Golf it turns out, is not just "a good walk spoiled," but a good walk diced, sliced, painted, varnished, shrink-wrapped, boxed, bagged, hyped, hawked, molded, carved, forged, woven, videoed, taught, scored, discounted, invoiced and, ultimately, consumed.
This unremarkable insight came to me last Friday as I comparison-shopped for golf bags on the opening day of the annual PGA Merchandise Show in Orlando. I couldn't decide between the $29.95, 7-to-Go by ProActive Sports—a sideless, molded-plastic carrier for seven clubs, 10 tees and four balls—and the $2,400 boar-print leather bag by Caro Deporte, the one with the Las Vegas-based Siberian-tiger tamers Siegfried and Roy appliquèd in vinyl on the back panel.
"This is very practical if you're playing a par-3 course," said ProActive vice-president Jerry Corcoran, touting the 7-to-Go. "Or any course where you don't need a full set of clubs."
"This isn't practical at all," countered Caro Deporte vice-president Salvador Chavez some minutes later. "But, as you can see, it is very beautiful."
February 7, 1994
Undecided, I wandered into another display area and fell in love with Sun Mountain Sports' Swiss Army Bag—a prototype lightweight golf bag with enough zippers, pockets, rings, flaps, sheaths and elastic cords to satisfy the most acquisitive golfer. But then I came across the revolutionary Bungee-Bag, by Unimax U.S.A., which sounded like a bag you could safely throw off a bridge in anger. Alas, it was merely a bag with a shock-absorbing strap.
Fortunately for me, I wasn't in a position to buy any of them. The PGA Merchandise Show is a bazaar where golf manufacturers and wholesalers display their lines and introduce new products to the people who sell goods and services to golfers, i.e. , the club pros and the buyers. This year's version, the 41st staged by the PGA of America, drew 781 exhibitors and an estimated 35,000 attendees to the cavernous Orange County Convention Center and the Peabody Hotel across the street for four days of unapologetic hawking and gawking.
"My head is always swimming after this show," said former Masters champion Ben Crenshaw, who was inspecting new equipment. "It's like a tourist going to London for half a day. You'd have to stay for months to see it all."
This year's show, as always, revolved around the new offerings of the major club manufacturers. Callaway Golf seized attention Friday morning by introducing its long-awaited Big Bertha irons and a new generation of Big Bertha metal woods. (Former U.S. Open and British Open champ Johnny Miller drew cheers from a ballroom audience when he vowed to take the new clubs on the PGA Senior Tour in three years and "kick butt.") Spalding, in a smoke and laser-light extravaganza the night before at the Stouffer Orlando Resort, surprised 3,000 guests with the news that it would essentially junk its name, one of the oldest in golf, and carry on its golf business under the flag of its leading brand, Top Flite. (New Top Flite endorser Payne Stewart, in a commercial outtake played for the crowd, drew laughs by confessing, "When you dress like me, you look like an idiot.") Karsten Manufacturing, with considerably less fanfare, unveiled a raw-looking Ping Zing2 metal driver with a club head resembling a lump of solder.
Midsize seemed to be this year's buzzword. Hogan, Founders Club, Tommy Armour, Wilson, Taylor Made and Titleist were among the companies peddling clubs with slightly larger than standard heads, bucking a still vigorous trend toward oversize drivers and oversized performance claims. Cleveland Golf even stepped forward with a midsize iron shaped like a Pepperidge Farm Milano cookie on a stick. "When you think of it," said Bel-Air Country Club head pro Eddie Merrins, "there are just three parts of a club: shaft, club head and grip. There's really not much you can do. They're all trying to catch lightning in a jar."
Or low handicappers in a weak moment. "The top companies are all going after single-digit handicappers, because other players look in their bags," said marketing consultant Chester Gore, who was touting the new Tommy Armour 855s Silver Scot irons. "For the first two months we're only going to put stiff shafts on the clubs. We want to be in the bags of club champions."
As the language suggests, the golf-club exhibits were among the more solemn, peopled by intense sales reps and wary buyers trying to gauge the market and duck the hype. But a smile was never more than a few steps away. Hole In One Inc., of Fort Myers, Fla., in addition to its usual line of exploding and wobbly golf balls, had the Smasher, a novelty item that looks like a ball embedded in a broken windshield. Tee-Off Company offered Putting Buddy, "the Talking Putting Mat," which rewards holed putts with synthetic applause and supportive lines like "Nice putt!" "One voice is kind of a wise guy's," said Tee-Off's Jim Laabs. "It says, 'Betcha can't do that again.' "
I stopped at America Hole 'n One, which bills itself as "The Nation's #1 Prize Risk Insurer," and learned from the CEO, former Atlanta Falcon placekicker Mick Luckhurst, that his company pays hundreds of hole-in-one claims every year. The biggest payoff of 1993 went to University of Alabama golfer Jason Bohn, who aced the 2nd hole at the university's Harry Pritchett Golf Course during the million-dollar Hole-In-One Shootout. "Dad, I've got good news and bad news," Bohn told his father when he called to report that he was giving up his amateur status to accept the prize. "The bad news is, I'm off the golf team. The good news is, I'm the fourth-leading money winner on the PGA Tour."
