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PGA Merchandise Show
The calm before the storm.

by Tom Cleary

ORLANDO -- Central Floridians readily acknowledge the wind was knocked out of their sails when Shaquille O'Neal, their giant-sized NBA star, opted for Disneyland over Disney World. And as the 1997 PGA Merchandise Show demonstrated, it might be awhile before Orlando rediscovers the bluster the show and Shaq have provided in the past.

To be sure, this year's Merchandise Show still had its share of trash talkers, even though the set-up this time at the Orlando Convention Center wisely kept some distance between heavyweights Callaway and Cobra. In 1996, Cobra's brash manner and pumped-up loudspeaker system was the talk of the show and a pain in Ely Callaway's cavity back. In January, Cobra -- now under ownership of the parent company of Titleist and Foot-Joy -- toned down its act a bit and acted like the golf megapower it's become. At the same time, the Callaway booth a few aisles away was being overrun by buyers hoping to increase their allotments of Big Berthas, Great Big Berthas, the Biggest Big Berthas and the new special edition Darth Vader Can't Even Hit This Thing Bertha, with its optional Luke Skywalker Laser Alignment Beam. Under siege, you say? Not even Steven Seagal after a good breakfast could've rescued a Callaway rep with a pen in his hand when the show opened the Friday before Super Bowl Sunday.

This year's element du jour at the Merchandise Show was tungsten, which is being used by several companies. Tungsten seems destined to become the dance partner of titanium, since the two together allow for the manufacture of oversized clubheads. Though Tommy Armour is making a completely titanium oversized iron, many in the industry feel titanium is too light to be used as the exclusive agent in oversized heads; thus, the need for tungsten. While it sounds like a lot of space-age fun, no one was hailing it as the greatest discovery since the Ping putter.

Speaking of Ping -- which not many people seem to do these days -- the Arizona based behemoth of years gone by is just one of a large pack of companies hoping to discover its magic of the past. Karsten Solheim has tweeked and modified his iron design, but it still looks like his company will remain back in the pack until it manages to fire the imagination of the public the way it did ten years ago. You get the feeling Ping could become a heavyweight again, but won't do so until it comes up with a marketing approach that rivals Cobra's or Callaway's.

Not much has changed in the area of golf balls, though Wilson is offering one with titanium in the core. Golf ball companies seem to attract the most attention inside the industry, where there's constant speculation about who might eventually get gobbled up by Callaway. The talk of a Spalding-Callaway coupling seems to have died down some, and people at the show were wondering if Dunlop might be the next ball manufacturer to get longing looks from the Big Bertha Bunch. New names? Zevo is a club manufacturer which may have a chance, thanks to a splashy look and some interesting player affiliations, while Texas-based Adams Golf impressed some people with its cautious approach to entering a jungle rife with danger. The Adams "Tight Lies" utility metalwoods will soon be debuting on an infomercial cable channel near you. Insomniacs, beware.

In apparel, that big cheesy smile you see belongs to Phil Knight, the Nike honcho whose 40 million dollar contract with Tiger Woods is starting to look like the best deal anyone's made since Monty Hall was still swapping baseball cards. The whole world, it seems, wants to say "I'm Tiger Woods" and has apparently decided the best way to do so is by collecting Nike duds. How long until Aaron Spelling develops a made-for-TV trashsport pro-am featuring Tiger and Michael Jordan against the world? And how long until Phil Knight decides he can build a better line of Tiger Woods golf clubs than what the Fantastic Feline is now using?

For all its little mini-dramas and morality plays the air in Orlando at this year's Merchandise Show was a little chilly, thanks to the Winds of Change and Consolidation. Scores of golf club companies seem to be looking out over the edge of the world, and it seems improbable many of them will last until the year 2000. Callaway, Cobra, Nike, Titleist and a few others have raised the ante in the high-stakes poker game, and few newcomers have the resources to stay at the table. In fact, the only true inspiration at this year's show seemed to come from smaller companies working in other areas. There was Bite Shoes, whose bosses are making a hip-hop golf foot fedora with rubber cleats you can wear to work. Can playing hooky get more fun than this? And my favorite example of American ingenuity was the GustBuster umbrella, which features air-flow panels designed to allow high winds through while keeping precipitation out. In case you didn't know it, wind is the great enemy of umbrellas, not water.

Come to think of it, the GustBuster would be a perfect party favor for the 1998 Merchandise Show. It's impervious to the hot air that'll be blowing on attendees next winter in Orlando and will keep dry the second-line club manufacturers who are about to get rained on in a big way. With apologies to Tom Clancy, there's a Red Storm Rising toward Orlando '98, which may be one of the reasons why this place's best-known citizen and biggest linkster caught the last train for the West coast. Though Shaquille O'Neal's passion is rap music, even he knows it never rains in (Carlsbad) California.

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