A Welcome Ray of Sunshine for the Golf Industry

By: Tony Dear

You can't keep a good multi-billion-dollar industry down for long. Despite a few depressingly slow years for golf-equipment sales, and a couple of PGA Merchandise Shows that mustered about as much excitement as recorded coverage of Smalltown City Council sessions, industry players always spoke of their hope for the future, and how this darned recession would actually do golf a big favor by enabling it to "right-size" itself.

Even with the best will in the world, however, it was sometimes tough to take such talk without a golf ball-sized grain of salt. Everyone from manufacturers (well, all of them save for TaylorMade perhaps) to golf associations and golf clubs, the National Golf Foundation was posting some pretty bleak numbers. From 2009-12, many of the golf industry's brightest lights lost power for a time, some even going dark altogether.

The game is still beset with a number of problems - level of difficulty, pace of play, cost of play, public perception of environmentally-unfriendly practices, public perception of socially-unfriendly practices - it will take several years to put right. But there can be little doubt the light at the end of golf's tunnel has moved a little closer following an extremely encouraging PGA Merchandise Show at the Orange County Convention Center in Orlando, Fla. This time, the talk coming out of PGA headquarters in Palm Beach Gardens isn't all hot air, and Ed Several, Senior Vice President of PGA Worldwide Golf Exhibitions - literally the man that runs the show - has the stats to prove it.

"A few days after the end of each Show, we send out surveys to the 40,000-plus people that attend over the course of the three days, and typically we get a 20-25 percent response rate," he says. "From the surveys we have received back this year, we discovered that participation at the outdoor Demo Day at Orange County National Golf Center, where manufacturers showcase their latest equipment, was up 18 percent. And almost 30 percent more on-site space was renewed in 2013 compared with 2012."

Those are not insignificant figures. And there's more: Several says the 2013 edition was the biggest Show since 2008 with over 43,000 in attendance; 89 percent of survey responders said they were "satisfied" with the overall experience, up 4 percent from last year; and the net "promoter" rating (how likely people are to recommend that others attend or exhibit at the show) was 78 percent - up 10 percent.

That all sounds great for the PGA of America, that co-owns the Show with the UK-based Reed Exhibitions which organizes it, not to say Several himself, of course. But what implications, if any, do these numbers have for typical golfers in the U.S. and, indeed, around the world?

"Well, it is a trade show first," says Several. "But it's also relevant to consumers because PGA professionals and golf-industry leaders attend the Show in order to discover new products and ideas they can take back to their clubs, which will not only help their customers improve their games but also increase their level of enjoyment.

"We think of the Show as a 'window on the world of golf,' " he continues. "And we take our role in being the 'Major of Golf Business' very seriously. We want people to leave saying they feel good about the year ahead, and that they can go home and hit the ground running."

Several introduced a number of new elements to the Show this year, each of which met with near-universal approval. Fit to W.I.N. - a fitness and wellness-focused exhibit - featured health-based products and live demonstrations in the main exhibition hall by renowned physical trainers such as Dave Phillips and Dr. Greg Rose of the Titleist Performance Institute. Demo Day instruction workshops were led by Hank Haney, Michael Breed and Mike Malaska. And Fast Track offered PGA professionals seeking to grow their business or further their career a three-hour education program delivered by some of the golf business's top performers.

"Our main goal this year, as it is every year, was to energize the industry," says Several. "With 2013's additions, we certainly wanted to help club professionals optimize their operation - something that will obviously have a positive impact on the golfers at their clubs, but we also added something extra to the Show floor with Fit to W.I.N., the Fashion Showcase and Networking Lounge, and the National Golf Course Owners Association (NCGOA) Golf Business Solutions Pavilion, where course owners could learn how best to maintain and grow their membership, and ultimately increase revenue."

Much of the buzz created at recent PGA Merchandise Shows could be attributed to the fact people were away from their offices in sunny Florida for three or four days, something that naturally creates a good deal of excitement. This year, however, that buzz seemed intensified with the smell of commerce and trade in the air.

Among the near 1,000 exhibitors benefiting from the perceptible increase in both foot traffic and enthusiasm was Wilson Golf, the only manufacturer present at all 60 PGA Shows that have taken place since the event began in the parking lot of the PGA National Golf Club in 1954.

"It was palpable," says Doug Thiel, the company's Director of Marketing referring to the elevated level of interest. "I think it was evident the industry decline has leveled off somewhat, and is now ready to experience some modest growth again."

Thiel adds that most manufacturers had felt for some time the Show was no longer an "order-writing" event but had merely become a vehicle for maintaining a presence and a platform for launching new products. "But we went into this show with different expectations," he says. "We wanted to celebrate the success of the Staff Duo ball which, despite comparatively little advertising and marketing, was one of the best-selling balls of 2012; introduce our new club line - the D-100 family; and, yes, attract new business.

"Indeed, visitors to our booth were visibly more stimulated and genuinely excited about Wilson Staff, and we ended up writing more orders this year than we did in 2011 and 2012 combined."

Thiel certainly hadn't anticipated so much interest in the D-100 range, especially as the driver is non-adjustable. "We knew that going into the Show with something other than adjustability was a risk," he says. "It has obviously become very popular. But, with the exhausting testing that was done to the D-100 we knew we had something special and it was certainly no surprise to our engineers and reps that people liked hitting it so much.

"When they hit the driver, people forgot about adjustability," Thiel added. "I can't tell you how many times folks came up to me and commented on how excited they were that Wilson Staff is back. With next year being our centenary, it's nice to hear we're back, but to be honest we don't believe we ever went away."

Equally thrilled with the response to his company's new product was Steve Coulton of Oncore Golf, makers of the world's first hollow, metal-core golf ball which, Coulton says, possesses a higher moment of inertia than regular balls. "This creates less sidespin, resulting in straighter shots," he adds.

Oncore made a sizeable investment exhibiting at its first PGA Show but, with a good number of distributorships signed and extensive media attention, Coulton believes it's already paid off. The only thing that didn't go according to plan for the company was failing to win Best New Product. "I'm still in shock about that," Coulton says. "But then again, I'm a bit biased."

After a few quiet years, Martin Stebbins, president of outerwear manufacturer The Otter Company, was again expecting to see the front and back of a lot of window shoppers, but was very pleasantly surprised with the volume of business. "At its heart, the PGA Show is about buying and selling," he says. "And both groups were very well represented this year."

The success of this year's PGA Show can be attributed to many individuals, most notably Ed Several, who is already hard at work planning for next year. "An 89 percent satisfaction rating is very nice, but it does mean 11 percent of those that responded to the survey were somehow dissatisfied," he says. "It's my job to identify the potential problem areas and fix them."

According to Several, some of those present for this year's Demo Day complained of a lack of parking at the venue, while some weren't happy with the amount and choice of food offered.

Next year, attendees can therefore expect both improved parking and transportation to the Orange County National Golf Center from the OCCC, but also plenty more food than was available this year. They will also arrive on Tuesday and leave on Friday (instead of Wednesday and Saturday) after Several made the decision to change the dates following extensive research and feedback.

One thing Several can't influence though is the weather. "We got very lucky this year," he says. "Conditions for the Demo Day were perfect, and everyone was able to arrive in good time. Had the snow that covered the Northeast this week arrived two weeks ago, we would have had a lot of absentees."

Solving problems arising from insufficient food, a lack of parking spaces, the threat of snow, and economic downturns, is all in a day's work for Ed Several who, once again, helped give golf the shot in the arm it most definitely needs.

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.