Golf brands come and golf brands go. That’s simply the way of the world. There was a time when Penfold Golf was the name in golf balls in Europe. That time, however, is long gone. So, it’s fair to ask why is an English squash pro living in Philly trying to bring the brand back in North America? It’s also fair to ask if we really need another Direct-to-Consumer golf ball brand.
Penfold’s history is a fascinating look at the way things used to be. The new Penfold Golf is an interesting look at the new reality of golf: if you have a story to tell, there’s a business opportunity.
Penfold. Albert Penfold
“There’s a massive nostalgic appeal to Penfold,” says Gavin Perrett, co-owner of Penfold Golf and the man in charge of bringing Penfold to life in North America. “It was the best golf ball in the world in its time.”
Never heard of Penfold? You’re not alone. But if you’re a European of a certain age or an avid James Bond fan, you may well know at least some of the Penfold story.
Albert Ernest Penfold made his golf ball bones back in the Gutta Percha days. He was a kind of rubber savant who figured out a way to make a pure white Gutta Percha that was easier to find than the normal dull gray ones. By 1919 Penfold went to work for Dunlop Golf and developed the very first ball to carry the name Maxfli.
I know you’ve heard of that.
Penfold opened his golf ball factory in Birmingham, England in 1927, and within a few years knocked the R&A on its tea and crumpets. At the time, the R&A was on a crusade to limit golf ball distance (sound familiar?). It created a golf ball specification designed to restrict flight and sent it to ball manufacturers.
Penfold took one look at the specs and said, “Bollocks, I can make a ball to those exact specifications that will still fly well past what those other tossers can come up with.”
Okay, I made up the quote, but that’s essentially what happened. The Penfold golf ball Dechambeaud the field, consistently blowing away the other balls. Turns out Penfold developed a unique winding technique that maximized tension on the rubber threads by randomizing the pattern so too many threads didn’t cross at the same point.
Basically, old Albert Ernest created the ProV1 of his day.
The Balls of Bond
Penfold was killed in 1941 when, sailing back from America, his ship was sunk by a Nazi U-boat. The company was taken over by his son and maintained its place as a golf ball leader. By the 1950s, Penfold began using playing card suits (Hearts, Diamonds, Clubs, Spades) instead of numbers to identify its balls, which became its signature. In the early 1960s, Penfold Golf was the first company to produce over a million golf balls in a calendar year.
Perhaps Penfold’s biggest claim to fame came in 1964 thanks to Sean Connery’s sleight of hand. Connery’s 007 famously gamed a Penfold Heart in his big match against Auric Goldfinger, which sent orders for Penfold balls through the roof.
In 1974, Penfold’s son sold out to Colgate-Palmolive. It sounds like a strange move, but Colgate-Palmolive’s leadership was investing heavily in sports at the time and sponsored several golf events throughout Europe. In 1976, Penfold sponsored the European PGA Championship, won by Arnold Palmer using a Penfold ball. Gary Player was a Penfold staffer, as was Nick Faldo. Nearly lost to history, Seve won the ’79 Open Championship gaming a Penfold.
Penfold continued making balls at its Birmingham plant into the 1990s, but by 1990 the R&A outlawed the traditionally smaller British golf ball (it outlawed the smaller ball for the Open in the ’70s). That made much of Penfold’s equipment obsolete. Manufacturing ultimately shifted to Korea, and the slow descent into irrelevance began.
The Here and Now
A couple of ownership changes later brings us up to date. Penfold resurfaced in the UK in the mid-2000s as a lifestyle and nostalgia brand. It offered classic apparel as well as Bond-themed Penfold Heart balls, individually wrapped as they were in the 1960s.
Enter Gavin Perrett and his partner, Paul Silk.
“We have quite a fantastic history,” says Perrett, a native of the UK. “We’re going to work with that history to build the brand into a modern golf brand, which includes clothing and accessories. With COVID-19, this is the worst time to be doing this, but the plan has always been to build slowly.”
