The looming “Fiscal Cliff” of golf clubs
By Brad Hintz (stage1350)
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.