Ed Brown’s father introduced him to golf at the age of 5 or 6 and he immediately fell in love with the game. He even tried playing professionally, competing in mini tour events and in Monday qualifiers while living in Sea Island, Georgia, and Kiawah Island, South Carolina.
While exciting at the time, Brown soon realized playing golf wasn’t the way he was going to make a living. Not wanting to be a club professional, he opted for a completely different path and instead pursued a career in the beverage and alcohol business. Like taking an extra club or two when faced with a strong wind on a par-3, it proved to be a wise choice.
At the end of 2018, Brown retired after almost two decades as President and CEO of Patron Spirits International. During his tenure, Brown built Patron into the world’s biggest ultra-premium tequila brand, overseeing an expansion from 118,000 cases sold in 2001 to more than 2 million annually. Last year, Bacardi Limited (the largest privately held spirits company in the world) bought Patron for $5.1 billion.
It would be understandable if the energetic Brown, who also recently retired from his time as a professional race car driver, took at least a little time to rest on his laurels. Instead, Brown has come back to golf, taking over as president of ClearSports, a company that’s best known for a high-end golf ball that until now has only been available through a membership program.
“I’ve rediscovered my passion for golf,” says Brown, who said he put his golf clubs away for 12 years – focusing on building Patron and racing cars – before returning to the game about three years ago. “Maybe I shouldn’t call it passion as much as obsession.”
But why get into the golf business instead of just kicking back and enjoying life on the course as a scratch player? He shot under par at both St Andrews and Carnoustie last year while partnering with Graeme McDowell at the Alfred Dunhill Links Championship and during the summer fell a few strokes short of qualifying for the U.S. Senior Open and Mid-Amateur Championship.
For Brown, who is building a new home at the Bear’s Club in Jupiter, Florida, the appeal is the challenge of creating another successful brand. The similarities between Patron and Clear are hard to miss. Patron was a small, expensive brand that took the spirits world by storm, with Brown’s leadership helping build it into the world’s best-selling super-premium tequila. Clear’s urethane golf balls are also at the highest end of its category, with members paying about $90 for a dozen.
“Patron definitely wasn’t an easy brand, and it was a startup,” says Brown, who was enticed to join Clear by its founder (and his friend), Garry Singer. “I like the challenge that it’s a startup, it’s something different, it’s cutting against the grain of anyone else. I’m excited about seeing what we can do with this. I think there’s room in the marketplace. I’m good friends with (PXG founder) Bob Parsons and he proved to the naysayers that there was a whole other level of golf equipment from an expenditure standpoint for golfers. I think that will carry into golf balls.”
Brown has been given free rein at Clear and he’s already incorporated changes — completely overhauling the logo and packaging. He considered changing the name, too, but ultimately decided to keep it. Most significantly, the membership model is gone. Instead, he’ll look to expand distribution – targeting the top 500 clubs in the U.S. – and cutting the price to about $70 per dozen.
“I’m not a guy who’s big on worrying about how many sales am I getting this month. It’s more about, am I getting the quality distribution? Am I getting the right people behind this brand? Am I getting the right people using the brand?” Brown says. “I’ll be very patient on how I do this.”
While patience is essential, Brown does see unique challenges ahead.
“When you look at the golf club business, guys are willing to spend lots of money on drivers or putters, but they keep those for a while,” he says. “With golf balls, you can see a guy pull up in a Rolls Royce at a country club and the next minute you see him fishing balls out of a lake or playing with practice ball. So, that’s a challenge. You’re trying to get somebody to spend a lot of money on a golf ball that might only be there for one shot.
“I just look at it as whether it’s golf, alcohol, clothing, it’s just a consumer brand,” he adds. “If you truly make a great product and you present it in the proper way, then you just take one day at a time.”
After building and selling Patron, Brown says he’s excited about the next chapter and returning to the game he first fell in love with as a youngster.
“The golf business has had a lot of the traditional people running companies for a long time,” Brown said. “I think it’s time for this industry to have some new blood come in, shake things up a little bit and get people looking at things in a different way. It’s a challenging business because golfers are a crazy creature. But golf is in a great position right now.”
Erik is the Editorial Director for the NGF. Before joining the National Golf Foundation, he spent more than two decades with Bloomberg News, both as a writer and editor, with a focus on sports business and the golf industry. The New Jersey resident has also written about golf for outlets that include Forbes, LINKS and the Met Golfer.