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Business trends

Japan golf industry looks to cash in on Matsuyama's Masters win

Domestic makers hope victory raises visibility of Japanese gear in US

TOKYO -- Hideki Matsuyama made golf history on April 11, becoming the first Japanese to win a men's major and unleashing a frenzy by the country's golf industry eager to cash in on his success.

"Amateur golfers are always eager to know what gear pros are using," said a spokesperson for Sumitomo Rubber Industries, a major golf equipment maker whose gear Matsuyama used at the prestigious Masters Tournament. "His victory will have a positive impact on our business."

The company's golf and other sports-related business generated 84.7 billion yen ($773 million) in the year ended December 2019, accounting for nearly 10% of overall sales. Matsuyama uses Sumitomo Rubber's Srixon golf balls and clubs, including drivers.

Descente, an official supplier of Matsuyama's golf wear, has seen "an increased interest" in its products since his Masters victory. "We've received inquiries from dealers with whom we've never done business," said an official at the sportswear manufacturer.

Descente designs and markets Srixon-brand apparel under license from Sumitomo Rubber. Its Srixon polo shirt for the 2021 spring-summer season, which Matsuyama wore at the Masters, sells for about 8,000 yen.

An official at Bridgestone Sports said Matsuyama's victory "will greatly impact Japan's golf industry." Sports gear maker Mizuno also expects his success to boost sales.

Signage bearing the names of overseas brands is displayed at a Golf 5 retail outlet in suburban Tokyo.

The number of golfers hitting the links has picked up in Japan since last fall. The game is less affected by the coronavirus as it is played outdoors and players can maintain their distance from each other.

Tokyo golf course operator Pacific Golf Management said it has seen a 15% increase in the number of customers aged 39 or younger since last September. Among women in the same age bracket, the figure is 30% higher than a year earlier.

Japan's golf industry has been seen a steady drop in the playing population as the country ages, but the success of the 29-year-old Matsuyama "will likely draw more people to golf courses," said a Pacific Golf official.

Sumitomo Rubber has long helped amateur golfers with their equipment. Many, including Matsuyama, continue to use its gear after turning pro. Female pro golfers who use Sumitomo include Nasa Hataoka and Sakura Koiwai.

Still, Sumitomo's Srixon has lagged behind overseas brands in the domestic market. According to a sales ranking of new drivers by equipment retailer Golf Digest Online, Srixon's latest product ranked 18th from April 4 to April 11, trailing foreign brands like Callaway, TaylorMade and Ping.

A clerk at an outlet of the Golf 5 golf gear chain at a mall in suburban Tokyo said Matsuyama's victory "may boost Srixon sales," but the store displays ads for foreign golf clubs more prominently than domestic products.

As their home market shrinks, Japanese golf equipment makers might take a more serious swing at expanding sales in the U.S. Overseas sales represented about 60% of Sumitomo Rubber's golf gear business in 2020. The company has been trying to develop markets in Europe and the U.S. by acquiring well-known brands. In 2007, the company bought Cleveland Golf, a U.S. producer known for its short-distance clubs like wedges. In 2017, it obtained a global license for use of the Dunlop trademark for sporting goods.

Sumitomo Rubber hopes Matsuyama's recent victory will shore up brand recognition in the U.S., despite the difficulty of wresting share from well-established brands such as TaylorMade on their home turf.

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