When Softspikes Inc. came out with the first removable plastic cleat for golf shoes four years ago, it spurred a new, controversial market in golf. On one level, it's a classic tale of plastic (cleat) vs. metal (spike), with plastic gaining ground as more and more golf courses around the country embrace the injection molded cleat as a cure for spike-damaged greens.
But the scrappiest turf wars involve a small group of plastic cleat makers, whose number - like the market itself - keeps growing. The players include two longtime manufacturers of metal spikes - MacNeill Engineering Worldwide Inc. of Marlborough, Mass., and Tris-port Ltd. of Tamworth, England-that since have entered the plastic cleat business, perhaps to keep sales from slipping away.
Some 400 U.S. golf courses, primarily private clubs, have ban-ned metal spikes in an attempt to curb the costs of maintaining putting greens, bridges, walkways and clubhouse floors. While some observers note that's a smidgen of the 14,000 golf courses out there, others see huge potential to expand plastics' market share.
The brand names-Softspikes, Greenspike, Tred-Lite, TurfMate - connote products genial to putting greens. The plastic of choice is polyurethane all-around, though both Tred-Lite and TurfMate Plus designs incorporate metal.
Like metal spikes, plastic cleats screw right into the sole of the shoe. The changeover poses no problem for most golfers, since nearly all golf shoes sold today have removable spikes, a fact related to the rise of the alternative spike trend, said Gary Fiola, product manager for golf shoes at Foot-Joy Inc.
``There's no question ... we created a new industry,'' said Faris McMullin, Softspikes' technical director. ``Before we came out with this, there was a trend in the industry toward permanent metal spikes. We more or less killed that market.''
Fiola said: ``When Softspikes first came out, they were the only alternative spike on the market. Nobody knew where this whole idea was headed. As it caught on, we realized there was a market.''
That's when Foot-Joy signed Softspikes, based in Rockville, Md., as its exclusive plastic cleat supplier, he said. But in June, after a 15-month relationship, the Fairhaven, Mass., shoemaker gave the cleat business - some might say gave it back - to Trisport, its 12-year metal spike supplier. Trisport's plastic cleat, TurfMates, available only through Foot-Joy, is just two months new to the market.
The switch surprised Softspikes, though this year the company has forged deals with golf shoemakers Reebok International Ltd. of Stoughton, Mass., and Ashworth Inc. of Carlsbad, Calif., and is targeting half a dozen others, said Brian Golden, vice president of sales and marketing. He noted that Trisport's TurfMates look a lot like the original, patented Softspikes cleat, which features eight arched ridges fanning out from the cleat's center.
Earlier this year, Softspikes brought out a new product, an extra-traction PU cleat with 12 tiny protruding nubs that grip, but don't dig into, the green.
When it comes to problems facing any of these cleats, traction and durability top the list. Indeed, traction is enough of a concern that all plastic cleat packaging - typically they come in clamshells or blister packs of 24-26, enough to outfit a pair of golf shoes - is printed with warnings about the risks of slipping, said Jim Latraverse, MacNeill's sales director.
In March, MacNeill, maker of the Tred-Lite plastic cleat, introduced Tred-Lite II, which boasts both improved traction and wear.
As for durability, plastic plainly won't get the wear of metal -which can be something of a boon, from a manufacturer's standpoint, since people have to change them more often. Trisport's TurfMates are reinforced with DuPont Co.'s Kevlar aramid fiber, which Fiola claims makes them last longer than other PU cleats.
Gripper Golf Cleats offers a ceramic cleat, called the Gripper, that lasts at least 20 times longer than the plastic versions and still doesn't hurt the green, said co-inventor Mark Moore. They are also pricey, selling for $18-$25 a pack, compared with the $5-$8 range of most plastic cleats. But their traction, he said, is equal to steel.
His Denver-based company experimented with acetal, nylon, PU and polycarbonate before choosing first die-cast aluminum, then ceramics.
``We messed around with plastic for about eight months,'' he said. ``We couldn't get the durability or the abrasion-resistance we were looking for, because guys are traipsing across parking lots in these things.''
Though the ceramic cleat is doing well, last month Gripper began test-marketing a PU version using its same, six-pyramid design. Matrix Plastics Corp. of Arvada, Colo., and Cal-Tron Corp. of Bishop, Calif., injection mold the plastic cleats.
Why did Moore choose PU this time around?
``It's a pretty rigorous application,'' he said. ``Nylon is more susceptible to hydroscopic tendencies and doesn't have as high of a temperature range as urethane,'' he said.
``Polyurethane is one of the most difficult materials to run in a fully automatic mode,'' said Wayne Jones, president of Precision Plastics Inc., which custom molds cleats for Softspikes.
Both of Softspikes' injection molders are in Idaho, as is the company's engineering center, in Boise, where McMullin works. Precision is in Idaho Falls; Accurate Molded Plastics, its other molder, in Coeur d'Alene.
