The Place to Be
With 794 exhibitors spread out over 276,000 square feet of Orlando's Orange County Convention Center, the PGA Merchandise Show has reached overwhelming proportions.
Last week Snake Eyes Golf Clubs was one of 18 lucky companies to get last-minute space on the floor, but Snake Eyes assistant to the president Jim Lawrence had to camp out for two days for the privilege. Lawrence was sixth in line to register for cancellation space when the doors opened at 9 a.m. Tuesday. "It was crazy out there," he said. "We had chairs, coolers, the whole thing. One guy had a guitar and was singing The PGA Blues. It was like waiting for tickets to the Super Bowl."
His perseverance paid off. So did the S2,400 investment his company made in booth space. Snake Eyes, whose wedges retail for $200 apiece, took more than 750 orders during the first three days of the show. "Not bad for our first show," said Snake Eyes founder Ernie Vadersen. "We just had to be here."
P.T. Barnum must have had golfers in mind when he said, "There's a sucker born every minute." Who else would buy the bizarre things on display last week in Orlando?
Here are just some of the many eye-catching items that were available:
•Luxury golf carts designed by Elmo Meiners, an 82-year-old retired farm-equipment manufacturer. Elmco Incorporated's most popular model is the electric-powered two-passenger 11E Royal Ride, which lists for $7,872.00. A fully loaded 11E with such gizmos as a cassette stereo system, an in-dash fan and a pop-out sun roof runs well in excess of $12,000. But if you buy Elmco you also buy status, for Elmco is the golf cart of the stars. Jackie Gleason, Gerald Ford, Flip Wilson, Marilyn Monroe, Burt Reynolds, Willie Nelson and Chi Chi Rodriguez are but a few of the thousands who have been proud Elmco owners.
•For graphite lovers, Mizuno's new Gra-Flex golf glove. Graphite particles are bonded into the glove's cabretta leather to help lubricate the leather fibers, thus producing, according to the manufacturers, a longer-wearing and better-feeling glove. Mizuno also says the glove can be machine washed and dried without shrinking or stiffening.
•Twin Sphere putters from Freedom Sports of Seal Beach, Calif. The Twin Sphere was originally designed with ball bearings on the club head's heel and toe to make the putter sit an eighth of an inch off the ground at address. But fearful that the ball bearings wouldn't win approval from the USGA, Freedom Sports president Brett Smith substituted lead-filled aluminum spheres on the putter head just before submitting it for evaluation. His concern was for nought. After approving the putter, the USGA told Smith the club would have been acceptable even with ball bearings.
•A milled putter that comes with a removable laser that attaches to the club head. The Lyte Trainer from Lyte Optronics of Santa Monica, Calif., has a laser that shoots an 18-inch straight line to the hole and is supposed to help golfers straighten their strokes. Problem is, USGA rules prohibit using the laser while playing.
•Death Stick products by Fear & Loathing Sports of Redondo Beach, Calif. After Death Stick clubs, bags, shirts and accessories debuted at the 1994 International Golf Show in Anaheim, a golf magazine dubbed Fear & Loathing "a company [the golf industry] could do without." But the firm, under the direction of president Paul Stevenson, a 35-year-old ex-certified public accountant, persists in its cocksure style. It still uses its skull-and-crossbones logo for its Death Stick products and stands by a credo that demands that golfers "scream at those who play slow," "always kill the ball" and "pray for the death of conservative golf," among other things.
•A coat of diamonds for your club. For 22 years Surface Technology, Inc., has been diamond coating heavy-use machinery, such as weaving machines in clothing mills, to make it more resilient to wear and tear. Now the company has devised a way to put diamonds on golf clubs, a process it calls Composite Diamond Coating. Each club is coated with a substance of nickel and minuscule diamond particles, up to five carats' worth per club. The diamonds are very small, so tiny, in fact, that the coating does not significantly increase the price or weight of the clubs. Surface Technology claims the coating makes the ball go farther and helps prolong the life of the club head. So far, no club companies have bought the machinery and supplies to coat their clubs.
Burning to Succeed
Living on the bubble has been the story at Taylor Made Golf ever since Callaway and Cobra took over the metal-wood industry in the early '90s. "We've been treading water," says George Montgomery, vice president of marketing for Taylor Made, the first company that mass-marketed metal woods. "Callaway and Cobra shot by at a tremendous growth rate. We needed a new product."