Visit the Penfold-USA website and you’ll get an idea of just how slowly. Right now, you can buy balls, tees, poker chip ball markers, gloves, stickers, and hats. That’s it. The UK website has much broader offerings, including classic apparel. That appears to be the blueprint for North America.
“Next year, we’ll be rolling out a line of clothing,” says Perrett. “Polo shirts, long-sleeve shirts, sweaters, stuff like that, all in line with the company and its history. Right now, I’m working with one of the world’s best men’s clothing designers, and our aim is to be at the 2021 PGA Show.”
Which begs the question, is Penfold an apparel company that sells golf balls, or a golf ball company that sells apparel?
“That’s a good question,” admits Perrett. “Ultimately, Penfold has always been a golf ball company with accessories, but we see ourselves more in the middle. We see ourselves as a lifestyle brand as well as a golf brand.”
Hearts & Minds
Penfold offers two golf balls on its website. The three-piece Penfold Heart ($27/doz) is an ionomer covered distance ball, and the Heart name is clearly a nod to 007.
The Penfold Dual iD ($36/doz) is a four-piece urethane covered performance ball and features a ball number and playing card suit for identification. Dual iD. Get it?
Neither ball, however, is listed on the USGA or R&A conforming lists, although Penfold’s website says the Heart “conforms with USGA and R&A rules.” It’s a not uncommon semantics distinction some small brands make, as those listings aren’t free. Penfold apparently hasn’t paid the freight to make it official, but there’s no reason to think the balls would be non-conforming.
Bottom line: while fine for casual rounds, don’t game one in a USGA or R&A sanctioned competition.
Bottomer line: if you play in sanctioned events, you’re probably not gaming a Penfold anyway.
“We’re not going to be a Titleist, a TaylorMade or a Bridgestone,” says Perrett. “We’re not going to be out there advertising golf balls, golf balls, golf balls. The balls are there, and if people want them, they’re going to be good balls at a good price.”
If you’re even thinking of typing something like why would I buy these when I can get my Snell’s for less in the Comments section, don’t bother. You’re not a Penfold customer. I’ve gamed both balls. They’re playable, but neither stand out. However, if you just want to channel your inner 007 during a casual nine after work, they’re perfectly acceptable options.
Perrett does say he ultimately wants to build relationships with Pro Shops and hopes to build that business along with Direct-to-Consumer. At that point, getting on the USGA conforming list will become paramount.
So, What is Penfold?
It’s easy to dismiss Penfold with a cursory glance and a snarky “nothing to see here.” But the fact it even exists is a testament to the power of both the internet and nostalgia. I’m not sure how many times I had watched Goldfinger without catching the Penfold Heart reference. It wasn’t until I saw a post on Penfold’s Instagram account that two and two added up to four.
If you play golf for fun and like gaming something a little different, then, to paraphrase Perrett, Penfold is something you’ll enjoy playing.
Should you care about Penfold? That’s very much an open question. The heritage says golf balls, but the big picture suggests an upstart side-project lifestyle-apparel brand. Penfold is established – sort of – as a lifestyle brand in the UK. Perrett, who is the head squash pro at Philadelphia’s Springside Chestnut Hill Academy, is a one-man-band here in North America.
“I’m one of the owners. I want to hear what people think,” he says. “We want to be absolutely respectful of this fantastic and historic brand.”
Companies such as Penfold simply wouldn’t exist without the internet. But that doesn’t mean they shouldn’t. If Perrett can come up with some interesting apparel and sell a few golf balls to create a nice business for himself, then more power to him. To his credit, he understands that initially, Penfold is going to be about nostalgia. He also knows it can’t stay there.
“We want to be the best we can be,” says Perrett. “Our ball is going to be a ball that guys enjoy playing. It’s going to look unique and it’s going to play well. That’s it. That’s all we want to do. We want to create something people are going to enjoy.”