PGA Show 2018 – Progress and Promise

Annually the golf industry gathers in Orlando for what some call the “Disney World for golf nuts,” a.k.a. the PGA Merchandise Show, truly the “Major of the Golf Business.”

Many golfers would jump at the chance to attend (who doesn’t like Disney World?) and yet don’t realize the Show has a serious purpose much less the scale of the industry, indeed its importance. In the U.S. golf has a $70 billion in economic impact, effects almost 2 million jobs and contributes more than $4 billion to charities each year. While there is certainly a “fun” aspect to the PGA Show it is above all a gathering of business people who understand the importance of education, networking and deal making.

PGA and LPGA Professionals, retail buyers and credentialed industry members attend to see and be seen while investigating thousands of products and services on display by the 1,000 vendors exhibiting in the 1 million square feet of the Orange County Convention Center.

Show week began on Tuesday January 23 with the world largest Demo Day comprised of 100 companies and 200 hitting bays spread around the 360-degree practice range of the Orange County National Golf Center. Day two saw opening of the exhibition on the Convention Center floor for the 40,000 plus attendees who took on the task of walking the almost 10 miles of aisles. They chipped and putted on artificial greens and hit the latest clubs in the 50-bay indoor Equipment Testing Center which was busy each day through close of the Show on Friday.

In addition to all the golf orientated apparel, accessories, equipment, products and services the Show is a “major” for club professionals’ continuing education. Scheduled over the four days were 109 classes with topics that ran the gamut from teaching the teachers (“Pelvic Powerhouse-Considerations of the Pelvis in the Modern Day Golf Swing”) to pro shop operations (“Mark Down and Clearance Planning”). There were presentations, meet-and-greets and panel discussions with celebrities such as Blair O’Neal, Karrie Webb, Adam Scott, Dave Stockton, John Daly, Greg Norman, David Ledbetter and Hank Haney.

The Show always is an excellent opportunity to get a “sense” for what industry insiders think of the immediate future and much can be learned by simply asking PGA and LPGA Professionals on the floor a couple of questions. “How was your business last year?” “What do you see for 2018 at your course?”

Unscientific admittedly, and probably biased since those spending the money for travel, hotel and meals are likely to be those whose shops are doing fairly well…probably turning a profit. Shops not in that category are less likely to attend.

Several of those queried said they were looking for increases in the number of rounds played and pro shop sales and almost everyone spoke of specific programs to attract more players. One private club professional said several thousand dollars was being spent to bring in new members. Programs to involve women such as nine-and-wine were often described, and many are starting or expanding group instruction sessions for juniors, women and seniors.

Technology was a common theme as pros talked about how they could take players away from competing facilities and increase soft goods sales in their own shops. Also, often mentioned were more efficient ways to manage their tee sheets and getting a grasp of the latest club technology to better fit golfers with clubs.

Asking similar questions of vendor personnel manning the exhibition booths got answers ranging from “last year was pretty good and this year looks the same” to “sales were up 15% in 2017 and we expect 15% in 2018.”

Neither manufacturers nor attendees responded with doom and gloom and certainly there were none of the negative responses heard just a few years ago.

Equipment companies, especially Acushnet and Callaway Golf which are publicly-traded, are under pressure to grow sales. However, since the equipment “pie” is not growing due to the number of golfers at best being stagnate they must differentiate their products with advancements in materials and proprietary technology. The current market will not support even incremental price increases, so two strategies have emerged to expand sales opportunities.

One, in addition to “regular-priced” clubs, is to go “up market” with higher priced models such as Callaway Golf did with the Epic Star driver by leveraging technology from their bestselling Epic driver. Priced at $700, the Epic Star is targeted at those with discretionary income and slower swing speeds which often translates into senior male golfers. Japanese brand Honma Golf, just now becoming known in America, has a similar plan for their top end premium quality BERES IS-06 driver series priced from $900 and $4,200.

Tour Edge Golf chose the opposite strategy with their Hot Launch 3 family. All are of the highest quality and design but sell for prices at the lower end of the spectrum. As an example, the HL3 driver is $190 or roughly one-third to one-half that of competitors. In putters Cleveland Golf, a sister brand to Srixon and XXIO best known for their wedges, took a similar tactic with the Huntington Beach series. Wonderful design and construction but selling for $100 in contrast with other company’s flat sticks at two, three and four times the price.

The success of one approach or both is an open question, but one thing is true for sure. Every company able to increase sales will be taking dollars from a competitor’s market share, not because more golfers are buying more clubs.

A summary of the 2018 PGA Merchandise Show would have to include what might be called cautious optimism from most of the attendees added to the fact real progress is being made in technology for equipment, teaching and club operations.

New Tech in the 2018 Chrome Soft

One of the pleasures that least in part compensates for having to tread the miles of aisles at each year’s PGA Merchandise Show is the opportunity to gain some insight to pass along to reader about all the new products. This year was no exception.

The people at Callaway Golf had an important announcement the week before the Show concerning the Rogue family of clubs—metalwoods, hybrids and irons—and Show week unveiled their new Chrome Soft and Chrome Soft X golf balls.

