Just the facts, ma’am” – Sgt. Joe Friday

The golf world is all aflutter with the impending return of Tiger Woods and that’s a good thing.

Heaven knows golf needs all the interest and enthusiasm it can get if only to stimulate more participation, more rounds, more equipment sales…well, you get the idea.

What is not needed is another big star complaining how far the ball goes and Woods during a recent podcast joined Gary Player, Jack Nicklaus and Hale Irwin among others saying golf is in trouble.

Quoting Woods, “We need to do something with the golf ball. I think it’s going too far because we’re having to build golf course[s], if they want to have a championship venue, they’ve got to be 7,400 to 7,800 yards long.”

As if this weren’t indictment enough he continued, “And if the game keeps progressing the way it is with technology, I think the 8,000-yard golf course is not too far away. And that’s pretty scary because we don’t have enough property to start designing these type of golf courses and it just makes it so much more complicated.”

Really? Complicated for who? Not fans nor ordinary golfers who hit 200-yard tee shots. Not when courses are closing left and right and the number of players continues to shrink.

The reason comments from Woods or Nicklaus or Player are a concern is they are among the most respected men in the game and their opinions may eventually push the USGA into “rolling back” ball performance. Rather than being a solution such a retrenchment would be a disaster for equipment makers, recreational players and golf fans.

Some say that ball performance is not a problem and isn’t supported by facts so let’s take a look.

There’s no arguing professionals and other elite players are hitting the ball farther, much farther, and as a result the courses they play have been made longer. That makes sense and similar solutions to mitigate equipment advances have been going on for at least 150 years. Scoring however has not benefited from all this added distance. In 2017 PGA Tour scoring leader Jordan Spieth averaged 68.846 strokes and in 1980 Lee Trevino led all players with 69.73, less than 0.9 stroke improvement in 37 years.

Not exactly a case for manning the barricades to repel the bad guys. Statisticians call that level of difference “noise.”

So if scoring doesn’t support these concerns does an analysis of driving distance?

In 1968 with persimmon heads, 150 gram steel shafts and balata-covered wound balls the average driving distance on Tour was 264 yards. By 1995 it was just about the same–262.7 yards. That year Callaway Golf introduced the “huge” 265cc lightweight titanium head Great Big Bertha driver and longer, lighter graphite shafts soon followed. Predictably because drivers now weighed less swing speeds went up and by 2003 average distance was 285.9 yards—a jump of 23 yards in just eight years.

At the same time the ball also was being improved and the added distance from the new low spinning, solid core balls was readily apparent. In 1996 the 3-layer urethane cover Top Flite Strata came out but the real game-changer was Titleist’s introduction of the Pro V1 in October 2000. Within weeks it became the most played ball on Tour and quickly took over the top spot in retail sales.

From 2003 through 2017 average driving distance increased to 292.5 yards equating to about 17 inches per year in part due to development of even lighter shafts and clubfaces with higher rebound across a larger area. However, a major portion of the gain can be accounted for by course agronomy allowing drier, more closely mown fairways so the ball to rolls much farther. Additionally players are taller and stronger and have intensive physical training regimens. During the same time a huge leap forward in instruction took place as coaches used launch monitors to refine players’ swings to an extent never before possible.

The real proof though is tee ball distance is a lousy predictor of success on the PGA Tour and as might be imagined the best correlation to money won is average score. Driving distance and driving accuracy have the lowest correlation.

The conclusion is plain. Since 1964 average driving distance is 30 yards greater but after 2003 distance enhancing design improvements have been incremental…not revolutionary. Nothing goes up forever.

Finally, though Woods didn’t mention it, there’s another other oft voiced complaint. Something like, “fine old courses have been made obsolete and championships can’t be held there because they don’t have the acreage to add yardage.” Not only has that not true since many of the “fine old courses” have already been lengthened but a lot of them can’t hold professional events for reasons other than the length of the holes. There may be no room for 50,000 fans to park or for the corporate hospitality tents which are a primary source of tournament revenue or perhaps the driving range is not big enough to accommodate more than a fraction of the field.

These facts are rarely mentioned by those decrying golf ball distance gains and have nothing to do with the fact Rory McIlroy and 42 others averaged over 300 yards last season.

Golf does has problems but the distance elite players are hitting the ball is not one of them. Fans want to see the long ball from Rory, Dustin and Bubba and aren’t interested seeing their 120 mph swing send the ball the same distance it went in 1995.

