As you can probably imagine, life on golf's professional tours can be hectic, challenging and also rewarding, not just for the golfers but for the people behind the scenes who help make sure everything comes together.
One of those people is Adrian Rietveld, who has become something of a right-hand man to many of TaylorMade's biggest stars over the years, and who also plays a role in the recruitment of the next wave potential world-class golfers.
During the COVID-19 lockdown, Adrian was able to spend a rare long period at home so we caught up with him to talk about life on Tour, surprise successes in TaylorMade's equipment lineup, his relationship with Tommy Fleetwood and his tip to be the next big thing in the golfing world...
1. Can you explain to the Golfalot readers what your job entails, and why it is important in the modern game?
Hi, my name is Adrian and I’m the Senior Manager for Tour Operations at TaylorMade Golf.
I am involved with the next generation of TaylorMade players, which is about scouting to find who we think could be the ‘next Rory McIlroy’. We have a dedicated team who are very skilled and very experienced in spotting talent like this, which I am a member of.
I also work with our current staff of players, which includes Rory, Dustin Johnson, Jon Rahm, Tiger and more. Our job there is to help prepare them for tournament golf from an equipment standpoint. An analogy that we use for this is that we are a bit like a Formula One pit crew in that we work on getting the car perfectly ready for the driver to be able to perform, depending on different conditions or preferences for that particular event.
The level of skill that these players have is phenomenal, so minor adjustments to even the smallest details can make a huge difference for them.
Golf is also a very aspirational game so what’s used on Tour often translates to what is popular in the market for amateur golfers. If we can get our current products performing well in the player’s hands then the whole puzzle starts to come together for us.
The other element of this is that our budgets are not bottomless so we cannot pay or endorse every single Tour player who uses our equipment. There is also a big emphasis on making sure that as many of the best players in the world are using our products.
Every week on Tour there are 156 players starting a tournament on a Thursday. Each of those players has 14 golf clubs and a ball. If you multiply those together that gives you the potential number of opportunities you have for our equipment each week!
Most weeks I have left home by midday on Sunday, I am at the golf course first thing on Monday with our new state of the art Tour Truck on site acting as my office for the week. That truck is equipped to manage any request that I ask of it, from equipment to meeting space and more.
From Monday morning to mid-afternoon on Wednesday before a tournament there is an absolute hive of work going on.
Over time you are able to build relationships with players so that they can trust you, and then any time they may have questions or need anything, they can go to a member of our team that they trust.
Nowadays you’ll see that most players arrive at each event with a whole team around them, and the player’s go-to person for equipment is starting to become more and more a part of that team as they realise just how important it is.
So usually I leave an event on the Wednesday evening and then spend the rest of the week in the office or at the TaylorMade Kingdom, where I can prepare for the next week’s event whilst also being on hand to help out any players who aren’t playing that week.
I also manage our European operations, so I have three other really talented people who work on the European Tour for the company and then I’ll go across for the bigger tournaments.
All of this adds up to about 35 weeks on the road every year, with lots of phone calls, lots of emails, and lots of work!
I can imagine - it sounds like you're doing four or five jobs in one! I thought that was interesting when you compared the operation to running like a pit crew. I suppose it is pretty similar in some ways because you've got so much technology at your disposal, and the players are so talented, that making those tiny marginal gains with the equipment really can help to separate them from the rest?
These kinds of enhancements are extremely complex, and the players themselves have lots of questions too because they are constantly thinking about things on the golf course. Some of them will even get to certain tournaments a full week before the event starts so that they feel completely comfortable with the golf course.
My job is to give these players options, and if I feel that one option may be better than the others then I’ll try to guide them towards that but ultimately it is their decision.
The fitting process for every player, whether it be Rory, Jason Day or DJ, is very unique to the player and so we may get to the end result in a completely different way for each.
2. What is the biggest difference you see with tour players' equipment setups in comparison to amateur golfers?
Well I think if you look at a lot of LPGA players you’d actually be surprised that their setups will actually look pretty similar to a lot of amateur golfers. But the PGA Tour and European Tour players are all extremely well fitted, so the gains or changes they make will be very marginal.
So this probably makes it harder for the players to make these changes because their existing clubs are so perfectly tailored to them already.
But when you look at amateur golfers, the gains that they can achieve through proper fittings can potentially be enormous. Most golfers will have a club in their bag that really doesn’t work for them, either due to the style of club or because it is poorly fitted (or not fitted at all).
So then when you show these golfers how clubs that are actually suited to them would perform, and this can be distance improvements of 20 yards or more, you have to remember that this is not just ‘marketing talk’ but it is testament to the quality and importance of fitting these days where you see golfers making these huge gains.
So if you were to give us an estimate, what proportion of amateur golfers do you think are using equipment that is not correctly fitted to them?
Well if you look at the figures, I believe that more than half of all golf equipment is still bought straight off the shelf, which gives you a clear guide straight away.
If you look at the benefits that fitting provide then you could argue that no golf equipment should be bought straight off the shelf, perhaps barring clubs designed for beginners as a gateway into the game.