They revealed some interesting technology that you should know about.

The original Chrome Soft released in 2015 had a three-piece construction and very low compression which turned off better players with higher swing speeds; Callaway’s answer was the firmer Chrome Soft X. For 2018 they have redone both in a 4-piece construction and added something called graphene into the core.

For maximum distance in a ball such as the Chrome Soft with inner and outer cores, the inner should be larger than the outer which puts the outer under high stress when the ball is hit with a driver. If the outer isn’t strong enough it will crack which makes it worthless and that’s where graphene comes in. Graphene, long thought to be too expensive for golf balls, is an ultra-strong lattice of nanocarbon atoms 200 times stronger than steel but it stretches so when added to the outer core the potential cracking problem is solved.

This meant inner core could be made softer and the outer core stronger. As Callaway’s Dr. Alan Hocknell, Senior Vice President of Research and Development described it, a “crash helmet for the inner core.”

Hocknell also said, “If you think of this inner core as the engine of the golf ball, the inner of the new Chrome Soft is now bigger and softer because it is protected by the stronger outer core, which allows us to pump up the speed, pump up the spin-reducing characteristic of the soft core, and still retain the soft-feel benefits. The outer core is a firmer blend of polybutadiene rubber compared to the inner core and it is made much stronger as the nano-particles of graphene get in-between the long polymer chains and make them significantly stronger.”

Callaway describes the result as having kept the overall soft feel but changed it slightly. Players will hear a crisper sound from shots around the green and see added ball speed off the driver with “significantly” better distance from mid-irons and approach shots. Compared to the original Chrome Soft, driver spin is less without lowering the launch angle, so distance is increased.

Those with higher swing speeds, above 105 mph with the driver, should like the firmer Chrome Soft X while taking advantage of the softer feel of both the Chrome Soft and Chrome Soft X. The increased firmness will result in a better conversion of driver speed to ball speed in the X than it will in the standard Chrome Soft.

The greatest advantage of playing a soft ball though might the “forgiveness,” a term usually associate with clubs, but which can be applied to golf balls as well. The softer the ball the greater the ball will compress with preservation of more ball speed when impact is not in the center of the clubface. Put simply a Chrome Soft ball goes farther compared with a harder ball even though the hit was not very good.

Finally, the urethane covers of both models have been made softer with the goal being increase spin on shots around the green. According to Hocknell even though it is softer it is actually more durable, a characteristic of urethane not true of Surlyn which is often used on so-called distance balls.

In a nutshell, players will be interested in the 2018 Chrome Soft if they want a softer feel with more forgiveness and less side-to-side curvature and the Chrome Soft X if looking for more workability. Both will be at retail on February 16 at a cost of $44.99 per dozen.  

Callaway’s Rogue Arrives

Callaway Golf had a banner season last year with the Epic club family, especially the driver, and hopes to do the same this year with the new Rogue driver and fairway woods. Like the Epic, Rogue has titanium bars (named Jailbreak technology) connecting the crown and the sole that are now hourglass shaped saving about 25% of the weight compared with those used in Epic. According to Callaway’s research the bars or rods have the effect of stiffening the club body, so energy is more efficiently transferred producing added ball speed. The second feature not to be overlooked is Rogue’s new X Face VFT variable face thickness profile which combined with the Jailbreak rods helps to preserve ball speed if impact is off center. This design also allowed mass to be moved altering the center of gravity for a better launch and added to the head’s resistance to twisting.

Compared to the Great Big Bertha, Epic and XR model drivers the face of the Rogue can be made thinner because of the improved Jailbreak rods and after doing an impact probability distribution a pattern for the thinner and thicker portions of the face was developed.

Boeing Aerospace was consulted on the crown’s Speed Step first seen on the XR driver and for the Rogue they were brought back to modify the geometry of the leading edge and head curvature for 0.6 to 0.7 mph increase in speed. The carbon composite crown is similar to the Epic driver but larger, in fact the largest Callaway has ever been able to produce. Measuring total MOI, i.e., both vertically and horizontally, the XR 16 driver had an MOI of 7,400, the Epic of last year tested at 8,000 and the Rogue a significant advancement to 8,600. Any driver over 7,000 is considered a “forgiving.” Company testing also shows the Rogue gave a 16% tighter shot dispersion.

While most of the attention, as it was last year with the Epic driver, will probably be focused on the titanium rods inside the head the Rogue’s face design is worth a bit more explanation. This X-Face with VFT has raised ridges in the shape of a large X in the middle of the inner side of the face with the thickness varying in strategic areas. The result is in addition to producing a minimum thickness overall it helps ball launch parameters and allows the areas of the crown and sole flange near the face to be thinner while still lowering energy loss from vibration.

Callaway says “X-Face with VFT technology expands the area of the clubface that delivers fast ball speed to promote more distance on off-center hits, and more consistently fast ball speed and distance overall.”

There are three Rogue models. In addition to the standard configuration there is a draw model which has weight moved towards the heel…an anti-slice configuration to reduce side spin without a closed face angle, a more upright lie or lots of offset between the head and the shaft. Compared with the standard Rogue it has about 17 yards less slice and compared with the Epic driver with weights moved close to the heel, about 7 yards less. The Rogue Sub Zero for better players is a low spin model but still has a high MOI and has two weights in the sole, a 14-gram and a 2-gram to adjust the trajectory and spin. The Epic Sub Zero had 12-gram and 2-gram weights.