The whole idea of rollback is ridiculous. It’s hard to comprehend how any lessening of ball or driver performance will help sell more tournament tickets, sponsor advertising, merchandise or equipment. The PGA Tour obviously has figured that out and hasn’t joined in with the wailing and gnashing of teeth.

It also true recreational players are not complaining and it can be argued anything making the game more fun and even a little easier benefits participation. Those who make the assumption length equates to difficulty are also making a mistake. Course design and setup for professional tournaments requires intelligence, creativity and imagination without gimmicks. Maybe something simple such as cutting the rough and fairways higher or installing bunkers on either side of a landing area are possibilities.

Some are concerned about land and water usage which is certainly a legitimate question, not one resulting from how far the ball is being hit, but of the proper use of finite resources. Course architects and maintenance experts are already finding solutions such as drought resistant grasses, course topography and hole routing. What is needed most of all is a change in the mindset of developers who specify an over-the-top expensive “championship” course to aid residential real estate sells or for a resort to put heads in beds.

Here are a couple of simple requests for Tiger. Please come back to the Tour healthy and competitive. Secondly, because of your prominence people listen to your opinion please check out the facts and perhaps your opinion will reflect a new view point…one that is less harmful to golfers and the golf industry.

Dangerously Wrong

“Whilst delighted for all the players, it’s quite sad to see The Old Course of St Andrews brought to her knees by today’s ball & equipment,” October 8, 2017 nine time major champion, Gary Player.

Player was intense competitor, intelligent and perceptive with tremendous stature in the game but unfortunately the opinion expressed in this tweet ignores the reality of golf today. But in case your attention at the time was otherwise occupied here’s a bit of background.

Ross Fisher playing in the European Tour Alfred Dunhill Links Championship at the “home of golf,” the Old Course at St. Andrews, posted a course record 61 in a vain attempt to catch winner Tyrrell Hatton. Player seems to conclude Fisher’s record and other low scores posted during the Dunhill were due to the ball and equipment. He is not only mistaken but for everyone who plays, dangerously wrong. Let me explain.

Player didn’t mention that for four days the weather was everything one could desire this time of year on Scotland’s east coast and most importantly there was little or no wind. St. Andrews has immense landing areas and greens wide open in the front which leaves the wind as its primary defense. Without wind the course is particularly vulnerable to skilled players and you can add that the course set up was not too severe since the Dunhill is a pro-am and amateurs are playing each day.

So with no wind and accessible pin locations low scores are not surprising.

At a tournament length of over 7,300 yards St. Andrews is not a pushover and though scores during the Dunhill were not what we usually see during the Open Championship, it is undeniable that over the years the course has withstood every generation’s best. Not perhaps without some lengthening. Not without reworking some of the tees, putting surfaces and bunkers but always with what my friends in Chicago call “the hawk,” the wind, being a major factor.

The tweet reflects Player’s oft expressed opinion modern clubs and balls are a problem but in truth since the gutta percha ball replaced the featherie 150 years ago someone is always opining the exact same thing after every advance in equipment technology.

The danger in Player and others beating the drum claiming such a sad state of affairs is the USGA and R&A will take it on themselves to “fix the problem.” Following the logic of “drivers are too hot,” or, “the ball goes too far,” could mean further restrictions on equipment or even creation of separate equipment standards for elite-players.

Either would be detrimental.

Both ignore how virtually all elite players follow an intense physical conditioning regimen, a rarity until Tiger Woods turned pro but exactly what Player himself has preached since the 1960s. Additionally those saying today’s equipment is a problem overlook how virtually every elite player makes extensive use of sophisticated computer imaging to dial-in their swing mechanics. Nor are the tremendous advances in agronomy taken into account allowing fairways to be so much firmer they have Stimpmeter readings on the order of greens 50 years ago.

In other words it’s not just equipment and it is overly simplistic to focus solely on the springiness of clubfaces or the improvements to the golf ball when wound balls were replaced. Yes, the ball goes farther but the contention that hurts the game is not supported by facts and is only a desire to keep things as they were, a solution to which will unduly penalize all but a few.

Put another way, do you or any of your friends think you are hitting the ball too far? Or even more simply, do you know of anyone who has given up the game because it’s too easy?

Making rules to rein in distance because it is thought a few hundred professionals and maybe a like number of the best amateurs are hitting greater distances is ignoring the reality of modern golf. It also ignores the laws of physics as pointed out by Frank Thomas (inventor of the graphite shaft and former Technical Director of the USGA) that the increase in distance due to the solid core ball and high rebound driver faces has reached its maximum.

