It's the Economy, too, at this Year's PGA Merchandise Show

By: Tony Dear

If last Thursday was the first time you had ever attended the PGA Merchandise Show in Orlando, Fla., and you walked through the front doors of the 1.1 million-square-foot West Concourse at the Orange County Convention Center, squeezed onto the escalator taking people up to the second floor, passed the men in white coats (Titlist representatives) outside the Linda Chapin Auditorium and entered the main exhibition hall, you will have come to an immediate, stunned halt and looked on incredulously at the swarm of golf industry professionals buzzing about you. In an instant you will have concluded that golf is happily weathering the economic storm currently laying waste to the rest of the world. While the banking, insurance, real estate and automotive industries crumble, golf, you would assume, was doing more than just surviving; it was positively thriving.

The top manufacturers' fancy, 3,000-square-foot booths with their armies of smartly-uniformed sales people were as impressive as ever. The PGA of America was out in force again, offering a total of 71 educational seminars to its member professionals eager to develop strategies for managing and even growing their business in hard times. Over 1,230 media personnel from 22 countries were also present.

On the surface at least, all appeared rosy. Those for whom this was the fourth or fifth show, however, sensed something was slightly amiss. It certainly wasn't outright fear. But the usual confidence and optimism of those in attendance seemed to be replaced this year with some trepidation and unease over what lies ahead.

There were gaps on the main floor that certainly weren't apparent in recent years - booth numbers were down from 1,250 last year to 1,100 this year - and noticeably fewer attendees were strolling the 10 miles of show aisles on the main floor.

"There were a couple of significant spaces out there that I haven't seen before," one regular visitor told me. "And it seemed a lot easier getting 'round the place this year too. Normally it's difficult to get to everything you want to see on the Thursday because it's so packed in there. But I got round fairly comfortably this time. That's never happened in all the time I've been coming to the show."

Moving a little deeper below the surface, the mood became increasingly subdued. Asked how they were faring, many of the club professionals, equipment manufacturers, tour operators and golf-service providers I spoke with simply rolled their eyes and shook their heads.

But perhaps the clearest sign, for me anyway, that the industry is beginning to struggle was the total absence of party invites. In a typical year, anyone registered with the PGA of America as a media member receives a dozen or more invitations to intimate functions, cocktail parties, happy hours and the occasional highly elaborate - not to say excessive - product launch involving laser light shows and distinguished guests at an exciting venue like Universal Studios or Downtown Disney. The free drink flows, black-tied waiters pass round with hors-d'oeuvres, hired entertainment bangs out tunes and free samples of whatever product is being introduced are made available to virtually anyone who wants them.

If you drop your sample while getting down on the dance floor, you needn't worry because you can just pick another up at the door on your way out. In years gone by, I've had to jettison several items of clothing from my luggage in order to make room for all the cool gifts I've been given. And, if not a laser light show with free stuff, then a golf day at ChampionsGate or even Bay Hill - with yet free stuff - might be the vehicle manufacturers use to get their shiny new equipment in the hands of those who review it. This year, to get test samples you had to go through various channels and sign forms forcing you to send the product back once you were finished with it.

This year, I came home with three ball markers and eight golf balls, two of which I won in a putting contest. There were two happy hours, and I didn't bother taking my sticks as I knew the likelihood of playing any golf was extremely remote.

Golf companies just don't have a lot of spare cash at the moment. The total number of rounds being played is dropping slightly and sales of hard goods (balls, woods, irons, putter, wedges, shoes, bags and gloves) have been slowing for several months. "In 2008, sales of hard goods in on- and off-course retail channels were down 5.4% in terms of dollars spent, compared with the previous year," says Tom Stine, co-founder of Golf Datatech, a Florida-based research and consulting company that monitors sales of golf equipment at a comprehensive network of facilities throughout the country. Sales in 2007 were at an all-time high of $2.9 billion, he adds, but dropped almost $150 million last year.

Indeed, Callaway, the world's largest and most successful manufacturer of golf clubs, reported combined third and fourth quarter sales of $384.8 million, compared with $409.9 million in 2007. Titleist's parent company, Fortune Brands, also reported significant losses, and in January TaylorMade announced it would be laying off 70 employees over the course of the next 12 months.

That all sounds terribly depressing. But while there's no doubting the failing economy was uppermost in people's thoughts last week, there were in fact a number of reasons to be optimistic. Titleist was back for the first time in six years and put on an impressive launch of the new Pro-V1 and Pro-V1x at an event called the Titleist Experience, which well over 2,000 people attended. Ping celebrated its 50th anniversary at the Equipment Forum Stage in front of a huge audience. An estimated 5,900 pros hit clubs at the new product demo day on Wednesday and the general level of merchandise and exhibitor quality on display was thought to be better than ever.

PR executive Dan Shepherd had feared the worst heading to Florida but came away pleasantly surprised. "No, the aisles were not as full this year, but the level of excitement and order writing didn't seem diminished," he says. "New technology in golf equipment and apparel was clearly evident, and there were plenty of business opportunities for companies out to build their brand and who are prepared for long haul. I was actually very encouraged."

Sherry Major, media relations co-coordinator for Reed Exhibitions, which part-owns the show along with the PGA of America, was also satisfied with the turnout and said that, despite concerns over the economy, the week had been a tremendous success. "We are all so pleasantly surprised with the wonderful week that was the PGA Show," she says.

This year's small drop in numbers will hopefully be just a minor blip and the usually epic PGA Merchandise Show, which started life in 1954 with just a handful of merchandisers selling gear out of the trunk of their cars in the parking lot of the PGA National Golf Club, will return to full capacity next year. Then we can start partying again.

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 increasingly difficult for him to focus on Politics (his chosen major) and, after dropping out, he ended up teaching golf 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. In 2009, Tony won first place for Editorial/Opinion in the ING Media Awards for Cybergolf. The article ( that impressed the judges was the one about Europe's Ryder Cup team and Captain Nick Faldo's decision to pick Paul Casey and Ian Poulter rather than Darren Clarke.