Each Rogue driver model is priced at $500 and will be available February 9. The Rogue fairway woods have the Jailbreak rods (made of steel not titanium as they are in the Rogue driver) with Callaway’s well-regarded face cup design. There are two models, the standard and the Sub-Zero. Both are priced at $300.

Senior Golfers–Get Fit

If you remember Arnold Palmer in his prime or Jack Nicklaus dominating the PGA Tour you are probably of the age when golf can take up more of your time—notice I didn’t say retired…simply a shift of priorities. And as the title of this article suggests it’s time to get fit and I don’t mean go to the gym every day, though if you are like me a couple of visits per week wouldn’t do any harm.

What I’m referring to getting clubs that fit your swing.

You hear people say all the time they aren’t “good enough” to have a fitting but that’s not true. No one has a perfect swing and even good players have days when it feels like they are swinging a rock tied to the end of a stick. You don’t have to bring a tour-quality swing to a fitting.

Seniors are like every other golfer in the world. They want more distance. This means making more efficient contact, generating more clubhead speed and for seasoned citizens probably a dose of slice correction is called for as well. These are exactly the types of fixes a good fitter can provide.

To begin with he will have you hit several shots with your current clubs collecting the data on a launch monitor. This provides a baseline or numerical description of the distance, spin and trajectory your swing typically produces. Then drawing from his stock of clubheads, he selects one that is the same as yours and have you hit more shots with shafts that in his experience will help produce better results. Once he is satisfied with the shaft he picks out clubheads for trial until the results have been optimized.

Two more points and you can be on the road to more distance, better scoring and more enjoyment of this ever-frustrating game.

First, going to a fitter that has access to only one brand of clubs might not be the best idea simply because any given manufacturer may not make exactly what you need. Think about it…if one company made the ideal clubs for every golfer then all the other manufacturers would soon be out of business. For this reason, a visit to the professional fitters at a place like Club Champion makes a lot of sense. They have a mind-blowing 35,000 possible club and shaft combinations from which to choose and the expertise to get it right.

Secondly, since its winter and in most of the country it’s too cold and snowy to be on the course, there’s always the question of whether you should wait until the weather improves to get your fitting. For the answer we asked Jay Hubbard, vice president of Club Champion and his reply was succinct, “The off season is a good time to get fit. You’ve been playing all season and you know which clubs are giving you trouble and which ones aren’t. You are familiar with your swing and will replicate it easily during a club fitting making it easier to find the perfect golf equipment.”

Then we asked him to expand on the benefits senior players specifically can expect from having a fitting.

“More than anyone, senior golfers can benefit significantly from regular club fittings. As we age, we lose flexibility and swing speed. These factors can dramatically affect accuracy, distance, trajectory, and carry. Club Champion fitters receive monthly training on club fitting and equipment. They are trained to help every golfer maximize their game. A key component to regaining lost performance is the club shaft. While club manufacturer offers a few shaft alternatives for senior golfers, Club Champion has more than 500 shaft options many, not available from the club manufacturers. Factors such as flex, weight, torque, and kick-point matter and can either dramatically help or hinder the senior golfer. Finding the right shaft, for your game can add as much as 30 yards with your driver and 20 yards with your irons. The result, seniors will enjoy the game more, post lower scores, and play more rounds.”

Who gets the most benefit from dialing in their club specs?

“Club fitting isn’t just for low handicap golfers. The high handicap golfer often benefits the most. We recently conducted a study with Golf Magazine that appeared in the August 2017 issue. One of the high handicap golfers in the study, Joe Dresnok from Palm Coast, Florida is a 71-year-old senior golfer with a 32.1 handicap. After a Club Champion golf club fitting, Dresnok dropped 10 strokes. He commented, “My old clubs were sabotaging me.  “The irons have been spectacular. I just can’t say enough about them. I can’t believe that I can hit greens as frequently, anywhere from 150 to 100 yards, much better than I ever could before. I’m now hitting an 8 iron from where I used to hit a 6 iron.”

Hubbard followed up by adding, “65-year old retired business executive, Samuel Stecker from Hernando Beach, Florida is a 20 handicap. He commented, ‘I am four to six better. The club fitter listened to my physical issues and steered me into the appropriate head and shaft. I am 17 yards farther with my driver and dispersion is as good as ever.’” 

Golf is a lot more fun is we hit the ball better and score lower, so the conclusion is obvious. Get fit and from my own experience I recommend going to one of the master fitters at Club Champion.

NOTE: A Club Champion fitting is easy to arrange simply call 888-340-7820 or go to ClubChampionGolf.com for locations and pricing. My recent driver fitting resulted in specifications for a Ping G400 LST driver with 10-degree loft with a Grand Bassara 39 shaft by Mitsubishi. They also fit me for Srixon Z 765 irons, a forged “muscle-cavity” design, with KBS Tour 90 shafts.