The Man Who Really Lets His Clubs Do the Talking

By: Tony Dear


The unassuming exterior of
RedBird Sports

Beacon Hill, five miles southeast of downtown Seattle, is a diverse but homey suburb with a strong community spirit.

It's hip in places, but also a little drab; neat and tidy but also gray and rundown, shabby even. It doesn't seem quite able to decide which side of the tracks it should be on, but you'd hardly call it a ghetto even if some of the windows on some of the buildings on Beacon Avenue South are protected by thick steel bars.

Because so many ethnicities live here, you expect to see the Ethiopian coffee shop and Vietnamese restaurant. What you might not anticipate, however, is the highly-acclaimed golf club maker wedged in between them.

This is not Carlsbad, Huntington Beach, or Phoenix you understand.

There are no 50,000-square foot manufacturing plants or hi-tech, 30-acre testing facilities here.

No, RedBird Sport's premises are somewhat more humble - a modest 3,900-square foot location on Beacon Ave that actually has the look and feel of a workshop.

Jay Turner

This is just how owner Jay Turner likes it.

"I grew up on Beacon Hill," he says. "It's home for me. We used to be based just north of downtown, but I wanted to come back here to be closer to my father."

RedBird Sports is, in Turner's own words, "one of the small guys," making between 700 and 1,000 sets of customized clubs a year. What it loses in volume, however, it makes up for with quality, designing its own heads in Seattle then having them built in three boutique foundries in Japan and Taiwan.

"There is such an over-supply of equipment these days," says Turner. "The big manufacturers are churning out new drivers and iron models every six months or so. What does it say about a club if you need to redesign it so quickly?"

Turner points to the fact his company has introduced just 23 iron models and 17 different drivers in the 28 years it has been operating, and that production of the best-selling 880 iron, which was launched in 1990, didn't cease until 1998.

"We sold thousands of sets," he says. "And the current 725 and 525 models have been available for three years."

Turner, now in his mid-50s, has been involved in golf for over 40 years, having begun playing the game in his teens at the municipally-owned Jefferson Park, a mile or two north of RedBird headquarters. His father, Hans, a nationally-ranked amateur, would take him up to the course during the summer. Young Jay improved quickly, turning out for Cleveland High School's golf team in his junior and senior years and reducing his handicap to three by the time he graduated.

At 12 or 13, he can't quite remember, Turner got a job at Jefferson working at the hole-in-one competition the Seattle Post-Intelligencer sponsored for the benefit of Seattle players hoping to travel to the USGA's national championships. A lad by the name of Fred Couples, two years younger than Turner, was also there, and the two became firm friends playing hundreds of rounds together over the next few years and often sneaking on to the course through the fence by the fourth tee.

"I never beat him," says Turner. "He was a natural. I could shoot close to par from the regular tees most times but it wasn't close to good enough. I had thought about the possibility of turning professional one day but, having seen how good Fred was, I figured I'd never make it."

That's a familiar refrain from people who once entertained the idea of turning pro at their favored sport, but chose not to because they felt inferior to another player. It seems strange though, given how much money the guy who comes in second usually makes these days.

"You have to remember this was 1975," says Turner. "Opportunities were very limited, and making a name for yourself in professional golf was extremely difficult. I didn't feel it was a realistic possibility for me, and thought it might be a constant struggle."

Hans Turner advised his son to remain an amateur, earn his living some other way, and continue to play the game for fun.

The driving range concession at Jefferson Park was owned at the time by a man named Steve Cole, who built a repair shop at the course and taught Turner the art of club making, how to re-shaft clubs, grind irons and rework persimmon heads. Turner worked there through his high school years and took to club making as keenly as he had playing the game.

After leaving the University of Washington with a degree in business administration, Turner worked for three years as an import manager for a Seattle firm that distributed hundreds of consumer products - from coffee mugs to Christmas lights and everything in between - made in Asia.

"It was a good experience, and I certainly didn't hate it," says Turner, "but I knew it wasn't what I wanted to do for the rest of my life."

So he and Cole decided to go into business together at the end of 1985, setting up a club-making company they called RedBird - a combination of their nicknames; "Red" for the red-haired Cole, and "Bird" for Turner.

"It was a very small operation to begin with," says Turner. "I think we built around a hundred sets of irons in our first year of business, and our typical set sold for $168."

At the end of that first year, Cole, whose entrepreneurial spirit was calling him to different projects, asked if Turner would buy him out. Cole was a very good player who could give Couples a decent game, says Turner, but he was never glued to golf.

So Turner went it alone, keeping the RedBird name and deciding early he would seek a reputation for quality rather than maximize profits. "There was a time right at the start when I had dreams of becoming a big shot in the industry, selling tens of thousands of sets to the mass market," he says. "But that didn't last very long. I quickly realized that I preferred to help individuals find the clubs that would make the game more fun for them."

Turner was resolute about using premium-grade materials, focusing on very tight tolerances, and making bespoke clubs for golfers who genuinely wanted to improve. He likes to get to know each customer before building their golf clubs.

