Michigan Golfer ON-LINE

'99 PGA Merchandise Show: Lots of Balls, Few Hits
by Tom Cleary

ORLANDO, FL_Now that golf manufacturers have sold every man, woman and child in the Western world a driver which cost more than their daddy's first car, the hope is consumers won't forget why they bought those monstrous things in the first place. So, at this year's PGA Merchandise show in Orlando the big emphasis was on golf balls, as several major players get set to take on the likes of Titleist, Spalding, Bridgestone and Maxfli.

In a climate where the retailer's margin on a Big Bertha is roughly equivalent to what most shops make on a handful of tees, industry leaders Titleist and Spalding are now targets of companies with whom they already compete in the area of golf clubs. Taylor-Made, Cobra and Nike have new golf ball lines coming out this year, with Callaway set to follow perhaps as soon as 2000. While Nike clearly looks to grab a piece of the balata pie on the basis of its immense brand recognition, Taylor-Made is making a more earnest really see anything that looked like a 'break-out' company," said Blaine Anderson, head golf professional at Crystal Springs CC in Caledonia. "Several companies have a ball now, but I wonder just how much better a golf ball can get." Anderson thinks the new ball lines will wrest some market share away from the bottom end of the industry, but says it's unlikely he'll stock the new balls until he's sure there's a demand.

Rather than hurt Titleist, Don Underwood thinks the new ball wars might solidify that company's position in the industry. "I just don't see a big change in our ball business," says the golf professional at The Meadows GC in Allendale. Underwood echoes what many have said in the past about golfers awash in choices: when consumers get confused, they often fall back onto safe names with a proven history.

With more than a million square feet of display space in Orlando and more than 1,400 exhibitors, from the outside the golf industry looks hale and hearty. But upon closer inspection it's easy to see nerves fraying. Callaway's stock price has imploded and there are rumors the company will destroy tens of millions of dollars of inventory rather than sell it at deeply discounted prices. Taylor-Made has made an about-face with its massive design overhaul, and fresh on the minds of all are the demise of such companies as Lynx and Tommy Armour. With the $600 driver now drawing as much attention as the Chia pet, shop operators and retailers are looking elsewhere to make a buck.

"Instead of spending huge money on clubs now, consumers are starting to pay more attention to custom-fitting," says Steve Huzel, who manages a retail outlet in west Michigan. Like other retailers not affiliated with golf courses, Huzel has discovered there's money to be made with off-brand lines which allow golfers to switch equipment occasionally without having to face fiscal ruin. "I think 90% of the people out there are playing with equipment that's not right for them, and changing clubs all the time is just too costly," says Huzel. At this year's show he and his staff spent more time looking at clothing than pro-line golf equipment, although he does list Cobra's new club line as one that might catch the public's fancy.

While clubs with enormous prices might not be in the vogue right now, golfers are apparently willing to spend more to look better. Don Underwood names Cutter & Buck, Tommy Hilfiger and Kenneth Gordon as lines he expects to do well in his shop again this year, along with a blast from the past. "I was pleasantly surprised by what I saw from Izod at the show," he relates. "It looks to me like they're working hard to move toward people who aren't their traditional customers." Steve Huzel also likes Cutter & Buck and war horse Ashworth, but says he's noticed more people wearing the high-end Bobby Jones line found only at "green-grass" shops and department stores.

And while the manufacturing end seems to many to be in a quagmire right now, a few nimble, smaller companies continue to gain market share. Gold-dust twins Adams Golf and Orlimar both introduced new drivers at this year's show, hoping to capitalize on the popularity of their fairway utility clubs. Adams trotted out Nick Faldo for a Friday night driving range exhibition, and the congenial Faldo actually managed to hit some good shots shortly after a festive cocktail party which began the proceedings. As for Orlimar, their long-awaited driver (and less expensive steel-shafted utility clubs) look like the surest bet of 1999, even though the Big O's new iron line got mixed reviews. Not to worry, says Marc Heistand, a Orlimar sales rep from Michigan. "Our research," Heistand pointed out, "shows our five-iron travels a four-iron distance with a six-iron trajectory."

