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Good As Gold?

Golf advertising also takes a different tack in Japan. "It's much more rational and technically detailed," says Mike Pai, vice president of marketing in the U.S. for the Japanese brand Srixon. "Over there you see a lot more graphs and cross sections and terms like 'moment of inertia.' Over here a lot of advertising is tied to Tour players. In Japan the technology is front and center."

Honma plays to this gee-whiz Japanese appetite for info with a plethora of trademarks and minutiae stamped on its products. In addition to the basic Honma logo (known as "the mole in the hole," for the pointy-nosed silhouette that pokes out of the letter O), Hiro Honma created the Twin Marks logo, with two gold capital Hs. Both logos appear on almost every club. A swoopy, single H adorns the crown of the woods. Certain large-cubic-centimeter woods and iron shafts are stamped with the words AMAZING SPEC. Finally, all clubs except putters bear engraved serial numbers on the hosel as well as the all-important, mantralike phrase MADE IN JAPAN SAKATA.

All this is intended not only to bewitch wonks but also to discourage counterfeiters. It succeeds more at the former than the latter. Japanese golfers who eschew discounts probably wouldn't go near knockoffs, but outside of hierarchical Japan the status-hungry have fewer compunctions. China, where many club makers have moved operations to take advantage of lower costs, has also become a gray-market enterprise zone. Ebay is awash in laughable deals on purported Honma goods. I found several offers of full sets with a staff bag for $280. The sellers were in China.

Fakes are just one of the challenges Chris Lannom faces in trying to make Honma more of a household name in the U.S. Until recently, the company would release its new models in Japan six months before issuing them in the States. By the time Honma Direct got inventory, avid customers had already bought the club through friends and family in Asia. "Honma is getting better about that," says Lannom, who has been representing the brand since 1989. "The last iron set and the last two driver sets have come out at the same time here as there."

In 2004, Honma Direct had sales of just under $3.5 million, according to Lannom, a 22 percent increase over 2003. About three-quarters of Honma buyers in the U.S. are Asian-Americans, he estimates, mostly of Japanese and Korean background. Honma Direct's Ferguson profiles them this way: "Either you have the kind who was born with a silver spoon in his mouth or you have the entrepreneurial type, who may have come here in his younger days and started a dry cleaning business or multiple businesses that have done really well, and now he's playing golf," he says. "A lot of them have been in the driving-range business, and they know Honma from when they lived in Japan or Korea. Once they have the money, they want to see if Honma really is the best thing out there."

Aside from a smattering of celebrities, who are the remaining 25 percent of Honma customers in the U.S.?They are not easy to find, but I did locate a couple, neither one exactly a reverential detail freak studying platinum facets under a loupe.

Ed Moore made his money running an ad agency on Long Island. Since turning the business over to his daughter and son-in-law a couple of years ago, he's been playing golf at least twice a week. Don't ask him his handicap. "I'm seventy and overweight and out of shape," he said. One day at the driving range he heard a thirdhand account of a small-statured Asian guy who could drive the ball 320 yards. "I was quite impressed," said Moore. When he learned that the Asian player's secret weapon was something called a Honma 460RF, Moore went right out and bought one. "It put about fifty yards on my drive," he said.

Moore eventually discovered the secret. The 460 is nonconforming—okay until 2008 by the R&A, whose rules apply in Japan, but too hot for the USGA. He switched to a smaller Honma 420, which does conform, and settled for ten extra yards on his drive. Bitten by the Honma bug, however, he ordered three fairway woods with four-star shafts and a set of two-star TM-202 irons. ("I was told that on the irons there's not as much of a difference," he explained.) Finally he sprang for a Honma persimmon putter. "Out of this world," he said. "Beautiful looks, and it's deadly."

The irony is that Moore is no country clubber. For the past fifteen years he's been playing with the same bunch of guys at a nine-hole muni in Massapequa, Long Island. I asked whether his persimmon putter had shifted the balance of power and whether his friends resented his big-ticket armament. "No," he said, "they just give me the business when I miss a putt: 'My putter cost me thirty bucks, Ed. Whatchya say ya paid for that thing?'"

Then there's George Lindemann, 67. On the 2004 Forbes list of the world's richest people, Lindemann and his family (pharmaceuticals, cable, gas) are ranked number 472, with a net worth of $1.2 billion. He sounded quite chipper when I reached him on his cell phone, with a kind of affable, offhand growl to his voice. "I like them a lot," he said of his Honmas. "I'm a member of four golf clubs, so I leave a set at each. I have had lots of people try the clubs, and they love them, too." Lindemann said his wife plays Honma as well. "I think she has three or four sets, because we leave one on the boat," he said. "So we have seven or eight total."

I asked him which models he plays. "Uh, I have," he said, "AP-302's?Something like that. I don't use their driver. Fairway woods, we're using . . . I don't remember the numbers off the top of my head."

Any four-star or five-star shafts?He pondered for a moment. "I have, in different bags, different ones, from gold to two-star," he said. "Five-star, I think, is gold. Four-star, I don't think is. What's the advantage?In the brochure you can't figure it out. But as one of the pros said to me, 'When you take out that gold club, you really feel something different.' I don't know whether that's true. The reason I have maybe an extra star on one fairway wood over another is because that's all the guy had in stock. Remember, there's no inventory on this stuff."

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