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Opinion & Analysis

The looming “Fiscal Cliff” of golf clubs

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I had this article about 90 percent completed when Tom Wishon posted his article: The way golf clubs are being sold has hurt golf. Since his post and mine are both discussing the retail business, I felt it appropriate to add his link for another viewpoint. While we are looking at different parts of the industry, there are some parallels.

The recent announcement on “anchoring” has made me reflect on some of the bonehead equipment decisions made by golf’s ruling bodies in the last 30 years, going back to the Ping Eye 2 fiasco. Each time, a “wait and see” attitude has eventually resulted in a massive reversal or rollback in the equipment section. The USGA’s decision on grooves allowed engineers to maximize widths through CNC milling and tight tolerances until the ruling bodies chose to make 30 years of clubs obsolete with “Conditions of Competition.”

In 2003, the COR ruling was announced with a ruling to be made in 2007. While the manufacturers pushed face technology to produce a reliable 0.860 COR driver, the ruling bodies did an about-face and capped COR at 0.830. Unlike wedges, the OEMs had to suck it up and offer conforming replacement drivers for those golfers that had purchased equipment in good faith that it was within the tolerance of the current rules. The quest of the ruling bodies to reduce driver distance also resulted in a club length maximum of 48 inches. Sure, Wedgy Winchester had learned how to accurately swing a 60-inch driver on the long drive circuit. But how many other golfers could keep a driver that long in the fairway? Finally, clubhead size was capped at 460cc to minimize the ability to create a forgiving driver through size.

Essentially, you cannot build a longer driver than anything that has been made in the last 10 years that met the COR/CT max. A center strike “on the screws” cannot travel farther.  The only variable to the golfer now is to optimize launch and spin through a fitting on a launch monitor.  This has led the OEMs to try and maximize distance in fairways, hybrids and even irons by creating hot-faced clubs. Despite the fact that these clubs should fly precise distances for scoring, the selling point of distance trumps all.

Suppose that you have already gotten the hottest-faced clubs, conforming grooves, fitted lengths/lofts/lies/grips and your launch conditions are proper. What will now make you buy a new club?  This is the nightmare that has to be keeping sales managers up at night. Sure, you have the GolfWRX crowd that always wants the latest and greatest. But how do you convince a recreational golfer or serious player to buy a new club when it isn’t much longer or more accurate, and offers little or no performance advantage over their current clubs?

This is the “fiscal cliff” that looms in the golf world. By 2014, it is expected that an overwhelming majority of golfers will have converted to conforming grooves. That sales hike in irons and wedges will recede back to normal levels. With no ability to create better launch conditions, what will be the selling point on the next generation of drivers? Right now, it’s graphics and all the colors of the rainbow. Why buy the newest equipment when top quality clubs with premium shafts are available for a song in the used market?

So what’s left?

Ironically, service, which has been driven to near extinction by the big box stores, will be the key ingredient to their survival. Similar to the tailor in a fine suit store, the need for fitting of clubs will be the last variable that the manufacturers will be able to offer for improving scores. The need to adjust length, loft, lie and grips gives each golfer the fit and comfort of a well tailored suit.

The advent of launch monitors, high speed cameras and elaborate shaft software have made it easy to get the player “in the ballpark” of a club that fits their swing. But it always comes to the assessment and final tweaks of the clubfitter to make sure everything is optimized. Are the yardage gaps between clubs consistent? Is the golfer increasing their center-face contact?  Will the launch and spin give the golfer the best chance of hitting and holding the green? Do the clubs allow the golfer to execute the shot that is visualized in the mind?

More and more clubs are being purchased off the rack. Even Ping, whose green grass model for years forced you to order your clubs, has 6 to 8 sets on the wall of my local big box, ready for sale.  The “right now” mentality of our society wants to take their clubs immediately to the range or the first tee instead of ordering to spec or having them fitted after the sale. Would it make sense to put a cushion in the price of a set of irons to allow the retailer to fit and set the lofts/lies of the clubs for the customer?

Perhaps partnering with teaching professionals to have them observe their student’s patterns on the lie board after they purchase new clubs would be an option. The teacher can recommend the dynamic adjustments and the golfer can now bring his clubs back for the correct loft/lie settings as part of the initial purchase. The same can be done with the adjustable drivers.

Have your teaching pro look at your flight patterns to determine optimal adjustments. Then return to the store and confirm your numbers on the launch monitor. There is revenue to be made in service and fitting if the industry embraces the concept. With the number of golfers staying static or declining in the US, and the need for publicly traded companies to increase sales and profits quarterly, the American retailers will have to adapt or share the same fate the electronics stores have: extinction by plummeting off the cliff.

Click here for more discussion in the “Equipment” forum.

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A tinkerer since he was a child, Brad Hintz has always enjoyed getting his hands dirty and learning how things are put together. Taking apart and putting together his bicycle and the family room television to make them work better eventually gave way to golf clubs. While a career in operations and analytics keeps him busy during the day, he has been building and repairing golf clubs as a hobby and passion for more than 17 years. Brad has been posting on golf forums since the late 1990s and has been a member of GolfWRX almost from its inception. This is his first foray into writing articles online.

