Return of a legendary brand
A disciple of the late Ben Hogan has plans to bring back his line of golf clubs. Will he live up to the Hawk's demanding standards?
May 20, 2014
By Jonathan Wall, PGATOUR.COM
Terry Koehler is a fourth-generation Texan and loves golf, so it's no surprise that he grew up idolizing Ben Hogan.
The textbooks of his youth were Hogan's "Power Golf" and "Five Lessons," two of the sport's seminal instructional books. His very first set of clubs were cut-down Hogan 5- and 9-irons.
That reverance and respect for Hogan continues to this day. In his office, Koehler has a variety of Hogan mementoes. While discussing Hogan's career, he can rattle off stats and records, even the most obscure ones. The number of consecutive greens Hogan hit during the 1960 U.S. Open? The number of 5s Hogan had on his scorecard at the 1950 Greenbrier Pro-Am?
Koehler has the answers. He is a walking Hogan encyclopedia.
But his association with Hogan is more than just mere fan. For a three-year period in the 1990s, Koehler actually worked for the legend as the marketing director for the Ben Hogan Company. It was the thrill of a lifetime and also the most intimidating.
It was Hogan, after all. His idol.
"I'm a Hogan disciple," Koehler unabashedly declares.
In 1997, Hogan passed away. Eleven years later, the last shipment of golf clubs with the Ben Hogan name were produced, a victim of business shortcomings more than club quality. Since then, the Ben Hogan line has been dormant, fading into memory even as Hogan's legacy itself endures.
Last August, Koehler, as president/CEO of Eidolon Brand, acted on an idea that's been brewing in his mind for some time. He approached the Perry Ellis company, the last owner of the Hogan brand, to discuss the idea of giving life to the Hogan line of clubs. He told them he already had interest from people who had worked with Hogan, who knew the quality of clubs that needed to be produced, who would not compromise on quality.
The first question the Perry Ellis representatives had for him: Why?
"I told them we were the Ben Hogan Company right here in Texas," Koehler said. "We live by his principals. We live by his values. We live by his guidance about golf clubs.
"I have 160 years of Ben Hogan experience in my key managers. We're it.
"We just didn't have the Hogan name."
He does now.
"These clubs shall be as near perfect as modern day tools and instruments can perform." - Ben Hogan
The Ben Hogan Golf Company. Just saying those words to an equipment enthusiast usually elicits a feeling of nostalgia for the forged irons that were a staple of the company for more than 50 years.
When Hogan decided to cut back on his playing schedule and open up his Fort Worth equipment company in 1953, he noted in a letter to pro shops that he had what he believed were the "finest golf clubs ever made."
While the statement may have seemed a little presumptuous at the time, it didn't take long for Hogan to translate his grasp on the mechanics of the game and start producing simple, efficient irons that were ahead of the times in terms of innovation and design.
During the next five decades, the Ben Hogan Company produced some of the most popular iron models in golf history, from the original Apex design to the highly successful Edge that featured the feel of forged with the benefits of perimeter-weighting.
Hogan's equipment company also had a major presence in professional golf. Jack Fleck, a former municipal course pro from Iowa, stunned the golf world when he beat Hogan in a playoff at the 1955 U.S. Open with a set of custom-made Hogan irons and wedges (Hogan personally delivered the wedges).
Others would follow. Mark Brooks won the 1996 PGA Championship using Hogan irons. Justin Leonard followed the next year, winning the 1997 Open Championship. Both, fittingly enough, were Texans and proud to play the Hogan brand.
Although the Hogan line of clubs was never a juggernaut in professional golf equipment, its irons always had a loyal following amongst professionals and amateurs alike. A boutique brand, as it were.
The company enjoyed 40 years of success in the industry thanks, in large part, to that loyalty and reverence for the man who created the company. However, following a successful stretch in the late 1990s, Hogan started to lose ground to the competition after Top-Flite Golf (which owned Top-Flite, Strata and Ben Hogan) was acquired by Callaway for $125 million in a bankruptcy agreement in 2003.
Callaway eventually halted production of Hogan equipment in 2008, closing the doors on the iconic brand. For the past seven years, Hogan irons have been scooped up and stockpiled by collectors. Until recently, there was little hope within the industry that the equipment line would ever be revived.
When Callaway eventually sold its rights to Perry Ellis in 2012 — it retained key pieces of the Hogan brand like the Apex and Edge names — there was a belief that Hogan had officially disappeared into the equipment abyss.
That was until Koehler came along.
Following eight months of discussions with Perry Ellis, the two companies came to partnership agreement that will see Koehler's Eidolon Brands start producing irons under the Ben Hogan name in 2015.
Oscar Feldenkreis, the president of Perry Ellis International, says Koehler is the perfect person to revitalize the brand.
