A PGA Show of Consequence

By: Tony Dear

No one would have admitted it at the time, of course, but in the 1990s and early 2000s exhibiting your latest products at the PGA Merchandise Show and convincing PGA professionals and other purchasers to buy them was really something of a cakewalk. "To be honest, it was all rather easy," says Tim Clarke, general manager of Wilson Golf, which is celebrating its centenary this year.

"The strong economy and the fact a lot of Baby Boomers were beginning to reach retirement age meant there was plenty of interest and money in the game, so securing new business didn't seem terribly difficult." Companies brought dozens of executives, sales reps and even office staff to Orlando, schmoozed customers with apparently bottomless expense accounts, and wrote dozens of purchase orders before mid-morning on the first day.

How different the climate has become these last half-dozen or so years. Not only has the game - indeed the whole world - had to endure the gravest recession since World War II, it has also had to withstand a marked reduction in interest both from existing golfers and the general population.

Speaking at a TaylorMade-sponsored event the night before the 2014 Show began, Joe Beditz, president and CEO of the National Golf Foundation (NGF), told an audience of several hundred PGA professionals, key industry personnel and media that of the 30 million players golf could claim in 2004, 5 million have jumped ship because the amount of time and money now needed to play the game can no longer be spared. And though hi-tech equipment is making it easier to hit the ball further, courses have gotten longer and greens considerably faster, making the game slower and actually more difficult. Fifty-seven percent of the 1,200 non-golfers the NGF surveyed last year on the subject of participation had a negative view of the game, meanwhile, many calling it "boring."

This year's Merchandise Show, the 10th managed by Reed Exhibitions' senior vice president Ed Several, probably looked like any other on the surface, that is to say on the exhibition floor. Manufacturers showed off their latest wares with a variety of attention-grabbing paraphernalia - a tank in the case of Odyssey promoting its line of six Tank putters - and, says Tim Clarke, the big brands spent "crazy money" on their booths while getting involved in what he likened to an arms race ("My booth is bigger than your booth").

But while a great many firms were genuinely upbeat about their performance during the Show, reporting better than anticipated booth traffic, interest and resulting sales, most conceded the problem of golf's fading popularity was an ever-present concern. Indeed, the subject of golf's future growth permeated more or less every conversation, especially those conducted by the industry's biggest stakeholders.

"Unquestionably, the message of growing the game was loud and clear and delivered via a variety of methods at this year's Show," says the PGA of America's director of business development, Dan Baker. "The Golf Channel's Morning Drive had a significant focus on the need to generate new golfers. Three different PGA Forum Stage presentations and the 'State of the Industry' panel all created dynamic and lively dialogue on growing the game. Packed education conferences taught best practices in marketing golf and attracting people to the game."

The usual excitement of the PGA Show was certainly evident, says Clarke, who has deftly led Wilson from a 0.7 percent market share to 3 percent in the seven years he has been the GM. "But at the same time, we are all concerned for the long-term future of our sport," he adds. "The economic conditions still aren't entirely favorable of course but, more than that, we are fighting society's lifestyle changes. Working adults, especially those with children, just don't have time to play a full round of golf. And there are countless demands on kids' time, too. They have so many other sports and activities vying for their attention, plus it's often hard to get them away from their video games. We need more players like Rickie Fowler and Rory McIlroy - young guys who make golf look cool, like Tiger did 15 years ago."

Addressing the problem on the first morning of the Show was a panel of six experts who assembled on the PGA Forum Stage to discuss, among other things, ways to attract new people to the game. (Some argued the panel consisted of five experts - Ted Bishop, Mark King, David Fay, Mike McCarley and Annika Sorenstam - plus Donald Trump, although to be fair, besides one or two strange remarks, "The Donald" did actually make some useful contributions.)

Bishop, who had a notable first year as president of the PGA of America, hiring a CEO (Pete Bevacqua), taking on the R&A and USGA over the anchor ban, naming Tom Watson as Ryder Cup captain, choosing Bethpage Black as a future venue of the PGA Championship and Ryder Cup, and introducing the idea of the PGA Championship being played overseas, said he thought it was "incumbent upon us to create a different type of golf experience."

"Golf has always been viewed as a nine- or 18 hole game," he continued. "And the fact of the matter is, if the consumer only has 30, 45 or 90 minutes of recreational time budgeted in their day, they don't really have an alternative way to spend that at the golf course. We have to do a better job thinking of different ways to grow the game."

Sorenstam emphasized the importance of making the game family-friendly and also removing age and gender barriers, saying that, as a 13-year-old in her native Sweden, she had played club tournaments with both men and women adults. "We call it 'open' golf," she said. "Everybody plays with everybody."

