Thomas Yang’s passion for American football is sometimes expressed in the strangest ways. Like the time the 58-year-old head of international business at Callaway Golf woke up at 4 in the morning in a lonely apartment in Tokyo to watch the Denver Broncos historic Super Bowl victory in 1997.
“I’m a fanatical Broncos supporter,” Yang says, “and by the time the game finished at about 7 in the morning, I went out to the balcony and just screamed in joy at the empty streets. I had to let it out!”
Yang brings a bit of that passion to his workplace as well—playing golf at some of the game’s finest courses around the world, and making sure that he always travels with his personal golf bag. “In the business of sports, if you don’t love the game, you just can’t succeed,” he says.
Callaway Golf, the only publicly held company focused on golf equipment and accessories in the world, completed itsfirst year in India in January, and Yang was in New Delhito gauge just how well Callaway’s set-up has worked in India.
“The size of the Indian golf market is still small,” says the soft-spoken Yang, “but in the long term, I don’t know if that’s five years or 10 years, India will be in the top three globally.”
On course: Yang plays golf, is an avid skier and loves American football. Illustration: Jayachandran/Mint
With roughly 500,000 active golfers around the country, India would find it hard to snuggle into the top 50 golf markets in the world, but it’s on the cusp of a major shift. The Indian Golf Union, the governing body for the sport, expects that number to quadruple in the next five years.
Yang, relaxed in a powder-blue golf tee, points to the triggers of growth. “The Indian economy grew even through the global recession, and it continues to do well,” Yang says. “That raises the standard of living, people then start looking for leisures, and golf is one of the first choices.”
Between sips of cappuccino at the café in the lobby of the Shangri-La hotel in New Delhi, Yang says golf’s inclusion in the 2016 Olympics will also act as a major boost for the sport in India.
“Team sport is a bit more difficult because it needs a massive competition infrastructure, which is harder to put into place than for individual sports,” he says. “Emerging markets have a better chance at individual sport, and India already has world-class golfers, so it’s the perfect opportunity.”
In its first year, Callaway Golf India’s focus was firmly on the hardware—golf clubs, balls and kitbags. Callaway offers the Warbird set for tyro golfers who need a complete package but lack the knowledge to pick their own clubs. At the other end of the spectrum is the Razr series of clubs, made with a patented material called forged composite, which was developed in collaboration with Lamborghini. “It’s lighter and stronger than titanium, which is usually what clubs are made of,” says Yang.
Their latest product for the Indian market is the Diablo Octane series of clubs, which features a mix of forged composite and titanium, and sits midway between the Warbird and the Razr in price. Both the Diablo and Razr clubs are selling better than expected. Bangalore, the National Capital Region (NCR) and Chandigarh have recorded the best sales.
With over 40 stores across the country, Callaway has also started introducing lifestyle products, such as golf shirts, trousers, sunglasses, caps, etc., in its stores since January.
“It has been a successful year for us,” Yang says, “from zero a year ago when we started, we now already command a fourth of the market.”
Yang joined Callaway almost five years ago after working with some of the world’s biggest brands, including Procter and Gamble (P&G), Starbucks and Coca-Cola.
At P&G, Yang learnt the importance of performance— marketing traditional fast-moving household products that are heavily dependent on functional efficacy.
“Then I moved to Coke, which is all about emotionally connecting with the consumer,” he says. Starbucks followed, and here the focus was on the “experience”—not so much the product, as the atmosphere and ambience of being inside a Starbucks café. Yang brought all these lessons together at Callaway.
“Golf is about performance because it’s a sport and your equipment must deliver. It’s also about emotion because people are passionate about the sport and, of course, the experience of being on a golf course plays a crucial role.”
Yang, who was born and raised in Tokyo, moved to the US in 1972 to pursue a BS in marketing at the University of Colorado, and has been a global nomad since. He picked up golf soon after graduation, while working at a bank where his colleagues religiously played a few rounds every Saturday.
“Then I stopped playing, probably for 20 years. My family and I moved around the world for work and there was no time or space to fit it in,” he says. “I started getting back to golf when I joined Callaway.”
Yang, who plays with a handicap of 19 and has been to every major course in the world, picks the DLF golf course in Gurgaon and the Karnataka Golf Association (KGA) in Bangalore as two of his favourite courses in India. “They are beautiful world-class courses,” he says.
But if Yang had to pick one course to play “the last game of golf of my life”, it would be Pebble Beach, California. “The incredible, beautiful setting right on the ocean, the challenges of the course, which is hard, but also forgiving; and also the service—from the caddies to the ground crew...it’s a fantastic set-up,” he says.
American golfer Phil Mickelson is his favourite. “He’s probably as good as Tiger,” Yang says, “but Phil is more human. He takes more chances, plays shots that I know I’d try but probably shouldn’t!”
Despite travelling around the world for much of the year, Yang describes himself as a “family man” and says his marriage was “a life-changing experience”. He has been married for 29 years to Valerie, a Canadian, and the couple have three children.
“I was present at all three births,” he says.
Every Christmas, the family goes for a skiing holiday to Whistler in British Columbia, Canada, and till a few years ago, Yang and his wife were avid campers. When his family wants a Chinese meal, Yang is the one handling the wok. “My children are always asking for my sticky rice with cabbage and pork,” he says, smiling.