ORLANDO, FL – Imagine spending a day wandering around a mammoth circular driving range trying out virtually every type of golf equipment on the market.  A golf fanatic’s fantasy?

This was reality at Demo Day, the kick-off event of the 58th PGA Merchandise Show in Orlando.  Last  Wednesday, about 5,000 retailers and golf professionals descended on the Orange County National Golf Center for Demo Day, billed as the world’s largest professional golf testing event.  Many companies use the event to unveil their new products that will hit the market in the coming weeks.

I wasn’t sure quite what to expect as I made the 30-minute drive out to Winter Garden, where the 42-acre practice facility is located.  The PGA had gotten a break from the weather gods; the violent thunderstorms that struck the area Tuesday evening had cleared out, and the thousands of retailers and potential buyers were graced with a sunny but breezy day.  The biggest challenge was finding a place to park; vehicles lined the road into the facility.

As I approached the demonstration area, I was stunned by the immensity of the event.  Tents and booths were packed tightly around the circumference of the vast practice area.  Swarms of people – mostly PGA club professionals – crowded into the display areas, where sales representatives described their latest models of clubs, balls, training aids, and other equipment and persuasively explained why their products were your ticket to a superior golf game.  If you wanted to demo a club, you simply snagged an available spot on the practice tee.

I stopped by the TaylorMade tent, where they were showcasing their new R11 driver.  In a bold departure from the traditional black, the R11 features a non-glossy white head.  The club also includes a new feature: the ability to adjust the angle of the clubface.  (Like the older R9 driver, you can also adjust the club to encourage a fade or a draw.)

Under the watchful eyes of one of the TaylorMade reps, who determined the best version and set-up of the club for me, I tried out the R11.  Once the rep had made the appropriate adjustments, I hit several fine tee shots dead straight, with good loft and carry.  This was somewhat discouraging, since I had purchased an R9 driver last fall (which I have been quite pleased with) only now to discover it has been outdated within a few months.  I told the rep that I liked the club but didn’t think I could justify buying another driver.  His response: “Think what it could do for your game.”

Before departing the TaylorMade area, I partook of a complimentary hot dog and Heineken.  I then wandered over to the putting green, where I tested TaylorMade’s new Ghost line of putters, one of which features a unique U-shaped design with a hollow center.  The Ghost has a nice, solid feel, but I think I’ll stick with the vintage Ping putter I bought for $25 on eBay last summer.

I’ve never paid a great deal of attention to the various options for club shafts, but learned a bit when I stopped by the Oban and Tru Temper tents.  An Oban rep proudly noted that 11 PGA Tour winners last year used their shafts, which feature a composite graphite.  He explained that the material used is the key factor in differentiating one shaft from another.  Their shafts sell from $200 to $450.  Of course this information planted a seed of doubt in my head about purchasing my now-outdated R9 driver with a stock shaft, but I don’t feel compelled to shell out hundreds of dollars for a state-of-the-art Oban.

Tru Temper is oldest name in the shaft industry.  Their rep told me that 90% of the touring pros use their steel shafts.  I’m pretty sure my 12-year old Callaway X-14 irons have Tru Temper shafts.  I feel reassured knowing that I share at least something with the pros, even if they get more bang for the buck (or buck for the bang) out of their shafts.

I wandered by the Adams Golf tent, where they were promoting their new “transition hybrid” irons.  The clubs incorporate features of both traditional irons and hybrids.  Adams is selling sets that include four transition hybrid irons and four conventional hybrids.  I hit some solid shots with the 7-iron, but am not convinced I need to jettison my faithful Callaway X-14s.  We’ve been through a lot together.

At the Wilson tent, I asked one of the older reps whether he remembered their X-31 irons, which was the first full set of clubs I owned (a 16th birthday gift).  The X-31s were “blades,” and I reluctantly replaced them 27 years later at the urging of my brother, who was convinced that at least some portion of my golfing deficiency was attributable to the out-dated blades which are much less forgiving than the cavity-back, perimeter-weighted irons used by virtually all recreational golfers today.  The Wilson rep did indeed remember the X-31s, and in fact said that many people are still playing them.  (My ex-wife surreptitiously discarded my set; they probably ended up at a church bazaar.)

At the Ping tent, a rep introduced to me to a couple of their new iron designs, and, after observing me hit some balls, recommended the model with a wider flange that is more forgiving of off-center shots and provides more loft.  He highly recommended that if I were to purchase a set of irons I have the clubs fitted by a qualified Ping professional.  The rep explained that adjustments to the lie angle of the club can produce more consistent shot-making and counter tendencies to fade the ball.  I had heard of lie angle, but never really understood its significance.  I’m guessing that my X-14s don’t have the optimal lie angle for my swing, but I doubt that accounts for most of my horrendous shots.

The one must-see event of the day was Suzann Petterson’s appearance at the Nike tent, where the LPGA star from Norway was interviewed by the Golf Channel, answered questions, and displayed her prowess with her Nike clubs.  Watching her hit shots was mesmerizing; it’s hard to believe the women pros hit the ball so far with such smooth, effortless swings.  When I commented that she made the game look too easy, she remarked “don’t say that too much.”   (No doubt many men in the crowd were mesmerized by attributes other than her golf swing.)

I asked Petterson whether she foresees the European women’s tour ever attaining the status of the European men’s tour, so that top women golfers would play mostly in Europe (like many of the top European men today).  She doesn’t predict that; in her view, the LPGA will likely remain the venue of choice for the top European golfers.  Petterson said she would like to play more in Europe (she’s required to play a certain number of European events to maintain her eligibility for the Solheim Cup), but commented that the European equivalent of the LPGA tour simply does not provide anywhere near the opportunities afforded by the LPGA.

I spent about four hours at Demo Day, but was able to take in only a fraction of the displays.  As I walked back to my car, the reps were busy disassembling displays and packing up, no doubt exhausted by their long day.  It was a remarkable event, and I took away a considerable amount of knowledge about club technology (and a nice sunburn).  However, before I spend $1,200 on a new set of irons, over a thousand dollars on custom shafts, and $400 on a new driver, I think I’d be better off paying my local pro for a few lessons.  I’d probably get more bang for the buck.

Note:  Jack Ross is the Golf Editor of ValleySportsNow.com. He is still wondering why he returned to New England from balmy Florida, and occasionally has fleeting thoughts about purchasing an R11 driver.