For a golfing population looking for Mark McGwire power and Tara Lipinski landings, that might be the best we can expect this year.

Regardless of the overall direction on the golf industry, the PGA Merchandise Show is still a Force in the business. But one lingering thought hovered over the Show: the PGA was savvy to sell the show at its zenith a year ago. Orlando will always be a must-be-there happening for the golf community, a veritable rite of winter as much as Augusta is a rite of spring. But the suspicion lingers that the nasty market forces of consolidation, the still ailing Asian economies, and weak consumer demand in the U.S, all mean that the Show, at least for the foreseeable future, will at best be "on hold" in terms of growth. Simply put, there's not enough rabid golfers worldwide to keep up the demand for the oversupply of expensive hi-tech metalwoods and irons. Moreover, the industry needs a breathing spell before consumers resume their insatiable appetite to find the 'perfect club.' But in the meantime, there were still some notable product introductions and pleasant surprises at the '99 Show:

Adams Golf-made a big splash with its new SC Titanium driver but the sleeper debut may be its new set of Faldo Series wedges. The wedges, personally approved by Nick himself feature a classic style with a unique asymmetric sole to deliver three different wedge shots-pitch, sand and lob.

GolfGear International-is a publicly traded company (OTC symbol GEAR) that has an intriguing past and a promising future. Back in 1989, GolfGear's patented forged face woods and irons using its new insert technology were found to be non-conforming by the USGA. The USGA said the clubs were non-conforming because they had an insert of a foreign material. Undeterred, GolfGear's President and founder Don Anderson still filed patents for his insert-based clubs. The decision paid off as three years later the USGA changed its rules and permitted inserts in clubfaces. At Orlando, GolfGear showed off an impressive line of Ti-Gear and Ti-Gear 2 titanium clubs, which leverages its patented "forged titanium insert" technology. Keep an eye out for GolfGear, which is launching, a la Adams and Orlimar, a new infomercial.

STX Putters-speaking of inserts, STX is still forging ahead with its line of putters with interchangeable faces. At the show, STX brought out a new family of putters called the KEY series. The KEY series will come with two face options: a "regular" and a "+" face each with different grades of "softness" or "rebound." 17 years ago, STX launched the first patented elastomer face on its putter and laid claim to being the "softest legal face in golf"

Cleveland Golf-this Tour market leader in wedges introduced a new Quadpro low profile wood that looked particularly sharp as well as the new TA5 low profile iron. Cleveland seems to quietly sneaking up on the big boys with some nicely designed equipment.

Wright Golf-landed some needed publicity by signing one of the stars of the Senior Tour-Gil Morgan. After Lynx went under last year, Morgan was orphaned without an equipment company. Enter Wright Golf out of Olive Branch, Mississippi. Founder Doug Wright convinced Morgan that his IP (internal perimeter weighted) irons and Wright Competition driver were the right stuff for the good doctor. Oh yes, that and some hard cash and stock incentives, I'm sure. Wright claims a "closed cavity technology, that will outperform both a blade and a cavity back."

Lady Fairway-launched the first women's golf shoes and socks with OUTLAST Temperature Regulation. Offered in Lady Fairway's new Riviera and Winchester models, OUTLAST is a microthermal material that "distributes, releases, absorbs and stores body heat in response to the microclimate close to the foot." The result should be unprecedented comfort and fit for wearers.

SmartWool-here's a product that might be a perfect fit for OUTLAST shoes-high quality wool socks guaranteed not to itch. Made of Merino wool, SmartWool reduces blisters, has a soft feel, and comes in a variety of styles-including ped, casual, and dress.

West Coast Trends-continues to be a player in the luggage and accessory business. The maker of the popular The Club Glov_the smart and durable bag cover with wheels-followed up with another winner, the Rolling Duffle Bag. Traveling golfers now only need the wheel-based duffle and The Club Glove to travel smartly and to avoid airport back strain.

- Terry Moore

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