When Frank Russo was hired as sales manager at Matrix Tool Inc. about a year ago, he noticed some nearly forgotten cases on a back shelf in its storage area.
Inside, he saw a bounty of colorful plastic golf tees that initially were supposed to serve as a marketing tool. The role he sees them playing is slightly more significant than that - possibly the beginning of a new product line.
As spring warms golf courses in North America, the 30-year-old Fairview, Pa., firm and others are hoping this is the summer that the plastic tee leaves its divot on the game of golf.
During 1996 or 1997, the three sons of Matrix founder Dave Lewis Sr. - Greg, Tim and Dave Jr. - decided to come up with a promotional pack as a means of advertising. Because they were golf fans, they opted to manufacture a plastic golf tee they called the Stand Golf Tee.
The multicolored tees, made from Noryl polyphenylene olefin, are similar to their more widely known wood counterparts, except that the plastic ones are of five different lengths. The length of each tee, ranging from about one-half inch to 11/2 inches, is determined by a nickel-sized disc that is injection molded onto the tee's shaft. The disc ensures the tee will go no farther into the ground than what the golfer desires, Russo said.
The promotional packs proved popular with the companies that received them. Russo said the tees align the ball perpendicular with the ground, allowing for more consistent tee shots, and its plastic material is less likely to break than traditional wood tees.
``Tests revealed that over 18 holes of golf, some golfers never broke a tee,'' he said. ``They're a few cents more than wooden tees [just less than $4 for a 10 pack], but we feel golfers will pick it up more often than letting the wooden tee lay there.''
For a while, Matrix continued to produce the tees. Over time, however, the three sons became involved in the day-to-day process of running the company and the tees were put on the back burner.
``[The tees] weren't promoted that much,'' Russo said. ``[The sons'] full-time job is to keep the company's head above water.''
But with this newfound interest, the three sons are starting G.T.D Co. (derived from the initials of their first names), an internal company for Matrix, and a full-fledged marketing effort is under way. Two undisclosed distributors have expressed an interest in the tees and Matrix is hopeful the tees will be in production this spring, he said.
``I found a lot of documents that all three sons did when they were trying to promote it,'' Russo said. ``I'm just trying to pick up the ball and run with it.''
Matrix, which does high-precision tooling and injection molding, does a lot of work in components and connectors for the medical and pharmaceutical segments, Russo said, and had sales last year of between $7 million and $8 million. Of that, about $3 million came from its plastics operation, which operates 14 presses with clamping forces of 80-230 tons. The firm employs 40 at its 45,000-square-foot plant.
``If this thing takes off, who knows if it will start snowballing,'' he said.
The plastic tee business already has taken off for Lamia Golf of San Anselmo, Calif. Owner Augi Lamia began selling his line of plastic tees, dubbed the Stack Tee, this year.
Like the Stand Tee, the Stack Tees are multicolored and also allow the golfer to adjust the height of the tee. In this case, the tees are hollow and stackable, allowing golfers to increase the length by using more than one tee at a time.
``You can just carry them in your pocket [stacked together] like a pen,'' he said. ``They work good and they're fun.''
Sales of the Stack Tees, which sell for 10 cents apiece, have been impressive thus far, Lamia said.
``We've sold out some stores and we're in the process of making another mold,'' Lamia said. ``They've only been out a month.'' He said sales figures were not available yet.
The tees, about one-third the mass of wooden tees, are made from polypropylene, though Lamia said other materials, like polyethylene, can also be used.
The flexible tees don't damage lawn mower equipment or golf clubs, he said.
``The newer clubs and drivers and the Big Berthas have a very thin titanium face,'' he said. ``Wooden tees are hard and they are stuck in the ground so they definitely leave a mark.''
The flexibility is important not just for the golf equipment, but for the flight of the ball once it leaves the tee as well, Lamia said.
``If the tee doesn't offer resistance, it can change the club's face angle and send the ball off in the wrong direction,'' he said. ``And it can slow the club face down.''
Kelly Elbin, spokesman for plastic cleat and wood tee maker Pride/Softspikes of Guilford, Maine, denied that wood tees are a hazard to clubs or lawn equipment.
He did say, however, that tee manufacturers have been trying to increase the length of tees.
Elbin said today's standard tee length is about 2 1/8 inches. He said there has been a push to increase that length to 2 3/4-inches because the sizes of club faces have gotten so much larger.
``Tees are going to play a bigger role,'' he said. ``It's going to be an educational process whether it's in plastic or wood.''
Lamia said he hopes the plastic tees quickly make their way into the bags of golfers.
``The transition from hard spikes to soft [plastic] spikes happened in about six months, they say,'' Lamia said. ``I'm hoping the plastic tees are introduced in as short an amount of time as well.''