Sonartec: The rise and fall of the club that won The Open

Sonartec Hybrid

Todd Hamilton was the surprise winner of the 2004 Open Championship at Royal Troon.

It was the second year in a row an unknown golfer had won golf’s oldest prize following Ben Curtis’ victory in 2003.

Curtis had entered his winning week at Royal St George's ranked 396th in the world, while Hamilton had been sitting 56th ahead of his visit to his Ayrshire.

Prior to the 2004 season, Hamilton had played on the Japan Golf Tour for 11 years. In his first season on the PGA Tour, he won a major.

How did he do it? With a mix of brilliant golf and a golf club that single-handedly revolutionised the golf equipment industry. That club was a 17-degree Sonartec Md hybrid bent to 14 degrees.

“What’s it called, is it called anything, the club?” asked one reporter after Hamilton had lifted the Claret Jug. “It’s made by a company called Sonartec,” was the champion’s reply.

After his victory, Todd Hamilton never had another top-10 finish in a major again. Troon was as good as it got both for him and, bizarrely, the brand that launched the club.

Seventeen years later, hybrids are as popular as ever, yet Sonartec went out of business more than a decade years ago.

What happened? Where did it go wrong?

This is the story of Sonartec’s meteoric rise and equally rapid fall.

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SONARTEC’S earliest beginnings can be traced to a meeting between Toru Kamatari and Hidetsugu Koyama, the vice president of Japanese clubmakers Royal Collection, in 1998.

A Japanese national, Kamatari had moved to Hawaii at the age of 18 to attend Kansai Gaidai College with the aim of becoming an entrepreneur. However, owning a golf equipment company had never crossed his mind.

After graduating, Kamatari worked for a real estate company. In the late 1980s, they asked him to manage a golf shop called ‘A Piece of Time’. Until then, he had never hit a golf ball in his life. It was there, however, that his love affair with golf began and he totally immersed himself in the game.

Many who knew him at the time said his biggest talent as an entrepreneur lay in recognising market trends. It was a talent that would allow him to launch the careers of Scotty Cameron and Bob Bettinardi in Japan during the early 1990s.

During the 1998 meeting. Kamatari quickly struck up a friendship with Koyama, and, less than a year later, he was offered the chance to license Royal Collection’s patented technology to make and sell driving cavity clubs outside of Asia.

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He seized that chance. In December 1999, Kamatari, Koyama and Royal Collection’s president Yoshinari Kami, founded Sonartec.

Three-time major winner Nick Price was the first to give the company a boost when he put a Sonartec EX fairway wood in his bag. He would go on to become Sonartec’s only contracted player. However, it was not long before more players followed.

By the summer of 2001, David Duval had given Sonartec its first major win at Royal Lytham and St Anne’s. Duval had used a 15-degree EX 3-wood from the tee on most the par-4s during the Open Championship and, thanks to the media exposure it received, interest in the brand spiked.

“We doubled the sales from the previous year and we could have done even better if we didn’t have the September 11 terrorist attack in New York,” Kamatari exclusively told us.

The fairway woods commanded centre stage during those early years. As well as Price and Duval, Paul Azinger had a 3-wood and a 5-wood in his bag. Azinger had wanted to replace his driver with a Sonartec 3-wood, but they couldn’t get a loft low enough or a shaft long enough to make it work as a viable alternative.

The first time anyone saw the Md hybrid was during the 2003 Open Championship at Royal St George’s. Sonartec director Koyama took four prototypes to the Kent links during the practice days. On the Tuesday, Hamilton got the chance to hit the Md hybrid for the first time. He didn’t put it in play until the following year.

Todd Hamilton Sonartec 1

The key to the performance and success of the Sonartec Md hybrid was its patented driving cavity technology on the sole. It pushed weight forward in the head. When that was combined with a face height approximately a half-inch taller than hybrids available today, it made a club that would shoot the ball into the air with very little spin. The result was a significant amount of distance.

Dave ‘Sticky’ Williams was Sonartec’s PGA Tour rep between 2002 and 2007 and believes it was a ‘happy accident’ that those characteristics were given by the club.

“Do I think they intended it to work out that way when they designed it? No,” he told us over the phone. “They built a really good golf club and wanted their signature feature in it because it was cosmetic. It just turned out it made the club into a rocket.”

Ron Levin was Hamilton’s caddy for the 2004 season and he has similar memories of the club, describing its performance as ‘just incredible, like nothing I’d ever seen before’.

Fast-forward to March 2004 and Hamilton had just won his first PGA Tour title at the Honda Classic. The win secured his spot at the Masters four weeks later. Hamilton next saw Williams at the Bay Hill Invitational and told him ‘we need to start working on a golf club for Augusta because there’s no way I’m going there with this 3-wood’.

