STORY OF MANUFACTURING
The Story of Repair
“A Life With Golf”: 100,000 clubs
People say that the way you live your life really shows in your face.
It may be something of an exaggeration, but Susumu Wakasugi, who has been in charge of repairs at Honma Golf for 33 years, says that “the way the golfer has played the game shows in the face of the club.” The way the golfer grips, the way they hit the ball, the way they maintain the club―each and every one of these things shows.
From the day that they take the club in their hands for the first time, the habits and tendencies of each golfer dictate how the history of the club will unfold.
For instance, there was something we used to see back in the heyday of the persimmon wood. Drivers would be sent in for repairs where the metallic component had started to show because the persimmon wooden sole had been so heavily worn down. The owner likely had the habit of striking from the heel, which meant that in order to strike straight with the face open, he needed to cover the club head over the ball.
Another factor is the country where the golfer comes from. There are a number of Korean players who tend to play hard―real power hitters. Because of this, they wear down their clubs relatively quickly compared to their Japanese counterparts, and we get many requests to replace heads and shafts.
We currently have 14 full-time repair specialists at Sakata Plant, and they repair more than 200 clubs per week. This spring, we’ll be opening a repair shop in our Korean office, marking the beginning of our overseas operations.
Wakasugi says, “What I consider a perfect repair is not a repair at all.”
It’s not acceptable to simply do the repair work as you want to do it just because you think it’s right. To repair something does not mean to replace it completely; instead, it means to restore the item to its original condition. A golf club that has come to fit the golfer’s hand perfectly cannot be easily replaced, even if it does become necessary to have it repaired by somebody else. Therefore, even in cases where we have to give advice, we do the work remaining true to the customer’s wishes.” This is the policy of Wakasugi’s repair team.
Let’s take a look how the Sakata Plant repairs team has changed since Wakasugi joined the company.
Wakasugi joined Honma Golf in 1973, which makes him one of our oldest employees. At that time, he was working at our plant located in Tsurumi Ward, Yokohama City, Kanagawa Prefecture, which had fewer than 100 employees. The work environment was like one big family, and the employees would even go on fun trips together on their days off. That same year, the Japanese economy was jolted by the wild price fluctuations of the first oil shock, and the country began to make the transition form super-growth toward stable growth. At that time the starting salary for new employees was still around \50,000. Even amidst this environment, Honma’s full set of golf clubs, which cost \160,000, sold like wildfire. For Wakasugi, this period of time was like living a dream.
Including Wakasugi, there were five employees in charge of repairs at that time. Being the lowest ranking of them, he was in charge of the process―known as “wrapping”―of wrapping the grip in the grip material. At the time, rubber was not yet the mainstream material used for the grip.
From the Steel Shaft to the Carbon Shaft
When Wakasugi first joined the company in the mid 1970s, Honma made a shift from the steel shaft to the carbon shaft as its main shaft type.
As the name indicates, the steel shaft is made of steel “HAGANE”. When the shaft was replaced, the hosel was heated to a certain point, and the bond melted without the shaft changing shape. This meant that the steel shaft could be taken out and replaced numerous times―and therefore that it could be re-used. In the mid 70s, on the day that the first carbon shaft was manufactured at the Tsurumi Plant, Wakasugi and the other members of the repair team witnessed the first carbon shaft persimmon wood right before their eyes. The task assigned to Wakasugi was how to remove the carbon shaft without damaging the persimmon wood. If this wasn’t possible, then neither repairs nor re-shafting would be possible. This was the one condition that had to be cleared in order to commercialize the product.
The carbon fibers comprising the shaft were fiber made of charcoal which, in contrast to steel, was not very heat-resistant. In addition, the plastic covering the carbon also melted under heat. It was therefore impossible to heat the material in order to extract it in the way it had been done with steel. First, Wakasugi simply cut the shaft from the head.
What was left of the persimmon head was the hole for the shaft and the hollow carbon shaft that lined inside. Wakasugi and his team heated a steel pole the thickness of the hole until it was bright red, and shoved the pole into the hole. The bond and the plastic melted, while the carbon got scorched. What was left of the shaft shrank and changed shape.
Leaving the steel pole inside, the hole in the persimmon began to smell of burnt wood.
If the persimmon was scorched, there was no way to commercialize the product.
Doing it just right was a difficult thing. At the end of a trial-and-error process, we realized that quickly inserting the burning pole in the hole three times resulted in just the right level of change in shaft shape.
Next, we had to figure out how to release the persimmon head from the shaft without damaging it. Taking the end of the shaft which had flown out of the hole and placing it in a vice, we pulled it out holding the head in both hands. If it was not pulled out all at once, the shaft would be broken in the neck, leaving some of it inside. However, if we pulled too hard the head would split. The process of replacing the shaft, which had been relatively easy when they were made of steel, suddenly became a skill requiring highly sophisticated technique.
