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Callaway and TaylorMade swing and miss

Golf’s regulators say skill is more important than the equipment

“The greens are better than any of the greens in the valley.” Fallbrook Golf Course on February 8. - Image by Ken Seals
“The greens are better than any of the greens in the valley.” Fallbrook Golf Course on February 8.

Suppose you are a celebrated engineer in Silicon Valley. The smartphone is your baby. But you are told that your smartphone is too smart. You have to dumb it down — maybe all the way back to the beginning of the 21st Century, when it was first developed.

Something like that is happening in San Diego County, the center of the golf-equipment industry.

In the 1990s, golf gear went high tech: manufacturers began using aerospace metals and other exotic materials to put out golf clubs that sold for $500 each and sometimes more. But the governing high priests of the game, the United States Golf Association (USGA) and Britain’s Royal & Ancient Golf Club of St. Andrews (R&A), are shaking a finger at equipment supposedly designed to give a boost to the duffer and give incredible distance to the pros’ drives off the tee.

Purportedly to preserve the sanctity of the game, on June 6 these two ascetic groups published a study that rattled the San Diego industry, which is largely based in the Carlsbad area. The 18-page document concluded that between 2003 and year-end 2015, the average driving distance of members of the Professional Golf Association (PGA) Tour, along with three other tours, rose only 1 percent, or 0.2 yards per year. In another group of less well-known tours, the average drive length went down 1 percent in those same years.

In six centuries of golf, equipment has improved greatly, conceded the United States and Britain ruling authorities. “While generally welcoming this progress, the USGA and R&A will remain vigilant,” vowed the groups. “The purpose of the rules is to protect golf’s best traditions, to prevent an over-reliance on technical advances rather than skill, and to ensure that skill is the dominant element of success throughout the game.”

Take that, Carlsbad! This was a right hook to the snout of publicly held Callaway Golf and its operations, such as putter-maker Odyssey Golf, and local companies owned elsewhere, such as Aldila, the shaft maker; Cobra, a club manufacturer; TaylorMade, which is number one in drivers, and Ashworth, the clothing maker. The club manufacturers have been taking out ads to show that their space-age models can drive a ball further. But if skill is more important than equipment, maybe golfers should spend their money on lessons, not gear, suggest the purists.

Maybe that is why sports-shoe maker Adidas has put three San Diego operations — TaylorMade and its unit Adams Golf, and Ashworth — up for sale. The last two are losing money, dragging the parent company down.

Bud Leedom

In its 2015 annual report to the Securities and Exchange Commission, Callaway stated that its main products have a life cycle of two years. If skill is the most important element of success, golfers should hardly get a new set of clubs every two years. “Yes, there was a two-year product cycle, and some manufacturers got down to 18 months,” says Bud Leedom, who has a money-management firm in Rancho Santa Fe and formerly had a publication, Golf Insight & Investing. “This hurt the game. You can’t make quantum leaps every two years.”

Jim Dunlap

From the 1990s to the early part of the new century, the manufacturers not only used space-age metals, they also designed huge club heads, and golf shafts with more whip in them, says Leedom. In that period, distances did improve, at least for pros and really good golfers, and the regulators reacted. Golf-course managements were complaining that the long drives “made courses obsolete,” says Leedom, who thinks distances definitely improved in the 1990s.

A home developer is working on plans for Escondido Country Club

The industry had gone on an expansion spree in the 1980s, anticipating the retirements of baby boomers. “The National Golf Foundation said the industry had to build a course a day, and it wound up building one and a half a day,” says Jim Dunlap of Oceanside, editor-in-chief of the online golf publication Pellucid Perspective. “Now 15 courses are closing for every one that opens, and that is a good thing for golf-course owners; the industry is so overbuilt.” San Diego County has lost Escondido Country Club, San Luis Rey Downs Country Club, Carmel Highland Golf Course, and Fallbrook Golf Course. In San Diego County, “Nobody in their right mind would build a daily fee course,” because of a dearth of players, sky-high real estate prices, and the drought, which has driven up prices of water.

Former San Luis Rey Downs Golf Club land

Nationwide, the number of golfers has come down from 30 million to 21 million, Dunlap says. The National Golf Foundation has a rosier view, saying it dropped from 30 million in 2005 to 24.1 million last year.

TopGolf, millennials’ sort of golf game — accompanied by loud rock and booze

Callaway’s revenue and earnings both declined in the first quarter of this year, as sales of woods, irons, and putters all dropped close to 4 percent compared with the same quarter of the prior year. However, the company forecasts that things will get better the rest of the year, partly because millennials (those aged 18 to 36) will rush into the game.