If indeed there is a problem, and I’m not conceding there is, the Tour could solve it by simply setting up courses to be more penal though fans would immediately hate it. The fact the Tour does not do this is a tacit acknowledgement for the status quo. Fans enjoy seeing pros struggle occasionally when faced with narrow fairways, landing zone hazards and four inch rough as at a U.S. Open. But that’s once a year and the USGA not the PGA Tour runs the championship. If penal setups were the case every week it wouldn’t take toursters long to figure out it’s often best to leave the driver in the bag. Fans would lose the excitement of seeing D.J. or Jason or Bubba challenging the course with booming drives.

How much excitement is there in one plain vanilla par-4 after another calling for a three-iron tee shot then a wedge? Not much and what other entertainment business would ever propose to intentionally alienate fans?

World-class instructor Hank Haney puts it best, “Fans don’t go to a baseball game hoping to see some good bunt singles.”

And there’s another factor. If the pros had to play with a restricted equipment it would kill any OEM marketing plan that relies on “Tour validation.” Acushnet, Bridgestone, Callaway, Cobra, Ping, PXG, TaylorMade, Wilson and others spend millions for endorsements and advertising on the premise fans want to play with the same equipment as the pros.

You may argue with the premise but you can’t deny restricting the ball or drivers used by elite players would drastically change the economics of the club business…probably for the worse.

As I have written before the so-called distance problem isn’t a real problem, it’s only a conclusion drawn based on an opinion or maybe even an unacknowledged yearning for the “good old days.” The idea modern equipment hurts the “integrity” of the game is almost fatuous and certainly dangerous. It’s a triple threat with the potential to push golfers out of the game, alienate fans and jeopardize the ability of manufactures to be rewarded for their advances in equipment design.

A Couple of Trends in Equipment

Without dusting off my crystal ball—it’s got a big crack in it anyway—I see two trends worth noting in the golf club business. Both involve the development of clubs with limited appeal and at this point neither can be described as having can’t-miss prospects.

First is the appearance of ultra-high-end price clubs as exemplified by PXG custom-only models starting with the driver which carries a tag of $700 followed by fairway woods at $500 and irons at $300 or more. And since a bag full of PXGs wouldn’t be complete without the addition of one of their putter models plan on spending another $400 to $600. Add that all together and the total comes to well over $5,000…without the cost of the bag.

Of course for many years there have been custom-made clubs at prices much higher than normal but none in just two years have made as much of an impression on the overall market as PXG.

PXG founder and CEO Bob Parsons said in an interview with Golfweek he expects $100 million in sales this year and more significantly, to be profitable. Repeat that to yourself. In two years from nothing to profitability…in the golf business.

Realistically $100 million in club sales is not a very big ripple on the pond compared with Callaway who expects around $980 million in sales this year and well behind Acushnet who has forecast in the neighborhood of $1.6 billion. The importance is that major makers have even decided to enter at the ultra-high-end price point. Titleist, for example, has the C16 driver selling for $1,125 and Callaway’s new Great Big Bertha Epic Star is $700.

The story is the same with irons and illustrating with the same two companies, an eight iron set of Titleist C16 irons are $3,000 while Callaway Epic irons start at $2,000 with new Epic Star irons at $2,400.

The question of course is how big can this ultra-high-end price market be? The fact is though at least three companies (and you can add Honma, XXIO, Bettinardi plus a couple of others) are working to take advantage of what growth may be there.

The bottom line is performance has to justify the price otherwise the only players paying double or triple of what are considered “usual prices” are those whose egos make the decision.

The second trend is the increase in the number superlight clubs made specifically for those with relatively slow swing speeds, often identified as seniors and ladies. These superlights are made to answer the quest for added distance based on the idea if the club weighs less it can be swung faster and thereby generate more yardage.

A couple of examples starting with Cobra Golf’s F-Max family with the F-Max driver headlining the offering. Cobra’s approach is to use extremely light shaft with a head shaved of extra grams while the center of gravity has been positioned both to fight a slice and hit the ball on a higher trajectory. Interestingly the $300 F-Max driver is also at the bottom of the price spectrum as is the pricing of other F-Max family clubs.

Callaway has gone the other way with the Great Big Bertha Epic Star driver which follows the extremely successful Epic of last season and with all the features that made the Epic such a hit but much, much lighter. The Epic Star comes in at 286 grams versus the Epic at around 310 grams. The Epic Star ($700 as mentioned above) is for players having trouble generating even a moderate clubhead speed and a relatively modest swing speed increase of five mph can produce an additional 15 yards. The cardinal rule is more speed equals more distance.

