He sees a toothsome future in golf ball markers

Doug Zendner imagines the day when no golfer in the country will dream of hitting the green without one of Zendner’s products in his golf bag.

He makes custom golf ball markers – fancy things, made out of anything from porcelain to gold.

If you’re scoffing, try to see it the way Zendner sees it. There are more than 350,000 golfers in California and more than 23.4 million nationwide. Some of them view the things they use to mark where their balls lie as lucky charms. And if just a fraction of them are fanatical enough to pay from $50 to $120 for luck on the links, well, 39-year-old Zendner could wind up owning his own golf course.

Right now, Zendner of Colfax doesn’t own a golf course. For three months now, he’s been the proud owner of The Ball Marker Co.

He’s also the owner of a business that makes ceramic dental bridges and the like – which should help, just in case he doesn’t get his teeth into the ball marker market. But he’s not aiming low.

“My goal is to have one of my markers in every golf bag in the country,” he said. “I’ve been contemplating it for some time.”

Most golfers just use coins or inexpensive pieces of plastic to mark their spot on golf course greens when they remove their ball from the path of another golfer putting for the cup. Zendner makes personalized, handcrafted markers, and he’s convinced there’s a market.

Zendner will inscribe names, initials, short phrases and just about any kind of design imaginable on his markers. Upon request, he also will coat them with enamel and thus add color to the lettering.

And his markers are distinctive because they’re made of inlaid porcelain, gold and silver-palladium as well as non-precious metals.

“There are really no limits on what we can make,” he said.

Many golfers, naturally, will hang on to their dimes, plastic markers and $20 gold pieces when they discover how much Zendner’s products cost. Prices range from $50 for a marker made out of non-precious metals up to $120 for a marker made out of 18-karat gold. Ordinary plastic markers, on the other hand, often cost anywhere from 5 to 25 cents apiece. Many golf-equipment stores give them away free.

So far, Zendner has made more than 30 markers and has sold about a dozen.

Other golf aficionados say Zendner won’t find too many golfers interested in spending so much on golf-ball markers.

“The golfer would just about have to have everything else before he would do that, I think,” said David Hardison, assistant pro at Valley Hi Country Club in Elk Grove.

He noted that ball markers are easy to lose. That’s why so many golfers now use dimes instead of gold coins, Hardison said. But he does believe that a few well-to-do golfers will be interested.

“It’s more of an exotic kind of thing that you show off,” he explained, reporting that several members at Valley Hi have custom-made keepsakes that they use as ball markers.

But the pro shop at Valley Hi probably wouldn’t be interested in stocking many of Zendner’s hand-crafted markers because of the likelihood that they wouldn’t sell well, he said.

Kit Huston, assistant golf pro at Sunset Whitney Country Club in Rocklin, offered a similar assessment, guessing that between 1 percent and 2 percent of the area’s golfers might be interested in buying personalized ball markers.

“Golfers are a funny breed. If they like something, they would go ahead and spend the money, I would think,” Huston said.

Mike Donahoe, executive director of the Northern California office of the Professional Golfers’ Association, noted that many golf catalog companies sell special ball markers. He doesn’t know of many that use gold and other precious metals, though. “That might be a little bit tougher to come by.”

Zendner also could face resistance from retailers, since some golf-equipment stores have their logos imprinted on plastic ball markers and give them away for free. Among them is Nevada Bob’s, a chain with an outlet in Sacramento. “We just pretty much hand them out,” said sales clerk Rick Price.

Not surprisingly, Zendner isn’t basing his livelihood solely on The Ball Marker.

Indeed, the company is an offshoot of his main business, Sunshine Dental Ceramics, which makes ceramic crowns and bridges for several dentists in the area. Sunshine Dental has been around for a decade, and nowadays it grosses between $60,000 and $70,000 a year.

Zendner sees The Ball Marker as a natural outgrowth of his dental work and his love for golf. He golfs once or twice a week, typically at Black Oak Golf Course in Auburn, where his handicap is 11.

His love for golf gave him the motivation to make hand-crafted ball markers. His lab work gave him the wherewithal.

From 1968 to 1970, he studied dental lab technology at Riverside City College in Southern California. Taught to be inventive on the lab equipment, Zendner and other students learned to make jewelry and a host of knickknacks.

Between 1973 and 1979, he managed a dental lab in San Bernardino owned by a doctor who was an avid golfer. The doctor played at an exclusive country club in Newport Beach and liked to present his rich friends with the 18-karat gold ball markers made by Zendner.

Years later, Zendner remembered that rich people liked his ball markers.

The business has alluring economies. Zendner, for example, can make custom markers using the same equipment employed in his dental work. As a result, his start-up costs have been minuscule. “I invested probably about $250,” he said, pointing out that he had to obtain a business license from the city of Colfax and supplies for his new business.

Moreover, Zendner can make ball markers whenever he’s caught up in his dental work.

He’s still grappling with how to handle one of the major tasks facing him: marketing his product.

Zendner has done a little bit of advertising and has set up a display of his ball markers at Black Oak. He plans to set up booths at golf shows and sell his markers through golf courses around the area.

“Word of mouth seems to be working pretty well,” he said, admitting that he hasn’t fully worked out his marketing plan. “I would like to sell about 10 per month this year.”

Zendner, though, is already looking forward to the day when business will be so brisk he’ll have to open up a separate office just to make his markers.

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