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Orlando '98: New Vendors, Old Surrenders
by Tom Cleary

ORLANDO, FL_On the calendar recognized by most civilized countries it was 1998, but for the golf industry this year's PGA Merchandise Show was held in the year of 1 A.T. Following Tiger Woods' amazing first full season on the PGA Tour, the golf business will henceforth mark time as Years After Tiger. Nothing is the same as before nor will it be again.

Orlando '01 can be divided into classifications of those companies which have a Piece of Eldrick and Those Who Don't. If you're Titleist or Nike in the former, you're printing your own cash; if you're Maxfli or Tommy Armour in the latter you're on Gilligan's Island. Well, maybe that's a bit too strong. According to Wall Street research even the weak sisters of golf are hanging on to Tiger's coattails; virtually every publicly-traded stock with even a tenuous connection to golf has seen a jump in value since the Masters last year. It's one of the reasons why Greg Norman is still smiling while he keeps Kenneth Starr on hold on his cart phone.

For years before the latest Merchandise Show the golf business had been talking about consolidation, and the chances were it was going to have to happen sooner or later. Well, it's happening. The first shot was struck by Titleist when it acquired Cobra, but since others have gotten into the act. Spalding picked off first Etonic, then Hogan to remain a thorn in the side of virtually everyone. And even some unknowns are getting into the act. Little Tear Drop, the round-faced putter company made its bid at a palace coup by gobbling up Tommy Armour and Ram. Though the manufacturing market share of those two lately has been roughly equivalent to Pat Paulsen's career electoral college haul, it illustrates just how quickly the playing field in the golf business can turn around. If you don't believe it, you're probably a little fuzzy on the day not long past when Callaway's main product line was comprised of those goofy, hickory-shafted wedges.

At this year's show the biggest gains were being made by the little guys. Gritty Adams Golf has used determination and an engaging infomercial to turn its Tight Lies utility club into a very nice little fiefdom. And maybe it's time to give a nod to Slazenger, whose custom-fitting system seems to be making slow but steady progress with club pros who appreciate the one company which has stayed completely devoted to "green-grass" operations. But the list of solvent bit players thins out in a hurry. In February in Orlando you needed a court-order to get into the Callaway booth, while a few aisles away companies like high-end Japanese club maker PRGR considered lobbying for space on milk cartons. Having seen their booth again this year, I am sure of three things in this life: death, taxes and the unshakable belief some very rich people on this planet are losing their fortunes on golf club manufacturing.

In fact, if I had to offer advice to any industry CEO after Orlando, it would be this: Fire all the engineers and go to New York or Chicago or Minneapolis and find the best ad agency you could ever think of affording. Those with marketing dollars (Callaway, Titleist, Taylor Made) will continue to rule the roost, while those who don't (just about everyone else) won't. Newsflash: Golf equipment is now being made by the masses with materials that can make Superman puke. Bulletin #2: Golf equipment is being sold by companies who've got enough money to buy advertising on Lois and Clark reruns on the Lifetime Channel.

There weren't a lot of heroes at this year's show, but I couldn't walk past the Shedda booth without stopping. They make a double-bag cart for golfers who don't want to give up walking, but can't seem to find able-bodied caddies. The Shedda cart operates, well, on its own. Some sensor gizmo allows the cart to follow the players exactly as a European caddy would, minus the insolence and hangover. Don't ask how; it would ruin the fun and doesn't matter a lick.

And among the bigger companies, Spalding gets a high-five for its introduction of balls specifically designed for Taylor Made and Callaway drivers. They're equipped with a tiny "T" or a "C" according to your weaponry. When I first saw them, I thought maybe Spalding had just monogrammed balls for me personally. A company rep laughed when I told him that, and produced an old catalogue to prove they'd already been lettering balls for me since the 1950's.

Gee, and I had always thought X-Outs had something to do with paint flaws.

Other highlights of the PGA Merchandise Show included:

Adams Golf_last year's infomercial wunderkind is looking at a repeat winner with the introduction of the its degree "Strong 9-wood." Following up with the stunning success of its line-up of fairway clubs_from 13 degree (3 wood) to 24 degree (7 wood), Adams reportedly sold over $2 million of clubs from its booth at Orlando. For good reason, it makes one fine golf club. The 9-wood is in the same mold with a slightly deeper face than its Tight Lies brethren in order to "optimize distance" according to CEO Barney Adams. Having trouble with your mid to long irons? Tight Lies may well be your remedy in '98.

McHenry Metals_not only does it boast one of best new names in the business, this company gets instant respect due to its founder, the legendary Gary Adams, the visionary behind Taylor Made in the 80's and Founder's Club in the 90's. Another great name is TourPure, the handle for McHenry Metals' new drivers and fairway woods. Especially appealing is the mid-sized clubhead size of the fairway woods that appear so natural behind the ball as opposed to the other metalhead behemoths. Other features include a forged, milled face allowing for more transfer of energy to the ball and the tungsten/copper back weight which lends more forgiveness and better launch angle. Keep an eye out for McHenry Metals.

LiquidMetal Golf_speaking of names, here's another that was a show stopper. Like a modern goldigger, this California-based company is staking its fortune on a special space age alloy invented in 1993 at Cal Tech. The short story is that LiquidMetal has superior properties over titanium (twice the strength) and stainless steel (five times more energy transfer.) With less energy absorbed by the clubhead at impact, more energy is transferred to the golf ball_meaning more yardage. More yards, softer feel and low price? Well two out of three isn't bad. A set of eight irons will retail for $2695. And look for LiquidMetal in Mizuno and Maruman irons this year.

Black Rock_this upstart and fast-rising company also effectively utilized infomercials for its Killer Bee line of extra-length clubs last year. In '98, look for even more options in Killer Bee shaft lengths_45-inch, 47-inch and 49-inch. All in all, Killer Bee will be available in six different shaft lengths. You might thinkBlack rock will go to any length to get your business. Also touted is the patented gold and black BullWhip shaft.

PING_Lots of traffic for Karsten and Co., especially for its new driver, at the show. And the ISI irons with the CUSHIN are coming on strong. And for a company that started out with just a putter, PING is not planning to let Odyssey steal any more market share. Look for the soft-face PING Isopuir putters to appear in more golfer's bags this season.

STX_speaking of soft-face, this company started it all. It just didn't have the marketing and Tour presence. Well, the STX booth garnered some nice traffic at the Show. Promising new products at the Show were the new Sync Tour Mallet and the STX 641 putter which features two optional faces that respond to different green conditions and speeds.

Precept_Although Top Flite stole some headlines with its specialized ball for Callaway and Taylor Made, underrated Bridgestone is still nipping at the big boys' heels. At the show, the company pushed the new Precept MC Spin Ball. The MC is a two-piece ball that exploits the use of its "Muscle Fiber Core" technology. What's that do? Basically, ball scientists say players will get more distance without sacrificing feel with the MC.

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