Golf it turns out, is not just "a good walk spoiled," but a good walk diced, sliced, painted, varnished, shrink-wrapped, boxed, bagged, hyped, hawked, molded, carved, forged, woven, videoed, taught, scored, discounted, invoiced and, ultimately, consumed.
This unremarkable insight came to me last Friday as I comparison-shopped for golf bags on the opening day of the annual PGA Merchandise Show in Orlando. I couldn't decide between the $29.95, 7-to-Go by ProActive Sports—a sideless, molded-plastic carrier for seven clubs, 10 tees and four balls—and the $2,400 boar-print leather bag by Caro Deporte, the one with the Las Vegas-based Siberian-tiger tamers Siegfried and Roy appliquéd in vinyl on the back panel.
"This is very practical if you're playing a par-3 course," said ProActive vice-president Jerry Corcoran, touting the 7-to-Go. "Or any course where you don't need a full set of clubs."
"This isn't practical at all," countered Caro Deporte vice-president Salvador Chavez some minutes later. "But, as you can see, it is very beautiful."
Undecided, I wandered into another display area and fell in love with Sun Mountain Sports' Swiss Army Bag—a prototype lightweight golf bag with enough zippers, pockets, rings, flaps, sheaths and elastic cords to satisfy the most acquisitive golfer. But then I came across the revolutionary Bungee-Bag, by Unimax U.S.A., which sounded like a bag you could safely throw off a bridge in anger. Alas, it was merely a bag with a shock-absorbing strap.
Fortunately for me, I wasn't in a position to buy any of them. The PGA Merchandise Show is a bazaar where golf manufacturers and wholesalers display their lines and introduce new products to the people who sell goods and services to golfers, i.e. , the club pros and the buyers. This year's version, the 41st staged by the PGA of America, drew 781 exhibitors and an estimated 35,000 attendees to the cavernous Orange County Convention Center and the Peabody Hotel across the street for four days of unapologetic hawking and gawking.
"My head is always swimming after this show," said former Masters champion Ben Crenshaw, who was inspecting new equipment. "It's like a tourist going to London for half a day. You'd have to stay for months to see it all."
This year's show, as always, revolved around the new offerings of the major club manufacturers. Callaway Golf seized attention Friday morning by introducing its long-awaited Big Bertha irons and a new generation of Big Bertha metal woods. (Former U.S. Open and British Open champ Johnny Miller drew cheers from a ballroom audience when he vowed to take the new clubs on the PGA Senior Tour in three years and "kick butt.") Spalding, in a smoke and laser-light extravaganza the night before at the Stouffer Orlando Resort, surprised 3,000 guests with the news that it would essentially junk its name, one of the oldest in golf, and carry on its golf business under the flag of its leading brand, Top Flite. (New Top Flite endorser Payne Stewart, in a commercial outtake played for the crowd, drew laughs by confessing, "When you dress like me, you look like an idiot.") Karsten Manufacturing, with considerably less fanfare, unveiled a raw-looking Ping Zing2 metal driver with a club head resembling a lump of solder.
Midsize seemed to be this year's buzzword. Hogan, Founders Club, Tommy Armour, Wilson, Taylor Made and Titleist were among the companies peddling clubs with slightly larger than standard heads, bucking a still vigorous trend toward oversize drivers and oversized performance claims. Cleveland Golf even stepped forward with a midsize iron shaped like a Pepperidge Farm Milano cookie on a stick. "When you think of it," said Bel-Air Country Club head pro Eddie Merrins, "there are just three parts of a club: shaft, club head and grip. There's really not much you can do. They're all trying to catch lightning in a jar."
Or low handicappers in a weak moment. "The top companies are all going after single-digit handicappers, because other players look in their bags," said marketing consultant Chester Gore, who was touting the new Tommy Armour 855s Silver Scot irons. "For the first two months we're only going to put stiff shafts on the clubs. We want to be in the bags of club champions."