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Golf equipment business stands at key inflection point

Tom Wishon

  • PGA Merchandise show happening this week amid period of marked change for golf industry
  • Broad angst around the business as costs going up but participation going down in the US
  • Equipment business poised for slower growth as technical breakthroughs harder to achieve

The PGA Merchandise Show, happening January 21-24 in Orlando, Florida, is the sport’s premier event highlighting all key facets tied to the golf industry, and is an important focal point for all the major players in the business.

The $2.6bn golf equipment sector plays a major role in not only showcasing its latest efforts, but in setting the tone for the entire golf season that lies ahead in 2020. Golf club purchases constitute two-thirds of that revenue total. 

The major equipment companies voluntarily comply with equipment guidelines set jointly by the US Golf Association and the Royal & Ancient Golf Club. But within those industry guidelines are varied meanings, causing much uncertainty for buyers and lovers of the sport to ponder.

And such decisions about what to buy, what retailers should sell, and what to recommend are not inexpensive ones. New drivers can routinely cost beyond $500 at retail. Full sets of irons can reach $1,500, and even customized putters can top $250.

The golf equipment angst also arrives against the broader backdrop of declining participation in the sport in the US, and the National Golf Foundation reported that 434 million rounds were played in 2018, the most recent data available, a 4.8-per-cent decline from the year before.

Peeling the curtain back on the oft-changing dynamics of the golf equipment business and retail-level fallacies is something Tom Wishon has been doing all of his professional life. The Durango, Colorado, resident has long had a fascination on how golf clubs perform and what golfers need to be aware of when buying them.

Wishon began his career in golf as a PGA assistant professional at a golf course in Northern California, working on golf clubs was initially a means to provide additional income to his meager salary as a lowly assistant pro. Shortly after he began routine procedures of changing shafts or altering different specifications of golf clubs for golfers, Wishon became more and more interested in wanting to know why certain changes in golf clubs worked for some players but not for others.  

Initially, he tried calling golf companies and shaft companies to ask questions about golf club performance. But each time he tried to dig for more information, his efforts were rebuffed. After about the 12th time of being shut down he slammed the phone down, decided he was going to do the work himself to find out what he wanted to know, and share whatever he learned with whoever was interested. 

And that is precisely what Wishon has done after 46 years and counting of being consumed with golf clubs, their design, performance and how they can be built and fit to work better for all golfers. The author of 10 books, Wishon is responsible for more than 50 different club design technology firsts, and is considered the foremost authority in clubfitting research in the game. Wishon recently spoke with M. James Ward on the state of the industry, urging consumers to never buy a golf club for someone else.

When consumers walk into a big box retail store looking to purchase golf equipment, using a letter grade, how sufficiently capable are they in accurately assessing what they truly need?

C at best and D in many cases. The business model of the golf equipment industry is for each company to build new model golf clubs to one series of standard specifications so clubs can be sold off the rack achieving the highest volume in revenue, both for the golf club company and retailers. Proper fitting enables golfers to play to the very best of their given ability, which involves having all 12 key fitting specifications tailored for each of the 13 full-swing clubs in the bag. That means the loft, lie, face angle, length, shaft flex, shaft bend profile, shaft weight, total weight, swingweight, set makeup, clubhead design and the grip size/style need to be properly fit for each golfer. No retail big box store can do that.

Given what you just said, what’s the best mechanism for buyers to shop with confidence and select items likely that work the best for them?  

Go online and search for the AGCP [Association of Golf Clubfitting Professionals]. Use their website to search for a custom clubmaker near you. I can’t stress enough how much a good custom clubmaker can help golfers improve and enjoy the game most, especially for average ability players. 

Given limitations set by the USGA and R&A on what constitutes legal equipment, does the churning over of models on such a rapid pace really produce significant innovations or is it more about marketing hype?  

As of the late 2010s, clubhead design has hit a brick wall. There will be no more major technical advancements in clubhead design because the science of clubhead performance is finite and the industry has driven down every road of significant clubhead technology in their constant “new model every year’”approach to club development.

Clubheads are at the limit for face [coefficient of restitution] and ball speed, for center of gravity position/placement, and we’re very close to the limit for moment of inertia and off-center hit performance. All future clubhead development will be a rehash of something already done or will represent changes only able to be experienced by high clubhead speed, very consistent players. 

Do high-cost equipment companies such as PXG, Honma, and XXIO deliver results beyond what other mainline competitors are producing?  

No. They simply offer a way for golfers who need to be envied to achieve that desire. Unless you have clubs tailored to your size, strength, and swing characteristics by an experienced clubmaker, you do not have the best clubs for your game, regardless of what name is on the clubheads. 

There’s been a clear push now by the ball companies in advocating optimization, in other words finding the right ball that fits their game. Does “optimization” truly have merit?

Yes, but only significantly for golfers with a driver clubhead speed higher than 110 mph, and only slightly significantly for golfers with a clubhead speed higher than 95 mph. For golfers with a driver clubhead speed not higher than 90 mph, it won’t matter what golf ball brand or model you play because that’s the threshold of clubhead speed required to even begin to make a golf ball go from ballistic to aerodynamic flight to take advantage of the design characteristics of balls today. 

Given the upper end costs in purchasing premium golf balls, with costs often surpassing $50 per dozen, do most golfers need to head in that direction? Should retailers be pushing them?

No. Among all the many, many golf ball models on the USGA’s conforming ball list, the difference in distance between all of them is low single digits of yards. And that’s determined by USGA robot hit testing done at a clubhead speed of 109 mph.The average male golfer driver clubhead speed is 88 mph. For women, 75 mph. Other than satisfying a preference for a soft or harder impact feel, there is no actual shot performance reason that a majority of players need to spend more than $20-25 a dozen for golf balls.

Should golf balls at the highest levels of professional golf be pulled back a certain percentage and do you envision a bifurcation of the rules happening on that specific front?

I hope not, I really do. The biggest reason tour pros hit the ball so far these days is not the equipment. The real reason pros hit the ball so far is because they are trained athletes. The average driver clubhead speed on the PGA Tour in the early 1990s was 105 mph. Today it is closer to 115 mph because pros are better athletes and they train specifically to maximize clubhead speed. Each 1 mph of clubhead speed increase is worth  an additional 2.8 yards of carry distance with the driver. So there’s 28 yards of distance increase that has nothing to do with equipment. One of the greatest things about golf is all of us do play the same game with the same golf balls. Change the rules to have two sets of rules, and you lose a lot of that [fan] appeal of the game.

Chief executives of equipment companies are now viewing the sport as much healthier now since the Great Recession in the US a decade ago. What is your take on that? 

Revenue for the major golf equipment companies certainly seems to be up over the past few years. A big part of that is the average prices for golf clubs is higher than they were in the past. At the same time, the number of golfers and courses is not really growing. Golf courses are still closing, and very few new daily fee/accessible golf courses are opening.  

The game has somewhat “stopped the bleeding” from the Recession. But there’s no increase in younger age groups making a commitment because [they think] it takes too long to play, [the sport] is too hard to learn well enough to enjoy, and the associated costs connected to the sport. Once the baby boomers die off, you will see then if there is a rosy future for the game or not. 

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