Company History: Cobra Golf
Before 1938 when the golfing powers-that-be decided that players could carry no more than 14 clubs, there were scores of different golf clubs each designed to do something different to the golf ball. Golfers built their sets around these individual clubs and could amass quite a playing collection. Lawson Little put a curvature in his caddie’s spine with 31 clubs to win the British Amateur in 1931. When Bobby Jones used 22 clubs to win the 1927 United States Amateur, his defeated opponent groused that Jones had won “with clubs and not his skill.”
After the club limit ruling, two generations of golfers grew up playing with “full sets” of clubs. Irons and woods were both numbered in orderly procession beginning with the ordinal “1.” It took until 1973 and an Australian amateur named Thomas Crow to change that business model.
The Birth of the Baffler and Cobra Golf
When Thomas Crow was 29 years old in 1961, he captured the Australian Amateur Championship. His passion for golf went beyond just playing. He tinkered with club building and was always intrigued by the form of catamarans cutting across the Pacific waters around his native Australia. Crow created a wooden club with two runners on the bottom, like a catamaran, whose purpose was to enable the club head to glide through gnarly rough. Crow needed a name for his specialty club, and he recalled the fascination he experienced watching a snake charmer perform in India. He was “baffled” at the spectacle, and his club became the Baffler. Fittingly, his new company to produce the club was named Cobra.
Cobra Golf Clubs and Greg Norman
An obscure golfer in Australia with a utility wood that did not fit neatly into a traditional golf set did not make many initial waves in the golf landscape. In 1976, Crow received a phone call from an equally unknown, self-taught Australian golf professional. Greg Norman requested that Crow build him a set of clubs, and famously began the conversation by saying, “You don’t know me…”
By the 1980s, golfers were growing accustomed to replacing clubs in their traditional sets with substitutes built intentionally for specific situations on the golf course. The Baffler took its place in golfers’ bags as an easy-to-hit recovery club from gnarly lies. Cobra began to grow and innovate and was first to market with an extended length shaft, offered on a Cobra driver. The company also pioneered progressive graphite shafts on every club in the bag and the Cobra autoclave system took graphite shafts to another level of strength and consistency. Meanwhile, Greg Norman was becoming the #1 golfer in the world. His original equipment contract was with Spalding but when it expired in 1991, the Shark came back home to Australia’s now-viable club company, Cobra. He signed a contract to endorse the clubs and bought a 1/8 share of the company for $2 million.
The End of an Independent Cobra
Tom Crow invented the Baffler because irons are so difficult to hit, especially out of bad lies. In 1992, Cobra introduced the King Cobra oversized irons, aimed directly at the recreational player. The easier-to-play King Cobras were especially welcome in golf pro shops where they could be promoted to talent-challenged members. The King Cobra irons became the best-selling iron set in golf. The Cobra success attracted the attention of American Brands, the owner of Acushnet who manufactures the best-selling Titleist golf balls as well as FootJoy golf shoes. The plan was for Cobra to slot into the club-making position in the company portfolio. American Brands paid $700 million for Cobra in 1996, and Norman’s investment returned $45 million for five years of work.
A New Home for Cobra
The anticipated synergy did not work out as planned. Cobra continued to introduce new products into the marketplace and increase popularity, but Titleist clubs also broke out beyond the professional market and became viable best-sellers to recreational players. Titleist emerged as the company flagship club brand. In 2010, Puma AG purchased Cobra from American Brands. The footwear giant nursed the same dreams for the club-maker – complement its current line of golf-related products with top-notch clubs. So far, so good. Cobra has morphed into a lifestyle brand with premium golf bags and is represented by young trendsetters including Bryson DeChambeau, Rickie Fowler, and Lexi Thompson on its team. At the same time, Titleist was muscling in on Cobra in the club-selling arena, Cobra golf balls were introduced. In 1999, the Cobra Dista promised maximum distance for all players and even offered four models dependent on swing speeds. Innovative for its time, the Dista has nevertheless been relegated to a place in the company museum. Perhaps someday it will baffle industry watchers and return to the market.
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