“As we became more acquainted with Terry Koehler and Eidolon Brands," Feldenkreis said, 'it became clear that this company exhibits the values, spirit and passion that Ben Hogan always represented to the golf community."
Of course, now Koehler must deliver on that promise.
History hasn't been kind to those who have attempted to bring some of golf's most storied equipment brands back to significance. So when it was announced publicly on May 6 that Koehler was attempting to do exactly that, the news was met with skepticism.
With the exception of Wilson Golf, which endured a difficult stretch during the mid-1990s before eventually turning the corner during the last 10 years, a number of equipment companies that were the bedrock of the industry 30 years ago have become nothing more than an afterthought in recent years.
MacGregor and Ram Golf are perfect examples. The equipment titans had two of the biggest names in professional golf on their respective staffs during the 1980s in Jack Nicklaus (MacGregor) and Tom Watson (Ram). But after enjoying decades of greatness, both slowly faded into the background during the mid-1990s.
What makes Ben Hogan, MacGregor and Ram so similar, aside from the fact that they were all household names in the equipment industry 30 years ago, is that the companies exchanged hands multiple times during the years before staging last-ditch comebacks with the help of owners who had strong ties to the brand and were still bullish about the future.
While MacGregor and Ram struggled in their returns, Koehler said he saw something in the Ben Hogan Company that made him believe it had the history to return to a place of prominence within the industry.
"My dad used to say something that Mr. Hogan always said, that the most precious thing you own is your name," Koehler said. "This isn't a brand, it's a man's life. This is a man's life work. It's an overwhelming opportunity here for people who love Ben Hogan — and he still has a lot of fans who believe in all that."
Jeff Sheets worked on Hogan clubs while at Spalding and designed the 1999 Hogan Apex irons, as well as the SCOR wedge series with Koehler. Now running his own golf club company, Sheets obviously has an insider's perspective on Koehler's desire to revive the Hogan line of club.
"I know the strong interest he has in turning the Ben Hogan brand into a viable business again," Sheets replied via email when asked for his thoughts. "I believe that as a marketer, Terry will put his best efforts into building a new Ben Hogan branded line of products under his Eidolon brands portfolio and in line with whatever terms he has reached with the brand owners, Perry Ellis.
"Perry Ellis seems to have achieved extremely broad distribution of very affordable Ben Hogan apparel and low-cost Hogan golf balls across mass retail outlets like Walmart, so perhaps that will aid Terry in reaching a large number of customers. The additional reach may allow many more people the opportunity to afford Ben Hogan equipment."
As far as the irons are concerned, Koehler confirmed the company is testing out designs for the 2015 launch but is uncertain what the final product will look like. One thing he is certain about is the direction of Hogan's product development.
"Marketing will never drive product development," he said. "Because before I was a marketing guy, I was a golfer. We will never be driven by a schedule to get something out by a certain time. We have a set of design values and performance values that we have to follow.
"Every iron that (Hogan) drove the development of, he drove that design because he thought it would be better than what he had previously made. We're going to follow those same principals and do it right."
Essential Ben Hogan
Terry Koehler learned about Ben Hogan's attention to detail and design principals firsthand in 1993 when he was given the opportunity to design a prototype putter for Hogan and do a formal presentation at his office in Fort Worth, Texas.
"I'm nervous as a cat because Mr. Hogan is about to look at my golf club," he said. "So he takes this putter, sets it down on his desk and looks it over. He brings it back up, looks at it again and then hands it to me and says, "the (alignment) line is crooked. I'm sitting there thinking my bubble has just burst.
"It didn't make me realize it much at the time, but that was Mr. Hogan. He was always so precise and particular with everything he did. So I go back to the shop and I'm sure it isn't crooked. So the guy puts it on his gauge and it's something stupid, like 3,000th of an inch off from being square. I'll never know if Mr. Hogan could see that or if it just looked crooked to because of some other optical deflection."
Along with that attention to detail, Koehler plans to bring the Ben Hogan Company back to life in other ways.
He's in the process of bringing old Hogan employees back into the fold, and already moved his Texas-based office from Victoria to Fort Worth — the same city where Hogan first started the company. Koehler said he'll commute 5 hours to Fort Worth to work from his office until he finds a second residence in the area.
“Ben Hogan and his golf company were, and always should be, Fort Worth treasures,” Koehler said. "This is an opportunity to potentially right some wrongs and create a great business opportunity in Fort Worth.”
Koehler may never be able right all of those wrongs or bring the Ben Hogan Company back to prominence. But after 50-plus years of dreaming about what it would be like to run the company owned by the legend he grew up idolizing, he finally has a shot to live out his dream and run it in a manner that would've made Hogan proud.
"It's funny to be 62 years old and finally get to do what I was meant to do," Koehler said. "I'm a big believer in dreams and things happening for a reason.
"I think I'm supposed to be here doing this."