Lightweight, even superlight, clubs especially drivers have been around since titanium heads and graphite shafts became the norm and even after clubhead sizes reached 460cc Cleveland had a 260-gram driver. As always performance will decide if these latest examples are cost effective plus of course whether a $300 driver can outsell a $700 model. In any event it would seem the market for superlight clubs is much larger than that for ultra-high-end priced clubs.

It’s going to be interesting to see how these two trends develop.

Fuzzy Thinking

Fuzzy thinking, even by well-known and respected people is still fuzzy thinking and when the topic is the distance the golf ball goes, fuzzy thinking easily results in a call to “doing something before the game is ruined.”

Respected icons of the game such as Jack Nicklaus and Hale Irwin have said more than once the problem with golf is the ball goes too far.

Maybe by taking a look at the facts we can sweep away the fuzziness concerning golf ball distance because if we don’t, sure as heck, the fuzzy thinking will eventually prevail.

First, this controversy over technological advancement is not new. It was essentially the same in the nineteen century and rears its head with every major advancement in balls and clubs. If you have some time, look up the evolution of the feathery ball to the gutta percha and then to the rubber-core ball or the story of the Schenectady center-shafted mallet putter being outlawed after Walter Travis used one to win the British Amateur.

The cry was all the fine old courses would be made obsolete because they were too short and no longer challenging or simply improvements in equipment meant the game was becoming too easy. Sound familiar?

Today the distance the golf ball goes is due to vastly improved launch conditions. This began with the introduction of metalwoods and then the development of graphite shafts allowing an increase in size of driver club heads. When titanium heads were introduced makers were able to almost double driver clubhead size again and driver shafts could be made much longer. All of these plus an immense improvement in ball aerodynamics added significant distance with all clubs.

Professionals—the ones fuzzy thinkers believe hit the ball too far—have also benefitted from intensive computer-aided instruction, better physical training and the simple fact a large number of them are taller and bigger than in the past.

Improved equipment and better agronomy have resulted in courses, especially on Tour, playing firmer and faster. Plus we must recognize the desire of operators to have the longest, toughest layout so they can boast of the difficulty for professionals rather than the playability for recreational golfers.

The number of golf courses is steadily decreasing so overall use of the land is not an issue. It is true some “fine old courses” may not have the land to be stretched in order to accommodate the modern professionals but that’s OK. For the average player not every course needs to be like this year’s US Open venue Erin Hills and have the capability to be played to over 8,000 yards.

However, the fact is in 2017 the average driving distance on the PGA Tour is 291.20 yards, an increase of about one yard in the preceding ten years so there’s been no “distance explosion” in more than a decade.

For recreational players titanium-headed-graphite-shafted drivers and solid-core-low-spinning urethane cover balls have not produced anywhere near the gains in yardage achieved by professionals. Technology has not caused golf handicaps to plummet and the typical male golfer still isn’t hitting the ball over 200 yards–if that.

The rulers of our game don’t seem to understand the problem in terms of the average golfer who occasionally makes a par and buys a celebratory beer when he makes a birdie. Additionally the USGA continues with the idea the ball goes should be reduced while telling weekend warriors to play from a shorter tee set. That’s illogical and a nonstarter.

Of course the culprit most often cited is the Titleist Pro V1 which debuted in the fall 2000 and at once became the most played ball on Tour. Every manufacturer now makes similar balls that are low spinning with urethane covers and solid cores.

The PGA Tour is in the entertainment business and the business model should be what its customers, i.e., golf fans, want. There’s no question we want to see birdies and eagles and drivable par-4s not to mention DJ smoking one 340. In 2007 the scoring average on Tour was 71.34 and this season it is 72.00. In fact going back 20 years the average was 71.77 showing courses aren’t getting easier despite what some would like you to believe.

As Frank Thomas former technical director of the USGA and current golf industry consultant has often said, driving distance has gone as far as it can go because the physics involved are maxed out. Or put another way, you can’t argue with Mother Nature.

Finally, part of the fuzzy thinking can be laid at the doorstep of the media because it’s easy to write that a well-known player, ex-player or some administrator is decrying the state of the game. One headline trumpeted “Great Balls of Fire!” referring to today’s low-spin golf balls. This is a cheap shot displaying a lack of knowledge not to mention an abuse of journalistic standards.

The inescapable conclusion there’s no horrific problem with the distance the golf ball travels. That’s just plain old fuzzy thinking.

And the solution is easy. Do nothing.

The crisis in golf technology or golf ball distance is only in the minds of fuzzy thinkers.