There are plenty of people who invest time and money into having golf lessons, and I think they should also consider investing some into a proper fitting, especially if they are going to spend large amounts on the equipment.
3. Which has been the most popular new product so far this year among the players? Have there been any surprises?
Well I think the biggest surprise has been the popularity of the new SIM Max Rescue, which is still in Rory’s bag now!
I’ll be honest and say that we had no plan whatsoever to have Rory using this hybrid. We do a photoshoot early in the year with the players over two days in Florida where we shoot and capture most of our content for the year.
The job for me and my team is to introduce the players to the new equipment for the year, that they could potentially be playing with during the season, as well as making sure the players stick to the right time schedule as they have so many commitments.
So I think it was my boss Keith Sbarbaro who had one of the Rescue heads and decided to build it up on the Truck in Rory’s spec, and then threw it in Rory’s bag to go out on the range.
Rory starts hitting the Rescue on the range, and usually the tour players stay away from clubs like this because they tend to just hit them high and left, but almost immediately this one seemed different. We had the launch monitor there and all the launch numbers and flight characteristics were really impressive straight away.
As he was hitting it, he started thinking about Augusta and whether it could fit his bag there, as it was travelling around 10 yards less through the air than his 5 wood but it was probably a little more versatile. So then for the next two days during the shoot he was carrying the rescue around with him and every spare moment he got, he was hitting balls with it.
From a product standpoint that had a really big impact for us, because not only does he influence amateur golfers but he also influences his peers too. For the whole of 2019 we had built around 250 hybrids for our tour players, and by the end of February this year we were already over 190!
So is this something that you may now have to readjust going forward, if it seems that a club like this could actually be popular for better players if it can be developed so that it is right for them?
It is yes, and a part of that is to do with our layers of quality control too. All of our products are premium quality but the parts that go into the hands of tour players also just receive an extra bit of scrutiny around tolerances because, as they are the face of our brand, we want to make sure that they are using the best equipment that we create.
4. Since the lockdown, have you seen more players requesting equipment to test whilst at home?
Well I think it’s affected nearly every player differently, really. To start off with I think everybody just enjoyed some time to switch off, watch TV and relax rather than thinking about asking for new gear – and a part of that is probably out of respect for the severity of the situation at hand.
Once things started to settle down then we did see a bit more interest but a lot of this depends on things like where the golfer is situated and what the rules were for sending items, for example in the UK we were able to only send products that we had in our UK office to players. There were some products that we couldn’t get access to because borders for shipping were closed.
I’d say that I’ve seen more players use this break, or particularly the first couple of months of the break, to focus on getting fitter and healthier rather than working directly on their golf game.
Now as we’re getting more and more information about competitive golf starting up again, we’ve begun to receive more and more requests from players for equipment.
The other aspect of this is that a lot of the players feel that they can only practice when there’s actually something to be practising for – not just hitting balls for the sake of it. So they need that target or date for a return in mind to get the most out of their preparation.
5. What’s going to be the most difficult thing to adjust to once golf restarts again? There’s going to be a lot of big tournaments packed in so I suppose being able to adapt to travelling, playing back-to-back weeks and hitting the ground running will be extra important?
Well when we restart I think there will be big changes week-to-week in terms of who is actually allowed at each event, because usually each brand has a truck full of staff, then there’s local reps and then the players will have their own team and families too. Obviously to begin with this will not be possible so we’ll have to assess the situation then and come up with the best possible plan.
Every player that I have spoken to so far is desperate to get out and play every event, every week! As a result I think we are going to see very strong fields, and in terms of the equipment I think that players who are playing well will probably stick with whatever is working rather than trying to make tweaks between events.
But I suppose you could say the opposite for somebody who doesn’t start well. The events are going to come thick and fast with plenty of FedEx/World Ranking/Ryder Cup points on the line, so you could see certain players being very busy with equipment changes in an attempt to try and find some form.
6. Talking of the players - which of the TaylorMade staff are easiest or hardest to work with? Are any of them really fussy for example?!
Well of course every player is different and some don’t like to do any work on equipment during a tournament week, whereas others are happy to try things out once they get there depending on how they feel for that particular event.
So sometimes we just have to send equipment out to players whilst they are practising at home, which I don’t like as much because I want us to be there to help interpret the numbers or the information so that it has the best effect on their game.
From my experience I’d say that the further up the World Rankings a player is, the less inclined they are to make changes or experiment with new equipment.
Tommy Fleetwood tests a lot in the early part of the year whilst preparing for a new season, then doesn’t really seem to change much during the season. But despite that there’s still a lot of work going on with him and his caddie every week, and the caddie can be really helpful in passing information to us because they see every shot that a player hits during the week.
I worked with Justin Rose for around 7 years, and watched him create the number one golfer in the world. You have to have a certain amount of talent to get there but you also need the right work ethic and the understanding to work on the right things – and he and his team did that and made it all the way to the top.
