It has been a huge spring for OnCore Golf, the Buffalo-based golf ball manufacturer.
In early April, OnCore’s top ball – the Elixr – earned a gold medal on the annual “Hot List” published by Golf Digest. That was a high-profile breakthrough for the company, founded in 2009.
Two weeks later, golf legend Gary Player used the OnCore Elixr to hit his ceremonial tee shot to open the Masters Tournament in Augusta, Ga. Player had the OnCore logo on his bag and on the golf shirt he wore for the ceremonial shot, which gets worldwide attention.
“When we started out, people said there’s no way you can possibly make a golf ball as good as the big guys, who have billions of dollars,” said Steve Coulton, co-founder and director of sales for OnCore. “As much as we would tell people that we can make it just as good if not better, this is proof putting us in the league of those established companies. So it was just amazing.”
The golf ball business is about a $1.5 billion industry, and it’s dominated by corporate behemoths. Tiger Woods plays a ball made by Bridgestone Golf, which is a division of the $3 trillion Bridgestone Corporation. The No. 1 golf ball brand on the PGA Tour, Titleist, is part of the $1.6 billion Acushnet Holdings Company.
So when Golf Digest put OnCore on its Gold Medal Hot List for the first time (with nine other balls in the $25-$35 category), it was validation that the Buffalo company has carved out a small but respected niche in the industry.
“It’s great for us just because we’ve always tried to make sure we have the best in class in high-performance, technology-driven golf balls,” said Bret Blakely, OnCore co-founder and director of branding and marketing. “We’ve decided to go the route of not paying for validation, meaning we’re not going to go out and raise a bunch of money and spend it all on a couple players to play it.
"We feel it’s much more authentic to have that organic, word-of-mouth, visceral reaction from our customers, which we do get, which is why we’ve been able to grow and stay alive and thrive in a very tough industry.”
Blakely and Coulton founded the company with the help of Blakely’s father, Keith, who has a background in advanced materials and nanotechnology. OnCore made waves in the ball industry in 2012 by introducing a ball with a hollow metal core. That ball was added to the U.S. Golf Association’s conforming list in 2014. The USGA has strict rules on specifications for golf balls it classifies as legal to use in competition.
The idea behind the OnCore’s 2012 ball was it used perimeter weighting, which promotes a straighter ball flight. It’s a concept golfers are familiar with in their irons.
In 2016, OnCore debuted its Avant ball, selling for $19.99 a dozen, which kept the perimeter-weighting principles but without the hollow metal core. It’s a two-piece ball with a lower compression (55), which allows average golfers with slower swing speeds to get more distance.
Then in 2017, OnCore entered the competition with higher-performing balls, such as the Titleist ProV1, by introducing the Elixr. It’s a three-piece ball with a higher compression (85) for those with faster swing speeds.
“With the Avant, we were able to create perimeter weighting basically by using an oversized interior core and making sure the weight was more toward the perimeter of that,” said Bret Blakely.
“With the Elixr, what we did is we took high-density metallic particles and pretty much blew them up into microscopic pieces and peppered those around the mantle of the Elixr,” he said. “That created not only the perimeter weighting but kind of a trampoline effect off the tee, because it stiffens the harder it gets hit. But then it maintains softness around the greens because you’re not hitting it with as much force.”
Golf Digest was impressed.
“Golf-ball chemistry is like baking,” it wrote in its April issue. “Adding different ingredients alters the final product. In this instance, a composite core combines with a new mantle infused with high-density particles to boost perimeter weighting. That raises the ball’s stability for better control in breezy conditions.”
The Avant also made the Golf Digest Hot List, in the silver medal category for $25-and-under balls.
Player, the 83-year-old nine-time major winner, also was impressed. In fact, he sought out OnCore, not the other way around.
OnCore has been selling its balls for some time at courses in Southeast Florida, where Player lives. Player’s son, Wayne, tried the Elixr, loved it, and talked his father into trying it.
“Gary fell in love with it,” said Keith Blakely, OnCore chairman. “He and Wayne called me one day. He said, 'I just want to understand what you guys are doing that’s different, and are you in this for the long haul?' ”
Player decided to endorse the ball and become a shareholder in the company.
OnCore got another high-profile investor – Charles Schwab, founder of the bank and stock brokerage firm – the same way. Schwab, who has strong ties in the golf industry, became an OnCore investor in November.
“We’re very excited about 2019,” Keith Blakely said. “We believe there will finally be from a market-share standpoint some attention being paid to what OnCore is accomplishing. That’s part of the reason we brought in the new investment capital from Schwab. Part of the focus now is to have the gas in the tank to really drive that direct-to-consumer awareness.”
While OnCore balls might be found in some retail stores, the focus of the company is to sell its product online, at oncoregolf.com.
“We’re pushing people to the online store,” Keith Blakely said. “We’re going to let the online business drive our growth.”
Story topics: 2019 golf preview