USGA Shoots Themselves in the Foot…Again

USGA has again taken a position that gives the impression they like embarrassing themselves and enforcing the feeling of many the organization is irrelevant to golf in the real world.

The latest is the announcement by the USGA (and R&A) citing they “are proposing regulations regarding the use of green-reading materials, reaffirming the need for a player to read greens based on their own judgment, skill and ability. Following a six-week period of feedback and consultation with interested parties that begins today, the regulations will be finalized in a published “interpretation” of Rule 4.3 (Use of Equipment) and adopted Jan. 1, 2019, when golf’s new rules take effect.”

A couple of points seem appropriate—why are they asking for feedback if the new rule will be in effect next year? It appears the decision has been made so why bother soliciting comments other than for the sake of appearances?

The USGA’s stipulation today’s green reading books give an advantage to players doesn’t hold up. Green reading books of the type the USGA is banning are used almost exclusively by elite players and most commonly on the professional tours. The simple fact the putting average on the PGA Tour for the past 15 years has actually gone up didn’t appear to have made a difference to what was assumedly an already formed opinion. PGA Tour stats show the average putts per round in 2002 was 29.09 and this season is 29.15. Of course, the minuscule increase is statistical noise but if Tour players are gaining such a large advantage and the green reading books means less skill is needed why doesn’t it show in the results?

Referring to the press announcement again, “Both the USGA and The R&A are committed to the position that a player’s ability to read their line of play on the putting green is an essential skill that should be retained,” said Thomas Pagel, Senior Director, Rules of Golf and Amateur Status for the USGA. “The focus of the interpretation is to develop an approach that is both effective and enforceable.”

The answer to the question of why average putts per round have not plummeted is not addressed which opens speculation of what the USGA ‘s real agenda might be and equally important the Association’s relevance to golf in general and the recreational golfer. Enforcement is another question and raises the specter of local tournament committees being in the position of arbitrating the proper numbers, marks, colors and arrows. Really?

This new rule is another in a long list of changes that apply mostly to the game as played by less than 1% of golfers…the elites. Should for example the PGA Tour, whose slogan until recently was “These Guys Are Good,” believe the topographical slope maps included in green reading books are not appropriate they should ban them.

The USGA has had similar “shoot themselves in the foot” embarrassments with other issues including “square grooves”, solid core golf balls, clubface rebound, anchored putting and their as yet unfulfilled goal of rolling back golf ball distance. They seem to make rules with little regard for 99% of golfers only on their view of the elite few.

It’s a wonder average players can see the USGA as having even a little relevance to the game.

PGA Tour Schedule “These Guys Are Busy”

It was interesting the revamped PGA Tour schedule for the 2018-2019 season received so little play by the press and social media due no doubt to the buzz concerning the prospect of a head to head match between Phil Mickelson and Tiger Woods. After all they are the “needle movers” for sports fans and certainly for diehard golf fans but at this writing no deal has been firmed up.

During the week we also were treated to coverage and comment, in and out of the legitimate press, of Lefty’s two-shot penalty at the Greenbrier plus the USGA ruling Bryson DeChambeau’s drawing compass was out of bounds.

However, should you define golf news by the impact on fans the PGA Tour announcement of a shortened 2018-2019 tournament schedule was the most important. As PGA TOUR Commissioner Jay Monahan put it in the press release, “It’s been our stated objective for several years to create better sequencing of our tournaments that golf fans around the world can engage in from start to finish. And by concluding at the end of August, the FedExCup Playoffs no longer have the challenge of sharing the stage with college and professional football. This will enhance the visibility of the FedExCup Playoffs and overall fan engagement with the PGA TOUR and the game as a whole.”

How fewer tournaments help “the game as a whole” is not clear but the I’m sure quibbling is beneath us.

The first eight tournaments of the split schedule take place prior to the hiatus from Thanksgiving to New Years as they did this season, but the significant fact is these events are now a bigger part of the year. With the new schedule having three fewer tournaments you can expect more of the big names more of time rather than just the WGC-HSBC in Shanghai and one of the other two in the Asian swing. This could be good news particularly for two well thought of event, one in Las Vegas (Shriners Hospitals for Children) and the other in Georgia (RSM Classic).

Accomplishing the goal of having the Tour Championship before Labor Day when football takes over meant one of the year-end FedExCup playoff events would have to go. Sacrificed for the good of the game (or at least to beat out the NFL) was the Dell Technologies Championship at the TPC Boston which has fans in New England more than a little unhappy.

