• Buy from a reputable dealer either online or in the store
• Research the product on the manufacturer's website
• Avoid too good to be true sales online because they are too good to be true
• Look at the shipper and know most fakes come from Asia
• If you have bought a fake club, inform the Internet Crime Compliance Center
It's estimated that there are more than enough counterfeit golf clubs in the United States that if they were laid end to end they would stretch from Winged Foot in New York to Torrey Pines in San Diego.
Employees at Golfsmith and Golf Headquarters in the Hamilton Place area see several counterfeit clubs each week when customers want to trade or sell clubs they own.
And most of the time, the customer doesn't even know he or she has been duped because the imitations are almost impossible to identify.
"People trade in counterfeit clubs not knowing they have them," said Jon Williams, who has owned Golf Headquarters for 22 years. "A lot of times they don't know it's fake unless it breaks. It's typically something very small like a color just a little off or a font size. You really need to have the imitation and the real one side by side to see the difference.
"They look the same, but they're different components."
Casey Atherton, floor supervisor at Golfsmith, has seen his share of counterfeits.
Within the last month, he said, a customer came in wanting to trade in a TaylorMade RBZ wedge for a hybrid. But something didn't seem right. So he went to the rack and pulled down an actual RBZ iron and held them next to each other.
"The greens were a slight shade different and the hex design was just a little off,"Atherton said. "He was very apologetic, and it was clear he wasn't trying to pull something off. He said he bought them from Amazon, which is a reputable dealer.
"I believed him because I think nine out of 10 people who work in the industry would believe a counterfeit is real unless they're able to see them side by side."
Atherton said one associate accepted a full set of Titleist AP2 irons that they later determined to be counterfeit because one extra letter was added to engraving on the hosel.
Manufacturers began combating counterfeit clubs by adding serial numbers to the hosel. Counterfeiters caught up and stamped fake numbers. Then they added real numbers but perhaps that of a driver on a hybrid. Now, there may be 10,000 fake clubs with a code corresponding to a real Titleist, Cobra or Callaway club.
The five biggest manufacturers -- Callaway-Odyssey, TaylorMade-adidas Golf, PING, Acushnet and Cleveland Golf -- created the U.S. Golf manufacturers Anti-Counterfeiting Working Group in 2004 to combat the epidemic hurting their industry.
Jason Rocker, spokesman for the group, said the companies are always trying to stay a step ahead of the scam artists who are selling sub-standard equipment under the guise of being the real thing.
"We're not talking about knock-offs that sell under a different name like TaylorMake, we're dealing with criminals and they don't keep hard records," Rocker said. "They're fakes, and they're meant to dupe people."
According to one national retailer -- who didn't want to hurt their relationship with TaylorMade -- the company will likely imbed microchips in their clubs so an authorized dealer or company representative can scan the club with a hand-held device and see when and where the club was made or if it's an imitation.
"Different manufacturers are taking different courses of action," Rocker said. "There is nothing uniform, but they're working on new ways to ensure customers know their products are real."
Counterfeit clubs look like the real thing, and sometimes they perform almost like real things for a while. Toby Browne, who worked at Black Creek Club and is now at GolfSmith, recalled a member shooting 2 under in one round then even in the next before learning his irons were Titleists in logo only.
"He couldn't bring himself to play with those clubs again," Browne said.
Some counterfeit clubs are dangerous because there is no quality control. Club heads can fly off, shafts can shatter and grips can slip.
Williams said he saw a wedge with two shafts shoved together without any epoxy in one club.
"They don't put the time and effort into building them properly," Atherton said. "A set of Titleist or Ping irons should last a minimum of 10-12 years. A fake set will last two years at most."
Counterfeit products -- clubs, balls, gloves and apparel -- impact the manufacturers, retailers and customers. Williams recalled a customer wanting to trade in a TaylorMade R11 driver because the screw to the shaft broke. Williams was ready to offer him a lower loft, then realized the club wasn't a real TaylorMade.
"This gentleman had always played Callaway but gave the R11 a try," Williams said. "He would have been anti-TaylorMade for life because his experience with what he thought was a TaylorMade was terrible. But he'd never hit a real TaylorMade club.
"The brand and the logo is worth everything."
Counterfeits are worth nothing.
Contact David Uchiyama at email@example.com or at 423-757-6484. Follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/UchiyamaCTFP.