Come Back Tiger


For a lot of reasons besides the thrill of watching him play this madding game we need a healthy Tiger Woods back on Tour.

He draws attention regardless of his score. TV ratings take a big bump whenever he tees it up not to mention how much they increase when he is in contention. Companies get more “eyeballs” on their advertisements resulting in more sales and more return on their investment. In the case of the golf equipment OEMs such as TaylorMade Golf and Bridgestone Golf who pay Woods to endorse their products that can be significant.

Then, let’s not forget tournament ticket sales, merchandise sales, refreshments and pro-am fees. The more money raised the more can go to charity. Plus, though his turning professional in 1996 may not have resulted in a permanent increase in the number of golfers, there’s no denying a healthy Tiger attracts attention and bolsters the sport’s image which doesn’t hurt participation.

Whether Woods is the greatest player of all time or not, the truth is he still brings an interest and excitement to any event he enters. Insiders would say, “He moves the needle.” Is his career over? Who knows and it seems that even he doesn’t know.

Maligned, sometimes unfairly, and praised, sometimes undeservedly, but whatever the circumstances he has been the face of professional golf and for the past two decades has been the most talked about and written about golfer on Tour.

Dealing with just the facts, rather than what sometimes passes for news and is actually opinion, Woods is a forty-something athlete who has a bad back and there’s always a big question mark with that type of injury. Three surgeries put him on the sidelines beginning in August 2015. The layoff ended with his ballyhooed return in early December 2016 at a 17-player charity exhibition and no cut. He finished 15th.

Next in late January this year he teed it up at Torrey Pines Golf Club less than an hour from where he grew up. His rounds of 76 and 72 missed the cut by four strokes. Then he flew commercially to Dubai (Really? It’s hard to believe he would go commercial) where, after smoothing it around for a 77, Woods was hit by back spasms forcing his withdrawal.

Though had planned to, he did not play at Riviera (his charity is a primary beneficiary) nor the Honda near his home in South Florida revealing on TigerWoods.com his doctors had ordered no activity to let his “back calm down.”

And those are the facts. With the Masters five weeks away and his often voiced determination to win more major championships it will be interesting to see if he is able to play. Or even if his back is OK Woods may feel his game isn’t ready for prime time, that he can’t be competitive and decide against going to Augusta.

It’s important to not get carried away with speculation, guessing and wishful thinking. Woods doesn’t need the money but does, from all reports, still want to win more majors, i.e., continue chasing Jack Nicklaus’ record.

Besides, there’s one other salient fact about the former world number one who held that spot for a total of over 13 years. In less than nine years Woods will be eligible for the Champions Tour.

Review: “Back On Course-A Return on Investment”

The new book “Back On Course” has the subtitle “Drive Business Performance Through Golf” and it discusses some interesting points beginning with the natural matchup between the social and competitive aspects of golf and business.

Authors Connie Charles and Dave Bisbee do a masterful job of explaining the why and how any business can achieve a positive return on investment by using golf the game and golf the experience to further relationships with customers, vendors and employees.

Formerly golf was recognized as a tool for business. It was played by top and would-be top executives and viewed as an integral part of business relationship building. However, times change. Activist investor scrutiny of corporations followed by the economic downturn of the past ten years gave business golf a negative connotation. “Elitist” being one of the common descriptions and corporate leaders came to no longer look at the game as an opportunity for advancing the interests of their companies.

It was something that could be ditched to offset increasing expenses and as a sop to those characterizing golf as something only rich white-guys did.

The concept of return on investment seemingly took a back seat to being politically correct or at least seeming to be sensitive to public opinion as represented by commentators and corporate critics.

Charles and Bisbee recognized the decline of golf as a tool in the corporate arena often makes relationship building more difficult and puts up barriers to communication between companies, their customers and prospects. In addition, today golf can certainly use increased corporate participation at several levels including charitable giving and additional revenue for golf courses.

Having known Bisbee and Charles for a number of years, it is evident they are serious business people, knowledgeable in what it takes to advance a company’s interests and receive a commensurate return on invest.

“Back On Course” stresses return on investment for both corporations and individuals.

Charles is CEO of Strategic Solutions International in Newark, Del. and an expert in corporate team building. Bisbee is the general manager and director of golf at Seven Canyons Golf Club in Sedona, Ariz. and a well-respected instructor. They have an online portal, imapGolf.co, for individuals to improve their performance on and off the course using the same tools Charles has on her corporate site imapMyTeam.