Previously we knew about The Players Championship (Ponte Vedra Beach) moving from May to March and in 2019 the date is preceded by the Arnold Palmer Invitational (Bay Hill) followed by the Valspar Championship in Tampa. Combined with the Honda Classic the week before Arnie’s tournament there’s a reborn Florida swing.

The other major move was also by a major, the PGA Championship, which went from being the final major of the year in August to being put in The Player Championship’s old slot in May. The season’s majors then will be spread from the Masters April 11 – 14 to the PGA May 16 – 19 to the U.S. Open June 13 – 16 and finishing with the British Open July 18 – 21. That’s five weeks between the Masters and the PGA, four weeks from the PGA to the U.S. Open and four from the U.S. Open to the British Open.

Add in The Players, three WGC championships from January to July and “must-play” events such as the Arnold Palmer Invitational, the Memorial, the AT&T Byron Nelson and the…well you get the idea. Many if not most players rarely play more than three tournaments in a row, so the new Tour schedule could result in two situations. First, they may find it difficult to fit in some time off and secondly some very good tournaments may have a problem attracting players in the top 50. The Valspar tucked in between The Players and the WGC-Dell Technology Match Play is obviously on that list as is the RBC Canadian falling the week between the Memorial and the U.S. Open.

It’s ironic the Tour’s slogan was changed because if it was still “These guys are good” it might be more appropriate to say, “These guys are busy.”

Wanna Bet?

So, let’s say you’ve found the time, endured the travel and spent the money to go a U.S. Open or Ryder Cup or Masters or for that matter any PGA Tour event. It’s the 72nd hole and Jordan Spieth is lining up an 8-footer. And, as long as we are supposing, it isn’t just any 8-footer but to win the U.S. Open or Ryder Cup or Masters, etc.

Just as Spieth starts his stroke someone tosses a cup of beer on to the green, the young Texan flinches and the ball doesn’t even touch the cup. Terrible right? Throw him or her out—preferably not gently. Or perhaps it’s just another example of why event security should be increased to curb such boorish and probably intoxicated behavior.

But what if it isn’t. What if it is someone wanting to influence the outcome of the tournament?

It is not beyond reason we may see examples such as this or worse when wagering on golf comes out of the back alleys and cross-continent Internet connections. The U.S. Supreme Court ruled Congress does not have the right to legislate against sports gambling and only the individual states may allow or disallow wagering of that type.

Our society no longer considers gambling a moral issue…certainly it goes on legally and illegally and arguments against sports gambling on that basis are nonstarters.

Unquestionably at least some of the individual states will approve sports wagering in some form and the PGA Tour has already said it will enhance the fan experience and attract more interest to their events and golf in general.

Golf is one of the few sports where the gallery is literally part of the action, not confined in bleachers nor behind barriers or steel mesh. There is just a piece of rope delineating the playing ground. This is one of golf’s charms and attractions putting it in a special category but also offers lots of opportunities for those wagering large sums of money to be a factor in the outcome of a tournament.

For fans this is not a pleasant prospect and though my crystal ball hasn’t worked in years, it’s not hard to imagine even a whiff of someone influencing play for reasons having to do with large amounts of wagered money will work to our game’s detriment. Why hasn’t it happened until now with some legal and lots of illegal wagering? I don’t know but a reasonable guess would be the amount of money wasn’t worth the risk. Also, our English friends have been golf gambling for years with even kiosks onsite to place your bets.

Let’s be very clear. It’s about the money. In search of added revenue without raising taxes some states will approve wagering on golf and the lessons of 50 years of state sponsored lotteries is about to be replayed The PGA Tour has been candid about the potential of a new income stream. One can only hope golf will avoid a scandal.

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.

Diary of a Driver Fitting

 

One of the best ways to hit better shots is to play with clubs that help to correct those individual swing idiosyncrasies we all have. The process for finding the proper sticks is called club fitting and in spite of what you may have heard, to a certain degree it is true, you can buy a game.

Let’s say you are trying to get rid of a slice-producing over the top move that sometimes abruptly morphs into a hard pull to the left. If your clubs could compensate even a little so the ball more often went where you wanted, this maddening game would be a lot more fun.

Some may have doubts about club fitting and question if it is worth the money. Others are hesitant with the excuse they aren’t good enough which may be another way of saying they are unsure of exactly happens during a fitting and perhaps even have a fear of being embarrassed.

As age has imposed itself on my swing, club fittings every couple of years have proven their value if for no other reason than “good shots” become easier. The “I’m not good enough” argument therefore puts the cart before the horse because players at every level of skill beyond rank beginner can be helped with a fitting.

