the casting or, indeed, forging process. "The current partnership allows companies like us to develop products without the fear of manufacturing constraints, and then allows the supply chain to develop high-technology manufacturing processes."

The fact it makes sense for Titleist and others not to construct their own manufacturing plants in China is part of the reason why counterfeiting golf clubs isn't going to end any time soon. Another might be people's dwindling golf budgets. "We believe the poor economy is playing a role in consumers looking for low-cost product," says Rogan.

It's simple economics: demand will always be there because people without the means to buy high-end equipment will look for the cheapest product and, in many cases, be satisfied purchasing something that looks like the real thing even if the font of the manufacturer's name is written slightly differently to what it should be. In the long run though, such a purchase could end up costing the golfer far more than he bargained for. "Sellers of counterfeit products are highly unlikely to offer full refunds, and some consumers have reported fraudulent charges on their credit cards, on top of the charge for the clubs themselves," says Rogan.

All too often, however, the innocent victim of counterfeiting has no idea the club he's buying will give him 20 yards less off the tee than the genuine article, that the head might crack or come off altogether, or the shaft will snap. Thinking he got a good deal, the golfer's happiness turns to anger and resentment; resentment usually directed toward the wholly blameless OEM (Original Equipment Manufacturer).

In cases where consumers have not verified the dealer in advance and received fake goods, Ping's Jud Hawken directs victims to file a report with the National Intellectual Property Rights Coordination Center at www.iprcenter.gov. " We have spoken with the federal law enforcement agencies who have indicated that the more victims report this fraud and the rogue sites counterfeits are sold on, the more likely the government can take action against them," he says.

So, you have your orders. If you want to help bring an end to illegal counterfeiting of golf equipment and ensure that your purchase is genuine, always buy your clubs from an authorized dealer. And if, for whatever reason you don't, pay with a credit card as you may be able to file a claim with the card company. If you suspect your equipment purchase is fake, report it not only to the OEM but also the police and appropriate government agency.

Counterfeit golf clubs are getting better and better, but they will never provide the optimum level of performance. It will take a concerted effort from a network of governmental and corporate organizations to significantly impact the counterfeiting "industry," but together with right-thinking golfers it is happening slowly. Like Hawken, Rogan and others say, however, counterfeiting will never go away entirely. But one less fake club on the streets or on the Internet is a goal worth fighting for.

This story originally appeared in Cybergolf on November 19, 2011.

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 web site at www.bellinghamgolfer.com.


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