What the Real Golfers Are Playing

You’ve heard of the Darrell Survey? Well, this is the Donald Survey, also known as “what the people I played with on my vacation had in their bags.” It’s enough to make a few people in Carlsbad cry.

Bag DropThe big-name golf equipment manufacturers spend millions of dollars every year to promote their wares. But how much of what the average golfer plays can be considered “brand-name” or “pro-line” equipment? Even on vacation, The Bag Drop never stops working for you. Read on to see what my extremely non-scientific survey discovered about what’s really in the bags of some very average golfers.

I’ve been in and around the golf equipment industry for longer than I’d care to admit. (When I got started, companies were still pushing woods made out of wood, if you can even believe that.) Most of the golf I play is with people who either work for equipment companies, write for golf publications, or have some way of getting their hands on the latest name-brand equipment at little to no cost.

But I do play enough golf at public courses to see that plenty of players carry decidedly non-name brand equipment. Just as the USGA doesn’t seem to understand that the vast majority of golfers in the USA don’t have handicaps and seldom break 100, the big equipment companies don’t seem to understand that the vast majority of golfers don’t spend $300 on drivers, $600 on irons or $40 for a dozen golf balls.

For example, one of the top equipment companies in the country is called Northwestern. Haven’t heard of them? Of course not, they don’t advertise, or have any PGA Tour pros using their products. But they make lots of low-cost clubs that are sold at sporting goods and department stories. You know, $199 for a set of three woods, eight irons, a putter, and a bag? And as for golf balls, you know that not everyone’s playing a Pro V1, HX Tour, or One Platinum. How about the Pinnacles, Top-Flites, and Wilson balls that come in the 18-ball packs? That’s what you’ll find in the woods and ponds at a municipal course.

I recently spent a week on vacation with a large group of family and friends. I thought I’d take notes on the golf clubs and balls my fellow vacationers put in play during the week. This is a pretty non-scientific survey, but I thought it would be telling to see what a broad group of upper-middle class golfers actually uses.

Granted, I wasn’t exactly playing with a bunch of aspiring tour players. Only two of us broke 90 in any of our 18-hole rounds. But nearly everyone involved was an avid golfer who plays frequently on business or in golf leagues, and all of them were quite knowledgeable about current equipment trends. All of them play their golf at public courses, and none have country club memberships.

Without further ado, here’s what I discovered:

Used clubs are big. Just a few years ago, if you wanted used clubs you were relegated to shopping at Play It Again Sports or garage sales. Now there are great used-equipment shops like 2nd Swing, and most good off-course shops have strong trade-in programs. Oh, and there’s that crazy internet thing, with that little eBay site.

Three of the golfers I played with were sporting equipment recently purchased used equipment. One 50-something, 100-shooting member of our group finally ditched his 1960s-vintage forged blades for a used set of Great Big Bertha Tungsten-Titanium irons. For the first time, I saw him hit a long iron a long way. A good move. On the other hand, another of our golfers (same age and golf ability) had a “new” Ping TiSI driver with a UST ProForce shaft that was way too stiff for him. I’m sure he got a great deal on it, and that’s a great head/shaft combo, but it was the wrong club for his game. Lots of low line drives from him. As ever, buyer beware.

The best ball is a found ball. Yes, multiple members of our group brandish telescoping ball retrievers. They peel off into the woods to scout for lost balls. And they use what they find. Only a couple members of our posse teed up new balls throughout the week, and one of them was thrilled to get a good deal on some closeout 5-packs of Top-Flites in the pro shop of one course we played.

But mostly, everyone just dug into their swollen ball pockets and pulled out their newest finds. This led to fun little incidents like the time two guys in the same foursome were playing Nike balls that they had found. Both had the number 4 on them, and neither guy knew what model of ball they were playing. On one par three, they hit their balls within a couple yards of each other right of the green. This led to a five-minute discussion about who’s Nike was whose. “Were you playing the Super Fly or the PowerDistance?” “Oh, I think mine had some mud on it.” Good fun.

What was really funny was that when someone did find a Pro V1 (“white gold”) they didn’t use it. Nope, they stuck to their DT Lo/Cos and Nike SuperFlys and squirreled away their newfound Pro V1s deep in their bags. I’m not sure what they were going to do with them, or when they were going to use them. But they didn’t use them. Go figure.

Goofy-looking putters and massive drivers are really in. There were some actual Odyssey 2-Ball Putters in use by our control group. But there were also some recently purchased putters that weren’t name-brand items, but were following the trend of oversized mallet putters. One of the better golfers in the group had big putter with a 2-Ball-like pattern on the top and a really cool sparkley blue insert. I’d never heard of the company that made the putter, but it looked neat and did the job of keeping up with the Joneses.

And speaking of keeping up, everyone seems to be doing a good job in the driver arms race, too. The aforementioned Ping TiSI driver was one of the smallest driver heads in play out of our group. Almost everyone had a 400cc-plus driver, and at least four of us had drivers at the legal limit of 460cc.

A funny side note was that the smallest driver head in play was a component driver from the mid-90s called Mad Dog (I think it was made by Dynacraft). The sole of the club said “245cc: Radical Oversize”. Try not to hurt yourself laughing.

Here’s something that makes sense: holding off on a big purchase. One of the golfers in our group is new to the game. After a stint in the military overseas, he’s back in college and has just taken up golf. The school he attends has a PGA-accredited Professional Golf Management program, so there’s some golf club snobbery on campus. His first impulse was to spend a good chunk of change on a new or used brand-name set of clubs. Instead, he spent a couple hundred bucks on a new, non-name brand set. It was made by a company called Affinity, and appeared to be good quality (Aldila graphite shafts in the woods, for example). He decided this set could get him through college, then he can trade up down the road.

This is great thinking for people on a budget and/or who are just learning the game. If you’re just getting started, you hardly have a repeatable swing. So why spend a lot of money on clubs when you don’t really know what you need? Ah, I love common sense (which you rarely see in conjunction with equipment purchases).

My final conclusion: money is being spent on golf clubs and balls by this group of “average” golfers. It just isn’t at the level that the big golf OEMs would like to see. I think this has to do with the fact that consumers are being taught to spend less and less on golf clubs, thanks to the ongoing Wal-Marting of America and the aggressive closeouts some manufacturers offer (why should I spend $299 on this driver when I can get one gently used for $229 or on clearance in two months for $199?). As for golf balls, they’ve always been a commodity product. But the golfers I played with don’t see enough reason to step up to the top-of-the-line 3-piece solid balls from their two-piece distance rocks.

It isn’t that the big companies aren’t courting these golfers. But I can’t help but think that there’s plenty of money to be made off this type of golfer that is going to second-hand shops and off-brand manufacturers instead of the industry’s big names.

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