There are something like 26 million golfers in the United States, but only a handful of us lucky souls get to attend one of the coolest events in all of golf – Demo Day at the PGA Merchandise Show in Orlando each January. If this is your first time to go, you're in for a treat – there's nothing like it.
Just as the PGA Show is the world's largest golf trade show, Demo Day is the world's largest golf product demonstration event. It's traditionally held at the Orange County National Golf Center just west of Orlando – out by Disney World, which is only appropriate, seeing as how it's basically the world's most fun one-day golf theme park.
If you're a buyer and planning to place orders at the PGA Show, it's best to make appointments with some of your favorite vendors in advance of your arrival on the Show floor. But Demo Day is more casual – you don't need appointments, and you won't be buying anything on-site. It's just a day for reconnaissance and research – and fun. Here's a map of the layout and a list of participating companies.
A few basics to start:
--Demo Day runs from 9:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m., and is usually the most crowded between about 10 and 2. No matter when you go, budget at least half a day to make sure you have enough time to really make the day worthwhile.
--Be sure you get your PGA Show credential before you head out. There is no admission fee, but you need your credential to get in.
--Unless you have a parking pass, the most convenient way to go is to ride the shuttle bus from the Orange County Convention Center out and back starting at 8:00 a.m. and leaving every 20 or 30 minutes – the trip itself is 30 to 45 minutes each way, but it gives you time to plan your attack on the way out and digest all that you've seen on the way back. If you don't have a parking pass and drive anyway, you'll have to park outside Orange County National – and walk potentially a pretty good distance just to get inside.
--Bring some sunscreen – spending a half a day or more outside in the Florida sun, even the winter sun, can burn your neck and ears. You can usually get some sunscreen there, but why take a chance? Also, wear your comfortable shoes, especially if you plan to try out some clubs – and you should definitely try out some clubs. The array of new product available each year is both expansive and amazing, and there is no better opportunity than Demo Day to evaluate it for yourself.
--Finally, check the weather forecast and dress accordingly. The Orlando weather in January can be hot, cold, windy, stormy, or perfect, or all of the above.
Orange County National boasts a 42-acre circular practice facility, which on Demo Day is ringed with vendors large and small. The sea of colorful booths and kiosks blend with the teeming crowd to give the place kind of a carnival feel.
After you walk in through the gates, the layout is almost more than you can take in – and the only way to absorb it all is to make a couple laps during your time there. Off to the left are Nike and TaylorMade/Adams, while Ping, Callaway, Wilson, Mizuno and Titleist are along the back and Cobra is off to the right.
In recent years, the Cobra booth – and "booth" doesn't begin to describe Cobra's set-up – has been the easiest to pick out, thanks to its oversized clubhouse and the eardrum-rattling dance tunes that Orlando Magic deejay Scotty B pumps out from his monster truck-sized mobile music platform. With a Happy Hour feel, the Cobra station is one of the most fun places to hang out.
Mixed in among golf's gaggle of giants are dozens of medium-sized and small companies showing off everything from grips and shafts to gloves and tees. It's always enlightening to take a stroll through these smaller booths and see what's what each year in the world of accessories.
But the true appeal of Demo Day is the chance to get your hands on the latest clubs from golf's best and brightest companies. You can often get a hint of might be the upcoming season's best sellers by the lines that form at the various stations. The longest one I've ever seen snaked back and forth multiple times through the TaylorMade compound the year that company unveiled its much-ballyhooed RocketBallz line of clubs.
Generally, however, you don't have to wait long to try out any new piece of equipment – the large companies always have many multiples of their new product ready and waiting, along with sales reps, PR folks and other helpers to show you their wares, answer your questions and direct you to a spot where you can take some swings.
Some of the booths will be more crowded than others, but the crowds aren't always the truest predictor of which clubs will prove the most popular over the next year, nor even which clubs the attendees will find the most appealing. I always like to watch PGA Professionals hit the new clubs and gauge their reactions.
Along with the celebrities, Demo Day usually offers a selection of instructional workshops featuring some of the best teachers in the game. The headline attraction this year is Bubba Watson, and details on the others likely will be available in your Show material or posted near the entrance at Orange County National.
There are also several putting greens occupied by the short-game vendors and, honestly, these are my favorite places to hang out – I love checking out the new putters most of all. Plus, rolling some balls on an actual practice green gives me a much better feel for the putters than doing the same thing on a carpet inside the convention center.
If you're looking for a diversion or two in between your testing sessions, there are usually several celebrities on hand at various booths throughout the day, many of whom will take some swings and sign some autographs. Among those attracting large audiences in recent years: baseball star Ken Griffey Jr. at the Nike booth, long drive champion Jamie Sadlowski at the Callaway booth and Blair O'Neal, golf's version of a supermodel, at the Cobra booth.
Finally, if you get tired or hungry – and you will – there are a couple of places to take a break and get a snack or some lunch, generally right near the entrance. There are usually also a cell-phone charging station or two, but they're almost always busy and I would recommend that you not count on being able to charge up while you're out there.