Last week's PGA Merchandise Show in Orlando gave me a chance to step out of my semi-retirement from The Sand Trap and check in to see what's happening in the ever-interesting golf business. I played a couple rounds with the latest and greatest clubs and balls from most of the major equipment companies - at least the ones not named Titleist, Cobra, and Ping, since they are still AWOL from the Show.
What'd I learn? That driver designers really enjoyed geometry class in high school. That fans of forged irons have a couple new objects of lust. And that golf products are being marketed more and more to specific groups of players according to age and style of play.
The Shapes of Things to Come
I once wondered what driver manufacturers would do to differentiate their products from the competition now that most every company has reached the 460cc size limit the USGA/R&A overloads concocted a few years ago. The answer, at least for this year, is exotic shapes. That is, if you think squares and triangles are exotic.
The square driver buzz created by Nike's Sumo2 and Callaway's FT-i drivers isn't exactly news, but the products are just now trickling into the marketplace. New production techniques have made it possible to create driver shapes that would have been too hard or expansive to produce even a few years ago. And as one Callaway engineer told me, this gives them the chance to put weight "in places that didn't used to exist."
How do these new drivers play? Pretty good. The Callaway FT-i is outstanding, with a huge face area, great feel and the ability to turn just about any type of contact into a shot that feels and flies like it was hit flush. The Nike Sumo2 wasn't quite as impressive to me, as it seemed a bit on the short side and a lot on the too loud side. Tour Edge's GeoMax driver is an attempt at capturing the square level of forgiveness without a funky shape, and it is a solid driver as well.
Other new shapes on the horizon are TaylorMade's "bullet-shaped" Burner and Titleist's new 907D-1. I didn't get to hit either last week, but friends who have were impressed. The Titleist driver is said to be a departure from the austere drivers Acushnet is known for, and it is supposed to be a beast, while the Burner is said to also be very hot.
Are Two Better Than One?
Apparently buoyed by Phil Mickelson's Masters strategy last year, most of the above-mentioned companies are flaunting two new drivers this year: one with a funky shape (FT-i, Sumo2, Burner, 907D-1), and one with a more conservative design (FT-5, Sumo, TaylorMade's r7 Superquad, and the 907D-2).
In one way, this is a hedge against the possible failure of geometry-based driver designs when they hit the market. If these drivers tank, the manufacturers won't be left without a new product to flog.
But it also points out the difference between two ways of playing the game. TaylorMade played up this difference in introducing the r7 Superquad and the Burner. Some players follow the traditional idea of trying to find the fairway off the tee and thinking their way around the course and its hazards. But a growing number of players is more interested in bashing away and playing smash-and-scrap, bomb-and-gauge golf no matter what. These players will want the funkier new drivers, because even wild swings will be rewarded with decent results and good distance. Makes me wonder how much longer the USGA is going to wait to take some distance out of the golf ball. (If the boys in Far Hills are smart, they'll just leave well enough alone and chalk the changing game up to evolution. But what odds do you put on the USGA showing restraint?)
Forged and Fab
Forged irons are traditionally the mainstay of brands like Mizuno and Titleist. But two of the most gorgeous new iron sets I saw at this year's Show belonged to Callaway and Tour Edge. Callaway dipped its toe in the forged market with the X-Tour irons more than a year ago, but the two-piece clubhead was still a bit big and bulky for purists. Not so with the new X-Forged irons. No undercut channel, no bore-thru hosel like you're used to seeing from Callaway. Instead, it's a smallish, sweet-looking blade with minimal offset and understated graphics. The X-Forged feel great, and they are certainly the least forgiving club Callaway's ever made. If your handicap is fluttering above 5, don't even think about it. But if you're scratch or close to it, put the X-Forged on your demo day hit list.
And add the Tour Edge Exotics CNC Forged Blade irons to that list as well. These carbon steel blades have milled faces and cavities, and they are beautiful, understated clubs - no paint fills, no medallions. It's a good year to be a low-capper looking for new irons.
Shaft Selection Still Growing
The premium shaft market is still going strong, with names like Aldila, UST, Graphite Design and Mitsubishi all doing brisk business in custom orders from OEMs and as after-market purchases. But Fujikura seems to be riding the biggest wave. The company's shafts are in tons of drivers this year, including new Speeder models co-developed with Callaway for the FT-i driver. Like the Reax shafts co-developed with TaylorMade last year, Fujikura will sell the new Speeder 586 and 686 models to clubfitters for use in any drivers.
Mitsubishi also has some strong new offerings, including a new White Board addition to the Diamana line for faster swing speeds. The company has also added the Bassara line, which has similar characteristics to the Diamana line but in more playable profiles for average golfers. And UST's Proforce V2 shafts are also popping up as one of the most popular custom options for a second year.
Taking a Walk
As no less an authority on golf than Sammy Hagar once sang, "It's so much easier to push instead of pull." That's why pull carts for walkers are on the way out, and push carts - or walking carts - are in. These carts are catching on across the country, with models from Sun Mountain and Bag Boy leading the way. If you have kids, you'll notice that using these carts is a lot like pushing the stroller, only with less crying and diaper changing. As baby boomers get older, the golf industry is trying to position itself as a healthy pastime, and walking carts can be a big part of such an effort. Look for future models to include pedometers so you can brag about your score and how far you walked that day.
Speaking of wellness, the craze of magnetic and ion bracelets is spreading. Items like Trion:Z and Phiten's bracelets were big sellers last year, and each has expanded its lines into necklaces that claim similar effects (pain relief, extra energy, focus, etc). Phiten even has shirts and athletic tape with its liquid titanium built in. And Trion:Z has added Butch Harmon and David Leadbetter as endorsers, showing the big business it is doing these days. Do these products help? I've tried both, and I have to say that they don't hurt. (Personally, I wear a Trion:Z bracelet nearly all the time.) And, as Butch pointed out, you don't have to wash green gunk off your wrist as you do with copper bracelets. That's a step forward.
My Favorite Things
Here are my favorites from multiple days of playing golf, hitting balls and checking out apparel from the class of 2007:
- Driver: Callaway FT-i
- Fairway Wood: Tour Edge Exotics CB2
- Hybrid: Bridgestone GC series
- Game Improvement Irons: Tour Edge EX-3
- Better-Player Irons: Callaway X-Forged
- Putter: Odyssey XG Marxman Series
- Outerwear: Sun Mountain Rainflex
- Shoes: Adidas
- Men's Clothing: Ashworth
- Hats: Back 9 USA
To sum up my three days at the PGA Merchandise Show, I'd have to say the state of the golf industry is strong. The optimism is cautious, but it is still there. The result for those of us who play the game is a spate of great new products. There is so much competition in every part of the business, from clubs to balls to apparel to accessories, that there simply aren't many weak products (or companies) out there. It's a buyer's market, so save your pennies and get ready to hit your favorite golf shop this spring. If you can wait that long, of course. Don't tell my wife, but I've already placed my first order of the year.