Criticism of Driving Distance is a Nonstarter

Television commentators often talk about how far players hit the golf ball and this prompted the thought that by looking the results of PGA Tour players who have the highest driver swing speeds we could gain some insight into the current criticism of ball distance. So, here are the “fast five” as of the Arnold Palmer Invitational–statistics provided by the PGA Tour:

Keith Mitchell 123.97 mph
Rory McIlroy 122.34 mph
Tiger Woods 121.90 mph
Tony Finau 121.90 mph
Gary Woodland 121.84 mph

The “elites,” touring professionals and top caliber amateurs, unquestionably hit the ball farther than in the past however that’s not the issue. We need to know if added distance is a detriment to the game.

By analyzing the results of those with the highest swing speeds we should see a correlation with driving distance, scoring and money won and taking the elite of the elites, average driving distance is:

Keith Mitchell 312.1 yards
Rory McIlroy  314.1 yards
Tiger Woods 304.2 yards
Tony Finau 322.7 yards
Gary Woodland 312.2 yards

But that’s not the whole story. Mitchell is only number 10 in driving distance, McIlroy is 6, Woods 36, Finau first and Woodland 9.

More interesting, in fact very interesting, is how swing speed translates into scoring average: Mitchell is number 143, McIlroy 16, Woods 5, Finau 13 and Woodland 29. To put this in perspective, this year’s scoring average leader is Dustin Johnson at 68.843 strokes per round and in 1999, prior to introduction of the “game-changing” Titleist Pro V1, the leader was Tiger Woods with an average of 68.432.

Statisticians would call that amount of difference over 19 years “noise.”

How about a correlation between swing speed and money won? Mitchell is number 170 in official money after 10 events, McIlroy number 19 and 5 events, Woods 32/5 events, Finau 10/10 events and Woodland 15/11 events. In money won per event played Mitchell is number 215, McIlroy 8, Woods 15, Finau 19 and Woodland 25.

Then there’s an oft voiced concern courses are being turned into “driver-wedge” layouts, but the percentage of greens hit in regulation should tell the story. Mitchell is number 113 hitting 64.93% GIR, McIlroy 182/60.78%, Woods 174/61.42%, Finau 32/69.29% and Woodland 3/72.76%. Again, comparing with 1999, David Duval was first with a 73.57% GIR while today Kevin Streelman the 2018 leader is at 72.83%…more statistical noise.

We could go on, but the conclusion is obvious, though the elites are swinging faster and hitting the ball farther it does not translate into results.

But then you knew that.

The question is why don’t the solons of rules at the USGA and the R&A?

There have been unsupported statements about several topics among them ball distance causing slow play, forcing layouts to add length and of course, the great old shibboleth, traditional classic tracks are unable to host Tour events. All these opinions are nonstarters and their proponents have yet to present facts in support.

We all know slow play has everything to do with the individual players not the distance they hit the ball. The problems and costs of maintaining all golf courses, not just the ones beefed up in the belief longer is better, have been addressed by greens superintendents already much to their credit. Finally, the old classic courses (usually spoken of in mystical terms) is that many don’t have the acreage for parking, corporate hospitality, television production and tens of thousands of fans. Ball distance has nothing to do with it, they just aren’t capable of holding a big-time event.

Those who want to either “roll back the ball” or split the rules into us-and-them, so-called bifurcation, seem bent on convincing themselves tee ball distance needs to be fixed and equally convinced to do so in the face of a mountain of contrary facts. Every the USGA’s own 2017 Driving Distance Report doesn’t make a case for the ball going too far. The PGA Tour and the PGA of America have stated there isn’t any problem as have Acushnet, makers of the Titleist Pro V1, and TaylorMade Golf whose drivers are the most played by professionals worldwide. The PGA Tour clearly understands they are in the entertainment business and knows Hank Haney has it right saying people don’t go a ballgame to see a bunch of bunt singles, they go to see homeruns.

What we are facing is not a problem of the ball going too far but the perception of a problem simply because a few respected industry members have beat the drum long enough that the USGA and R&A finally have said they agree.

That’s no way to decide any issue.

The ball distance discussion isn’t over. Not as long as Tour players are bigger, stronger, better trained elites playing clubs computer-fitted to their swing, hitting low-spin solid core balls onto firm, fast fairways.

The USGA and R&A have said there is a problem evidently so then they can justify imposing a solution and more importantly and more tragically is how they are clearly out of touch with the overwhelming majority of golfers.

PGA TOUR Superstore – Managed Growth in a Difficult Market

PGA TOUR Superstore hasn’t bought into all the doom and gloom used by some to describe the golf equipment industry. For them the glass isn’t half empty and in fact the Atlanta-based chain has been following a controlled plan of expansion to manage growth for the long term.

The opportunity for additional insight to this golf retailing success story came in an interview with Randy Peitsch, PGA TOUR Superstore’s Senior Vice President of Operations. Peitsch has been in the top spot guiding day-to-day operations for the past two years after a five-year stint as vice president in charge of hard goods prior to which he was in divisional management at Sports Authority.