Fay, former executive director of the USGA, suggested a program for kids focused on getting the ball airborne, saying, "If you can get a kid to get the ball airborne, you're probably going to get them hooked." And McCarley, president of the Golf Channel, said the game could become a little less restrictive, making the point that, at most facilities, kids need to tuck their shirt in and can't wear cargo shorts, use their cell phones or listen to music while they are playing. "They will tell you they're going to stay home or do something else," he said.

McCarley also made an analogy with the music industry suggesting that golf is ready for the sort of interference Apple Inc. caused when it introduced the iPod, iPod touch and iTunes. "It completely disrupted the entire industry," he said. "But they are now dominating it, and they made it cool again, because everyone is walking around with earphones with wires hanging out of them. But it needed that sort of disruption to make it work, and I think golf is ripe for that right now. It's very similar."

At the end of the discussion, the floor was opened up to questions, the first of which came from a journalist who said she had been listening to the same spiel for five years or more. She asked what initiatives were being put in place to build the game from the bottom up rather than the top down (with pitch-and-putts instead of expensive, new courses for wealthy, elite golfers), and also what was being done to make golf a participation sport as well as a spectator sport.

Another questioner, a gentleman who said he had played a big part in inventing golf cart GPS systems, suggested the game was stuck in the past and needed to move forward by offering more applications and information through the on-board computers. "Where can you watch football?" he asked. "Look at San Diego last week. They played Cincinnati. I called every golf course in San Diego at 10 in the morning, and they were completely empty. Sixty golf courses. All you needed to do was have your scorecard tuned into the football. That's how you grow the game."

It was now that Mark King, TaylorMade's president since 1999, CEO since 2002 and one of the game's most original thinkers, rejoined the conversation. "I think we should be wearing shorts," he said. "I think we should have uniforms. I think we should do something that when you saw the competition, you would think, that's a cool competition." No one laughed.

No doubt a few eyebrows rose when their owners instantly pictured a group of 50-year-old males in Lycra shorts and red/blue team shirts cheering on their teammate while he teed off. But most people remained unmoved, mindful of who had uttered these rather off-the-wall ideas. This wasn't a casual, once-a-year golfer who had given the subject less than a second's thought, but the man who had steered his company from $300 million in sales to $1.5 billion thanks to innovations like adjustable drivers - 2004's r7 Quad was the game's first, white-crowned drivers that first appeared at the beginning of 2010, and a driver called RocketBallz, which debuted at the end of 2011.

Indeed, this was the man who, just the evening before, had hosted the event where the NGF's Beditz had given those depressing figures highlighting the rapidity with which people were leaving the game. Essentially, this event was a launch party for a new grow-the-game initiative called "Hack Golf," which King is spearheading with Gary Hamel, a prominent management consultant named by both the Wall St. Journal and Fortune Magazine as one of the world's leading business strategists.

Hamel believes the problem needs a fresh pair of eyes . . . scratch that, thousands of fresh pairs. "We need to hear from people on the fringes," he told the crowd. "We need thousands, not dozens, of mind-flipping ideas."

Moments before, King had lamented it was the same industry people that had been around "forever" who were looking at the "same issues" through the "same lens." He even suggested that, were there any truly great minds in the game, it wouldn't be facing the problems it is now.

Though he has set aside $5 million over five years to finance the program and implement worthy proposals submitted on the hackgolf.org web site, King indicated he intends to relinquish his and TaylorMade's control of the agenda within the next six months. His plan is for it to become a "broad industry initiative."

Tim Clarke certainly hopes it will. "For anything to work, it must be supported by the entire industry," he says. "As the market leader, TaylorMade is probably more conscious of the growth model than other companies, but eventually everyone must buy in."

There will be no quick fix, Clarke warns, adding that it certainly isn't going to happen overnight. "The PGA Junior Golf League, Get Golf Ready, and Play it Forward are all good ideas but they aren't having a dramatic impact. We need a long-term strategy."

The strategizing began a few years ago when golf's numbers started to dwindle and its future problems became apparent. The action plan that has developed since then has done little so far to stem the flow of defectors, but it got a powerful boost in Orlando last week. Could it be, in fact, that 20 years from now a stable, thriving golf industry looks back and marks the 2014 PGA Show as the turning point?

Tony Dear is an Englishman living in Bellingham, Wash. In the early 1990s he was a member of the Liverpool University golf team which played its home matches at Royal Liverpool GC. Easy access to Hoylake made it extremely difficult for him to focus on Politics, his chosen major. After leaving Liverpool, he worked as a golf instructor at a club just south of London where he also made a futile attempt at becoming a 'player.' He moved into writing when it became abundantly clear he had no business playing the game for a living. A one-time golf correspondent of the New York Sun, Tony is a member of the Golf Writers Association of America, the Pacific Northwest Golf Media Association and the Golf Travel Writers Association. He is a multi-award winning journalist, and edits his own website at www.bellinghamgolfer.com.