McMullin said Softspikes also tried other plastics before picking PU.
``We never found anything that achieved better properties than what we're using,'' he said.
He added that Softspikes is experimenting with reinforcing the material with aramid fiber, ultrahigh-molecular-weight polyethylene or carbon.
Precision does all of Softspikes' prototyping and development work for next-generation products, and already is building tooling for a cleat that keeps the traction of this year's model and ``improves wear dramatically,'' Jones said. His company will mold more than 60 million cleats this year, using multiple 32-cavity unscrewing molds, Jones said.
Accurate uses two 24-cavity tools with hot runners on 75-ton presses, said Tom Taylor, vice president and plant manager.
``The theory behind going to a hot runner was to get it to the smallest press possible,'' Taylor said.
The thread is made with slide action rather than an unscrewing device, which allows for faster cycles, he said.
``That's really how we got into the business. We were able to come up with this tool design.''
McMullin said he picked both molders for their tooling capability: ``I won't even talk to anybody who doesn't have it.''
Unlike Softspikes, Tred-Lite cleats have a carbon steel reinforcement, or flange, overmolded with plastic. The bottom of the cleat looks like a round waffle. In one version, the quarter-inch-long thread is steel, too, which secures the plastic cleat in the shoe - a selling point, since some golfers complain of cleats falling out. MacNeill molds Tred-Lites at its 40,000-square-foot plant in Marlborough, where it operates 16 presses and employs 60, Latraverse said.
Another PU cleat that has been on the market for little more than a year is from Greenspike Inc. of Frankfort, Mich. The cleat has no protrusions, only circular cross sections, and no threads - it locks into place with a downward twist. Basilius Tool Co. of Toledo, Ohio, custom molds them for Greenspike on a 120-ton press.
From a golf shoe perspective, the cleat market is not very big, Latraverse said. Still, ``Shoemak-ers are a little bit nervous. If it keeps going this way, you're not going to need a golf shoe,'' since golfers will be wearing tennis shoes or cross trainers, he said. ``That's what we're all afraid of.''
Gripper-maker Moore said most golf shoe companies are taking a wait-and-see attitude about whether the alternative spike will live or die.
Sales to shoe companies, which are the bread and butter for metal spike makers, are secondary for plastic cleats. Private country clubs, daily-fee courses, off-course pro shops and sporting goods chain stores are the primary buyers. The main market is domestic, though these companies sell worldwide.
McMullin pegs the total market, for now, at 85 million to 90 million pieces a year. Wholesale, that's about $8 million to $9 million, he said. He put Softspikes' share at around 75 percent.
Latraverse questioned that claim, but he would not disclose similar numbers for Tred-Lites, which he said make up roughly 10 percent of MacNeill's total golf spike production.
Greenspike President Ed Abbey said he has sold 2 million to 3 million cleats through distributors and telemarketing since the product made its debut.
Fiola said Foot-Joy was prepared to sell 10 million of Tri-sport's TurfMates this year, though two days later, Trisport's director, David Collins, said Foot-Joy was reassessing that estimate.
``They've used over 1 million [TurfMates] in the first three weeks,'' he said. Trisport, with five 150-ton Netstal presses, has annual capacity for roughly 40 million pieces, Collins said.
The growing number of plastic cleat manufacturers already has got Latraverse worried that more are on the way.
``The market's going to be flooded if it continues,'' he said. ``If this keeps going, they'll be coming out of Asia for a penny apiece.''
Meanwhile, the market is looking good, according to Mike North of Maven Golf Products LLC, and his partner, Tim Bettenga. In July, their Minneapo-lis company began selling Smart-Spike PU cleats, molded by Quadion Corp.'s QMR division in River Falls, Wis.
Consider the numbers: 25 million golfers in this country alone, North said.
``We fully anticipate that it's just a matter of time until every golfer is wearing these,'' he said.
Softspikes aggressively has gone after sales, donating cleats to both amateur and junior tournaments that decided to play spikeless. In June the company signed Senior PGA Tour player Raymond Floyd to endorse its cleats, a strategy that could pay off if Softspikes gains acceptance among Senior Tour golfers and it spills over into PGA Tour, said Adam Barr, business editor at Golfweek newspaper.
``That's what worked for Odyssey putters,'' Barr said, citing a precedent.
Floyd tried out his first set of Softspikes at spikeless Augusta (Ga.) National Golf Club, after a locker room attendant replaced his metal spikes with Softspikes cleats.
Not everyone who gets the locker room switch ends up a convert. And despite disclaimers on the packaging, a company can get sued.
Larry Guest, a sports columnist for the Orlando (Fla.) Sentinel, claims he was wearing Softspikes original cleats last year when he slipped on a country club golf course slope and broke his ankle. He said a locker room attendant put the cleats in his shoes.
Since then Softspikes has introduced its extra-traction model. Even so, product liability comes with the territory, Golden said.
``No matter what you do, there's just no way to avoid it.''