"I'll try to figure them out by getting an idea of their ability level, and discovering how serious they are about their game and how far they want to go," he says.

Turner believes very strongly, however, that building clubs using quality components is really only half the story. "They absolutely have to be fitted properly for the golfer to play consistently well," he says, estimating only 15 percent of golfers are fortunate enough to walk into a pro shop and find something suitable on the shelves. "With the number of restrictions placed on equipment by the USGA and R&A, there are really only two frontiers club makers can focus on in order to make better clubs - quality of materials, and custom-fitting. A line we often use is 'You didn't come off an assembly line. Why settle for clubs that do?' It's a familiar saying, but I'm not convinced people really comprehend the implications."

The RedBird 880, their best-selling club

But there's fitting and there's fitting.

Turner thinks a lot of the big companies get it wrong by fitting the golfers to their flawed swings. This method stifles improvement, insists Turner, as clubs fit to a particular swing only function well when the same swing flaws that occurred during the fitting are present.

"We take an altogether different approach," says Turner. "We use our patented algorithm which takes into account the golfer's physical size and body type resulting in the proper biomechanical fit. That ensures a sound setup position giving the golfer the best possible chance to return the club to impact properly."

This system facilitates sustainable improvement, says Turner, as clubs fitted in this manner deliver great results when swung properly.

"Another advantage," he says, "is that our measuring system allows us to fit someone who's never played golf before. And that is going to make it so much easier for him or her to learn the game."

Given the importance he attaches to customization, it isn't surprising how comprehensive the RedBird fitting process is or how long it lasts. Customers can use the company's online evaluation tool or download the mobile app to obtain their recommendations, but ideally golfers will be able to visit one of the company's certified fitting locations or, best of all, visit Turner himself on Beacon Avenue South.

The session begins with a discussion in which Turner, or one of his staff, discovers how often the customer plays and practices, how much he understands about the golf swing, how physically fit he is and, perhaps most importantly, what his goals are. Physical measurements are then taken using RedBird's Dimensional Fitting System (DFS) which Turner took 12 years to develop and successfully patent. Then everything moves to the simulator for a dynamic fitting where clubhead speed and path, swing tempo, face angle and the impact pattern are recorded. The consultation ends with another sit-down discussion during which club specifications are evaluated and recommendations made. Once both parties are satisfied, the order is placed and the customer can expect to be swinging his new sticks within about 10 days.

That might seem a little elaborate to some, but for Turner it is simply what must happen if the customer is to leave his shop with perfectly-fit clubs and play to his potential.

"It's very detailed and precise," he says. "But it needs to be. We guarantee our clubs for life, so obviously want our customers to enjoy them."

Attention to detail like this and the opportunity to meet the club designer and clubfitter face to face has won RedBird a loyal following of golfers who probably wouldn't consider playing another brand. No one on the PGA Tour endorses RedBird because it can't afford million-dollar contracts, but a handful of Champions Tour players, Canadian Tour players and Pacific Northwest Section PGA players have had RedBirds in the bag.

The list of professional athletes and celebrities who play RedBird, without being paid a dime, is also pretty extensive. NBA legend Dale Ellis, who played for six different teams in a 17-year career (including two stints with both the Milwaukee Bucks and Seattle Supersonics), is a big fan as is former Seattle Mariners and Oakland Athletics center fielder Dave 'Hendu' Henderson. Seattle Sounders goalkeeper Marcus Hahnemann, who played in England for 13 years and made nine appearances for the U.S. national team, is an avid golfer and would often take RedBird clubs from his hometown back to England for his teammates. Comedians Dennis Leary and Joe McHale are deadly serious about their allegiance.

Seventy percent of RedBird customers are from the Pacific Northwest, says Turner, but he also gets a lot of inquiries from Canada, Australia, New Zealand and Japan. A typical day at the office might involve a fitting or two, adding or editing content on the company's web site, and design work on nascent models although Turner, like most people in creative mode, says conditions have to be just right for him to come up with sound ideas for a new club. "You can't force it," he adds. "It takes us between two and three years to take a club from the drawing board to the finished product."

After nearly three decades of six-day work weeks, Turner recently began allowing himself both Sunday and Monday off. He plays golf maybe three times a week during the summer and can still knock it round in the low 70s from Jefferson Park's back tees. He tries to keep in touch with Couples though he hasn't seen him since last year's Masters.

He doesn't see a day when he stops making golf clubs. "I want to carry on doing this for as long as I can," he says. And though far too modest to talk about his legacy, Turner does concede he'd like to somehow help custom fitting become a habit, standard procedure among golfers if you will.

"One of the obstacles preventing golf from attracting new players and retaining existing players is its difficulty," he says. "If we can reduce, even remove, the barrier created by ill-fitting equipment, golfers would improve and hit better shots. And that, obviously, would make the game so much more enjoyable."

Simple, forthright, honest, common sense. Typical Jay Turner, in fact.

Visit www.redbirdsports.com for more information.

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 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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