But the millennials may not take up the sport, just as the retiring baby boomers found other recreation. Says Dunlap, “The millennials are not coming in at all,” he says. They are “looking for fun and experiences,” but it takes four or five hours to play a round of regulation golf. He points to a new game attracting millennials: TopGolf. Players hit golf balls containing microchips that track a shot’s distance and accuracy. Points are awarded for hitting targets. All the while, rock music is playing loudly and people are boozing it up.

A private golf club costs less but remains expensive ($300 to $400), and a round of golf on a regulation course is not cheap. Two buddies playing a weekend round and sharing a cart at Balboa Park Golf Course will pay $55 if they are San Diego city residents, $65 if not. Many courses are more expensive. For all the attempts to democratize the game of golf, it remains an upper-crust recreation. According to the National Golf Foundation, household income for the average golfer in the 30-to-39 age range is $93,000. The largest percentage of golfers (27 percent) have household income of $125,000. According to Oxfam, the worldwide anti-poverty group, a mere 62 individuals hold wealth equivalent to 3.6 billion people, or about half the world’s population.

To a potential golfer, wealth and income disparity is a real handicap.

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“The greens are better than any of the greens in the valley.” Fallbrook Golf Course on February 8. - Image by Ken Seals
“The greens are better than any of the greens in the valley.” Fallbrook Golf Course on February 8.

Suppose you are a celebrated engineer in Silicon Valley. The smartphone is your baby. But you are told that your smartphone is too smart. You have to dumb it down — maybe all the way back to the beginning of the 21st Century, when it was first developed.

Something like that is happening in San Diego County, the center of the golf-equipment industry.

In the 1990s, golf gear went high tech: manufacturers began using aerospace metals and other exotic materials to put out golf clubs that sold for $500 each and sometimes more. But the governing high priests of the game, the United States Golf Association (USGA) and Britain’s Royal & Ancient Golf Club of St. Andrews (R&A), are shaking a finger at equipment supposedly designed to give a boost to the duffer and give incredible distance to the pros’ drives off the tee.

Purportedly to preserve the sanctity of the game, on June 6 these two ascetic groups published a study that rattled the San Diego industry, which is largely based in the Carlsbad area. The 18-page document concluded that between 2003 and year-end 2015, the average driving distance of members of the Professional Golf Association (PGA) Tour, along with three other tours, rose only 1 percent, or 0.2 yards per year. In another group of less well-known tours, the average drive length went down 1 percent in those same years.

In six centuries of golf, equipment has improved greatly, conceded the United States and Britain ruling authorities. “While generally welcoming this progress, the USGA and R&A will remain vigilant,” vowed the groups. “The purpose of the rules is to protect golf’s best traditions, to prevent an over-reliance on technical advances rather than skill, and to ensure that skill is the dominant element of success throughout the game.”

Take that, Carlsbad! This was a right hook to the snout of publicly held Callaway Golf and its operations, such as putter-maker Odyssey Golf, and local companies owned elsewhere, such as Aldila, the shaft maker; Cobra, a club manufacturer; TaylorMade, which is number one in drivers, and Ashworth, the clothing maker. The club manufacturers have been taking out ads to show that their space-age models can drive a ball further. But if skill is more important than equipment, maybe golfers should spend their money on lessons, not gear, suggest the purists.

Maybe that is why sports-shoe maker Adidas has put three San Diego operations — TaylorMade and its unit Adams Golf, and Ashworth — up for sale. The last two are losing money, dragging the parent company down.

Bud Leedom

In its 2015 annual report to the Securities and Exchange Commission, Callaway stated that its main products have a life cycle of two years. If skill is the most important element of success, golfers should hardly get a new set of clubs every two years. “Yes, there was a two-year product cycle, and some manufacturers got down to 18 months,” says Bud Leedom, who has a money-management firm in Rancho Santa Fe and formerly had a publication, Golf Insight & Investing. “This hurt the game. You can’t make quantum leaps every two years.”

Jim Dunlap

From the 1990s to the early part of the new century, the manufacturers not only used space-age metals, they also designed huge club heads, and golf shafts with more whip in them, says Leedom. In that period, distances did improve, at least for pros and really good golfers, and the regulators reacted. Golf-course managements were complaining that the long drives “made courses obsolete,” says Leedom, who thinks distances definitely improved in the 1990s.

A home developer is working on plans for Escondido Country Club

The industry had gone on an expansion spree in the 1980s, anticipating the retirements of baby boomers. “The National Golf Foundation said the industry had to build a course a day, and it wound up building one and a half a day,” says Jim Dunlap of Oceanside, editor-in-chief of the online golf publication Pellucid Perspective. “Now 15 courses are closing for every one that opens, and that is a good thing for golf-course owners; the industry is so overbuilt.” San Diego County has lost Escondido Country Club, San Luis Rey Downs Country Club, Carmel Highland Golf Course, and Fallbrook Golf Course. In San Diego County, “Nobody in their right mind would build a daily fee course,” because of a dearth of players, sky-high real estate prices, and the drought, which has driven up prices of water.

