It’s been a tough couple of years for the golf industry. Equipment sales, at least in the US, are reported to be down compared to 2007 and participation numbers haven’t been too healthy either. But the message that golf may at last have turned the corner rang out clearly at the recent PGA Merchandise Show, in Orlando, Florida, where many of the leading brands were exhibiting.
With a national unemployment rate reaching 10% by December 2009, and nearly 16 million Americans out of work, predictably, it has been a fairly miserable year all round. And though golf has, historically, been in the enviable position of being among the last industries to arrive at the point of recession but one of the first out, it would be wildly inaccurate to say the game hasn’t suffered.
Indeed statistics released by golf research company Golf Datatech in Florida reveals just how badly the game is feeling it. One of several depressing figures the company published was the 10.5% by which sales for golf equipment (including balls, woods, irons, wedges, putters, shoes, gloves and bags) tumbled at on-course 'green grass' stores in 2009.
As for off-course (high street and discount golf stores), the figures were 11.5% less than in 2008, 18% less than in 2007. Specifically driver sales were down 17% compared to 2009, fairway woods dipped 22% 2008 and 30% fewer hybrids were sold in July of 2009 compared to January of 2008. Every other piece of equipment (except for wedges) reported double-digit losses compared with 2008.
Among the manufacturers hardest hit was Callaway Golof which reported an annual net sales drop of 15%, and a gross profit dip of a 29%, attributed in part, it says, to ‘heavy discounting in the marketplace as a result of the economic environment’. Though most golfers probably didn’t have the money to purchase one, 2009 was clearly a good time to be buying an FT-9.
"The economic and market conditions in 2009 were without a doubt the most challenging in recent history," said Callaway’s President and CEO George Fellows at the show.
With sales figures like Callaway’s, the numbers of rounds played in the US down from 2008, more golf courses closing than opening and influential manufacturers like TaylorMade and Nike choosing not to exhibit, show-goers probably had little hope the 2009 event would amount to much.
But golfers and the golf industry appear capable of making the best of a bad situation. So instead of empty aisles, a visible lack of innovation, a load of dreary speeches about how desperate things had become, and an impending sense of doom, there was, in fact, a palpable sense of resilience and expectation.
Tour Edge marketing director Jay Hubbard was excited, by what he found.
"Like a lot of companies, we came into the show watching our expenses carefully and not knowing what impact the economy would have on attendance and business written at the show,"he said. "But I would say it was an overwhelming success. There was a good flow to the show, and a great buzz all week."
?Steve Boccieri, president of Boccieri Golf which makes the Heavy Putter as well as its offspring (the Mid-Weight and Lite-Weight series of putters) - and successfully launched the Heavy Wedge at the show, added: "It may have been a little smaller than in recent years in terms of the number of companies exhibiting, but two things gave us great hope.
"First, our booth was busier than in past years, so we know people are purchasing and second, the calibre of attendees was stronger than in past years. We saw decision-makers - course directors of golf and general managers. The show was a long way from what it was in the 1990s, but the industry is recovering slowly and surely."
Jim Remy, President of the PGA of America, which staged the show, observed: "Golfers love technology and innovation. We believe those that didn’t buy the new putter or driver last year will be anxious to buy it this year. So we are cautiously excited about going forward."
?As for Callaway's Fellows, keen to promote a strong product offering and fewer discounts in the shops, he said: "We are cautiously optimistic that the economy and the golf industry will begin to recover in 2010."
*English-born golf-writer Tony Dear lives in Seattle and contributes to www.cybergolf.com , courtesy of which this article has been edited.
We believe those that didn’t buy the new putter or driver last year will be anxious to buy it this year.