Ari Techner, president and CEO of Scratch Golf, left, and his brother Chad Techner, chief operating officer of the company, started the custom golf wedge business in Springfield several years ago and it has really taken off. - ASSOCIATED PRESS

A Stroke of Genius

SPRINGFIELD — Most golfers know there's truth in the adage "Drive for show, putt for dough."

Big shots off the tee are impressive, but if you want to score well, and beat your buddies, you better knock dow those putts.

Most golfers know as well that the best way to sink putts is to make sure they're as short as possible.

And that's where the folks at Scratch Golf come in. Their slogan: "The relentless pursuit of the tap-in."

The five-year-old Springfield company is carving out a niche and generating buzz in the highly competitive golf club market by building high-end wedges in a near endless variety of angles, grinds and finishes. Wedges are the clubs golfers use when they're close to the green to try to get the ball as close as possible to the pin so they can putt the ball into the hole.

Stock Scratch Golf wedges that are sold off the shelf go for $199 per club, nearly $100 more than wedges made by the big makers such as Titleist, Cleveland and Callaway. A custom-made wedge goes for $299. It's a lot of money for a golf club, but serious golfers are willing to pay that for a club if they think it will shave a few strokes off their game.

Scratch Golf was founded in 2003 by Ari Techner, club grinder Jeff McCoy and sales representative Paul Friedrich. They met while attending a golf management school at Ferris State University in Big Rapids, Mich.

Techner said he saw a potential niche in offering wedges that were custom-fitted to each golfer. Custom-fitting has become a big trend in golf, particularly for irons, but Techner said few people were getting fitted for wedges.

And wedges are such a small part of the $1.6 billion golf club market — about 3 percent — that the big makers weren't focusing on it, Techner said.

Ari, 29, told his younger brother, 27-year-old Chad Techner, about his idea, and Chad came up with the seed money: $10,000.

The company bought a grinder and a sand blaster, ordered 100 raw wedges from Japan made from soft carbon steel and put McCoy to work grinding and shaping the wedges in his Eugene garage.

They couldn't afford advertisements in major publications such as Golf Digest, so they started spreading the word about their custom-fitted and custom-made clubs on online golf forums.

And that word-of-mouth among the hard-core, gear-oriented golfers who frequent the online forums proved to be an effective way to sell their clubs.

"Without the Internet, I don't know how we would have gotten our product out," said Ari Techner, Scratch Golf's president and CEO.

The company can customize a club endlessly, from its shape, angle and grind to putting personal touches on the back, such as a player's initials. Importantly, they can shape a club designed to fit a player's swing.

Last year, sales increased by 300 percent, to $500,000, pushing the company past the $1 million mark in total sales since its founding, Techner said. This year, Scratch Golf expects to double last year's revenue and hit sales of $1 million, he said.

The company has moved out of McCoy's garage and into a leased 2,400-square-foot shop cluttered with clubs in west Springfield.

Scratch Golf also sells three types of iron sets — the group of clubs used to hit shorter shots and mostly from or near the fairway — but those represent only about 3 percent of sales for now. The company may get into putters, but has no plans to make woods (the clubs used for longer shots), Techner said.

A key piece of Scratch Golf's sales strategy is to get up-and-coming professional golfers to use its clubs.

The PGA Tour is difficult for a small company to crack because top players all have contracts with major golf club makers.

So, Scratch Golf has focused on the Nationwide Tour, which serves as the minor league for golfers who want to get on the PGA Tour.

Scratch Golf gives its clubs away to professional players on the Nationwide Tour, as do other golf makers.

By focusing on younger, developing players, the company hopes to develop relationships and brand loyalty that will continue when the players make it to the PGA Tour, Chad Techner said.

Among them is Kris Blanks, who won his first Nationwide Tour event in June. Blanks said he's been using Scratch Wedges for about two years.

"I can get any club that I like, and I can get any club ground to my own specs," he said. "But Scratch has done a real good job of taking my ideas and implementing them into their products."

If and when Blanks qualifies for the PGA Tour, he said, he wants to keep playing Scratch wedges.

Scratch wedges and irons also are finding their way into the bags of serious recreational golfers. Haggin Oaks Golf Super Shop in Sacramento has been carrying the line for about a year, and the clubs are selling well, said Carl Lightfoot, a teaching professional and club fitter.

"On the custom end, they're a little expensive for most of our customers, but we have a few customers that dig having the ability to make a wedge any way they want it," he said.

That ability to customize a club appeals "to the guys that are trying put themselves at any advantage they can," he said.

Guys like Duane Young, a 43-year-old Eugene sales representative and scratch player, who bought a set of four Scratch wedges and liked them so much he bought a full set of custom-fitted irons.

"They're the straightest, best-hitting wedges I've ever played," he said. "It's made a huge difference in my game."

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