Former San Luis Rey Downs Golf Club land

Nationwide, the number of golfers has come down from 30 million to 21 million, Dunlap says. The National Golf Foundation has a rosier view, saying it dropped from 30 million in 2005 to 24.1 million last year.

TopGolf, millennials’ sort of golf game — accompanied by loud rock and booze

Callaway’s revenue and earnings both declined in the first quarter of this year, as sales of woods, irons, and putters all dropped close to 4 percent compared with the same quarter of the prior year. However, the company forecasts that things will get better the rest of the year, partly because millennials (those aged 18 to 36) will rush into the game.

But the millennials may not take up the sport, just as the retiring baby boomers found other recreation. Says Dunlap, “The millennials are not coming in at all,” he says. They are “looking for fun and experiences,” but it takes four or five hours to play a round of regulation golf. He points to a new game attracting millennials: TopGolf. Players hit golf balls containing microchips that track a shot’s distance and accuracy. Points are awarded for hitting targets. All the while, rock music is playing loudly and people are boozing it up.

A private golf club costs less but remains expensive ($300 to $400), and a round of golf on a regulation course is not cheap. Two buddies playing a weekend round and sharing a cart at Balboa Park Golf Course will pay $55 if they are San Diego city residents, $65 if not. Many courses are more expensive. For all the attempts to democratize the game of golf, it remains an upper-crust recreation. According to the National Golf Foundation, household income for the average golfer in the 30-to-39 age range is $93,000. The largest percentage of golfers (27 percent) have household income of $125,000. According to Oxfam, the worldwide anti-poverty group, a mere 62 individuals hold wealth equivalent to 3.6 billion people, or about half the world’s population.

To a potential golfer, wealth and income disparity is a real handicap.

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Comments
27

Don, I do think that golfers may well stay ignorant of this report, or determine that they are in a category where equipment can still make the difference. There are a couple other interpretations here, and that is while those stats are correct, the lack of "improvement" is due to a decline of overall skill. With a lack of new golfers, those who are young, strong and coordinated, the skillset of the existing population could be declining, and that new gear could be partially offsetting it.

Those club and ball makers may well be making great strides, but with the precipitous decline in numbers of golfers, sales volumes may preclude profitability. That drop of golfers from 30 million to 21 million in about a decade does not portend well for the game. It could decline even more sharply in coming years, and if it does, nothing about the game is going to look good to other than hard-core golfers. At that point it will cease to be a mainstream sport with hours and hours of tour TV coverage every week, narrated in hushed tones by oh-so-respectful commentators.

Your point in regard to the role of skill vs. club design may end up lost on the remaining golfers, and those club manufacturers could keep on selling the latest and greatest gear to them. The trick is to do it profitably.

June 15, 2016

Visduh: You make some very good points. The alleged lack of improvement in recent years may indeed be the result of younger, stronger people not taking up the game. Yes, the skillset of the existing population could be declining, as you suggest.

Having the skill required of the really good golfers requires lots of practice. Who has the time these days? Best, Don Bauder

June 16, 2016

Don,

Interesting article on a tough-to-quantify topic. Your conclusions echo what my thoughts have been for quite some time, but I'm going to take them a step further. The technology in golf clubs can do 2 things: Yes, they can add distance, but they are also marketed as helping players hit the ball straighter - thereby helping to fool newer golfers that their "game" is in better shape than it really is.Same bad swing, better result - hey, you're ball is on the edge of the fairway rather than out in the canyon, so you must be improving, right? These factors are minimized for pros: they spend hours optimizing their swings. It would be interesting to see if any studies have been done had been done at lower levels with regard to both distance and accuracy. That's the bread-and-butter for companies like Taylor Made and Callaway; pros are simply a tool to get to the Average Joe. The surge/decline fluctuations happen because so many parties try to jump into the fray when things are buzzing and make a quick buck - only to find out it's harder than they thought, so they bail out. I liken golf's current cycle to what happened in the fly fishing industry. Fly fishing was a relatively small collective of people who enjoyed the beauty and solitude of time spent alone on a piece of water. Then "A River Runs Through It" came out.. Millions of men thought they could be Brad Pitt, thousands of women thought they would meet Brad Pitt, and new equipment manufacturers came out of the woodwork in droves. Some of the new gear was good, but most was crap, thrown out there to capitalize on a "hot new market".. When the cycle completed itself, overall impacts were positive. Many manufacturers and participants came and left, but some (men and women) stayed - because they enjoyed the sport, not because The New Yorker had an article saying it was the thing to do. Golf will face the same issue. Golf and fly fishing have more than a few parallels; They can both be done expensively or inexpensively, they are perceived as elitist (those stereotypes are dwindling), and their perceived "health" is based solely on industry's capability to cash in on the game. If people can't make a buck on it, it must be hurting, right? Wrong. Participation fluctuations may slow down production/new product cycles, but eventually things will find their equilibrium - they always do. The greatest thing about both these sports is that both require patience, discipline, and practice, with no forgiveness from your quarry. Your results can sometimes be brutally honest - sometimes too honest, which chases people off, and they go find something "easier" to do. Fish don't rise to a poorly presented fly, and birdies don't come to golfers who can't hit a golf ball straight. Some people are put off by this, so they move on to something else (or they cheat, lol). Others think that the challenge is what makes their sport worth pursuing, and it makes them all the more passionate about it.

