2016 PGA Merchandise Show: Cautious Optimism Pervades Gathering

February 7, 2016 Updated: February 7, 2016

ORLANDO, FL—The year 2016 marks the 100th anniversary of the creation of the Professional Golfer’s Association of America (PGA) and the kick-off for its centennial year commenced with the 63rd Merchandise Show held at the Orange County Convention Center. The show in Orlando centers around all of the many companies that tie themselves to the broader golf industry. In short, think of a modern version of a grand Moroccan bazaar. Big and small companies pushing their wares with all the trappings of a Broadway show with lights aglow and music pulsating at times linked to a robust dose of salesmanship that would make P.T. Barnum blush for its outright exuberance—let alone stretching of the truth at times.

The centennial year for the PGA—the largest sports organization in the world, with roughly 28,000+ members—provides a clear distinction from 1954 when the first merchandise show took place with vendors simply selling from the trunks of their cars. More than 40,000 people attended and over 1,000 companies were on hand for the four day event over the last week in January.

Despite the inherent hoopla and buzz, this year’s show also showed how certain companies are positioning themselves for the year ahead. Nike, the sports company behemoth which grew rapidly through its involvement with a golfer by the name of Tiger Woods, opted to remain away from Orlando. It’s famed motto of “just do it” showed the Oregon-based company believes doing it still matters—just not in Orlando. The same be said of Mizuno—a much smaller sized company—specializing in the creation of quality irons among its various product offerings.

Bubba Watson being interviewed during the PGA Merchandise Show held at Orange County Convention Center on Jan. 27 in Orlando, Florida. (Montana Pritchard/Courtesy the PGA of America).
Bubba Watson being interviewed during the PGA Merchandise Show held at Orange County Convention Center on Jan. 27 in Orlando, Florida. (Montana Pritchard/Courtesy the PGA of America).

At its height roughly 15-20 years ago the PGA Merchandise Show was about pushing limits—sensing a game featuring growth that knew no bounds. Now, that cork has been placed firmly back in the champagne bottle. Reality has hit hard and while the dreams of a small-sized companies making it big on the golf stage are still there for some, the door openings are fewer and far less apparent.

The Great Recession that came to fruition in late ’07 and stretched for nearly two years has left deep ruts in the golf road and various companies, course owners and all those tied to the broader golf industry need to contemplate a future less grandiose and in need of sober solutions. Golf went democratic when a fast swinging pants hitching golfer named Arnold Palmer took golf out of the dark ages of elitism. Palmer made golf hip—a sport that mixed outdoors fun and social networking for all to enjoy. Times have changed since those zenith days. Golf runs the very risk in being labeled the game grandpa played. Ouch.

Course closures still outnumber by a healthy margin course openings. The supply pipeline has been fed by baby boomers who are nearing their ultimate peak years in playing. The long term question, still unanswered, is whether the following generations see golf as a game worthy of their precious time, attention and more importantly—money.

Until most recently, leadership throughout golf simply minimized the impact of what was being whispered over and over again in the shadows. Much fanfare was tied to the coming onto the scene of Tiger Woods. The long believed fantasy was Woods would usher in more minorities to play the game. That has not happened. The same can be said for the audience that makes up the PGA Merchandise Show. The overwhelming percentage is white, with nothing more than token representation of minority groups—save for the predictable interest among Asians. Inclusion has happened, but more towards the drip-by-drip approach. More needs to happen at all levels of the industry.

Golf still does not have a convincing game plan just yet to combat the fact many find its pace agonizingly slow in today’s nano-second world: that it costs way too much for many and when compared to other leisure pursuits—most notably cycling—is quite hard to play. In years past, patience is what provided golf its players. Now golf is seen as a dinosaur that simply doesn’t fit the menu of Millennials—those born after 1980—who want instant gratification and have little patience for games requiring dogged determination to play.

One of the more compelling stories coming from this year’s show is the quick ascendancy of Top Golf. Originally founded in the United Kingdom, Top Golf is now headquartered in Dallas, TX and has sought to revolutionize the driving range business by combining elements of a grand cocktail party with food aplenty and with golf a vehicle for people to simply enjoy at whatever pace they wish. Top Golf announced various sites for expansion and after having been at different sites personally I can certainly attest to the fun dynamic that permeates each location. The bigger question, still left unanswered, since no metrics has been created, thus far, is whether those under the age of 18 who enter the golf scene via Top Golf will actually make the leap to traditional golf. The same question marks hang no less on other golf-lite activities such as Hack Golf, Foot Golf, SNAG and Frisbee Golf, to name just a few of the out-of-the-box suggestions.

