Each January, many in the golf industry make an annual pilgrimage to Orlando to take in the PGA Merchandise Show at the Orange County Convention Center. It’s something to both anticipate and dread for months in advance.
Anticipation of the annual Show is easy – an escape from cold temperatures in the middle of winter; an opportunity to connect with old friends in the industry; a chance to see all the new equipment in one place; and maybe, time to get in a few rounds of golf.
The dread part really only plays on those things that irk you about travel – booking flights, accommodations and car rentals; negotiating the endless hassles of airport security, customs and immigration; the delays; and of course, the weather. But once you’re on location, safely tucked away in your rental suite, the dread is over. Let the Show begin!
This year, the trip had an added bonus. Instead of flying to Orlando, I went directly to Fort Lauderdale and checked into the Marriott Coral Springs shortly after lunch. The hotel is about 100 yards from Heron Bay Golf Club, one of the premium ClubLink courses in the area so, with the sun shining and the temperature a balmy 68 degrees, I set off to check out the course.
Heron Bay Golf Club
Heron Bay opened in 1996 and was rated as one of the Top 10 Best New Public Courses in America by Golf Digest. It was designed by former PGA Tour player Mark McCumber as the future home of the Honda Classic. In fact, the Honda was played there from 1997 – 2002, crowning champions such as Stuart Appleby, Vijay Singh and Matt Kuchar.
The course is very natural looking, without artificial mounding or man-made elevation. Unlike many Florida courses, it doesn’t feature a lot of water either. Sand however, is abundant. Most fairways are flanked by shallow bunkers and greens are often well protected with vast stretches of sand. The greens are relatively small and only slightly contoured. Heron Bay demands accuracy, just one of the things my rusty game was apparently missing, but it was fun to play nonetheless.
That was Thursday. On Friday, while the rest of the Eastern Seaboard of the United States was being hammered with snow, South Florida was deluged with rain. My round at TPC Eagle Trace was scheduled for 10:30 but there weren’t too many players venturing out. After an excellent breakfast in the Clubhouse, I decided to brave the elements. Decked out in full rain gear, I began my assault in a steady drizzle.
TPC Eagle Trace is about 15 minutes drive south of Heron Bay. The course was designed by Arthur Hills in 1983 and it too was the home of the Honda Classic for a time. Unlike its sister course up the road, Eagle Trace has few bunkers but plenty of water – in fact, only the 9th and 18th holes don’t feature the wet stuff.
After a day to warm up, it would be nice to say that my game had rounded into mid season form. Not even close. My clubs had turned into weapons of self destruction and I was pushing the ponds dangerously close to flood levels with my errant tee shots. After 14 holes, it began to rain.
Drizzle is one thing but Florida rain is quite another. The 15th hole was never designed as a 540 yard water hazard but within minutes, that’s what it was. With a couple of inches of standing water on the green, my shoes squishy and my resolve completely broken, I admitted defeat and headed for the clubhouse. There I was met by Director of Operations John Hand, who wisely didn’t ask how my round had gone. Instead, he informed me that the forecast for Saturday was sunny and 70 degrees and he and I were booked to play at 10am.
It’s hard to believe that a course can drain so fast but our Saturday round was played for the most part on firm dry ground and the greens were quick and true. John gave me a couple of quirky facts that I had not observed on my first foray at Eagle Trace. On the front nine, all the water is on the left and on the back nine, it’s all on the right. Also, there isn’t a single palm tree on the golf course. The neighbouring yards are full of them but the course itself is framed by oaks and cypress trees.
I wish I could say that my score improved under better conditions but that would be a stretch. The company was great and I thoroughly enjoyed the golf course, even if it did beat me up. Well, perhaps the secret to improvement would lie several hours north where the PGA Show beckoned.
The PGA Merchandise Show officially kicks off Tuesday with Demo Day on the 360 degree range at Orange County National, approximately 30 minutes from the Convention Center. Imagine a circular range 400 yards in diameter with every foot of the perimeter decked with tents, equipment stands and hitting mats. Add rock music, beer and thousands of people yelling and swinging – some to the music but most using the latest clubs. Add a dash of Golf Boards and Segways trying to negotiate the throngs and top it off with a few celebrities hitting shots or pitching their latest and greatest.
Some people go to Orlando just for Demo Day and probably see all they want. Almost every club manufacturer is there – Nike was notable for its absence from both the Show and Demo Day this year – and most have their chief design gurus on hand to answer questions. Some companies bring in their favourite players too. We watched Lexi Thompson pound balls with her Cobra clubs, then help some juniors do it too.
Bubba Watson was in the PING booth and although I watched for nearly 10 minutes, Bubba never hit a shot. He talked a lot and sidled up to the ball several times like he was going to smash one, but then he backed off and talked some more. Enough! I headed to the TaylorMade booth for another beer to get a first look at the new M2’s.