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Hamilton hated his 3-wood. He had only used it ‘once or twice’ in the first four months of the season. Levin used to call it the towel holder ‘because that’s all it was good for’.

Williams and Hamilton eventually found a replacement. It was a 17-degree Sonartec hybrid bent to 15 degrees that he could draw off the tee on Augusta National’s tenth hole. The club didn’t officially have a name at that stage, but it was the club we now know as the Md.

Williams recalled: “The Sunday before the Masters, I walked with Todd as he practised on the course. He was hitting the club so far it was ridiculous and that’s really the genesis of where his club for Royal Troon came from.”

The week before the 2004 Open Championship, Hamilton was playing in the John Deere Classic. He was continuing to work with the Sonartec Md hybrid, but he wanted it to go further. Williams had found a Fujikura Speeder 3-wood shaft that worked well and cut it to 42.5 inches long. He had also bent the loft even further, changing it from 15 to 14 degrees. It made all the difference. Both Hamilton and his caddy Levin wanted it to put it in the bag in place of the 3-wood for his trip to Royal Troon the following week.

Hamilton’s trip to the Ayrshire coast didn’t go smoothly. His flight to Glasgow was cancelled on several occasions and he didn’t arrive until late on the Tuesday.

While walking the course ahead of the event, Levin considered the deep pot bunkers the most treacherous hazards on the course. Hamilton couldn’t hit the ball far enough to carry them with a driver, so Levin built their strategy around playing short of them. That’s where he believed the new Sonartec addition would prove key.

The ‘light bulb’ moment for the importance of Hamilton’s new 14-degree Md hybrid came on the 11th hole during his Wednesday practice round.

“The 11th at Royal Troon is not only one of the toughest driving holes on the course, it’s one of the toughest driving holes in golf,” said Levin. “Todd stood up there on the Wednesday and I remember it almost rolling 300 yards straight down the middle. It’s where you want to be and he did that a few times that week.”

The ability to use the hybrid from a number of different situations also proved a key part of that strategy. On the way from the driving range to the first tee every day, Hamilton would drop ten balls beside the practice green and putt them using the hybrid to ‘get a feel for how far the ball was running out’.

All of a sudden, Levin knew they had a club his player was very confident with off the tee - something he couldn;t say for his driver - and one which was also very valuable around the greens.

“Personally, I’m one of the worst chippers in the world and always elect to putt or run a ball whenever I can,” said Levin. “Whenever Todd asked my opinion about whether he should chip it or putt it, I would always say putt it or hybrid it. Todd’s one of the best long putters I’ve ever seen and the hybrid is just an extension of that.”

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TODD HAMILTON had a one-shot lead over Ernie Els heading into the final day. After both players completed their final round, a play-off was needed to separate them as both finished on ten-under-par overall.

After the first three extra holes, the American was leading by a shot. The real drama arrived after Hamilton left his approach into into 18 short. Thirty-six yards short to be precise.

“It wasn’t an overly difficult shot. All you’re doing is putting,” recalled Hamilton in an interview with PGATour.com.

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With Els comfortably on the green, Hamilton knew he had to get down in two. He proceeded to use his 14-degree Md hybrid from 36 yards and knock the ball to within three-feet of the cup. He’d guaranteed himself a tap in par and his first major win. It was the 13th time in 14 attempts that week Hamilton had successfully used the club to get up and down from off the green.

“That little shot he played on the last hole. I saw him play it quite a few times,” Els said afterwards. “I don’t know what club he uses… but every time he used it, I think he got up and down.”

Levin was overheard standing behind the 18th green that day saying: “Todd was the Most Valuable Player and that was the Most Valuable Club.”

While speaking to us, Levin also revealed a rumour he heard in the months following the 2004 Open. He had been told one player had asked the USGA to inspect the legality of the Md hybrid Hamilton had used. He has never been able to verify if the rumour was true, but a Golf Digest story published several years later confirmed Sonartec had received a call from the R&A to see if the club conformed to the Rules of Golf.

Questions about the club featured in almost every post Open interview. The golfing world wanted to know more and, for everyone at Sonartec, it was like a dream. That was until the commentators kept calling it something different.

“We were so frustrated that the TV announcer kept calling it a ‘Rescue’ club,” said Kamatari. “We actually received a letter from TaylorMade’s lawyer the following week telling us we had to be very careful about what we said about our product and the words we used to describe it.”

Kamatari brushed off the threat because he knew Sonartec didn’t have enough money to correct any errors made. He immediately called Sonartec’s Japanese headquarters and told them to start making as many Md clubs as they possibly could.

“It was pure chaos,” Williams recalled about the immediate aftermath on tour. Demand for the Md hybrid went through the roof on tour.

Sergio Garcia and Geoff Ogilvy were just two of the many high-profile players wanting to test the clubs. Sonartec quickly tied TaylorMade for the No.1 spot in the Darrell Survey hybrid category at some PGA Tour events.