There were fewer than 10 repair engineers at the Tsurumi Plant at the time, and from then on they would be in change of replacing the old shafts with the carbon shafts, which will later be hugely popular. The time required for each club was more than double that for steel clubs. Including overhaul and loft adjustment, the entire team could handle only 20-30 clubs daily. The repair room operated overtime day after day.
The Heyday of the Persimmon
The name “persimmon” here is the same as that of the fruit. Success with this type of club came quickly to Honma.
When Wakasugi joined the company, the number of employees had finally reached three digits, and before he knew it there were several hundred of them. In 1982, the production and repairs divisions began to shift to Sakata City in Yamagata Prefecture. At this time, many engineers were hired locally, like the current director of the plant, Naoki Abe, and Yutaka Doi, who is in charge of the grinding and polishing processes.
Back when the persimmon was a mainstream, each and every club was an individual due to miniscule differences in the texture of the material, or that came up in the grinding process, etc. Wakasugi says, “Production and repairs at that time were low-tech, but it was a time when we could manage to make all the adjustments that needed to be done working with just our hands.” We fixed all aspects of the clubs, including making fine adjustments to orientation, loft angle, and shape, by grinding the face, mounting the lead on the face, and so on.
There were times when the owner commented on how “the face had changed,” even if we’d ground down less than even one millimeter. The repairs process really helped us to master the art of grinding and polishing.
There is a certain episode that really conveys just how popular Honma Golf’s persimmons were at that time. One famous professional golfer used to send his favorite persimmon in after every tournament to have the shaft replaced. It was an easy task to replace the shaft when they were made of steel, but with the carbon shaft, we needed to pull really hard to remove the part of the shaft that got stuck in the hole. This caused the persimmon material to gradually become decrepit, and in the end the neck cracked.
Even so, this particular professional kept on filling the cracks with bond glue and using the club at tournaments. Then one year he won a grand slam in Japan.
However, along with the improvement of technology, the repair process also changed at a dizzying pace.
During the latter half of the 1970s, when the pulp fibers on the surface of the face were replaced with carbon fibers, we now required a soldering gun to replace the face, whereas prior to that it had been an easy task. We could really get a sense of just how hard the material was when we placed the saw teeth on the score line and saw how quickly the teeth wore out. However, it was also quite obvious that we would have to replace the face far less frequently. In the 1990s, when metal took the place of persimmon in wood clubs, the time when we could do anything and everything by hand suddenly became “the good old days.”
However, this was the time when we were able to hone a number of tuning techniques unique to Honma, made possible by the fact that we had an in-house plant, such as fine-tuning the length and weight of the weights placed in the head for perfect balance, and more.
All the same, Wakasugi and the other members of the repairs team couldn’t help feeling that they were now at a huge turning point.
Moving from Simple Repairs to Entirely New Ground
In 2004, Honma installed launch monitor in our stores.
By simply hitting balls in the strike test laboratory, we can now measure post-impact strike angle, head speed, spin, etc., and with this data we are able to do preliminary estimates of trajectory orientation, carry, and so on.
The device has added scientific analysis to the process of selecting clubs for development, where previously discussions with customers and the intuition of salesmen honed over long years had been critical. It was at this time that Honma had just launched its revolutionary ARMRQ shaft, which utilized 4-axis carbon fiber. Just then, the concepts of re-shafting and re-fitting took hold in the golf club market industry. “During the time of the persimmon, adjustments were made by grinding the head. However, when it comes to metal, adjustments are made mainly to the shaft,” says Wakasugi. “The shaft has to be changed to accommodate the head, which could no longer be ground in the way the persimmon had.” The process of popularizing re-shafting became a job for innovative technology.
Wakasugi and the repairs team went from being expert repairmen in the 1990s to a “golf concierge” that could re-shaft and fit clubs in accordance with customer needs. In 2005, when the Beres series was launched, the five star full-made-to-order production system, the “five-start couture,” was introduced. The repairs team and the sales team collaborated for the first time ever in the company’s half-century history, creating a highly specialized fitting team.
Under the five-star couture system, the team consults with the golfer in his or her swing and any requests using dozens of criteria. As it was during the time of the persimmon, we began crafting one-of-a-kind golf clubs for individual golfers. It’s part of the team’s daily work to get the right information for each and every spec category, and they feel that it’s extremely important to communicate with the customer in this regard.
“At first glance of a club, we predict what our customer’s needs are, then like an echo customer requests exactly as what we predicted.”
The repairs team now operates on a global scale.
Nowadays, staff are sent to the Korean repairs office, completed in May, for a month at a time on a rotating schedule to make regular repairs. Previously, it took a month to repair a club, but this system has shortened the time to a minimum of three days. In Hong Kong as well, we’ve responded to requests for Sakata to send staff for repair and maintenance of clubs. Now Wakasugi grapples with the issue of how to best serve our overseas customers without any time lag.
As Wakasugi looks back on his life of 100,000 clubs, thinking about his quarter century of life with golf, he now looks forward to a borderless future.