7. So how does the relationship work with these players in terms of contact time – are you speaking to them every week, do you keep in touch with their team or is it that they reach out to you when they want to look at something? Do you keep track of their performance and statistics all the time so that you have it ready to go when they ask?
Yes, the work is pretty much endless! For someone like Tommy Fleetwood, we probably are in contact every few days, or at least every week. Sometimes this is with no specific purpose, but just to check in and be a friend as well.
Behind the scenes the work is non-stop because it incorporates other areas of the business including R&D, the selling of equipment, the scouting of potential new talent.
So we need to use this constant tracking because in my opinion golf is the hardest sport to spot potential, and we have to take the emotion out of it and look objectively at who we think are the best fits for the brand.
In a job like this, working with players, I think that to be good at what you do you have to be busy 24/7, even if you are only talking to the players once a week at some points in the year.
Talking of potential talent, it must be really satisfying for you to see a player that you've spotted at an early age and earmarked to go all the way, when you may feel like you had a small part in that success?
It’s so rewarding because its not only working with the player but also his team and his family and sharing in that success. There’s so many ‘forks in the road’ for players to get past in order to achieve what they want to, and it often requires a different approach and different thinking to working with elite players.
The college game is becoming more and more important in the development in young golfers and is something that we are looking at very closely. We have Ryan Ressa who played a massive role in the signings of Collin Morikawa and Matt Wolff, as well as working with Viktor Hovland.
I can image that for these younger players who quickly come household names, it is really important for them to have this solid support around them as they make their way?
Yeah definitely I think that’s crucial. Let’s take Jon Rahm for example, who at some point is going to become the number one golfer in the world. I remember speaking about him to my boss Keith Sbarbaro, who is very close friends with Phil Mickelson after they went to college together.
So part of Keith’s development with Jon was to get Phil to play alongside Jon from a young age to learn what it takes to really make it at that elite level, and it was great for Jon’s confidence too.
So he used those rounds as an opportunity to learn more about Jon and whether he would be the right fit for TaylorMade, and also used Phil’s experience and asked him whether he though Jon had what it took to make it to the very top.
8. If we are to continue talking about young talent then, I wonder if you could give us a name that the Golfalot readers may not know, but who you think could become the next big thing?
Well there’s a young kid coming out of South Africa called Jayden Schaper who really intrigues me. Of course he’s a long way away from the finished article, as he’s only 19, but he already has the ability on Tour to compete with professionals right now.
I remember in his first event on the Challenge Tour he was the Low Amateur but he also competed in the main tournament as if he was a seasoned pro. He then went on to play in the South African Open and was in one of the final groups at the weekend playing alongside Branden Grace.
I watched him play in Dubai earlier this year and I was so impressed with the way that he handled himself. I think he’s really one to watch. As an amateur he set new records which were previously held by the likes of Ernie Els, Retief Goosen and Charl Schwartzel.
Then when you start to piece together his ability with his attitude and personality, and even look at things like the strong support he gets from his family, I can really see him going all the way.
I think that's an interesting point that you make and it reminds me a little of the recent NFL Draft where you frequently hear about players being selected not only on ability but also on their suitability for the team, whether that's through personality or adaptability or mentality.
Yeah that’s right and I saw a stat the other day about high school football in America which proves why it’s such a big job to scout these players.
There’s around 1 million high school football players in the US. 73,000 will go on to play college football for universities. Of those, 16,000 will be eligible for the NFL, where 250 will get picked. So that’s a 1.6% chance of those who are eligible. I think that kind of gives you the idea of how difficult it can be to get these decisions right!
9. Okay, so to finish off I wanted to ask you a couple of questions about you from your life on Tour. Firstly, what’s your favourite event to visit each year?
Well I first started off as a qualified PGA Professional and that was at Wentworth in Surrey, so I always love to go back there and visit because I’m still close to a number of the members and the staff.
But then this year I attended The Players for the first time, even though it was cut short, and I was blown away by the facilities and the mood, as well as just how seriously the tour players really do treat that event.
We often hear that argument about the ‘fifth major’ but having been there and seen that first-hand now, there is no doubt in my mind that it feels just like a major and the players approach it as such.
10. If you had to pick one favourite moment or favourite memory from your time working at TaylorMade, what would it be and why?
Well it’s not one specific moment but I’d say probably the whole year of 2018. I had been working with Justin Rose for a number of years but that summer, having already won Olympic gold in 2016, he went on to reach Number One in the world as well as winning the FedEx Cup.
That same year, I did a lot of work with Francesco Molinari who then went on to break inside the Top 10 in the world rankings as well as winning at Wentworth, winning The Open at Carnoustie and then winning the Race To Dubai.
So I can’t really think of one specific moment but really just how it all came together that one year, and knowing that I’d perhaps made a small contribution to both of those players’ success, felt like just the pinnacle of it all.
Thanks Adrian and good luck with the rest of 2020 and your future with TaylorMade. We'll look out for Jayden Schaper once things get back to normal again...
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