Prior to the 2004 Open Championship, tracking firm Golf Datatech didn’t even have a category on its surveys for hybrids. Immediately after Hamilton’s win, it found 7% of woods sales in golf shops were hybrids. That figure had risen to 15.7% within six months and continued to go upwards.

Only 46 players had a hybrid in the bag at the Royal Troon. Two years later at Royal Liverpool in 2006, there were 105 of them in play. 

Todd Hamilton Sonartec 2

The number of hybrids in play increased hugely within groups of ordinary golfers, too. Sonartec received over 5,000 email enquiries in the week following Hamilton’s Open win.

As a result of the growing demand for hybrids, more manufacturers jumped on the opportunity to sell more golf clubs. Alongside Sonartec and TaylorMade, Cobra, Nickent and Adams Golf all moved swiftly to grab a share of the hybrid market.

As Sonartec’s PGA Tour rep, Williams was perfectly placed to see the influence of the Md hybrid on other brands when he left the company in 2007.

His next job involved working as a tour rep for Adams Golf. He says their engineers - Mike Guerrette and Scott Burnett - spent months cutting apart Sonartec Md hybrid heads trying to figure out how the driving cavity worked and how its performance could be replicated.

“Their whole hybrid line, from the time I went to work there until the time I left, was all based on the centre of gravity of that one golf club,” said Williams.

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As Sonartec was struggling to keep up with the surge in demand, the other brands were taking charge. Sonartec was dealing with graphite shortages, headcover delays and issues with assembly on a regular basis. Adams Golf, meanwhile, had started selling mixed hybrid and iron sets and their sales were flying.

Ultimately, Sonartec’s demise was triggered by one bad decision in the final months of 2004. The company initially forecast the sales of its hybrids would quadruple in 2005, while sales of its fairway woods would increase by 50%.

Some of Sonartec’s board members, however, were worried about the competition from other brands and the possibility of being left with a significant amount of excess stock. As a result, they decided to only manufacture half of the forecast number of Md hybrids, and double the forecast for the new fairway wood it was launching.

The board members were wrong with both estimates. The number of people swapping long irons for hybrids increased massively and Sonartec couldn’t satisfy the number of orders. Its fairway wood also struggled. According to Golf Digest, the failure to provide custom-shaft upgrades was a big reason it lost sales and annoyed loyal consumers.

Sonartec also took too long to upgrade to more modern technology. The Md hybrid was four-years-old by the start of 2005 and, with more brands entering the fray, it struggled to match the attraction of the newer hybrids.

Between 2003 and 2004, Royal Collection had sent Sonartec five different hybrid designs as potential replacements for the Md. Kamatari turned them all down.

In his eyes, he couldn’t depend on Royal Collection to design new models for the American market. Instead, he built his own research and development team at Sonartec’s California HQ.

While working on Sonartec’s first wedges and a hybrid for higher handicap players, Kamatari discovered a forged face technology he believed would take its metalwoods to the next level.

In November 2006, Kamatari travelled two hours from Carlsbad to Indian Wells to meet Peter Pocklington, owner of GolfGear International and the forged face technology patents.

Canadian businessman Pocklington was a multi-billionaire who had bought and sold more than 50 companies to make his fortune. He had also owned a stake in the Edmonton Oilers ice hockey team and played a major role in signing a teenage Wayne Gretzky for the franchise.

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Kamatari and Pocklington negotiated for several months over a deal to work together and use the patented technology in its designs. On March 27, 2007, they reached an agreement to give ownership of a new entity, Sonartec International LLC, to Pocklington in return for an injection of cash. Kamatari, meanwhile, was installed as president on an initial two-year contract.

The harmony between them didn’t last long. Kamatari and shareholders filed a lawsuit against Pocklington claiming he had failed to pay the money he had promised.

Pocklington denied the claim. On August 17, he confronted Kamatari in his office before firing him on the spot.

Despite original founder Kamatari’s departure, Sonartec continued. It proudly showed off its new Tri-brid line at the PGA Merchandising Show in Orlando in January 2008. By March 31, 2008, Sonartec was closed for business.

“It literally changed the industry,” concluded Williams. “The whole game changed because of that club. Everyone was building huge irons with loads of offset to help get the ball in the air.

“If you really look back on it, that one high visible win that the world got to share totally turned the industry on its head. I don’t think it will ever go back to how it was before. “

Now, Hamilton’s famed Sonartec Md hybrid resides in his basement in his house in Texas. Kamatari has moved on, starting up a magnetic therapy bracelets company called Trion:Z before moving on to work with Toulon design putters.

For Sonartec, 2008 may well have signalled the end of its trading, but its impact on the game of golf continues to be felt. That, as much as anything else, is its legacy.

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This interview first appeared in issue 48 of bunkered (July 2016). To subscribe, click here. International subscriptions also available.

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