To allay any hesitation from not knowing what to expect we thought it would be worthwhile to follow a typical weekend warrior through a driver fitting and keep a diary of the experience for our readers.

Picking a friend named Scott as guinea pig…oops sorry, the guy to be fitted, an appointment was made at our local PGA TOUR Superstore with fitter Sam O’Donnell. The price for a driver fitting is $100 and O’Donnell pointed out the procedure is the same as what the pros on Tour go through whether only a driver or the whole bag, in fact his area of the PGATSS facility has a big sign, “Fitting Van Experience.”

O’Donnell first asked Scott about his game: how often he played (3-4 times per month), how he scored (mid 90s), his most frequent miss (slice) and what Scott was looking for out of the fitting (straighten the slice). He then measured the length (45.5 inches), loft (9.5 degrees) and grip size (standard) of Scott’s current driver, a 2014 model TaylorMade JetSpeed with a stiff flex Aldila shaft.

After Scott had stretched a bit and drove a few to warm up O’Donnell asked him to hit six drives using his JetSpeed and a TaylorMade TP5, the ball which Scott most often plays. Data on each drive was measured by a ForeSight Quad launch monitor for a baseline O’Donnell could use to judge differences as shafts and heads were changed.

Scott at 6-foot 1-inch generates lot of clubhead speed consistently registering in the 105 to 110 mph range but unfortunately the ball usually started left of the target and then took a tremendous turn to the right. If we had been on the course every one of his drives would most likely have missed the fairway and the straight-line distance from the tee was seldom over 220-yards. Plus, as do most golfers who slice, Scott made impact low on the face and towards the heel which all by itself robs him of yardage.

As was said of the late President Ford, Scott sometimes must wait until his first tee shot lands to see which course he would be playing that day. Though that sounds exaggerated (and it is of course) you can’t mistake Scott’s deep desire to play better…if for no other reason than to beat me.

O’Donnell now took a similar TaylorMade clubhead from his stock of several dozen made by a variety of manufacturers all with quick-connect hosels and had Scott hit more drives using a different shaft than the one in his JetSpeed. In addition to the ball’s path, measurements shown on the launch monitor included clubhead and ball speed, back and side spin and smash factor—the ratio of ball speed to clubhead speed. After a few drives with the first shaft a second was tried with the same head, then a third and a fourth and then back to the second and third again. Finally, the second, a stiff flex Fujikura Pro Green 62 weighing 66-grams and 45-inches in length, was selected since it consistently produced the best combination of distance, trajectory and dispersion.

O’Donnell pointed out in most driver fittings he evaluates at least four shafts and often more.

Now that the proper shaft had been identified the process moved on to finding the best clubhead. Based on his experience O’Donnell had an idea which clubheads were the most likely to produce the results he wanted and selected those for testing on the Fujikura shaft. Each head was hit at least six times and a couple as many as a dozen. Analyzing the results the number of heads was narrowed down to two low spin models, the Ping G400 LST and the Callaway Great Big Bertha Epic Sub Zero. When mated with the Fujikura shaft both produced much improved results over Scott’s JetSpeed, more distance and less left to right slice.

After hitting each of them again the decision was made to go with the Callaway on the strength of slightly lower dispersion and the fact Scott liked its looks at address. All of this took almost two hours but when we left Scott had a set of specifications for a new Callaway Great Big Bertha Epic Sub Zero driver with a stiff flex 45-inch long Fujikura Pro Green 62 shaft. He told O’Donnell he wanted to think over spending the money, $500, and would get back to him if he decided to buy.

Two days later a text message from Scott said he was going in after work to place the order and a week later his driver arrived. Needless to say, he could hardly wait for the weekend to put the new one-wood into play and the following Saturday Scott phoned driving home from the course.

His first words were, “I’d say the driver is an A+. Now when I walk on the tee I’m looking forward to it. I measured at least one of the drives to over 270.”

He continued saying, “I hit eight of 14 fairways and only one drive was way out to the right.”

Wonderful news, not just because it was a validation for Scott having spent all that money but the enthusiasm in his voice was great to hear. By way of comparison, with his old driver Scott often didn’t hit even one fairway a round and 270 was just a dream.

A couple of other points. To put to rest comments sometimes heard about the fitting process at some retailers, neither Sam O’Donnell nor PGA TOUR Superstore receive extra compensation for specifying clubs of any manufacturer nor does O’Donnell receive a sales commission when a driver is sold. O’Donnell put it simply, “We just want players to walk out of here with the best clubs for their game.”

