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Couples Behind Golf Industry’s Surprise Best Seller

When professional athletes in branded gear make a big splash, sports marketing insiders can’t wait to comment on how big a particular line of clothing or shoes will sell because of it. More often than not, I check back months later to find out it was not as big as it was made out to be.

Freddie Couples didn’t win this year’s Masters. But what happened to the shoes he wore in Augusta through, and the subsequent demand for them, will be part of sports marketing lore.

Ecco's Men's Golf Street Shoes
Source: Ecco
Ecco's Men's Golf Street Shoes

The fascinating story has its roots at a sales conference in January, when Ecco unveiled its spikeless Golf Street shoes.

It was a hybrid product made to be different.

But knowing that golf shoe history had only bad things to say about these types of ideas, the company understandably played it conservatively.

Sales projections for the $140 shoe in 2010? 2,000 pairs.

As an endorser of Danish shoe company Ecco for the past four years, the 50-year-old Couples had his choice of what he wanted to put on his feet this year. He asked for a few pairs. With the shoes on his feet, he won three tournaments in a row on the Champions Tour leading up to the Masters.

Ecco started to get some calls. A few stories about the shoes dribbled out. Without the spikes, they were easy to spot. Even easier when Couples trotted out on the golf course when he wore them without socks.

Then came the first week in April, where Couples, playing his 26th Masters, fired a six-under par 66 — good for the best round on the day. As Couples continued to play well throughout the tournament, the shoes he was wearing continued to be the talk.

“We honestly didn’t expect him to wear them at Augusta because it’s an up and down course and if it gets wet, it could get slippery,” said David Hetler, Ecco’s US specialty sales director.

But the shoes traction bars obviously proved to be enough and Couples exposure has led to millions of dollars in sales that the company is just cashing in on.

"Now, it’s going to be the biggest selling golf shoe in our history in the US market." -Ecco, David Hetler

Ecco put production of the shoe into overdrive and air freighted 26,000 pairs that started hitting stores this month. Another 55,000 pairs will hit US retailers in the fall and Hetler says the company has already taken orders on more than 80,000 pairs of the shoes for the first quarter of next year. That includes orders from traditional shoe retailers like Nordstrom , which almost never takes orders on niche golf shoes.

“It was going to be less than one percent of what sold this year,” Hetler said. “Now, it’s going to be the biggest selling golf shoe in our history in the US market.”

There haven’t been many products in the golf industry that have had retailers begging, but the Golf Street line, which now comes in five color combinations, is definitely now one of them.

Matt George, senior buyer for apparel and shoes for Golfsmith , said that at the time of the Masters the shoes were in 6 of 76 Golfsmith stores. Pretty soon they’ll be in all of them — with point-of-purchase displays featuring Couples.

Said George: “I’ve been doing this for 10 years and in the shoe and apparel space, I can only remember one other item that caused more stir: the short sleeve Nike mock turtleneck that Tiger wore in March 2003. This thing caught Ecco by surprise and caught us by surprise.”

Questions? Comments? SportsBiz@cnbc.com