Another January, another PGA Merchandise Show, another gathering of the golf industry's movers, shakers, giants, start-ups, titans and dreamers. The layout is similar but the vibe changes every year (this is my 8th, making me a virtual rookie compared to many who've been coming for many decades.)
"My first show was at Disney World in the basement of a hotel," recalls Leigh Bader, co-owner of Pine Oaks Golf Course in South Easton, Mass. and president of the PGA Trade-In Network and 3balls.com. "They didn't have a convention center. It was more like a flea market under a roof. Now we're talking a million square feet of golf toys."
But even in my "brief" tenure at this convention, I've seen a lot of change and learned a lot of lessons. I've attended through years of explosive growth for golf, I've been here through recession-led down years where the feeling in each booth was palatably desperate. The "boom" years are more fun, trust me.
So what was this year? Well, let's look at what we learned.
1.) Technology is thriving: Yes, rocket scientists, physicists and brilliant engineers are taking part in creating these incredible golf clubs. But from having body mapping motion sensors to improve your swing to having the latest in moisture wicking fabric on your clothes, everything about golf is getting more high tech. Trackman and similar software can tell you virtually infinite amounts of data about your swing and the flight of your golf ball. The PGA of America recently announced a partnership with Game Golf, a method, using GPS, to track each shot of a golfer throughout the round. The information available to golfers now is so refined and immediate, you'd think you were launching a shuttle mission, not trying to hit three more fairways per round. You can't argue physics or facts. And the numbers don't lie.
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2.) Fitness is more important than ever before: For years, the Titlest Performance Institute seemed to be the dominant purveyor of fitness and golf here at the Show. And they are certainly still the biggest, but from apps for your phone, to new lightweight carry bags to encourage walking to new training aids designed for nothing other than strengthening or increasing flexibility in the core golf muscles, getting fit now means more than having your clubs at the right lie and loft.
3.) Golf is getting more social: There were several seminars and panels (one led by ...me) that showed how golf companies, golf courses and the golf community were using social platforms such as Facebook, Twitter and Instagram to connect the entire golf world. The overarching message was that the information exchanged in these networks will only do more to empower and enhance the enjoyment of the everyday golfer. Says Callaway's Senior Vice President of Marketing Harry Arnett, "Just by simply opting in, the golfer has instant access to every facet of the game, many of which had previously been the purview of insiders. This truly is the most dynamic and powerful force available to today to link together golfers everywhere."
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4.) There's as much activity off the show floor as on it: We've already mentioned the social media seminar(s), there are actually dozens of educational opportunities for all manners of golf professionals while here at the show. It seems those offerings are expanding. Even more, the innovation needed in golf isn't restricted to merchandise, but also to ideas that will help the game in future years. From the Hackgolf.org announcement to several roundtables and panels - the best and brightest minds in golf continued to pour over thoughts on how to sustain and grow this great sport. Oh, and there were dozens of parties after hours. (All I'm saying about that.)
5.) Golf is Fun: Playing golf is great. But so is talking golf. And shopping golf. And trying on new clothes, or testing new putters, or finding the perfect pair of sunglasses. COBRA PUMA Golf always has a party of a booth. (Booth is a loose term here, some companies have huge real estate on the floor). Travis Matthew had a truck. Donald Trump was here. Golf Channel was filming live. Callaway Golf had a tank! (yes, an actual tank). One of the things that this year re-emphasized in my mind was that smiling, laughter, pictures, hugs - they are a critical part of the golf industry. This game is about having fun and this convention promotes that fun.