WNY golf preview: Innovation is at the core of Buffalo firm’s golf ball - The Buffalo News
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WNY golf preview: Innovation is at the core of Buffalo firm’s golf ball

The next big thing in the golf equipment industry just might be found right here in Buffalo.

Bret Blakely and Steve Coulton, co-founders of OnCore Golf, believe they have optimized the only piece of equipment a golfer uses on every shot — the ball.

They’ve done so with their patented hollow-metal core golf ball. According to the company, their technology allows the energy from the club’s impact to transfer more quickly to the ball’s perimeter.

“The real big thing about this technology is the perimeter weighting — the spin characteristics you get because of the hollow core — it creates a reduction in sidespin the longer the ball is in flight,” Blakely said.

For the novice golfer, less sidespin is a good thing — especially on tee shots. It means that when the ball lands, instead of bouncing sideways — either out of the fairway to the rough or from the rough into trees or a hazard — it will stay on a straighter line.

According to Blakely, their “MA 1.0” ball has been robotically tested against nine others used on the PGA Tour, and OnCore’s has a 20 to 30 percent improvement on dispersion.

The ball also does not suffer in control or distance against its competitors — “we know that distance is sexy,” Blakely says — and putts “like a wide-track tire.”

“Those are important features, but at the end of the day if you end up hitting more fairways and more greens, you’re going to have more fun,” Coulton said.

“That’s kind of what we’re all about – creating technology products that enhance the enjoyment of the game.”

Blakely, 32, is a graduate of Nichols and Canisius College, where he earned a bachelor’s in communication with a minor in marketing/advertising. Coulton, 29, is a Long Island native who attended New York University, graduating with a degree in economics and playing four years on the golf team.

They met in New York City in 2009, and formed OnCore shortly thereafter. The company relocated to Buffalo in 2011 and is housed in the Innovation Center on the Buffalo Niagara Medical Campus.

Blakely and Coulton are staunch believers in their product. The company’s tag line is “You just became a better golfer.”

But in order for that to become true for what they hope becomes a worldwide audience, the company first had to clear a huge hurdle — getting the ball included on the United States Golf Association’s conforming list (meaning it can be used in professional events and those put on by the USGA).

To conform, a ball must pass five standards regarding its size, weight, initial velocity, total distance and symmetry. OnCore’s ball passed each test, but a clause in the USGA rule book states that golf balls must be of “traditional and customary form and make.” Most balls on the market contain a solid, rubber core.

That’s where OnCore ran into a problem. The USGA’s Equipment Standards Committee rejected OnCore’s design, but Blakely and Coulton were not deterred. They filed multiple appeals, eventually having their case presented before the Executive Standard Committee, a sort of USGA Supreme Court.

“We thought we had a legitimate argument, but there’s an element that’s just out of your control. We just figured it was 50-50,” Coulton said.

“Not me,” Blakely jumped in. “I thought it was 1-99.”

OnCore defied those odds, though, and found out in October the USGA had deemed the company’s ball as conforming.

It was a remember-where-you-were moment for both of them and Coulton was in the perfect place to say thank you for his prayers being answered.

“I was in church when Bret texted me,” he said. “It just had to have been a sign.”

“We knew we had a business regardless, because there have been other non-conforming pieces of equipment that have made millions of dollars,” Blakely said. “There’s enough golfers out there that don’t care whether it is or not, but in our eyes, we felt it essentially bastardized our technology, because it’s legitimate.

“It was designed to not only create a performance benefit and bring more people to the game of golf, but also do it within the rules and regulations of golf. That was really important. … When we got the conforming status, we just knew that was something that could push it over the edge.”

Since the invention of the gutta percha golf ball in 1848, balls have been made with “elastomeric materials.” That rule has been revised only twice since 1921 – to allow for balls with a liquid core, and a small, rigid core like OnCore’s ball.

“It had been 30 years really since a major shift in design had happened to the core,” Blakely said. “We thought maybe now if we do it right, it’s going to create enough of an interest and loyalty from people trying it that this is how balls will be made for the next 20 or 30 years.”

The golf-ball industry is a massive pie – worth $1.5 billion annually, according to CNBC. If the recent publicity they’ve started to receive is any indication, Blakely and Coulton are well on their way to increasing their share.

The MA 1.0 ball debuted at the PGA Merchandise Show in Orlando, Fla., in January. Blakely did a live interview with the Golf Channel at that time to promote the launch, while Coulton interviewed with ESPN. They sold out the entire product they took with them to Orlando.

Since then they’ve also been featured in Inc. Magazine and have appeared on CNBC’s “Power Pitch.”

On the show, Blakely and Coulton got 60 seconds to “pitch” their company to three panelists, and at the end received two signs of support in the form of “in” votes.

Conforming to USGA rules, though, is just one step of the process for OnCore. According to the USGA, there were more than 1,300 different balls from 73 different companies tested in 2013, with less than 2 percent receiving a failing grade.

OnCore will ultimately have to compete for customers with industry titans like Titleist, Nike and Callaway.

“Doing what’s worked for Titleist is the wrong way to go, because they can just do it better. They can outspend us, so we have to be creative,” Coulton said.

That means OnCore has adopted a sort of “guerrilla marketing” technique, low-cost tactics that have high energy and imagination.

That’s not a problem for Blakely or Coulton.

“We really embrace the fact we’re a little different,” Blakely said. “We don’t really have the shackles of trying to do or wanting to emulate and repeat what’s worked for others.”

Blakely is fond of referencing the “Blue Ocean Strategy,” a 2005 book that encourages new companies to succeed by creating demand through innovation, rather than competing in an established “Red Ocean” for existing customers.

“I think we’re positioned to take advantage of that change with the younger demographic,” Coulton said. “The Rickie Fowler-type of golfer. You see Cobra Puma shifting in that way and being really successful and you see some of the more traditional companies struggling.”

OnCore recently hired a head of player development in John Geiberger, the former head coach for Pepperdine University who won a national championship in 1997. Geiberger will be responsible for seeking out talented young players who are either in college or just starting their professional careers to play OnCore’s MA 1.0 ball.

“We want to be associated with up-and-coming players at the beginning of their careers. Someone who is going to benefit from a ball that is different and plays well,” Blakely said. “Someone that maybe hasn’t played for 40 years with a Pro V1 and is willing to go in a different direction.”

OnCore has international distribution agreements in place to get its product into Japan, Australia, New Zealand and South Africa. In November, Blakely and Coulton will travel to Singapore to serve as keynote speakers at the Asia Pacific Golf Summit.

“It’s a very golf-tech kind of market over there,” Blakely said. “So this will be perfect.”

While the company’s aspirations are to one day be global, it will continue to be based here in Buffalo.

“We’re part of the revitalization here in the broader context of things,” Coulton said. “If we can contribute to turning the city around, that’s awesome for us,” Coulton said.

Golfers can purchase OnCore’s products — including balls and clothing — online at OnCoreGolf.com. A dozen balls cost $39.95, while a sleeve is $9.99. As a sign of the company’s burgeoning success, orders for balls are on back order. Stock is expected back in within a month.

email: jskurski@buffnews.com

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