PGA Show Long on Innovation

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I was at the Demo Day that precedes the PGA Merchandise Show when a little boy, perhaps five, turned to say something to his Dad, but kept moving forward, as little boys will often do.
 
Whoa, Hogan; watch out! Dad said, making sure the tyke didnt smash into my knees as I came the other way. I smiled and patted the young fellow on the head and moved on.
 
It took me three steps to wonder where his brother Sarazen had got to.
 
The father-son tandem had vanished into the crowd before I thought to ask if the man had really named his kid after Ben Hogan (or a favorite forging from his youth). I doubt I would have been so impertinent anyway.
 
But supposing the boys name has a golf connection ' well, this industry has never lacked for enthusiasm.
 
It has never been hard up for innovation either. No matter what business conditions the golf industry has enjoyed or endured, there has always been a healthy collection of product stories to consider. Of course, the PGA Merchandise Show remains one of the primary showcases for new gear.
 
One story for 2005 is by now familiar: thin-wall titanium casting allows designers to move weight more efficiently than ever before, so big-headed drivers have risen to prominence. Many drivers are about as big as they can be under the Rules of Golf, but theyre no longer anomalies. Where only a few companies approached 460 cc last year, most manufacturers either have or will soon have maxed-out heads soon.
 
It has to help that the two best men players in the world, Vijay Singh and Tiger Woods, have moved to big sticks. (Singh plays a Cleveland Launcher 460 Comp; Woods recently added a Nike Ignite 460 to his bag after playing the 410 size for a long time.) And when Tiger says his heel hits are good for another eight yards or so, it means a golf design hurdle has been jumped.
 
Other stories werent new, but have entered their second chapter. Hybrid clubs are everywhere (including the bags of many pros), and the variety is almost overwhelming. They all do pretty much the same thing ' lift the ball more easily on long shots and help deal with rough ' but the design choices are now numerous. Optics ' the shape you see when you set the club behind the ball ' have become more varied, and shaft options are starting to appear. The day is approaching when you will be able to choose to make your hybrids swing more like your driver, or closer to your irons. It may take awhile to get the hang of fitting these clubs, but most players agree that the benefits are worth it when a 185-yard shot zings off the clubface, far and sure.
 
The golf ball end of the show wasnt buzz-free, but more attention seemed to be paid to clubs. Still, Callaways HX Hot got some love as the latest incarnation of big, powerful rubber core inside an impossibly thin, responsive cover. Bridgestones B330 met with interest, and U.S. Kids Golf even had a ball that is geared to childrens swing speeds. And perhaps we glimpsed the future when Frank Thomas showed us a ball with a hollow core. In short, golf ball innovation carries on, all in the atmosphere of anticipation for the next ball in Titleists Pro V family, which is due out this spring.
 
Besides the new gear, the other big issue at every show is: How will the industry do this year? If the show floor doesnt crowd up immediately on the first day instead of after lunch, nervous looks abound. But I never worry about this anymore, and neither do experienced industry heads.
 
The fact is, the health of the golf industry is about as subjective as a golf swing, or the old which-club (ball, bag, shoe, etc.)-is-better question. Too much is beyond human control. There are products aplenty in all price strata to attract attention from winter-weary northerners or Sunbelt-savvy swingers ' but so much depends on the weather in the spring, TV ratings, whether The Apprentice pulls good numbers, you name it. The real health regimen the industry needs to get serious about is player retention ' keeping those who start ' and to be fair, national momentum on that issue is picking up, thanks to Golf 20/20 and other initiatives.
 
And if it works, well stop overhearing another conversation at PGA Shows: The one about how this is a market share business, and a tough one at that.
 
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