Are U.S. golfers getting the shaft from Japan?

Mike Royko

February 11, 1992|By Mike Royko | Mike Royko,Tribune Media Services

THE EXECUTIVE from the Ben Hogan golf club company was indignant. And maybe he had reason to be.

He had just read a column about the "Buy American" crusade in which I said it was difficult to know which products are really American.

I had given a number of examples, including these two paragraphs:

"Maybe you are a golfer planning on buying a new set of clubs this spring. But only a couple of American-owned companies remain. 'Ben Hogan' might be stamped on it, but the company is owned by some sushi-eater.

"So you seek out those American-owned companies and buy their clubs, and you will be able to say you buy American, right? Not really, because all they do here is assemble shafts and club heads they buy overseas."

The Hogan exec thought I was misleading readers (and patriotic, potential golf-club customers).

True, Hogan is owned by Cosmo World, a giant Japanese corporation.

But as the executive said: "We make our clubs here," meaning Texas, U.S.A. And he added: "We buy our forgings from a Chicago company."

Which is true, because I also heard from the Chicago company, (( Cornell Forging. The president expressed pride in his long relationship with the Hogan company.

So I was wrong, right? Well, not really. All I said was that the Hogan company is owned by the Japanese. And that's entirely (( correct. Japan is where the profits will wind up.

But the Hogan executive had a point. The heads on the highly regarded Hogan irons, which are the company's main product, begin life in Chicago, produced by Americans working for an American-owned company. The forgings are then finished at the Hogan company by American workers.

So we can say that while the company is owned by the Japanese, the product is American.

Well, that's not entirely true, either. After the executive called, I became curious.

A golf club also has a shaft. Most of Hogan's shafts are made by True Temper Sports, which is owned by Black & Decker, which is an American company.

That's good, if you believe in buying American.

However, Hogan also offers clubs with shafts that are made of graphite. And it turns out that those shafts come from United Sports Technologies, Dallas, which is owned by Olympic Co. Ltd. of Japan.

An executive at United Sports Technologies said: "Our shafts are manufactured in Japan and finished here. We basically apply paint coats and the logo and the graphics to the shaft."

So that means that if you buy the Hogan forged irons with metal shafts, you'll get a product entirely made by Americans,although the company is owned by the Japanese. (The grips are made here by an American company.)

But if you prefer graphite shafts on your irons, only the head and grips will be made by American workers; the shafts come from Japan. However, they are polished by American workers.

So that's that. Almost.

Hogan also makes woods, although most modern woods are made of metal, which means they are metal woods. That doesn't make sense, but neither does golf.

Anyway, the metal-wood heads are made by a company called Cast Alloys in California. It is American-owned. So if you buy a Hogan metal wood, you are getting an American product, right? Well, almost.

The company makes the heads, but then it ships them across the border to Tijuana, Mexico, where the polishing is done. The polishing must be important,since the Mexican plant has 350 workers, while the American plant has only 150.

Then there are the shafts. If your Hogan driver has a traditional metal shaft, you will have received a 100 percent American shaft. Why does that sound like a political statement?)

But if you prefer the higher-tech graphite shaft, it will come from Japan and be finished off by Americans. In which case, you will have a club that has an American-made head, polished by Mexicans, with the shaft coming from Japan, although finished by Americans. And the profits will go to Japanese tycoons.

Are you still there? And you understand? No? My advice is, take up bowling.

What surprises me is that I heard from the Hogan executive but not from anybody at another golf company, Karsten Manufacturing Corp.

As most golfers know, Karsten makes clubs called Ping. The name sounds like it might be Asiatic. ("I am Ping. This is Wong.") But it's an American company, founded by a mechanically inclined hacker named Karsten Solheim, who thought he could make a better club in his garage. He did. An ugly thing it was. But Karsten is now the biggest club maker in America, probably the world.

Basically, I was right about the Hogan company because all I said was that it was owned by the Japanese.

But then I wrote that all the American-owned companies do is buy foreign parts and assemble them here. Wrong, wrong, wrong.

That's what most American-owned golf companies do. But not Ping. As they will tell you, if you ask, they produce all of their own stuff. In fact, they ship clubs all over the globe. That helps reduce our trade deficit, which is a patriotic thing to do.

More important, it puts golf clubs in the hands of foreigners. And if enough of them play the game, they, too, will become potbellied idlers, wearing foolish-looking clothes and drowning the memories of their miserable scores in the clubhouse bar.

And that is known as fair trade.

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