Scott’s evaluation of the fitting experience at PGATSS can be summed up easily, he told me he is going back to have irons fit.

The lesson for golfers of all levels is the better-suited the clubs the better the results. A professional level fitting is making an investment in our future enjoyment of the game.

Tour Edge HL3 – Quality & Performance at Lower Price

One of the more interesting introductions at this year’s PGA Merchandise Show was a family of clubs from Tour Edge Golf called Hot Launch 3 with members running from two versions of the driver down through wedges. Over the past few years the number of models in the premium and ultra-premium price categories has continued to grow as manufacturers look to increase revenue in a stagnate market.

Tour Edge on the other hand with the HL 3 family is taking a different approach and making a major push at the other end of the price spectrum.

Company founder and master club designer David Glod makes the point that HL 3 drivers for example don’t take a back seat in performance to those at two or even three times the price. A rather refreshing approach to say the least and fortunately for golfers Tour Edge has carried through the same relationship of price and performance in the other of models in the family.

The standard and Offset versions drivers are each priced at $189.99 and both feature a variable thickness titanium cup face to preserve ball speed on off center impacts. They have a channel in the sole behind the face’s leading edge to lower ball spin and make the head more forgiving plus there’s a fixed rear sole weight which moves the center of gravity rearward to produce a higher ball launch. Lowering the ball’s spin and pushing the ball’s trajectory toward a more ideal angle are key to getting the most distance from a given swing speed.

In the Offset version, the entry point of the shaft into the clubhead is further forward, i.e., closer to the target, which is more of a “slice-fighting” configuration than the standard.

“Our HL3 line has taken a major step forward in terms of looks and performance over Hot Launch 2 and that was a product that we saw more than double in revenue,” said Glod. “We really see HL3 as being the driving force of growth for Tour Edge and that all comes down to it being the best value available in the custom fitting market.”

He continued, pointing out the company has plans for 1,000 custom fitting centers each having a mobile custom fitting bag filled with HL3 clubs. This will give golfers of every skill level the opportunity to test and be properly fitted with clubs that will maximize results for their particularly swing.

The standard model HL3 driver will be available in lofts of 9.5- and 10.5-degrees and the HL3 Offset in 10.5-, 12- and 13.5-degree lofts. Both come with a proprietary UST Mamiya stock shaft weighing from 48 to 60 grams depending on results of the driver fitting.

HL3 fairway woods, either standard or Offset, are priced at $139.99 with the hybrids at $119.99. A set of HL3 irons (4-PW) is $419.99 with steel shafts and graphite shafts are $70 additional. Adding to the player-friendly choices are forged face Iron-Woods (a category Tour Edge pioneered) at $79.99 with steel shafts or $89.99 with graphite in a range of lofts from 18 degrees to 59 degrees. Iron-Woods make an ideal way to mix-and-match with fairways woods, hybrids and irons to make up just the right set.

Taking a standard version HL3 driver to the course provided the opportunity to see results under actual playing conditions rather than simply a few swings on the range or pounding balls into a net. For comparison drivers from two different manufacturers, both with a custom fit after-market shaft, were also put in the bag.

The comparison was revealing.

Using Titleist Pro V1 golf balls for all the tee shots we saw the Tour Edge HL3 could certainly hold its own. My driver swing speed is 96 to 98 mph and to achieve the most realistic comparison all three drivers were hit on every par four and par five. Without question the distance using the HL3 was essentially the same as the more expensive drivers given the variations in wind, slope and firmness of the landing area and the usual variations in my swing. Also, it was apparent the dispersion left and right with the HL3 was probably somewhat less but since actual measurements were not done we called it “comparable” to the other two drivers.

Does this mean you should rush right out and buy an HL3? Of course not.

This is all about is what works for you not some guy writing a review.

What it does mean though, if you are in the market to replace your one-wood the Tour Edge Hot Launch 3 should be part of your consideration. After all, it only makes sense to find clubs that fit your game and produce the results you need at a price that doesn’t bust the budget.

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.

Top Ten Golf Stories of 2017

Woods Comeback…Again: A WD in Dubai in February. Another back surgery in April. A DUI arrest in May with a follow-up treatment program. Tiger Woods’ came back to golf in December for an 18-man exhibition that had some in the media and some of his fans in a frenzy of expectation and speculation. The facts are Woods looked physically fit, seemed to have positive attitude and played fairly well though his short game obviously needs some work if he is to achieve his goal of besting Jack Nicklaus’ major record.

