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Again Optimism About What

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The running joke around the newsroom is that I really don't need to cover the PGA Merchandise Show. I can just amble on down to the video library and use the tapes from last year.
 
Ha ha. Brings up a good point, though. The PGA Show looks pretty much the same every year. There are aisles of shiny things, which upon close inspection vary slightly from year to year. But on the whole, the 2001 scene was hard to distinguish from that of 2000.
 
That should give golf industry leaders a fresh case of agita. As I wrote after last year's show, there seems to be a lot of unjustified optimism in the golf business. Some people persist in believing there's a golf boom.
 
Well, there is, if you're in television. Providing Tiger gets off the schneid soon and wins the first of his dozen victories this year, TV ratings for golf should beat last year's healthy numbers.
 
But participation numbers have to be massaged to be encouraging. The number of players in the United States holds steady at about 26 million, according to the National Golf Foundation. But industry observers counsel against placing too much stock in that number because it counts even golfers who play as few as one to seven rounds per year. That segment of players doesn't drive much activity in the equipment and greens fees categories.
 
Another oft-heard criticism is that as many players leave the game each year as players who come to it for the first time.
Rounds played rose to a record 564 million in 1999, the last year for which figures are available. But more than 494 million of those rounds were played by so-called core golfers, who typically play more than eight rounds per year. (The NGF considers core golfers to be a conglomerate of moderate players, who play eight to 24 rounds per year, and avid players, who play 25 or more rounds annually.)
 
Bottom line: Although the NGF sees moderate players as the best bets for growth, everyone is still worried that in the net analysis, golf can't retain its new players.
 
Which brings us to the annual optimism about the shiny things at the PGA Show. The 700,000 square feet of exhibit space in the Orange County (Fla.) Convention Center was jam-packed with quality new products. And it's hard not to be optimistic when surrounded by all that glittering steel and shiny urethane.
 
But if the expected recession slows the economy, which until recently has been popping exuberant wheelies every time the leading indicators are announced, leisure spending will be the first to go, as it always is. How, then, will premium equipment makers drive upgrade behavior? How will moderates become avids? How will steel owners move up to titanium? And how will value line equipment companies convince people not to put off the decision to take up the game?
 
Worse yet, what if the flow of sponsorship money to worthy programs, such as The First Tee or Kids on Course, were to slow?
 
Meanwhile, members of the steering committee for golf's plan to become as popular as NFL football in 20 years met in Orlando during the show, and no concrete news of an execution plan emerged. In fairness, the initiative will need time to take shape. But already, some industry leaders have said privately that they are getting impatient.
Sobering stuff. Could make for a glum plane ride home from the Show. But there's no escaping the issue.