One of the most intriguing ideas in “Back On Course” is that of the five hour meeting or interview, i.e., taking a prospective customer or employee to play golf which with a bit of the 19th hole neatly takes up half a day. From personal experience I know of no way to learn about the true character of someone more quickly than playing a round of golf. Insights into personality, character and attitude are evident and easily observable. They also get to know you, the basis of building a mutually beneficial relationship.

If you are in a corporate decision-making position or simply want to improve your interpersonal skills to further your career using golf, buy this book. In fact, you’ll probably buy copies for colleagues.

“Back On Course—Drive Business Performance Through Golf” by Connie Charles and Dave Bisbee is available on Amazon for $24.99.

PGA TOUR Superstore – Bucking the Trend

In addition to a soft demand particularly for hard goods, golf retailing has had to endure some difficult times typified by the bankruptcy of Golfsmith, Sports Authority and Ben Hogan Golf plus Nike Golf’s decision to close its club and ball business.

PGA TOUR Superstores however, are bucking the trend. The Atlanta-based retailer is profitable and showing strong sales growth with an active program for adding new locations to the current 28. Three more stores are scheduled to open this year.

The company is privately-held by AMB Group, one of the family businesses of Arthur Blank that own the Atlanta Falcons football team, Atlanta United of Major League Soccer Team and the soon to be completed Mercedes-Benz Stadium in downtown Atlanta. Blank was cofounder of Home Depot, retiring in 2001 as co-chairman.

In an interview at the PGA Merchandise Show Dick Sullivan president and CEO of PGA TOUR Superstores talked about their success and plans for the future. Sullivan joined the company in 2008 after successful stints at both Home Depot and the Atlanta Falcons.

Brand identity is a must, especially in the competitive business of selling retail golf equipment, so we began by asking about the use of perhaps the best know name in golf, PGA TOUR. Sullivan responded, “We have a 50 year license with the PGA TOUR for the name and are very happy with the association with the Tour and in fact handle the e-commerce for them off their website. We want people to feel the link between us and the Tour as being real and important.”

Sullivan continued by saying he wants his stores to be high in wow-factor so when a golf consumer walks in the first time their reaction is “WOW!” because of the large amount of floor space, the interactive and brightly lit open layouts and well-stocked shelves.

With stores averaging over 45,000 square feet a big part of the growth has been realized by maximizing revenue whether in sales of clubs, apparel or services. We questioned how the revenue per square foot compared with other retailers and though he was reluctant to share specifics Sullivan did say that, “Revenue per square foot is up to double of other golf retailers.”

Experiential is the word the company uses to describe a visit and Sullivan said sales mix in a given store depends on the local market but, “Last year (2016) we gave 45-50,000 lessons so we have a strong presence in helping golfers get better.” Also interesting and somewhat unexpected is some locations sell more ladies’ apparel than men’s.

In 2016 PGA TOUR Superstores had over seven million customers and that will presumably grow in 2017 not only from same store growth but from increasing the number of locations. Sullivan expects to have 50 stores in five years so the rate of openings will be steady but not spectacular.

Realistically the growth into new markets and opening of new locations in existing markets is driven often by the cost of real estate. “It has to make sense for us and some areas [commercial real estate] are pretty expensive and it’s hard to make the numbers work,” Sullivan told me.

The almost mystical reputation of Home Depot’s customer service is a benchmark for Sullivan and the employees of PGA TOUR Superstores and this starts with knowing golfers and what they want and need. The connection is made through store employees.

According to Sullivan, “The employees on the floor who are closest to the customers are at the top of the PGA TOUR Superstore pyramid and the CEO is at the bottom. Employees tell us what we need to do.” They are the ones dealing with the golfers so they understand what the customer wants and needs.

He followed that comment quickly with, “If you do the right thing the numbers will follow,” which certainly is a refreshing change from the bean-counter orientation of some other operations.

Anecdotally, on a recent visit to the Orlando store to purchase some golf gloves the display rack had none in my size. When I asked a store associate if they had any he ran…ran mind you, to the back and returned almost immediately with what I needed.

I don’t recall ever experiencing that level of enthusiastic service much less physical exertion ever in any golf store, big box retailer or green grass shop.

On average PGA TOUR Superstores have 14 hitting bays with the latest swing analysis software and graphics along with custom fitting of clubs, club repair, re-gripping. “We run Saturday clinics for juniors to build the interest of youngsters in the game hopefully making them lifelong participants but also to engage the parents in a meaningful way with their children, the game of golf and our stores.”

So how is it working? As noted previously PGA TOUR Superstores is bucking the trend with continued growth and profitability and for example, “Some snowbound locations have to use beepers like in restaurants to notify when a practice bay is available which have swing analysis software. Each location has PGA Professionals on staff.”