On to the Show
Nobody seems to know how big the Convention Center is but it’s big. With my Fitbit, I clocked 13,000 steps each day. It could have been a lot more but long ago I learned to plan my day a bit. The Show is roughly divided into three Halls with the Equipment Hall on one end and the Apparel Hall on the other. In between is a catchall for gizmos and gadgets, travel destinations, trinkets and trash, golf associations, universities and colleges, cigar makers, training aids and did I mention useless junk of a dubious nature that may or may not help your swing, your body, your head or your wardrobe? The trick to not getting worn out is to focus your time in one Hall or the other and try not to run back and forth.
Here’s the official report:
42,000 golf industry professionals from 91 countries around the world. PGA Professionals and buyers uncovered the newest products, trends and technology from more than 1,000 exhibiting golf companies and brands, including 284 companies new to the event, creating the world’s largest business-to-business golf event within 1 million square feet of interactive exhibit, demonstration and meeting space of the Orange County Convention Center.
Day 1 was spent primarily in the Equipment Hall. The clubs and balls are the same as Demo Day but instead of players and designers, booths are stocked with executives, sales reps and marketing whizzes. They can pretty much answer any question you have and will robotically go into sales pitch mode at the mere mention of increased distance or improved accuracy. My media badge thwarted a few who realized I wasn’t buying but not everyone noticed.
It’s not all about the booths either. While many PGA Show attendees are wandering the aisles, some are digging into seminars going on in adjacent rooms, covering topics from A-W, as in agronomy to weather and everything in between too. There’s even a big stage right in the middle of the Equipment Hall where the PGA of America has a full schedule of seminars featuring industry experts to discuss everything you might want to know about the golf business.
One of the highlights of the Show every year is the New Equipment pavilion. This is where rocket scientists meet reality. It’s kinda sad but every year there are dozens of new gadgets, most of them designed to help you with some aspect of your golf swing. A few years back I counted ten inventions that utilized string to help align your putting. String is pretty low tech these days so most of the gizmos now use digital technology. The sad part is that while most of them work, there is no way in the world they’re going to become commercially viable. The inventors and promoters spend their savings and mortgage their homes to place a bet on hitting it big at the PGA Show. Unfortunately, most won’t be back next year.
If it’s Day 2, it must be the Apparel Hall. There’s no comparison between the two Halls. The floor here is covered with white carpet, the booths are bigger, the lights are brighter and the women are dressed like it’s Saturday night. Fashion is the only thing that matters in this Hall.
It’s an explosion of colour and fabrics.
If you don’t have the right kind of badge, it’s also harder to get anyone’s attention here too. In most booths, people are busy writing orders or showing off next year’s collection to eager buyers. In some cases, your badge won’t even get you inside the booth to see what all the excitement is about. (Hey Greg Norman, I just wanted a peek.)
The highlight of the Apparel Hall is the Fashion Stage, where I learned that golf apparel is moving more towards sport fabrics – think stretch, moisture wicking and performance – while the fashion side of the business is combining more off course and business attire with golf styles. I’m not sure that means you’ll see guys on the first tee in yoga pants anytime soon but it’s trending that way.
Watch Out for the Ducks
There’s a tradition at the PGA Show called “drinks at the Peabody”. The massive hotel is just across the road from the Convention center and for the fortunate few who can afford the astronomical room rates, it’s home for the week. For the rest of us, a drink in the enormous Peabody Lobby is as close as we’ll get to calling it home. That probably means several thousand each evening that jam all the available seats in the lounge, standing room at the bars and every bit of floor space including the elevator lobby, the stair well and even some of the potted plants. It’s a circus through and through but you’re bound to meet a lot of old friends and given the close proximity, you’ll make a few new ones too.
One word of caution: there are several ducks that make the lobby fountain their home and they wander in from the exterior ponds at specified times of the day. If occupying a piece of floor anywhere near the main fountain, best to check for evidence of duck before being seated.
The highlight of the Show for many of us is the annual cocktail party and awards presentation sponsored by the PGA of Canada. It takes place on the penultimate evening of the Show in a meeting room downstairs ill-equipped to handle the hordes of Canadians and near-Canadians that descend on it for free beer and a few nibblies. Thanks to sponsors and planners, they’ve almost got this thing figured out. Not like a few years ago when they ran out of beer. Can you imagine a Canadian event without beer?
The highlight of Canada Night this year was the recipient of the George Cumming Distinguished Service award that went to former Montreal Canadien great Serge Savard. Savard regaled everyone with tales of his hockey days including learning to play golf as a rookie defenseman. I think half the room was born after Savard stopped playing but for some of us it brought back a lot of great memories.
Many years ago a friend of mine had this to say about trade shows, “Every trade show goes one day longer than it needs to, including the one day shows”.
Readers who work or attend trade shows will know exactly what he meant. Leave on a high note. Skip that last day. After all, who wants to hang around and see all those inventors come face to face with reality?
Next week, I’ll have my winners and losers from this year’s Show: The Good, The Bad and The Ugly.