We questioned Peitsch about how PGATSS can accomplish growth in an unfavorable golf retail environment.

“It begins with hiring really good people, training them and then backing them,” Peitsch responded. “We can then focus on the consumer experience. We are not in the transaction business. We are in the relationship business.”

Well said but it should be pointed out that for the past several years the golf equipment business has euphemistically been called a “difficult market” with several events adversely affecting both the makers and sellers of equipment.

Golf retailers of all sizes have closed including the 463-store Sports Authority plus Golfsmith shuttered most of their locations after being purchased by Dick’s Sporting Goods. Dick’s, the sports retailing behemoth with over 700 locations, has reduced store floor space allocated to golf though recent statements by top management indicate they may be encouraged with the prospects for increases in golf equipment and accessories, particularly their private brands such as Top-Flite.

Manufacturers too have struggled with the largest, Acushnet Holding Corp (NYSE: GOLF), making a tepidly received public stock offering in late 2016. The former Fila Korea subsidiary, maker of several of golf’s top brands including Titleist and FootJoy, reported flat sales in 2017 but an increase in net income of $47 million.

In May 2017 TaylorMade Golf, the third largest equipment maker, was sold by Adidas (OTCMKTS: ADDY) for a bargain-basement price to an investment company and in third quarter 2016 Nike closed its golf equipment division. Niche manufacturer Ben Hogan Golf filed for bankruptcy and during its recovery has opted for a consumer-direct strategy.

On the positive side the second largest equipment manufacturer Callaway Golf (NYSE: ELY) finished 2017 with 20% higher sales than the previous year mostly on the strength of its Great Big Bertha Epic line of metalwoods. Midsize manufacturers such as Tour Edge Golf, Bridgestone Golf and Cobra Golf also have said they did appreciably better last year and are looking forward to even more gains in 2018.

Many are saying we are seeing the first signs of some stability in golf retailing and certainly PGA TOUR Superstore is well positioned to take advantage. The company opened three new locations in 2017 for a total of 31 and number 32 opened in February with number 33 set for the Houston, Texas market.

Same store sales last year had a healthy increase of 15 percent plus overall sales increased 23 percent. Digging a little deeper there are even more signs of their expanding market presence:
-Black Friday 2017 same store sales up 20 percent and for the three-day Thanksgiving weekend up 15 percent
-Online sales for Cyber Monday increased an eye-popping 62 percent
-Customer club fittings topped 110,000 in 2017 and lessons hit almost 50,000
-Instore practice bays saw 100,000 participants during the year

Impressive, in fact very impressive, for a year when the number of U.S. golfers continued to decline. Golfer consumers are responding to PGATSS’s extensive inventory, competitive pricing and perhaps even more to the service they receive whether online or in-store.

A trip to PGATSS has been compared with a visit to Home Depot and it should be since the private-held PGATSS is part of the AMB Group one of the Blank family endeavors along with the Atlanta Falcons (NFL), Atlanta United (MLS) and Atlanta’s Mercedes-Benz Stadium. Family head Arthur Blank was one of the founders of Home Depot, retiring in 2001 as co-chairman.

Blank said of the success his stores have had in an uncertain retail environment, “At PGA TOUR Superstore we’re using the same philosophy that drove the Home Depot’s success and revolutionized the home improvement industry.  We offer a variety of products at value prices, incredible services and employ the best associates to provide a level of customer service that keeps visitors coming back because they love the experience.”

Most consumers acknowledge a visit to a PGATSS has a different feeling from the usual big box retailer. Employees invariably greet you and then thank you when you leave, an everyday example of customer relationship building. 

Peitsch pointed out, “We focus on the consumer experience. If we do everything the right way, we win out over the competitors.”

True certainly but beating the other guy also takes the proper pricing, inventory and profit margins.

According to Peitsch, “Margins have to be in the first sentence of any discussion and the partnerships with manufacturers are very important.” Then as if anticipating my next question, “The trend in our margins has continued upwards.”

Funds to pay for expansion must come from either borrowing or consistent profitability. Without the proper margins profits soon are nonexistent and discussing the entire business of PGATSS Peitsch made a critical observation, “Pay attention to the process and the results will come.”

Questioned about expansion plans Peitsch then said, “The cost of retail space drives the selection of new locations.” So, in addition to golfer demographics, brick and mortar economics dictate whether a site is viable or if even an entire market is suitable.

Peitsch commented that though they may be “under penetrated in the market we are the fastest growing and expect to open a store every other month, so we will have 50 by 2020.” That would be a 50 percent increase in just three years and average store size at the end of 2017 was 40,000 square feet making them the largest off-course retailer in golf in terms of average space.

It’s plain there is no “secret” to PGATSS success or maybe their secret is the relentless application of good business principles matched to an understanding of their customers.

Refreshing to say the least.