June 16, 2016

CW2016: Excellent points. The baby boomers haven't taken up golf in the numbers expected, and neither have the millennials. The game requires skill and lots of practice. Do these demographic cohorts, taken as a group, have either the time or the attention spans to be good at the game? I think not.

One can see all kinds of evidence that adults' attention spans are declining. Take opera. Decades ago, one of the most exciting evenings would be what's called Cav/Pag -- two one-act operas, Cavalleria Rusticana and Pagliacci, presented in the same evening. Now the opera company only has to put on one of them in an evening. Long works such as Handel's Messiah are oft-times shortened. In baseball, there are fewer doubleheaders. Best, Don Bauder

June 16, 2016

Mike Murphy I: Excellent analogy. Best, Don Bauder

June 16, 2016

Bob Hudson: Great line! Best, Don Bauder

June 16, 2016

Mike Murphy II: You should be a standup comic. Best, Don Bauder

June 16, 2016

I gave it up when being the class clown didn't get me anywhere way back when.

June 17, 2016

Murphyjunk: What do you mean your school misbehavior didn't get you anywhere? You are one of the most prolific posters on this blog... a bigger honor than winning a Pulitzer or a Nobel. You have made it. Best, Don Bauder

June 17, 2016

I will have to decline that award if every offered

June 18, 2016

Murphyjunk: What do you mean: you "have to" decline the award? For making that remark, we "have to" give your knees a working-over with a baseball bat. I'm from Chicago. Best, Don Bauder

June 23, 2016

Shirley Brand: Decades ago, I would occasionally play the famous court, Firestone. I always said that the company would lose 3 cents a share on an earnings statement because of the expense of replacing my divots. Best, Don Bauder

June 16, 2016

Bradford Charles Johnson: Don't worry about being "picky." One of a golfer's most important decisions is picking the right club. Best, Don Bauder

June 16, 2016

Christian Cullen: I have seen young people playing golf with frisbees. Best, Don Bauder

June 16, 2016

Alex Clarke: I suspect that many, many golfers can play just as well with ann old $20 club as with a new, space age $500 club. Best, Don Bauder

June 16, 2016

What a compendium of old golf jokes! Hey guys, come up with more of those. They're hilarious for non-golfers, and have to be even better for frustrated duffers.

June 16, 2016

Visduh: I gag when I try to play golf these days. Best, Don Bauder

June 17, 2016

Used to play the nine hole in Old Town with my husband James.

June 17, 2016

shirleyberan: Is that why you charged him with beating you? Best, Don Bauder

June 17, 2016

I was too busy to golf for over a year. Then, I played a round with friends last week and did surprisingly well with zero practice and zero driving range activity for over a year. A friend asked me to try his huge Callaway Driver the last few holes. I have no affiliation with Callaway and do now own Callaway clubs, but my drives off the Callaway big head driver were noticeably and markedly further than the drives off my older set of clubs with smaller driver heads. I just had a little trouble with not being used to the very large club head and controlling whether the ball went left, right, straight. But, my drives with the Callaway definitely went much further than with my older Costco off brand name set of clubs.

June 17, 2016

SportsFan000: If you drove the balls further but they went out of bounds all the time, I am not sure those clubs were helping you. Best, Don Bauder

June 17, 2016

SportsFan0000 - Hahahahahahahaha

June 17, 2016

shirleyberan: Don't laugh at SportsFan0000. He noticed an improvement in distance using the space age clubs. But was he playing out of the woods more often? Best, Don Bauder

June 17, 2016

No Don, I just let him beat me.

June 17, 2016

shirleyberan: He beat you! With a club or a switch? Report him to the cops. Best, Don Bauder

June 23, 2016

Then I'd get a grip and leverage a wedgie. ?

June 18, 2016

shirleyberan: Is a sclaffing cleek worth still another bisque? Best, Don Bauder

June 23, 2016

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