Rob O'Loughlin isn't your everyday hot-dog salesman turned golf entrepreneur. The Wisconsinite, who made a bundle selling Softspikes, is the Ron Popeil of golf. He's part inventor, part golf fanatic and all salesman. Here he talks about his latest big discovery—and how he managed to get rich while playing 250 rounds a year.
How'd you make your fortune selling cleats?
I was at Muirfield Village Golf Club in 1993 with some friends, and the club told us we were going to have to wear these plastic cleats. We said no. Then the pro said that Mr. Nicklaus—it's his course—required it. I loved the cleats. When I got back home I called that head pro and got the name of the company that made them. I called the company, and this kid told me that the boss only sold to clubs. So I called the boss, and soon after that I bought one-third of the company. It was doing $200,000 a year. We went all over signing up private clubs like Winged Foot, Cypress Point, Augusta National. We made a deal with FootJoy, and it was all up from there. When I sold out in 2003, sales were $32 million.
What made you think of buying that business?
I'm an entrepreneur and a salesman, and golf is a part of my life—though I only started when I was twenty-eight, just after I bought a tuxedo-rental business. Before that I was a salesman for Oscar Mayer. I can sing the song—"I wish I was an Oscar Mayer weiner." After I had my own business, I joined a private club in Madison and got enamored with the game. I got to the point where I was playing 250 rounds a year, and I started joining clubs all over the country.
And now you're selling a new rangefinder?
It's called Laser Link. It uses laser technology to send out a beam that is synchronized with a reflective prism in the flagstick. It's deadly accurate and as fast as changing channels.
What can Laser Link tell me that a sprinkler head can't?
The truth. The average player thinks he hits a seven-iron 140 yards, but he doesn't usually get anywhere near that distance. So Laser Link might disappoint some people when they find out the truth. But it can also tell them down to the inch how far they have to hit to the exact pin position.
Do I really want to know how far I don't hit a seven-iron?
A friend told me there are two numbers you never need to know— your IQ and your swing speed. Golf is delusional. We think we hit it farther than we do. You can still brag at a cocktail party—but this time it will be because you got it close.
How'd you get Nicklaus and Palmer as partners?
Jack was doing opening day at the Sagamore Club outside Indianapolis a few years ago. The course didn't have any yardage markers, and the owner handed Jack our product. By the time he got to the back nine he had taken it from his caddie and was using it himself. He had me come down to meet him. I felt like Walter Mitty. I was struck by how bright he is. He's not really a schmoozer, but he liked the idea that we could speed up play. As for Palmer, [former LPGA commissioner] Charlie Mecham told him about Laser Link, and we took it from there.
You're having a fight with the R&A?
That's true. The USGA has supported us—they at least allow the use of Laser Link for recording handicaps—but the R&A hasn't given final approval to use the device in competition.
They don't understand the business of golf. It is a small business with tough margins. There are easier ways to make money. The great people in golf, like Jack Vickers and Herb Kohler, are wealthy men who built great courses for the good of the game. One of my complaints with the USGA and the R&A is that they think those of us in the business of golf don't have a genuine love for the game. That just isn't true.
But don't they have a point?
Not really. Technology is wonderful. But it doesn't swing for you. As long as there is a backswing, this game will never be too easy. Golf is charming, wonderful—but it will never be easy.
Scorecard ROB O'LOUGHLIN
BEST SCORE 69
MEMBERSHIPS Maple Bluff Country Club, Madison, WI; Muirfield Village Golf Club, Dublin, OH; The Plantation Golf Club, India, CA
EQUIPMENT Cobra driver, Ping G2 irons and fairway woods, Eye Que putter ("It's forty years old!")