What Caused the Most Buzz at the PGA Merchandise Show?

By: Tony Dear

It's late Thursday afternoon at the PGA Merchandise Show in Orlando and the line of people queuing up to visit Booth 2329 is almost 100-strong. It could be that some of those in line are here simply to meet the blue and yellow catsuit-clad models officiating over the booth's ongoing putting contest, or that the prize for the winners of this contest is a rather swanky new putter. It's possible some aren't here to visit 2329 at all, but rather the lounge right across the aisle which, after a full day of schlepping up and down the 10 miles of corridors that keep the 1,100 exhibitors apart, is looking ever more enticing.

It's certain, however, there is a good number of folk who are here in response to the whisper (a good-quality, well-conceived PGA Show whisper usually makes its way round most of the 40,000 attendees within an hour or two) which holds that Groove Equipment Limited's (GEL) attractive range of aluminum-inserted, horizontally-grooved putters is well worth the effort to go and see.

Whether its adjustable shafts, graphite shafts, moveable weights, laser- and GPS-enabled rangefinders or freaky-looking, high-MOI mallet putters, every show has one, sometimes two, technological innovations that define a particular year's event. This year the headlines were more or less shared between Titleist's re-introduction of the now litigation-free Pro-V1 and Pro-V1x (and the fact the company had returned to the show after six years away), and Ping's 50th anniversary celebration. Also making some low-level noise of their own, however, were putters with face grooves.

Face grooves in putters is not a new concept, of course. C-Groove Yes! Putters have been around for nearly 15 years and Rife's RollGroove Technology first hit the greens in 2004. But the success Rife putters are having on the Champions Tour, as well as Retief Goosen, Henrik Stenson and Darren Clarke's continued use of Yes! Putters, have allowed face grooves to work their way into most golfers' consciousness, and this year the message that golfers using a plain-face putter are somehow missing out got steadily louder.

Dr. Paul Hurrion, who helped developed GEL's patented insert, likens their growth to that of metal woods. "When metal woods first appeared in the late '70s, most people thought they would never catch on," he says. "But look at them now. 99.99% of the world's golfers, probably more, use metal woods. And I think face grooves in putters will go much the same way. The technology definitely works. We've all seen videos of balls skidding when struck by a plain face and beginning their roll much sooner when hit with a grooved putter."

Hurrion sees a day when all putters will incorporate some form of groove pattern or other. But for the time being, models manufactured by companies that don't employ groove technology - such as Scotty Cameron and Ping - are still way too popular and successful to force a massive shift in philosophy. "It'll take time," says Hurrion. "But technology gradually moves on, especially when players are looking for whatever edge they can get, no matter how small."

Speaking of small, the trend in putterhead shapes this year appeared to favor simple, compact, classical models rather than complex, lethal-looking mallets whose popularity might have peaked last year with the introduction of such monsters as TaylorMade's Itsy Bitsy and Monza Spiders, Cleveland's VP5 and the Ping JAS Craz-E One. Odyssey did unveil a few behemoths: the 2-Ball F7, Sabertooth and scary-looking Teron, which I certainly wouldn't want to meet on a dark putting green late one evening. But in general, mighty mallet launches were the exception, not the rule.

"We're definitely seeing fewer Starship Enterprise-shaped clubs this year," said Steve Boccieri, founder of Heavy Putter whose new Mid-Weight range features six elegant and pleasingly familiar designs. "I think their time might have come and gone already to be honest."

Also failing to arouse much curiosity, still, were clubs with adjustable heads and shafts, though that probably had a lot to do with the fact TaylorMade, and its highly-anticipated R9 driver, were not at the show. "It's such a niche thing," a fellow media member told me. "And it's still so expensive. The R9 will probably give adjustability a boost, but how many people will buy them as long as they cost $500?"

Driver-makers offering good old, non-adjustable clubs seemed to fare well - if numbers trying out their products at the indoor range were anything to go by - especially Cobra, whose hitting bay was inundated with people wanting to try the new, eight-model S9-1, while other manufacturer's bays on either side seemed quiet by comparison.

The obvious concern among manufacturers of drivers in 2009 is that, with USGA-imposed MOI, COR, shaft length and head size limits universally being met, there are only so many modifications an R&D department can make to improve a club. But despite what you may have read or heard, manufacturers aren't despairing just yet over their decreasing number of options. "There are a number of things we can still try with the geometry of the clubhead, the shaft and club-fitting," one Cleveland rep told me.

"Clubhead-weighting can be optimized (often with the use of a composite crown), we can develop thinner, stronger face metals, improve aerodynamics, and offer more fitting options. We may not see the jumps in distance that we saw a few years ago, but we can continue tweaking here and there. Combine that with golfers becoming stronger and faster and club-fitting getting ever-more sophisticated and you see that golfers needn't worry about their distance being capped."

Elsewhere on the main floor, one couldn't help noticing the strangely excessive number of tee-makers in attendance, nor be utterly dumbfounded by the amount of research and development that is clearly being devoted to a piece of equipment that seemingly makes so little difference. "4 Yards More," a tee built by Green Keepers Inc. of Philadelphia, Pa., had an especially big presence and made sure people got to try out their "dynamic elastomer crown" and "rigid polymer stake" by supplying dozens of tees to the indoor range.

I wasn't sure how excited I was supposed to get about an extra four yards (really, that just means I'm four yards closer to the hazards I can't reach), and it was difficult to tell if they worked or not as every drive slammed into a net at the end of the hall at about the 100-yard mark, but Paul Hurrion's words: "Players are looking for whatever edge they can get, no matter how small," seemed rather apt.

High-tech companies offering full-swing launch monitors, swing-analysis software, electronic scoring systems, putting monitors and course management/membership applications were numerous as were makers of GPS rangefinders, all of them trying to claim the No.1 spot from SkyCaddie, which enjoyed the benefit of an appearance by newly-appointed ambassador Hank Haney. The last time I was at the show, the Australian-made Sureshotgps was the only hand-held GPS model I remember seeing. This time, I counted at least nine, and the Sureshot wasn't even there.

The star of the show was probably SkyCaddie's all-color SG5, which cleverly rotates the green to match your angle of approach: gives you the ability to find the distance left to any point on the green; measures how far you hit each club; and can map up to 40 targets per hole. ProLink Touch, a touchscreen system which gives the cart-rider a flyover of every hole, calculates side bets automatically and enables ordering food from any point on the course, among other useful features, showed how far cart-GPS systems have come.

Training-aid developers were out in force again and this year's crop of swing trainers and putting devices seemed altogether better than some of the questionable items that have appeared in Orlando in the past. Not only did the theory behind all of the items I tried make perfect sense (True Impact, EEZ-Read, Pro-Stance, Traineye, Teach-n-Towel, Ontrac), they were all relatively unobtrusive too, so there was no risk of embarrassment caused by hooking myself up to some goofy-looking contraption or wearing a straight jacket.

But no matter how much better training aids have become; how impressive the GPS units were; how much extra distance new tees promised; no matter how well face grooves improve the roll of putts or how far the S9-1 hit the ball, no one was going to steal Titleist's thunder; maybe not even Ping. The new Pro-V1 with its larger core, thinner mantle, new cover elastomer and staggered wave parting line dimple pattern got a big-bang introduction in front of 1,000 PGA pros on Thursday morning and the buzz took a while to die down. It certainly wasn't the first time the Pro-V1 stole the headlines at the PGA Merchandise Show.

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 (http://www.cybergolf.com/golf_newsa_euros_take_on_the_2008_ryder_cup_matches) 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.