1 Comment

1 Comment

  1. Square

    Jan 5, 2013 at 5:16 am

    I hit the ball 280-300 off the tee, play the bag tees and really have a love affair with the game. For 30 years I’ve never taken a break. Hooked the first time I played the game. I hit the ball far enough. It’s probably impossible, but I would have loved for the USGA to provide a higher COR for the average to below average player who wants to hit it farther. Interesting article….

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Opinion & Analysis

The History of Course Design is Yours to Play at Oglebay

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There is a much-talked about “New Golden Age” of golf course design underway that is driven by demand for ever-more spectacular courses at the top end of the resort golf market. Destinations such as Streamsong, Bandon Dunes, Cabot Links, Sand Valley and others provide the traveling golfer a spectacular golf experience; unfortunately, it comes at a price tag that is equally spectacular. When a week playing golf in Florida can cost as much as a week in Scotland, where do you go for a golf getaway that doesn’t require a second mortgage?

Oglebay Golf Resort in Wheeling, West Virginia, doesn’t just provide an affordable golf vacation option; with its three golf courses, it provides players the chance to experience a condensed history of American golf course design through its three courses. The resort sits on land that was once owned by a wealthy industrialist and is now a part of the city park system. Located about an hour from Pittsburgh, Oglebay draws the majority of its golfers from Pennsylvania, Maryland, Ohio, Virginia and West Virginia. It’s kind of cool that when you drive to Oglebay from the Washington, D.C., you hit all of those states except Ohio, which is just a few minutes away from Wheeling. The area is especially picturesque in the autumn months when the changing colors of the leaves are at their peak.

The property has a rich history in the business and sporting history of West Virginia, but the three golf courses, Crispin, are a special prize that taken together form a primer on the history of golf design in the past 90 years. The 5,670-yard Crispin course is a one-off design by local golf enthusiast Robert Biery that was completed in 1930 and is a fascinating study of design techniques of that era. The slopes and elevation are severe and extreme by today’s standards. A clue was the raised eyebrow of the assistant pro when I said that I would walk the course. Uneven lies are the order of the day, the product of a time when there was neither the money nor equipment readily available to create gentle slopes and even surfaces; the course is true to the original contours of the West Virginia hillside.  There is little relief on the greens, which run a little slower than typical greens but make up for it in size and slope. It is by far the shortest of the three courses but the par-4 8th hole and par-5 9th holes are a thousand yards of joy and pain.

Hole No. 6 at the Klieves course

The Klieves Course is a 6,800-yard, par-71 Arnold Palmer design that was completed in 2000. The design features broad fairways, mildly undulating greens and opportunities for heroics on short par-4’s, all the prototypical characteristics of modern resort golf courses. While some architects choose to torture and torment, Palmer courses put a premium on fun and this one is no exception. The par-5, 515 yard 6th is a great example of the risk/reward available without that challenges the resort golfer without the need to humiliate. The course is very well maintained tee to green, and you’ll want to keep a fully charged battery to take photos of the vistas from the elevated tee boxes.

Hole No. 13 at the Jones course

In my humble opinion, the true gem is the Robert Trent Jones course. The 7,004-yard, par-72 Course carries a healthy 75.1 rating/141 slope from the back tees. It utilizes a gorgeous piece of land that meanders across the West Virginia hills to give a mesmerizing collection of holes that are equal parts scenery and challenge. Both nines start from elevated tee boxes hitting down into valleys that offer classic risk/reward propositions. Usually I have no problem identifying a favorite hole or two, but on this course it’s difficult. Having said that, the stretch of No. 4 (par 3, 193 yards), No. 5 (par-5, 511 yards) and No. 6 (par-4, 420 yards) are among the best I have played anywhere as a show of nature’s beauty and the at of laying out a golf hole. And the four par 3’s are not the place to pic up an easy birdie. The only one less that 190 yards from the tips is the 158-yard 15th, which is protected by a small, undulating green. All in all, it’s a perfect representation of the genius of Robert Trent Jones.

The golf is good at Oglebay and the prices are better. You can get in 18 at the Oglebay courses for as little as $32…on the weekend. And when you’re not playing golf, you can take advantage of the myriad of outdoor sports activities, tour the Oglebay mansion, hit the spa or visit the Glass Museum on the property (I promise it’s a lot more interesting than it sounds). There’s a lot of great new golf resorts out there and that’s a good thing for the golf industry, but destinations like Oglebay prove that there’s a lot of life left in the old classics as well.

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Podcasts

Two Guys Talkin’ Golf: “Are pro golfers actually underpaid?”

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Equipment expert Brian Knudson and GolfWRX editor Andrew Tursky argue whether PGA Tour players are actually underpaid or not. They also discuss Blades vs. Cavity backs, Jordan Spieth vs. Justin Thomas and John Daly’s ridiculous 142 mph clubhead speed.

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Legend Rees Jones speaks on designing Danzante Bay in Mexico

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Hall-of-Fame golf course architect Rees Jones talks about his newest course design, Danzante Bay at Villa Del Palmar in Mexico. Also, Jeff Herold of TRS Luggage has an exclusive holiday discount offer for GolfWRX listeners!

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