At This PGA Show Excitement and Uncertainty Go Hand in Hand

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When the PGA Merchandise Show opens Thursday in Orlando, it will welcome an industry that doesnt know whether to smile or furrow its brow.
 
There is the annual excitement that accompanies the golf industrys biggest gathering, a surge of adrenaline at seeing the combined commercial might of the game to which so many have devoted their working lives. There is the buzz about new products, this time including an aggressive entry into a new segment for the largest sporting goods company in the world as Nike introduces its new golf clubs. And there is that undeniable temptation to handicap the year ahead, to speculate on whether Titleist will loosen Nikes golf ball foothold, whether Precepts bet on a second stage in the soft ball fad will come in, or whether Callaway can make a go of the C4, a very light driver that is neither metal nor wood.
 
But accompanying the industry head rush is an inbox full of problems and uncertainty. This is the first industry meeting since September 11, a day whose utter darkness still tempers any exuberance. Even if the effects of that tragedy could be ignored, recreational golf is still a game saddled with the puzzle of flat participation over the past six years (one executive calls it the three-million-in, three-million-out-each-year problem). The included challenge of attracting juniors who will become lifelong customers involves competing against other leisure activities that require much less investment of time and money (soccer, basketball, and video games, to name just a few).
 
Also, even though the U.S. Golf Association has relaxed its proposal on clubhead size limitations by 75 cubic centimeters, the industry feels beleaguered by repeated attempts to regulate driver distance for recreational players. (The proposed limitations come a year after the debate on spring-like effect off of driver faces began to boil over.) Also, ball manufacturers still bristle at the USGAs plans to introduce a new Overall Distance Standard to replace the one made in 1976; the ball makers see no need for a new standard.
The golf industry owes a lot to Tiger Woods on many levels, but as this show opens, the most relevant gift from Tiger may be hope. Whenever things seem tight, industry vets remind themselves that golf still has the most recognized athlete in the world, one whose prominence was immune even to the return of his predecessor to basketball. Without Tiger as a touchstone for a possible resurgence of the game, many smaller golf companies, weary of red ink and escalating marketing costs, would probably give up.
 
With all that in mind, here are some of the questions that this show will raise, and perhaps answer:
 
1. Order, please: Most golf equipment companies say their orders declined for about 10 days to two weeks after September 11, then picked up considerably. But with the recession now endorsed as official by the government and the business press, exhibitors worry that order-writing will be down at this show. Add anything but good spring weather to that, and the industry could have a disappointing start this year.
 
2. Nikes pyramid of influence: By releasing a better-player iron first, will Nike irritate most recreational players? Or will they have those golfers aspiring to use clubs like those in the bags of their heroes, such as David Duval and (eventually) Woods?
 
3. Ball dominance: There are no caves to clear out; this war is being fought out in the open. What will Titleist bring as a Pro V2, and can it make as big a noise as the unprecedented Pro V1 did? What will be Nikes return salvo? Now that TaylorMade-adidas Golf is essentially in charge of Maxfli, what will happen to that troubled brand? And will the industry pay more attention to Spalding balls, or to rumors that Spalding owner KKR is about to sell to another holding company with a split-it-and-sell-it reputation?
 
4. When does the cycle break down?: How long before consumers get tired of being asked to buy new every 12 months?
 
5. Does the show have a future?: Ping is in this year, but has decided not to come to the 2003 PGA Show. Will other companies examine how well their trade-show marketing dollar works? The Las Vegas show became a second-tier flea market in short order. Show owner Reed Exposition will be working hard to make sure theres no domino effect in Orlando.