Originally created 10/01/06

Ping works on plan for military



Karsten Manufacturing Corp. is formulating a plan that will show its support for active-duty military personnel who buy the company's Ping golf clubs, a company official said.

The Phoenix, Ariz.-based company came under fire last week for cutting off the accounts of two Augusta-area golf shops that discounted Ping clubs. The discounts were limited to the military.

"Right now we're looking at different options, different ways to determine the best way as a corporate citizen to demonstrate that appreciation to military personnel," said Bill Gates, Ping's director of distribution and associate general counsel.

Ping plans to respond with a plan for the military as early as this week, Mr. Gates said.

"We're going to have something we're going to roll out to fully show our appreciation (for the military)," he said. "We look forward to the opportunity to work with military leaders for the best way to communicate this appreciation."

Mr. Gates said company officials were still working on the plan and would not give any details.

The Augusta-area shops in question - Bonaventure Discount Golf and Gordon Lakes Golf Course - violated their unilateral policy agreement with Ping by discounting their clubs below the brand's improved fitting, Internet transactions and pricing policy.

Ten percent discounts on Ping clubs were limited to retired and active-duty military at Gordon Lakes and active military at Bonaventure. The money lost on the discounts came out of the pocket of the two shops, who owned the Ping products.

Mr. Gates said ownership didn't matter, explaining that Ping's policy was created to "protect our brand."

In protest, Gordon Lakes marked down its Ping equipment by 50 percent and sold all of it. Late last week, Bonaventure started marking down its $100,000 in Ping inventory by as much as 30 percent to active-duty military. The remaining equipment goes on sale at 30 percent off to the public starting Monday.

Bonaventure owner L.D. Waters, a Marine veteran of two wars, and Gordon Lakes head pro Bill Fumai were critical of Ping for what they considered a lack of regard for the military, especially during a time of war.

Told that Ping is now working on a way to give the military a break, Mr. Waters said "anything they'll do, any break they'll give the military, I'm all for it.

"Believe me," Mr. Waters said, "the good part of this is Ping is going to come up with something. It might be as much as 15 percent off for the military. It might be a rebate or they might let the merchandiser do it."

Mr. Waters and Mr. Fumai weren't the only ones upset about being dropped by Ping for giving military discounts. Retired and active military in the Augusta area, and other residents, called or wrote Ping in protest.

An e-mail to The Augusta Chronicle pointed out the area's military ties to the Masters Tournament, noting that "Arnie's Army," the name for Arnold Palmer's fans, came from Fort Gordon servicemen who followed him at Augusta National Golf Course.

In the golf business, a pro shop at an area country club that still has a contract with Ping dropped its prices on three styles of Ping putters by as much as $45.

Other media picked up the story.

"We certainly understand that," Mr. Gates said of residents' concerns. "We have had some calls. We understand people feel very passionate about this issue, and we do, too."

Ping has said from the outset that it cannot make changes in its pricing policy for a particular group.

Mr. Gates said the new plan will not be "an exception to the policy. Right now, we need to maintain the consistency of our policy. But there are other things we can do that ... will show our appreciation to the military."

Mr. Gates defended Ping's record with the military, saying Karsten Manufacturing Corp. holds jobs for those stationed overseas, employs veterans and has sent free Ping clubs to Bosnia, Afghanistan and Iraq in the past.

"We have never targeted the military in any way," he said. "We've had hundreds of closures of accounts that had nothing to do with the military."

Mr. Waters isn't surprised Ping is working on a plan for military customers. He said when the issue came to light it would be "an easy bet" that Ping would make some concession within 30 days.

"It was a disaster and it's still a disaster," Mr. Waters said. "They're getting more bad publicity every minute they don't do it. It doesn't matter what they do, some of the damage has been done to them. Too many retired military are really mad about this thing."

Whatever Ping does, Mr. Waters said, will force other golf equipment manufacturers to follow suit with military breaks.

"If Ping does it, Titleist has got to do it, and TaylorMade has got to do it," Mr. Waters said. "It will be a good thing for the military. With all these big companies, they can't have one doing it and the others not."

Indeed, Mr. Waters said he already has received a call from a major golf equipment company saying if he kept the receipts from the military discounts he gives on their clubs, they would give him credit on his next purchases.

No matter what Ping decides, once Mr. Waters unloads his stock of the brand, he won't carry it again, even if his account is re-opened.

"I've told everybody I won't sell Ping's ever, under no circumstance," Mr. Waters said.

Mr. Waters said it wouldn't matter if Ping Chairman and CEO John Solheim came to Augusta to talk to him.

"I'm through with them," he said.

Reach David Westin at (706) 724-0851 or david.westin@augustachronicle.com.