When asked for a description of their ideal target customer Sullivan responded, “The avid golfer is of course first for us. We want them to find everything they want and for them to come back.”

From my experience it would seem a lot of golfers will be doing just that.

Images courtesy PGA TOUR Superstore

Another PGA Show in the Books

After covering the PGA Merchandise Show for more than 20 years the variety of products still amazes me and particularly the new items from the latest in tech gadgets to ways to more efficiently attach things to your golf bag.

The 64th industry-only Show concluded last Friday its three day run in the Orange County Convention Center located in suburban Orlando. As always it was preceded by the Demo Day to beat all demo days for PGA Professionals and the media at the Orange County National Golf Center’s immense range.

For the week the event that grabbed the most attention was the announcement by TaylorMade-adidas Golf CEO David Abeles just after Show doors opened the first day of the signing of Tiger Woods to an endorsement contract. It created a buzz overshadowing a later announcement by Callaway Golf that Michelle Wie had become a part of their staff.

Reed Expositions, who run the Show, have not released attendance yet but many old timers felt the numbers may have been down from the last couple of years. However, with 1 million square feet of exhibit space and 10 miles of aisles not counting the dozens of off floor meeting rooms, it’s hard to tell. What is for sure is the number of exhibitors remained approximately the same as the past three years—around 1,000—with 271 first time exhibitors. Reed said the number of PGA Professional in attendance increased three percent to more than 7,500.

This is the largest meeting of the golf industry or as they say, the “Major of the Golf Business” and this is certainly true though some well-known companies were absent, in a couple of cases conspicuously absent. Nike Golf of course was not exhibiting clubs since they have closed their club and ball business to concentrate on golf apparel but Nike apparel was a no show as well. Ben Hogan Golf, after an effort to reinvigorate the iconic brand was not present and this week declared bankruptcy.

Less surprising was the absence of PXG owned by Bob Parsons who has said publicly the buyers and PGA Professionals coming to Orlando are not the target market for his ultra-expensive clubs with a set listing at over $5,000. Also among the missing were Mizuno Golf, Bridgestone, True Temper and Aldila.

Among the major items attracting attention were drivers from Wilson Golf (Triton), Callaway (Great Big Bertha Epic), TaylorMade (M1 and M2), Cobra (King F7 and F7+) and Titleist (917 D2 and D3). New golf balls included the Callaway Chrome Soft X, TaylorMade TP5 and TP5x, Volvik S4 White, Srixon Z-Star/Z-Star XV and Titleist’s latest Pro V1 and Pro V1x.

There were 423 companies in the apparel category, a number that continues to grow along with the size of their displays. Services plus accessories seem to be about the same, perhaps with slight growth, which means the club company portion of the Show is declining since the total number of exhibitors remains the same. However, the club category includes companies from the largest multi-line manufacturers to grip, shaft and ferrule makers and one-of putter producers.

Besides the Woods/TMaG announcement often heard discussed on the floor, in the media center and after hours was the non-sale of TMaG which has been on the block since last May. Parent adidas hasn’t said a word and no buyers have been forthcoming though a rumor that Woods and Michael Jordan were interested was thoroughly discredited. With business a little better and a Tiger in the stable might adidas consider keeping the top metal wood maker?

Another oft heard comment there has been no superhot-must-have product introduced and there are a couple of reasons why. Club companies all use top flight technology already so the spread in club performance has narrowed plus restrictions on allowable performance by the USGA has definitely put a damper on innovation. But probably the biggest reason, and golf club designers have known this for some time, products were reaching both the USGA limits and limits imposed by the laws of physics. Change therefore is more incremental rather than a “breakthrough.”

Individual golfers still will gain the most benefit and better performance for them by using custom fitted clubs.

In the golf business orders are often written before the Show so the purchase cycle is not as dependent on face to face meetings as once was the case with possibly the exception of soft goods. The focus of the Show has changed to placing a major emphasis on the continuing education courses for PGA Professionals.

For most attendees though it is a worldwide and industrywide meet-and-greet with a sprinkling of deal making. Costs of attending are high, booth space is expensive and even large companies must figure how to get the most return from the expense. This is not a negative but something that needs to be continually acknowledged and improved by the PGA and Reed Expositions.

“Reports of our death have been greatly exaggerated”

“Reports of our death have been greatly exaggerated.” So said Ben Hogan Golf Equipment Company President and CEO Scott Walker in a press release announcing a company restructuring. The voluntary action aimed at cutting costs and streamlining operations included the layoff of most of the company employees, approximately 30, according to a copyrighted story in the Fort Worth Star-Telegram by Steve Kaskovich.

