Renegade Golf seeks its niche in crowded ball space

CEO Kenneth Duncan is deftly steering the first wholly Black-owned company to manufacture a golf ball approved for competition by the USGA to the retail marketplace

Renegade Golf is unveiling its third golf ball model in 2024.

The most daunting shot in golf, television analysts tell us, is the long bunker shot. Maybe so.

The most daunting act in golf, however, has to be starting a company that makes golf balls. A few other outfits already have that area covered — Titleist, TaylorMade, Callaway and ... well, that list could stop after Titleist and still be as daunting as a court order.

Enter Renegade Golf and Kenneth Duncan, its chief executive officer. He knows exactly what Renegade is up against.

"I always tell people, 'We’re not going to out-Titleist Titleist,'" Duncan says. “We’re not going to outspend them in marketing or say we’re better than them or that we’re the No. 1 ball in golf."

Renegade Golf makes one claim that Titleist cannot match. It is the first wholly Black-owned company to manufacture a golf ball approved for competition by the United States Golf Association. Renegade Golf was launched in 2020 by Duncan and Drew McLeod, a pair of University of Georgia grads. Renegade is based in Atlanta.

Achieving that first is a noteworthy accomplishment but customers keep asking Duncan the dreaded question: Which Titleist is your ball most like?

Kenneth Duncan

"When people ask that, I tell them I hate that comparison," Duncan says with a laugh. "It’s a tough comparison. There are maybe five golf balls in the marketplace that are cast urethane balls — Titleist’s Pro V1 and TaylorMade TP5, for sure. We acknowledge that cast urethane is a different material that creates a different feel coming off the face of a club than our thermoplastic urethane ball has. The cast urethane balls stand alone but if you compare performance, our ball is similar."

Renegade Golf is hoping to break into the major leagues of golf retailing, which would mean getting on the shelves in big-box stores such as PGA Tour Superstore or Dick’s Sporting Goods and on their websites.

Meanwhile, it is making progress in the grass-roots area, earning shelf space in assorted golf courses around Atlanta, Washington, D.C., and other cities. It also sold out its entire shipment to Carl’s Golfland, a major online golf retailer that also has two brick-and-mortar locations that stocked Renegade balls.

So just exactly how does an outsider take on the golf-ball industry? Golf balls weren’t Duncan’s original plan. The startup initially hoped to break in by making and selling golf bags. Duncan gave up his job as a financial consultant at Accenture to pursue the golf business.

"We started with golf bags shipped from China, then the pandemic hit and China shut down," Duncan says. "The supply chain was awful. We thought golf bags were so expensive that we could find a niche there because the first things people getting into the game buy are bags and clubs. We wanted to make the game more affordable and accessible."

Thus began the learning process. The first lesson was to always pay for freight insurance. Renegade had to eat a $20,000 shipment of bags from China that was lost at sea. The second lesson was that golf bags don’t lead to repeat customers. Buyers typically keep their bags for two or three years, maybe six or seven years or more. "So we looked for a different product to sell," Duncan says.

A chance meeting with a former Titleist employee at the 2022 PGA Show solved the dilemma. The man told them how much he liked their bags and thought there was a play in ball manufacturing. Long story short: With his contacts overseas, Renegade Golf landed a quality ball producer in Taiwan. It was, game on.

Two years later, Renegade is about to launch its third different model. The original ball was called Mbu, a Nigerian word pronounced "em-BOO" that means "first of its line." It was an all-purpose ball for average players that had a very firm feel. Then came Mbu Black, a softer ball with a 75 compression that is comparable in feel to the Callaway Chrome Soft. The newest model is TrE (with the E printed backwards, a nod to the Greek alphabet) pronounced "Tray," the Greek word for “three.” The TrE is for low-handicappers. The balls are priced from $34.99 per dozen to $37.99 per dozen in the mid-price range.

Now Duncan’s task is building the brand and getting exposure. He has a varied background. He was born in Ann Arbor, Michigan, his parents are flag-waving University of Michigan alums. He attended Nicolet High School in Milwaukee, the same school as former PGA Tour player Skip Kendall, and he lived in Roswell, Georgia, within five minutes of PGA Tour Superstore headquarters.

He played high school golf and was interested in attending the United States Military Academy at West Point. "It was the most beautiful campus I ever set foot on," Duncan says. "But nobody told me about the commitment you had to make — four years of school, four more years in the military. I chickened out. I visited the University of Wisconsin in November and that was a bad choice. The wind off Lake Mendota was so cold. I had to be somewhere warm."

In addition to golf balls, Renegade Golf also sells hoodies and golf bags.

He ended up at the University of Georgia, phoned the golf coach about trying to make the team as a walk-on and learned there really wasn’t such a thing at a golf power like Georgia. The school was turning out future pros such as Harris English, Sepp Straka, Chris Kirk and Hudson Swafford. "It seemed more like a professional mini-tour than a college golf team," Duncan says.

Good golfers were everywhere. Even his freshman roommate had a PGA Tour connection. He was John Beck, son of former PGA Tour star Chip Beck, who shot 59 on tour and played in the Ryder Cup. Duncan rates himself about a 6-handicap player now and has been surprised how little time he’s had to play golf since he got into the golf business.

Renegade Golf has not emphasized its minority backstory although Duncan has played golf with Charlie Sifford Jr., the son of one of golf’s pioneering Black players, and has likeness rights to Sifford’s name and image. You’ll find a picture of Sifford on the back of the Mbu Black box and the balls are numbered 61, 2, 3 and 4. The 61 pays homage to the year Sifford first got his PGA Tour card. It’s a nice touch.

Duncan seems to be advancing the brand. Golf Channel did a short piece on Renegade Golf during January’s PGA Show for a second straight year and he appeared as a guest on one of its daytime shows a few weeks later. Renegade has also been featured in Forbes magazine and was included among SI.com’s most interesting Show products.

Originally, the idea was to sell golf balls direct-to-consumers online, like Vice balls. But Renegade has seen retail success in small golf shops. So retail growth is the new plan.

"Having it on the shelf of big-box retail is really the ultimate validation," Duncan says. "We’re having conversations about that not because big retail is the Holy Grail, but in this commercial space, it means a lot just to be there on the shelf next to the other brands. We give customers an affordable option and a brand with a story they can connect to."

Renegade Golf is an underdog but has come so far so fast, it just might be a marketing surprise — the good kind of surprise.

For Renegade, it’s about producing a quality golf ball.

"You have one chance when people try your golf ball," Duncan says. "They’re not going to come back if it’s not a good product no matter what your story is. We’ve had a good couple of weeks with the media since the PGA Show, we’re riding that high. Just getting to a big-box store used to be the goal. Not anymore. Now we want to exceed expectations and give people a brand to root for as an underdog story."

It is no small task. Daunting, even.