They have one in their Burner Bubble line of woods, which debuted commercially at the PGA show. Taylor Made hopes the $15 million marketing campaign it launched during the Super Bowl will turn the Burner Bubble into the Big Bertha or King Cobra of 1995. If it doesn't? Taylor Made president and CEO Chuck Yash doesn't even want to think about that. "It's our life," says Yash. "The Burner Bubble brand is the company. It's what we've become."
What makes the Bubble shaft different is that 10% of normal shaft weight is moved down from the top of the shaft, creating a bulge just below the grip like that in a snake that has swallowed a small mouse. This weight adjustment, according to Taylor Made, creates greater club-head speed and longer drives. Taylor Made says the Burner club head has a larger sweet spot than most oversize woods.
The company is convinced both designs will be revolutionary, but critics—most of them sales reps for Callaway and Cobra—say the Bubble and the Burner are nothing more than cosmetic gimmicks to boost sales for a desperate company. "Two things prove the worthiness of any product in this business," says Rick Papreck, vice president of sales for Tommy Armour Golf. "One is, Do they stand the test of time? It's easy to create initial excitement. Time will tell whether the Burner or the Bubble is a good idea. The second major proving point is Tour acceptance."
Taylor Made, which made the technology available to pros early in 1994, already has acceptance. Josè María Olazàbal used the driver to win the '94 Masters. Steve Elkington used the Burner head with a steel shaft in his driver while winning this year's opening Tour event, the Mercedes Championships, and 26 pros played with the Burner Bubble two weeks later at the Northern Telecom Open.
The company has taken orders for 270,000 Burner Bubble drivers, and if the product stays hot, Taylor Made might apply the bubble shaft to its irons and make a move into Cobra territory.
"If the Burner Bubble is a success, we wouldn't be as affected as Ely [Callaway] would, because he owns the wood business," says Tom Crow, vice chairman of Cobra Golf. "You have to remember that Taylor has never established an iron. They're a woodmaker, and Ely has never really established an iron, so he really is a woodmaker, too. I think Taylor had no choice but to confront Callaway and try to take some of that wood business back."
Callaway is diplomatic about the Taylor Made threat. "We congratulate our competitor on an interesting new product," he says. "We wish them well."
In the three years that Fred Couples has used Lynx's Boom Boom driver and Parallax irons to earn nearly $3 million on the PGA Tour, Lynx's parent company, Zurn Industries, has lost $24 million. Last year Lynx also signed U.S. Open champion Ernie Els, who set a single-season worldwide earnings record of $2,862,000, and Michelle McGann, who, using Parallax irons, had her second-best season on the LPGA tour.
The equipment obviously works. So why the losses? Lynx attributes them to three factors: Some of the most costly advertising in the industry; considerable funds poured into its casting facility in 1989; and mixed signals created by the success of Couples and Els. "The fastest growth in the last few years has been for companies marketing player-improvement clubs," says Dave Boone, vice president of product development and marketing for Lynx. "People think the Parallax is a professional's club. We decided to go to a more radical approach."
That would be the Black Cat iron, a club whose most distinguishing characteristic is a black military-grade urethane ring inside the cavity. The club face is one of the largest on the market, but it doesn't look oversized at address because it is closer to the hosel than most. The Black Cat's other unusual feature is a flare-tip shaft that is 19% bigger than the conventional step shaft.
Lynx needs all the good luck the big Black Cat can bring.
The Club King
It seems that everyone at the PGA Show has a story to tell about Nat Rosasco II, whether it be about his 100-foot yacht, which mysteriously sank years ago in Lake Michigan; the two Rolls-Royces he always brings to the Show; the massive seven-carat diamond ring he sports on his left pinky; or his oak-paneled office in Chicago, which wouldn't be complete without its original Louis XVI furniture and museum-quality bronze sculptures.
But Rosasco prefers another kind of story. He'll tell you that he's the only white person with a hole named after him at the Joe Louis "The Champ" Golf Course on Chicago's South Side; that he was honored to spend an hour with Mother Teresa two years ago in Italy; and that he has given millions of dollars to people in need, from underprivileged kids in Chicago to Chi Chi Rodriguez when he was a fledgling pro.
Rosasco is the king of the golf business. Northwestern Golf, the company founded by Nat Rosasco I in 1929 and run by Nat II since his father died in 1961, has sold more golf clubs than any company, ever. More than Callaway. More than Cobra. More than Taylor Made. Heck, Northwestern has sold more clubs than all those outfits combined.
"I've never worried about making money. Never," says the gravelly voiced Rosasco II. "I don't really know how I've done it. We just always work hard, like my dad used to."
