ORLANDO, FL. The 2018 version of the annual PGA Merchandise Show was far more than the usual rollout of new equipment offerings, apparel options and a slew of different gadgets and gimmicks meant to lower your score when playing.

In the recent past the bubbly optimism was completely out of touch with clear realities brewing for some time. Not so with this year’s show.

The ice cold reality is now firmly acknowledged. Golf must attract new players to the sport and must be equally committed to engaging various strategies in doing so. Thinking outside the box is now par for the course — no matter how bizarre the ideas may be.

However, the awareness level faces a very steep hill to climb. The delays from years of previous inaction only served to delay the kind of systematic response needed. The saturation of golf courses will likely need to culled significantly in order to give those remaining a better likelihood in being profitable. Such a “course” correction — no pun intended — could mean the elimination of 15-20% of the entire golf portfolio. The increasing proliferation of “discounted” rates has only deepened the negative cash flow drain on owners of golf properties. Golfers have now grown accustomed to switching courses when cheaper fees can be easily had.

The central issue remains. How does golf entice Millennials to play the game?

There’s been movement on a few fronts for those born in the early 80’s. The incredible ascension of Topgolf has clearly resonated in attracting people who never previously viewed golf as a recreational opportunity. The deeper issue is whether the emergence of Topgolf is a long term game changer or merely a fad that fades in time. Congratulations are in order, thus far, because 60% of the people who go to Topgolf are those who never picked up a club previously. Can Topgolf be the springboard for a younger audience to adopt traditional golf as a game of choice? That remains an open question. Or, is Topgolf nothing more than an outlet for Millennials to simply gather for food, drink and partying with golf being nothing more than a convenient background prop. Only time will tell with certainty.

At the PGA Show the rollout of a single person scooter — called Phat was quite impressive. Innovative companies have seen fit to take the traditional two-seat power cart and provide an alternative vehicle that allows total independence from other players while being both fashionable and functional. Phat will not be everyone’s choice but the product adds a clear way for golfers to potentially speed up play — an issue clearly in need of addressing and correction. There are various courses testing such products and it’s highly likely that more will be doing so as well. If for no other reason — giving those wanting the thrill in riding a course in such a different manner.

Phat Scooter

Apparel companies have also made major efforts. Moving away from the one-way oriented golf clothes to those espousing an off-course usage that clearly highlights versatility for nearly all settings. The involvement of a number of European companies with the likes of Galvin Green, J Lindeberg, and G/fore, to name just three, have all sought to bring to golf a clear differentiator from the cookie-cutter predictable golf clothing that has long been around. The products are not only well designed but extremely well put together. Women’s fashion has long been a staple in golf but the men’s side is clearly making major inroads and is accelerating in its innovation.

J. Lindberg

In the equipment area — there’s been a desire to provide higher handicaps with clubs that can perform on the same level as touring professionals. Indi Golf, the producer of StingRay wedges, has created a product line that maximizes clubhead stability and enhanced spinning capability. Mokom Gloves came to Orlando for the first time and brings to market a golf glove with holes — meant to provide added connection when taking one’s grip on a club. TaylorMade is looking to capitalize on the success of its earlier M1 and M2 drivers — with the new M3 and M4 offerings. Callaway, the former number one equipment company, has clearly re-emerged and is using its new Rogue driver and iron series to be the catalyst for golfer’s to notice and purchase. Titleist is also looking to keep its dominance in the golf ball category with the emergence of the AVX ball — a softer cover to compete against others that have done similarly.

The PGA Show was the rollout for a number of other interesting products. But, the peril golf still faces will not be turned around in a single year or two. Systematically, the main thorn — pace of play — will need a clear remedial effort. Golf rounds routinely going over 5 hours — with some inching ever closer to 6 — is not sustainable or desired. Time is the one commodity many people — not Millennials alone — are ever so protective of in keeping from being wasted. Ideas emerged from Orlando where golfers can opt for less than 18 holes and be charged accordingly. Can other new options — 9-hole courses or those with lesser numbers succeed?

If anything of certainty came from Orlando it’s that golf cannot be chained to status quo thinking. Women and minorities need to be courted in no less of an urgency than Millennials. Identifying those needs and reacting in a proactive manner will need to be implemented. Customization is not something tied to equipment fitting only. The entry points may differ for different groups but the need to push beyond stale thinking remains.

The perils for golf are nothing less than relevancy. Being ever resolute is crucial in order to avoid returning to the days when only those of means and societal standing played the game. The golf world was slow to realize this – until most recently. The marketing messages lived for too long in a dream world which in a manner similar to that of an ostrich with its head buried in the ground.  The baby boomers are anything but babies now. The stakes are high and the sport cannot languish by embracing outdated thinking.

The 2018 PGA Show clearly demonstrated the denial mentality of years past is no longer. The main lingering question is whether cumulative actions already underway will steer the game to a more robust future.

The jury remains out for now.