Walker continued in the press release, “While our organization does not look the same today as it did in 2016, we are confident that the changes we are making will make us a stronger and better company in the future.”

The release stated that at present Ben Hogan has not declared bankruptcy nor have any lenders foreclosed on outstanding debt.

In 2015 the iconic Ben Hogan brand was reintroduced at the PGA Merchandise Show with a new iron model, the Ft. Worth 15, by the new Ben Hogan Golf Equipment Company LLC after having been off the market since 2008 with Terry Koehler as president and CEO. Koehler had negotiated a licensing agreement for the name with clothier Perry Ellis who had purchased the brand from Callaway Golf in 2012. Perry Ellis continues to make and market apparel under the Ben Hogan name. Koehler formerly worked for Ben Hogan in his original company was also president and CEO of Eidolon Wedge Company.

Walker replaced Koehler as president and CEO of the Fort Worth, Tex. based operation in August 2016.

Three different iron models, one wedge model and one hybrid model are currently in their catalog.

A check of OEM’s scheduled to exhibit at the PGA Merchandise Show in Orlando starting Jan. 24 showed Ben Hogan Golf Equipment Company as not having contracted for display booth space but meeting room space off the main floor has been reserved.

The original Ben Hogan Company was started by Ben Hogan in 1953 to manufacture clubs to his exacting specifications and quickly gained the reputation of the ultimate “player’s irons.” Hogan died in 1997 at the age of 84 having sold his interest in the manufacturer some years earlier.

PGA Show – Looking for Answers

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At this writing we are just over two months to the opening of the 2017 PGA Merchandise Show—in fact we are within 75 days. Open only to members of the golf industry it is the most important annual meeting in the business. Next year it runs from January 24th with a Demo Day held at the Orange County National Golf Center and ends on January 27th after three days of exhibits in Orlando’s Orange County Convention Center.

In particular those making and selling golf equipment will be looking for answers to the direction that part of the industry is taking.

Changes to the equipment OEMs and retailers have been coming at a rapid pace.

Dick’s Sporting Goods (NYSE:DKS) owner of Golf Galaxy has purchased bankrupt competitor Golfsmith and will leave just 30 of the Golfsmith locations open which clearly changes big-box retailing of equipment. At the same time aggressive competitors such as PGA Tour Superstore and Worldwide Golf Shops (owners of Roger Dunn Golf, Edwin Watts Golf, The Golf Mart, Golfers’ Warehouse, Van’s Golf and Unita Golf) are working hard to increase their share of the approximately $4.0 billion U.S. market.pga-merchandise-show-logo_2017

So one question is, how will the reduction in golf retail space with the closing of Golfsmith effect golf consumers, club OEM’s and the retailers themselves? Will the expansion in the number of locations by competitors compensate for Golfsmith’s loss and how will club pricing to golfers be affected?

Sales of clubs, balls, merchandise, greens fees, golf related travel and golf-front real estate values are all impacted by the number of golfers but with that number at best holding its own the business is not expanding.

Nike Golf’s exit from the club business has been projected to have minimal impact on the other OEMs but having said that Callaway Golf (NYSE:ELY) under CEO Chip Brewer has been very aggressive and is introducing attractive new products for the 2017 season. They reported a 6.9 percent increase in sales for the third quarter this year and project a substantial increase in earnings for the full year.

The other publically traded OEM Acushnet (NYSE:GOLF), makers of the best-selling Titleist golf balls, has just had its initial public offering of stock and said sales increased slightly (under 3 percent) in the quarter ending June 30 accompanied by increased profit. Acushnet also has a new line of drivers and fairway woods that are receiving good reviews.

The second largest OEM, after Acushnet, TaylorMade Golf is up for sale and has been for the past six months, evidentially with no takers. Owner adidas (OTC:ADDYY) said TMaG sales have been higher and for the first nine months of 2016 club and ball sales showed “double-digit increases” sales with higher profitability.

Other manufacturers such as Tour Edge Golf, Cobra Puma Golf and Srixon are also pressing to gain market share, albeit in a stagnant market, which means any increased sales will have to be at the expensive of another company rather than from market growth.

So the question is what will the future bring and the answer could be coming at the PGA Show. Not only will all of the new clubs and balls be available for evaluation but as significantly, industry insiders may be able to forecast which direction the market is moving. Millions of dollars ride on the decisions made.