PGA Merchandise Show: From humble beginnings to industry powerhouse

Attendees peruse the exhibits at the 1963 PGA Merchandise Show held inside a tent in the parking lot at Port St. Lucie (Fla.) Country Club.

PGA Merchandise Show: From humble beginnings to industry powerhouse

Who could have imagined 50-plus years ago that what started as gathering of a few golf company reps in a parking lot would evolve into the world's largest golf merchandise showcase.

 

It started in a parking lot when Eisenhower was president.

Back in 1954, a time when Arnold Palmer was a paint salesman with an eye on playing in the U.S. Amateur, and only 55 percent of American households had a television, a handful of club, ball, and apparel manufacturers congregated in the parking lot of the PGA National Golf Club in Dunedin, Florida, for what amounted to a glorified golf flea market prior to the Grapefruit Tour, which was what the winter Florida swing was called at the time. 

Three years later, the gathering had grown so large that the PGA rented a circus tent to accommodate 50 merchandise reps. No one had formally named it yet, but those who wandered by called it, “The Show.” 

That tented show moved with the winter tour for several years, shifting back and forth between Port St. Lucie and North Palm Beach. Then it went to the Miami Convention Center once it outgrew the tents. But when the new Orange County Convention Center in Orlando was completed in the mid-1980s, what was then recognized as the PGA Merchandise Show had a permanent home.

In its 59-year history, all kinds of new products have been introduced to the masses at the PGA Merchandise Show. A strange looking offset putter designed by a Norwegian aeronautical engineer named Karsten Solheim hit the floor in the mid-1960s, and in the early 1980s, a former textile magnet from Georgia introduced a new hickory-shafted wedge he called the Callaway Hickory Stick.

Throughout the years, the evolution of the show has mirrored the industry. The Ben Hogan Company was once the dominant club company on the scene, and they brought in players like Don January to add star power to their presentation. Meanwhile Taylor Made, with its silver “Pittsburgh Persimmon” medal wood had a small booth and a lot of activity. 

Simulators and launch monitors drew huge crowds in the 90s as technology appeared on the verge of changing everything we knew about the game. And then Nike entered the business and show spaces went from quiet and clubhouse-like to sensory overload 3D experiences.   

Now, the average PGA professional visiting the PGA Merchandise Show can walk more than 10 miles and still not see every display or visit with every vendor. As always, this year’s show will have traditional industry leaders bringing their latest and greatest products to the world. But there will also be the start-ups, the guys with a few thousand dollars and a dream to create the next breakout item in golf. 

The PGA Merchandise Show has become the one place between the PGA Championship or, in even years the Ryder Cup, and the Masters where everyone in the industry can gather together and see each other, where business is conducted and friendships are renewed. But more than that, it is where dreams are either nourished or die. 

It has that way in the beginning when that dreamer was a General Electric Engineer named Karsten Solheim and later when the dreamer was a retired textile exec and vintner named Ely Callaway.

This year will be no different.