SMT Golf: 'Swing Hard, You Might Hit Something'
OSWEGO, Ill. - The casual passer-by would notice nothing remarkable about this steel-gray warehouse in this nondescript commercial park thirty minutes outside of Chicago.
The cagey golfer, however, will sense something distinctly golf-related behind these walls. And if that golfer has done a bit of homework, he might in fact know that from these humble digs a company called SMT Golf is building up a substantial head of steam, as well as an influential following.
But even if you haven't heard of SMT, maybe you've unknowlingly uttered the company motto to your buddies on the links: "Swing hard, you might hit something."
Twenty-eight year veteran golf pro Mike Tait is the founder and president of SMT golf. Ask Mike what credentials he has for starting an equipment company, and he demurs: "I'm just a golf pro."
At one time the youngest PGA Class A professional in the state, Tait has no engineering background. But this has not kept the drivers he has designed from scratch from capturing four Re/Max Long Drive Championships. His 455 driver, in fact, is, "the winningest clubhead in the history of long-drive golf," says Tait.
Tait also points out that his Spectrum driver is also, "the longest driver on any tour in the world." Nationwide Tour pro Victor Schwamkrug used his Spectrum to blast a 429-yard drive at this year's Shell Houston Open, the longest recorded drive on the PGA Tour.
"Funny thing is," chuckles Tait, "is that the course was soaking wet. It was pretty much all carry."
A lot of things about SMT are funny, besides the motto. Tait himself is engaging and self-deprecating, noting repeatedly how his 6,000 sq. ft. office/warehouse space is tiny compared to the equipment companies with whom he competes.
"That's up from 2,000 sq. ft. two years ago," notes Tait. "And now I have six employees, up from one."
So what's the secret behind SMT's success? Tait seems to possess an uncanny knowledge of what golfers want in a driver. From sketches on paper to final product, he does it all.
And he also possess a work ethic that makes Vijay Singh look like a slacker. "I can't take a day off," explains Tait. "I love [the work]." He must. He personally handles every one of the 10,000 clubheads they ship out of here each month.
During my Saturday visit, Tait was in fact working on clubs for tennis legend and celebrity golf ace Ivan Lendl, his old adversary Michael Chang, and a couple of PGA pros known as Slu and Calc.
There is one more ingredient to SMT's success: Quality. Tait proudly displays the rough casts and forgings of his clubheads, showing all of the numerous places where they differ from the competition's.
Tait insists on plasma welding of the joints, for one thing, which is more expensive but more precise, requiring far less hand-grinding. "I want as few people touching the heads as possible," he says. "The more people that have to work on them, the more chance for variability."
Tait also explains how he insists on using only the heart of the pressed raw titanium for his club faces, to avoid getting near the edges where invisible fissures might compromise the structural integrity of the metal. "You should see the guys from two of the major equipment companies standing in line to buy my scraps," laughs Tait. "And the metal's already been heat-treated, so it has to be re-melted, which completely messes up the structure of the metal."
And when one of the biggest driver producers cancelled an order for 300,000 clubheads at the foundry in china where SMT's heads are forged, and the foundry offered them to Tait for pennies on the dollar, Tait just laughed again: "I didn't want their clubheads at any price!"
Despite the high standards for quality and materials, the prices of SMT drivers are well below the sky-rocketing market average, at just $85-$159 per clubhead, or $200-$250 for assembled clubs.
Building a reputation
So how does someone like Tait make it in a business where less than 10 percent of new companies stay solvent for two years? A lot of it comes down to reputation.
Strict quality control is essential, along with customer service. "We offer a lifetime warranty on all clubs and shafts," says Tait, "for any reason, including stupidity." The industry standard for breakage is 3 percent; for SMT, "it's less than 1 percent."
Performance doesn't hurt in establishing a reputation, either. In 2002, Pat Dempsey won the Re/Max Long Drive Championship Senior Division with a 342-yard blast from his SMT Nemesis, and Carl Wolter ripped a 382-yarder to win the Open Division with his 455.
In 2003, Fred Hooter won the Supersenior Division with a 345-yard shot from his 455, and Jonathan Blasko won the Junior Boys Division with a 366-yard shot using the original SMT design, the Shinnecock.
In 2004, 32 competitors used SMT clubs. The club earned one spot in the Open Division, one in the Senior, three in the Junior, and two in the Ladies, although no winners this year.
Quality is important to these monsters of the fairway, whose clubhead speeds are in excess of 150 mph (Tiger's around 120 mph). Every clubhead (that's every single clubhead) takes 50 shots from an air cannon at 160 mph to make sure they're up to par before it's even painted.
The clubheads can then be custom fit and custom painted for even the most exacting long-drive standards. One past competitor actually wanted a driver with a -1 degree loft!
The personal side of golf
SMT recently donated 40 drivers to the U.S. Marines stationed at Kandahar Airfield in Kabul, Afghanistan. "They'd asked other companies and been turned down," marvels Tait. By way of thank you, Tait was presented with a flag flown over the base and signed by all the marines stationed there, along with the prestigious USMC Humanitarian Award. "That brought tears to my eyes," he admits.
Before leaving, I had to ask two obvious questions: First, where did SMT's motto - "Swing Hard, You Might Hit Something" - come from?
Tait laughs again. "That was a joke that started at an LDA event," he says. "It just caught on."
Second, what does SMT stand for?
He explains, with typical humility, "SMT actually stands for my son. They are his initials. To more ‘business-like' I have often said Superior Metal Technology. It really is about my son though."
To learn more about SMT's drivers, Solitare fairway woods, or Avocet hybrids, visit smtgolf.com.
November 13, 2004