At Cowboy Plastics, Nick and Mike Nichols, a father and son from League City, Texas, wore cowboy hats with their sport coats and hawked groove cleaners, ball-mark repairers, bag tags and vinyl windshields for golf carts. "I think people are sick," drawled Mike, finding no other explanation for the salability of such items. "Fortunately, I'm not as sick as most of them."
Golf continues to attract its share of Gyro Gearlooses, judging from the number of garage tinkerers with exhibits. At the Club Protector booth, Bill and Carolyn Weld of Buffalo displayed a flexible golf-cart cover made of vinyl roofing material lined with mildew-resistant denim, used to protect clubs from rain. "He woke me up in the middle of the night, five years ago, and started shaking me," said Carolyn. "He said, 'I've got something! We're going to get rich! It's ingenious!' " She laughed. "And here we are today, selling it."
Among the intriguing inventions:
•The VisaTronics Eagle—a range-finding system that employs a reflector on the flagstick and a laser pistol on the golfer's hip to generate accurate yardage measurements at the pull of a trigger. "I recently played 18 holes with my Eagle, pulling a trolley, and got around in three hours," said company president Michael Plitman. A VisaTronics extra: A reflector back on the tee enables golfers to measure their own drives.
•The Nosquito, from Centsible Designs—a bag tag that emits an electronic signal resembling the drone of a dragon fly. Said company president Chris DeMichele. "It's a noise mosquitoes dislike."
•Gopher, "the Amazing Golf Ball Finder," from Practice House Golf—a microchip-based ball divining rod that reportedly can detect the distinctive molecular structure of a golf ball hiding in long grass, foliage or water. "Can be used by right or left-handed people," boasts a brochure.
•The Terrainer—a driving-range platform that tilts to simulate uphill, sidehill and downhill lies. "I made it in my garage," said Los Angeles architect David Froelich, who built his prototype with a rusted '79 Mercury driveshaft and a salvaged DC-9 engine cowling. "It appeals to guys that are hard-core, like me."
The task for the buyers was to find some middle ground between banality and insanity. Bryan Roberson, a young PGA professional and new owner of the nine-hole Four Seasons Country Club in Wrens, Ga., spent Friday shopping for "hard goods" like range balls and mats but found time to discuss his allotment of fast-selling Callaway clubs with a sales rep. "Last year, I worked at a big club, and we got 20 pieces a month," said Roberson, a little chagrined at his loss of bargaining power. "Now I'm down to four." On impulse, he ordered two dozen Big Bertha caps, saying, "You can't go wrong with the major names." Unless, of course, the price is wrong. "I love Ashworth clothing, the stuff Fred Couples wears, but I can't sell it where I'm at. I have to look at price points."
"We're 20 miles from Augusta, but it's country" his wife, Lynda, added with a smile. "The men won't wear pink."
The show, split in half, and in half, and in half again, would still dwarf the modest "tables in a tent" that got the ball rolling 41 years ago. GES Exposition Services, which stages the show for the PGA, had 800 people working the convention center, including 200 "Freight Dogs" to unload 275 18-wheeler trailers and sort through 5,000 UPS shipments. "Trade shows are fast-paced, high-pressure types of businesses," said GES freight supervisor J.T. Hannon. "But there's a method to the madness. It's organized chaos."
Too organized, according to some. "It's gotten awful big," said Claude Feldner of Hornung's Pro Golf Sales of Fond du Lac, Wise, semiretired but a veteran of 32 straight shows. "I liked the good ol, days when we were in the tent and pros would walk in with putters on their shoulders."
The pros carry "putting systems" now, not putters, so Feldner can be forgiven for feeling nostalgic. At a show spiced with products like "unisex golfing sandals" and the ominously-labeled Golfer's Crotch Hook, the pace of innovation seemed almost out of control. One small-company exec, stumped when asked what one of his prototype products was called, explained, "The guy who's really good at naming stuff is at lunch."
It fell to tradition-loving Crenshaw to put things in perspective. "I've got a hickory-shafted club with an aluminum head from the 1920s," he said, as he looked out his llth-floor hotel window at the sprawling convention center. "That was revolutionary then, and you see lots of innovative things like that today at the show. But over time, golf will always be golf, hurtling people back to earth."
Crenshaw may be right, but even the earth is marketable these days. A St. Louis company called Ad In The Hole pitched a circular plastic device in Orlando. It's a micro-billboard that fits in the bottom of the cup for golfers to read after they hole out.