Thoughts from the PGA Merchandise Show

Thoughts from the PGA Merchandise Show

January 29, 2018

I just got back from the 2018 PGA Merchandise Show in Orlando and thought I’d share my thoughts on what I saw there.

First, for those who have never attended the PGA show, it’s pretty tough to describe.  It’s basically golf heaven.  Demo day (Day 1 of 4) is on the largest outdoor, 360-degree driving range you’ve ever seen with all the big golf companies showcasing their newest products for attendees to hit and test.

The indoor part of the show (Days 2-4) occupies a cavernous space in Orlando’s Orange County Convention Center with an indoor driving range and golf-related companies of all types -- ranging from big to small -- displaying their wares.  Picture aisle after aisle of booths of golf clubs, golf carts, golf simulators, golf accessories, golf clothing… you get the idea.

The first time you attend the show, it’s overwhelming.  You want to see every booth and try every club (especially the ones from the big companies that have just been launched with all their marketing fanfare).

But like so many things in life, the magic of that first show doesn’t seem to last.  The truth is that about 95 percent of the show doesn’t change from year to year.  As the years tick by, industry veterans become much more attuned to what’s new and what has changed year over year.  Conversations tend to focus on the one hot new product or category that is getting a lot of buzz and which companies have increased or decreased their presence compared to past years.

And every year brings a big marketing push from each of the big companies for their newest driver, promising to be the longest, straightest, best ever.  

The putter side of the industry is pretty different by comparison.  I’ve been attending the PGA show for seven years, and while there have been a few exceptions (mostly in the aftermath of the anchoring ban a few years back and the effort to find products to replace belly putters), the big companies don’t spend much of their marketing budgets on new putter product launches.  Most of the smaller putter companies have the same booths with the same products year after year.  

Don’t get me wrong - there are new putter companies and new putter designs that appear at the show every year, but none of them are truly innovative. Needless to say, in recent years, the putter industry has remained quite static.

The putter industry can basically be divided into three main marketing strategies:

  1. Gimmicky putters
  2. Putters competing on design
  3. Putters as status symbols

Most golfers are familiar with gimmicky putters.  Everyone has seen the late night infomercials on the Golf Channel.  And there are plenty of these types of putters that show up at the PGA show each year.  

Some are made of funky materials (e.g. wood, transparent plastic, etc.); many incorporate some sort of unique alignment aid or make some sort of claim of game improvement.  These types of putters come and go.  Each year brings new designs and new companies eager to make a buck off of golfers who struggle with putting and are desperate to buy golf’s equivalent of snake oil to cure their putting woes.  

But none of these putters are truly innovative.

Putters as status symbols have been around for a while too. That guy who couldn’t break 100 if his life depended on it yet has the telltale head cover sticking out of his bag advertising what putter he plays (and effectively how much he paid for it), has become a stereotype.  

Most milled putters fall into this category.  Milled putters are great, and milling makes a sharp putter with nice shiny surfaces.  But the putter industry has taken it much further than that.  Many milled putter companies seem to be competing to make putters that appear even shinier and more “exclusive.”

At the PGA show you can see (and buy) putters that cost thousands of dollars.  Putters that are supposedly one of a kind.  Putters that were supposedly made for tour players.  Putters that are essentially identical in form and function to putters available at your local golf store but that have been polished and detailed to make them as visually appealing as a putter can be.  

These are putters as jewelry.  There is an implied message that because they are so expensive they are somehow better, but their makers do not claim any technological superiority whatsoever.  They may be pretty, but these putters are not innovative. But it’s the general lack of innovation in the putter industry that fuels this category.  If people who are buying these super-expensive milled putters could buy something that was technologically superior instead, I believe they would.

Putters competing on design make up the most interesting segment of the industry.  These putters tend to fall in the middle of the price spectrum.  Some of their design aspects come across as gimmicky, but that’s because it’s so difficult to truly innovate in the putter space.

There has been a lot of marketing in recent years highlighting the improvements to the striking face of putters - with inserts or grooves. Many claim that they put a better roll on the ball or even steer the ball back on line after a mis-hit.  I dismiss all of these as gimmicks.  Inserts can make a putter feel softer, but softer is just softer, not better or worse.  It’s conceivable that some face technology could help achieve true roll slightly faster than other types of putter faces, but I haven’t seen any proof that achieving true roll 1 or 2 inches sooner necessarily leads to making more putts.  And the idea that grooves can steer a mis-hit putt perfectly back online is just absurd.

There are really just two types of true innovation in putters that continue as areas of focus of most putter designers today:

  1. Improvements in MOI
  2. Improvements in visual alignment

Improvements in visual alignment often seem kind of random and gimmicky.  Zebra stripes, bold white putters, all red putters, multiple alignment lines, funky head shapes, etc., etc.  

Every year there are new shapes and designs that are advertised as “breakthroughs" in aiming and visual alignment and each following year those same putters that failed to sell are replaced by new “breakthroughs” in visual designs.  But occasionally, these breakthroughs stick.  The 2-ball design may have been dismissed by some as a gimmick when it was first released but it turned into one of the best selling putters of all time.  With that, this approach to putter design endures.

Improvements in MOI are, I would say, the only real innovation on the physical side of modern putter design.  All credit goes to Ping and its Anser design from the 1950s.  Spreading weight to the heel and toe of the putter increases MOI and makes a putter more stable and resistant to twisting.  You can’t argue with physics.  

Putter designers know this, and as a result, putters have grown bigger and bigger as weight has been pushed further and further away from the center of gravity.  Unfortunately, so many of these big mallet putters are not visually appealing. Rather, they look like a frying pan on a stick.

Year after year, these trends don’t seem to change.  I could have written this same review five or 10 years ago and it would have been perfectly applicable.  Each year I go to the PGA show and find some new company making really nice and shiny milled putters that are largely indistinguishable from all the other milled putters on the market, and lots of new putters advertising improved face inserts and visual alignment systems, but none of them are truly innovative or superior to the putters that were on the market five years ago.

This is why I couldn’t be more happy to be bringing our new line of 3DP Design putters to market.  3D printing allows us to radically improve MOI -- the biggest and most meaningful innovation in physical putter design.  Five years from now, the putter landscape will be filled with 3D printed putters as the rest of the industry wakes up to the power of this technology and uses it to achieve real innovation.  

We are proud and honored to lead the way.

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