I was fairly certain nothing could top my experience at outdoor Demo Day until I walked onto the floor of the cavernous Orlando County Convention Center on Day 1 of the 58th PGA Merchandise Show.
It was truly a sensory overload. Nearly 1,000 golf manufacturers and marketers – virtually anyone who sells any product or service related to golf – had staked out their territory over the boundless expanse of the mammoth structure, which seemed large enough to hold a fleet of Boeing 747s – maybe even land one. I was told there were approximately 10 miles of corridors lined with booths and structures of exhibitors, all populated with enthusiastic sales representatives eager to pitch their product or service.
The question confronting an overwhelmed first-time attendee: where do you begin? Fortunately, I was not without guidance. I had connected with a senior golf writer from London, who was kind enough to show me the ropes and let me tag along for portions of the 3-day event. Paul is a friend-of-a-friend, and much to my good fortune we seemed to hit it off pretty well; he tolerated my American-golf myopia, and taught me a number of British colloquialisms. We parked in a “car park” (not a parking lot), and endeavored to keep the car off the pavement (a sidewalk).
It was tempting to gravitate towards the displays of the giants of the golf industry. The impressive structures of companies like Titleist, TaylorMade, Nike, Callaway, Ping, Wilson, Bridgestone, and Adams rose above the golf proletariat like the Great Pyramids of Egypt. However, I soon learned that some of the most interesting stories could be found in the modest booths of small entrepreneurs who viewed the show as their potential yellow brick road to merchandising success in the golf equivalent of the Land of Oz.
I stopped by the SkyGolf booth – the manufacturer of SkyCaddie, the leading distance-measuring device for golfers. Their top model sells for $350, plus an annual fee of $30-$50 depending on which package of courses you choose. The rep told me you can spend less on other brands, but you won’t get the same level of performance, such as SkyCaddie’s “full-feature” courses that display the undulations on greens.
I asked the rep about the status of distance-measuring devices under USGA rules; my understanding is that they are prohibited unless permitted by a local rule. He explained that the local rule option was a concession by the USGA, which initially was opposed to such devices because they were not “traditional.” He explained that virtually every course in the country has adopted local rules permitting their use. Many state golf associations even permit their use in tournaments.
Have you ever played a round of golf craving a beverage but waited interminably for the cart girl to show up? Smartcart has a solution. The company markets a web-based beverage cart system which permits players to place orders through cell phones and receive their food and beverages within 20 minutes. (According to the rep, it takes a cart girl 1 ¾ hours to complete a loop of the course.) Golfers can download the Smartcart app for free; the courses pay $500/month for the system, which also helps them market to golfers. I wonder if you could order a pro for a mid-round tune-up, or perhaps a sports psychologist? That’s probably the deluxe version.
At lunch in the media room I grabbed a seat at a table along with two gentlemen sporting very colorful golf attire. They turned out to be representatives of Loudmouth Golf, which sells the bizarre slacks you see John Daly wearing these days. They told me that the company started in 2001 with a guy selling pants out his garage; they now sell 10 million pairs a year.
Daly came on board as a sponsor during his suspension from the Tour in 2009 while playing a lot of golf with former NFL quarterback Jim McMahon and seeing how much attention McMahon got wearing the eye-catching slacks. Daly’s personality seems to be a better fit with Loudmouth than with the PGA Tour through most of his golf career. He’s paid based on the incremental sales attributable to his sponsorship. “He likes getting the monthly checks,” said the rep.
Part of the attraction of the merchandise show is appearances by touring pros. I stopped by the Bridgestone Golf pavilion, where Matt Kuchar, the leading money winner on the Tour last year, was being interviewed by the Golf Channel. Kuchar, who suffered through a 7-year drought, observed: “Golf, like life, tests you. You know if you can get through the hard times you can deal with anything.”
Kuchar won the 1997 U.S. Amateur, and played in the Masters and US Open in 1998, but didn’t turn pro right away. His idol was Bobby Jones, one of the best American golfers ever, who remained an amateur and pursued a legal career. Kuchar took a job with an investment firm and was successful, but remained competitive in golf and saw many business deals cemented on the golf course. He turned pro after playing in a tournament in Texas on a sponsor’s exemption and missing the cut by one shot. “That burned me so bad,” he said. “I wanted to compete and see how good I could be.” After his 2010 year, I think we know the answer.
Kuchar enthusiastically endorsed Bridgestone’s approach to marketing golf balls. It emphasizes “ball fitting” – finding the ball that’s right for your game. “There’s a right ball that will perform better for every golfer,” he commented. The Bridgestone rep then proved the point by having Kuchar hit different balls, noting how one particular ball achieved better results based on the monitor.
Butch Harmon, the renowned instructor who has coached some of the top touring pros, including Tiger Woods, was signing autographs. I asked him whether, after all his years of teaching, he still learns anything new about the golf swing. He replied that his father (also a prominent instructor) once told him that “what you learn after you think you know everything is the most important thing.”
Harmon said he still learns things giving lessons. He once had a student with a “horrendous” swing but could hit the ball great. Five years later he encountered another student with the same swing who couldn’t hit the ball at all, and knew how to solve the problem by remembering his former student. “A light bulb went off,” Harmon remarked.
The last event of the day was the Ryder Cup press conference. Officials from the United States and European Ryder Cup organizations were on hand to unveil the new logo for the next matches at Medinah Country Club in 2012. The Ryder Cup itself was on display.
A “branding” agency (Interbrand) was retained to develop the logo. David Martin, the president of Interbrand, explained the importance of keeping the logo “fresh.” “You can’t rest on your laurels,” he said. Officials declined to reveal how much Interbrand was paid. (Quite handsomely, I’m sure.) I asked Martin how many prototypes they went through. He explained that they “considered a range of options – some traditional, some progressive.”
After last year’s competition in heavy rain in Wales, I hope the United States team adopts a more “progressive” approach to the team raingear.
Note: Jack Ross is the golf editor of ValleySportsNow.com and the editor of Ross’ Rulings.