ORLANDO, FL. For 30 years I have made my annual January pilgrimage to Orlando to cover the PGA Merchandise Show - the foremost event displaying all the equipment, specialty goods and apparel tied to the golf industry. It is the Olympics event in that category. The show took place during the last days of this past January and it was clear to those who have been to numerous past shows the overall “buzz” from the ‘17 show was lacking.
I witnessed the high mark back in the early 1990’s when the Orange County Convention Center was completely filled, with exhibitors who could not even get a space within the cavernous building, and had to either find space outside the main hall or book a hotel suite and invite buyers to their location. The event at that time was akin to a Moroccan Bazaar - a nonstop beating of the drums - optimism front and centre, buyers lining up, consuming whatever was placed on the market.
The issue impacting golf is a fairly simple one, but one far from having a simple answer.
The golf industry is overloaded with players aging out, particularly baby boomers - those born in the 1950’s through to 1965 - nearing retirement. The belief that Tiger Wood’s arrival back in the mid-90’s was going to dramatically alter the golf landscape with a surge of minorities and other young people playing the game did not happen.
Golf is viewed by Millennials - those born in 1980 and later - as a game played by Dads and Grandads. The pace, or lack thereof, when playing golf is also a key issue. Millennials are loathed to commit to five hours or more to play 18 holes. The need for speed is what motivates many of them. Golf does not fit in easily to an emerging market dominated by those who value the brevity of Twitter.
There is also the issue that golf is a tough game to play reasonably well. Patience is a big factor, and that is what is in short supply among prospective players. Golf is also handicapped by the sheer costs one needs to spend - not just to get started - but to maintain connected to all the new items tied to technological improvements. State-of-the-art drivers cost upwards of $500. Titleist just rolled out the latest updating of its highly successful Pro V1 and Pro V1x balls. Cost per dozen? Try $50 plus.
The teaching of the game has also not made major headway: handicaps for men and women have only been lowered less than two strokes over the last 25 years.
For too many years the key people tied to the merchandise side in golf believed any slow time was merely cyclical in nature, a quick reversal just around the corner. The Great Recession that happened in late ‘07 was a profound wake-up call clearly showing a long term paradigm shift is underway, and not abating.
I can remember when one attempted to walk the aisles on the first day of a PGA Show would be nearly impossible - the numbers staggering, the overall “buzz” electric. That energy would carry over to the second day and often to the final third day. This year’s event had a bit of “buzz” for the first few hours on opening day and afterwards was merely going through slow motion.
The golf audience remains overwhelmingly white, getting older, and in a short time fading from view as the dominant contributors. There has been movement in getting younger players started with the game and that bodes well. But the seeds that should have been planted for Generation X and Y never really germinated. There is some good news: the only two sports America showing some real growth in terms of younger players - those below 18 years of age – are lacrosse and golf.
The overall golf industry is also saddled with 16,000+ courses in the USA. The demand side is weak in many areas of the country and those courses seeking to ride things out had best have deep pockets, because players are shopping constantly for the lowest green fees and related bargains via such providers as Golf Now, among others.
For a decade now course closings have outnumbered new course openings in the States. In all probability that trend seems to be set in stone, and will remain in place. Some have suggested that what golf needs in America is a loss ranging anywhere from 15 to 20 percent of the total courses in the country to simply disappear, thereby restoring a healthier balance between supply and demand.
Nike, the sports and apparel equipment behemoth, ended its desire to continue in the golf equipment arena in ‘16. Other companies are also having to rethink their role in golf will be. Innovative companies such as TopGolf, which have attempted to rejuvenate the traditional driving range model, have come forward - but will the early “buzz” generated truly sustain itself? No one can say with certainty that those going to TopGolf actually graduate to traditional golf.
The PGA Show for so many years was the happening place to be, when it seemed golf was on the launching pad for bigger and bigger things. There is still air in the golf balloon, but the trajectory that seemed limitless is clearly flying far lower. The prospects for the near term do not appear to be especially promising. The powers-that-be lived in a self-enclosed bubble world before finally admitting the obvious. Growing the game is now the phrase uttered in just about every corner.
Golf faces the very real possibility of having to retreat back to the time when only the elites of society were engaged with the sport.
This year’s PGA Show is now in the rear view mirror. Golf had better act fast. An industry’s past is not enough to maintain a future presence - particularly for a new core audience with neither the time to give, nor patience to stick it out. There were those who boastfully stated the Titanic was the one ship that would never sink. Many at the high levels of golf thought similarly. We all know what happened to that famed ocean liner. That does not mean the harrowing call of “head to the life boats” is imminent, but this year’s gathering in Orlando clearly showed the golf boat is indeed showing clear signs of sustained leakage.