Rollback or Bifurcation: Tiger Woods and Dustin Johnson say it’s true. Gary Player, Jack Nicklaus, Hale Irwin and USGA Executive Director Mike Davis agree. The golf ball goes too far. Woods certainly never said this when his prodigious length was blowing away fields and Johnson, whose is even longer, admitted a restricted flight ball would be to his advantage. But as savvy, knowledgeable and vested in the game as these gentlemen are there’s a problem. Neither the available data nor a logical appraisal of the facts support their contention. This however hasn’t stopped them from proselytizing a rollback of ball performance or the creation of the equally objectionable alternative, separate equipment regulations for professionals, i.e., bifurcating the rules.

TMaG Sold: It took a year but Adidas AG (OTCMKTS: ADDYY) was finally able to find a buyer for TaylorMade Golf, Adams Golf and apparel-maker Ashworth. Purchaser KPS Capital Partners, a private investment group, payed $425 million, less than half of the 2016 sales figure and it could turn out to be a bargain. If KPS does as expected and applies the classic turnaround remedies–cutting costs, growing sales and refocusing management– they could recoup their investment by selling the company or taking it public in maybe as few as three years,

Lexi Thompson: Lexi Thompson, the best American player on the LPGA Tour, was penalized four strokes costing her the ANA Inspiration after a television viewer sent an email about a possible infraction the day before. There was lots of official mumbling, something about fair application of the Rules of Golf, but in December the USGA announced effective Jan. 1, no more viewer call-ins or emails about possible rules infractions will be allowed. Many think this reasonable application of common sense is long overdue. Golf now is in line with other sports where the official’s job is to officiate, and the viewer’s job is to view.

Presidents Cup Rout: The U.S. President’s Cup team captained by Steve Stricker beat up on Nick Price’s Internationals by such a lopsided margin the U.S. actually was one-half point from clinching the win before the final day singles matches. Two takeaways—first those who criticized Striker for picking Phil Mickelson were wrong…again. Lefty earned 3 ½ points and, as he has done in the past, was an inspirational leader for the team. Second and more importantly for the future of the Presidents Cup, continued U.S. dominance has made it essentially an exhibition masquerading as a real competition. This needs to be fixed before the Presidents Cup becomes totally irrelevant to players and fans, if it hasn’t already.

Callaway Surges: During the past three years Callaway Golf (NYSE:ELY) took over TaylorMade’s dominant sales position in woods and irons with products such as the technically innovative Epic driver. Callaway’s irons have been first in sales for over two years and for the past four years they have been the fastest growing major golf ball company. Company sales for 2017 are expected to be approximately $1.035 billion up substantially from the $871 million in 2016.

PXG Success: Parsons Xtreme Golf (PXG) may not be a major factor in the equipment business but owner Bob Parsons has a real success story he can boast about for this new and somewhat edgy club company with really expensive equipment (the basic driver costs $700). PXG rang up $38 million in sales for 2016, its first year in business, which was great but 2017 looks spectacular. Parsons told Dave Dusek of Golfweek, PXG will have sales of $100 million for the year but more astonishing, make a profit which may be a record for an upstart club company.

PGA Tour Shake Up: Ever mindful of the futility competing for fans attention with the NFL, the PGA Tour has some big changes coming in the 2018-2019 season. The PGA Championship will be played in May rather than August and The Players Championship now in May moves to March. The shakeup includes reducing the FedExCup Playoffs from four to three events allowing the Tour to finish before the NFL season kicks off plus provides some room for schedule tweaks in Olympic years.

Major Winners: Sergio Garcia finally won a major and appropriately it was the Masters. Long-hitting Brooks Koepka won the U.S. Open, also his first major, doing it in fine style and Jordan Spieth had another multiple win year capped off with the Open at Royal Birkdale. Then there was Play of the Year Justin Thomas who began the year with a 59 in the Sony Open and finished with five wins including the PGA Championship. Each of these players has his own compelling story and next season it should be even more exciting with the return of Tiger Woods.

LPGA Commissioner Michael Whan had quite a year: In the Solheim Cup, the American squad beat up on Team Europe and subsequently Whan offered to aid the financially struggling Ladies European Tour. He had to cancel the Alisport Shanghai tournament from a lack of proper permits and then had to shorten the Evian Championship major to 54 holes from a lack of dry weather but caused an eruption of controversy. Hall of Famer Juli Inkster then rattled some cages with her outspoken contention corporations are unfairly depriving the LPGA of a fair share of monetary support. But when the player’s dress code was modified social media and some conventional media were exposed at their mean and bitchy worst.

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.