Maddeningly, there are still equipment companies which believe they must completely cannibalize their existing club and ball stock with new items introduced so quickly after the previous models have just entered the scene. Golfers are now bearish in dealing with new claims — promising much in terms of satisfaction but only slurping up limited personal dollars for clubs and balls only marginally differ from the model that preceded it. Titleist has smartly created a two-year cycle for its various products but even with that time frame it’s hard for customers to shell out dollars when wages have remained flat and when hours have been limited for those employed. Who can forget the introduction of a white driver clubhead by TaylorMade a few years back? The novelty caused a spike in sales but beyond the cosmetics no serious advantages were gained by the club.

A cautious optimism springs forward from this year’s show. Glaring errors made from the excess of spending from years past is now in the rear view mirror—most notably for golf companies that are publicly held. The broader golf industry has instituted a range of options that have tried to give consumers more leverage. The explosion of GolfNow has given golfers the wherewithal to fit their pocketbooks when making golf round reservations, while various course owners seethe in seeing their most valuable asset—tee times—being managed by off-site interlopers. Nonetheless, change is ever more and those connected to golf have seen what has happened to past leisure activities once vibrant but virtually deader than Elvis. Does anyone go bowling anymore?

Golf courses are now having to provide other models—the 12-hole round, the 6-hole layout—are all becoming in vogue to deal with pressing time constraints. Even with such efforts it’s clear the inventory of existing courses will need to continue to diminish until some sort of leveling is at hand. Bottom has not happened just yet. 

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Thankfully a younger generation of players has emerged globally to replenish what had become a tired act in wondering when Tiger Woods would return to form when the more salient “if” is more appropriate. The new number one male player Jordan Spieth had a year to remember in ’15—winning two majors and coming ever so close to claiming the professional slam. His uncanny skills are exceeded by the total maturation he has shown since entering the highest floors of championship golf. Spieth will be pushed by the likes of Ulsterman Rory McIlroy and Aussie Jason Day. The women’s side is bolstered by the likes of Lydia Ko—a Korean New Zealander, still not yet 20—and showing a zest for the game second to none. There is also the Summer Games in Rio this August when golf will once again be included among the Games. The possibilities are there that the connection to the Olympics will spur on more countries and players to emerge. We shall see.

The game is also finding new core approaches to excite players about the game itself. A new paradigm in teaching called Tathata has emerged. Students use disciplines gleaned from the martial arts to more fully comprehend the essence in marrying mind and body to work in better harmony. The golf audience of yesterday would have likely shunned such an approach as bizarre. The surge in personal self-improvement efforts—especially among Millennials, where people want to improve their body and mind—is providing a more solid foundation—building blocks that can then more fully enjoy golf to their best potential and pushing downwards the high rate for those who have quit prematurely—especially on the female side.

The PGA Merchandise Show is 63 years old. For many, hopping on the wagon of social security would not be out of the question. Fortunately, those on the business side have seen what former companies did in failing to push onward with innovations that bring in new blood, new vitality to the game. Who would of thought a company like GolfBoard could add so much fun while playing. Golf needs to embrace its “snowboarders” just as mainline skiing did a number of years ago. The alternative? The pipeline runs dry. Those gathering in Orlando have endured the pain of a recent recession that still stings the game. But just like any round of golf, the wherewithal to shake off a bad shot or hole is what the industry needs to do—quickly and confidently. Looking back and living in denial is not a future but a certain funeral.

Golf’s leaders came to the dance slowly in recognizing clear signals long before they happened but they are painfully aware of what inaction means now. Golf has indeed come far since 1916 when the PGA of America came into existence—golf has endured but it will not continue without being ever vigilant in not allowing such a grand game to avoid being pulled back as the repository only for the denizens of elitism. The stakes are high, the risks clear. But golf has simply to be reminded of the first two letters of its spelling—g-o. A commitment to such action can make golf still relevant. Will that happen? Can that happen? 2016 could well determine if golf can successfully show relevance in a world rapidly shifting on so many fronts.

M. James Ward, a member of Golf Writer’s Association of America (GWAA) and past member of Met Golf Writer’s Association (MGWA), has reported on golf’s grandest events since 1980 in a variety of forums.