Nat Rosasco I arrived at Ellis Island in 1907 from Genoa, Italy, and eventually made his way to Chicago. He earned money running a grocery store until 1924 and then in 1926, at age 38, went to work in Wilson's club factory. In 1929, with his new knowledge of clubmaking and his life savings, he started Northwestern, naming it after a terra-cotta store in Chicago's Little Italy.
At first Rosasco built expensive clubs, but when nobody bought them, he did a quick about-face. Soon he was peddling the cheapest sticks possible, for about 75 cents apiece, and raking in sizable profits.
Nat II started working for Northwestern at age 15 in 1944, and he has remained faithful to his father's business philosophy. Northwestern sells only to mass merchants such as K Mart, Wal-Mart and Sears. These accounts haven't put Northwestern in the spotlight, but because of them the company churns out more than seven million clubs a year.
The company's profits, which have never been disclosed because Northwestern is privately owned, have also allowed Nat II his extravagant and philanthropic lifestyle.
At 65, Nat II is gearing up for one more charge before he hands the reins over to his son, Nat III. Five years ago Nat II started Pro Select, a company that sells clubs to pro shops. With Northwestern and Pro Select, Rosasco is far and away No. 1 in unit sales, and he hopes Pro Select will put him in the No. 1 spot in dollars, too.
"I love living," says Nat II, who last year had three operations to alleviate degenerative arthritis in his arms, neck and back. "And now that I'm healthy, I'm ready to roll."
Right to the top, that is.
A True Knockoff
Tired of seeing other companies make replicas of the Scottsdale Anser putter his father introduced in 1966 but stopped making when Karsten Manufacturing moved to Phoenix the next year, John Solheim decided to remake the club with the original mold last summer. The new Scottsdale Anser was offered to the touring professionals at the Northern Telecom Open in Tucson. The pro cost was $100—there were no freebies. Twenty-six players forked over the cash, including Paul Azinger, Curtis Strange, Payne Stewart, Ben Crenshaw, Nick Faldo, Tom Lehman, Davis Love III, Lee Janzen and Phil Mickelson, who bought a righthanded club because no lefties were available. Original Scottsdale Ansers are now worth up to $2,500.
The Short Game
Cobra received immediate dividends for signing Ben Crenshaw last week. He finished third at the Phoenix Open using Cobra metal woods. Crenshaw played without a club contract in 1994 because he refused to use the radically shaped VAS irons that his sponsor, Cleveland Golf, was pushing. "I visited with Harvey Penick the other day," Crenshaw said. "He said very simply, 'Ben, play the clubs you feel you can play your best with.' My wife tells me that. My father tells me that. So I think I will."... Nike Golf has dropped its most famous client, Curtis Strange, but still has 17 PGA Tour players under contract....
Legendary clubmaker Jack Wullkotte, who was inducted into the Professional Club-makers' Society Hall of Fame, will no longer have to wrap those hard leather grips on Jack Nicklaus's clubs. Nicklaus has joined Phil Mickelson as part of the Griptec playing staff.
A club pro wandered into the crowded Callaway booth last week, picked up one of the company's new Great Big Berthas, waggled it a few times and put it back in the display rack. "Next thing they'll be doing is putting bricks at the end of shafts and selling them," he said, walking away.
The statement was directed not only at Callaway's latest potential best-seller but also at the driver market in general. At the '95 show Titleist launched its 10-degree Howitzer, Yonex its Super A.D.X. and Tommy Armour its 855s Hot Scot. Spalding showed off its Top Flite Magna driver, with the scooped-out top. Its nickname is the Topless, and if it doesn't work as a golf club, it can always be used for an ashtray. "The most important thing is, we've got to get people to try it, because the design is radical," says the managing director of Spalding's golf division, Brendan Davis.
The size of these clubs can be stunning. The Yonex graphite head is the biggest, at 300 cubic centimeters, 50 larger than the club head of the Great Big Bertha, which itself is 25% bigger and 10% lighter than the standard Big Bertha. The Howitzer titanium head is also 250 cubic centimeters. The theory behind all these clubs is that larger club heads provide a greater margin for error for middle-to-high-handicap players, but some pros have been using the jumbo-size clubs in competition.
Using the Yonex, medium length Scott Hoch was among such big hitters as Mark Calcavecchia, Fred Couples and Craig Stadler at the Mercedes Championships and Northern Telecom Open. Darryl Anderson used it to win the 1994 U.S. Open Long Drive Championship. Jim Colbert won the Senior Tournament of Champions wielding the Great Big Bertha.
Is huge better, or just this year's marketing gimmick? "There is no such thing as oversized anymore," says Tommy Armour's Papreck. "Oversized is superior. It's not going back."