The Fifteenth of Clubs

I am the average golfer. Not an average golfer, the average golfer. I am the mean, the mode, the medium, and the middling. The typical, the ordinary, the run-of-the-mill. By every demographic and golfing metric, I am the guy the public pictures in their mind’s eye and the target customer of every club maker and training aid manufacturer from Carlsbad to Quanzhou. With one exception.

I am getting better. I say this not to brag but to establish my bone fides as a golfing everyman. Every regular golfer has his or her ups and downs but over the last 12 rounds I have gotten better. That doesn’t mean I am scoring lower with every subsequent round, it means that my scores got lower than they were before and they have kinda stayed there. It means that now, when I stand over the ball, I feel pretty confident I am going to put a serviceable swing on the ball. I don’t expect a towering draw, a frozen rope or a power fade, but I expect and get a ball that is almost always in play at worst and positioned for par at best. How have I achieved this?

Patience. But this isn’t a story about that. I’ll let you in on that secret later. See, a little test of your patience with that tease right there.

This is about the tools of the trade and an argument to increase the number of clubs one can pack from 14 to 15. My epiphany came to me like this.

I finally, finally, started to hit the driver in play. At least when I exhibited some patience, i.e. stopped exhibiting the desire to crush the ball in to submission. But sometimes I need a tee shot that while still long enough to give me a fighting chance at a GIR, I could count on to be a little straighter, a little more reliable. For me that’s a three iron. Don’t ask, it just is. Irons look better to my eye. I hit it low and it runs to an acceptable distance on any fairway that doesn’t suck the cleats off your feet.

From long to middle-long distances for the second shot (this is not a driver/wedge story), the sticks in my bag are adequate. A long second with a generous, hazard-free landing area is addressed with my three-wood. A longish shot requiring some height is accomplish with a hybrid while mid irons cover the area up to wedge distance.

The short game, as every golfing pundit will tell you, is where the scoring is done. I have a handful of clubs including the putter, wedge, gap-wedge, sand-wedge and a 64-degree trouble-wedge because my natural ball flight, even with lofted clubs, is pretty low. I like to chip the ball more than pitch it because it is a safer shot. But on more occasions than I would like, a semi-heroic, (I am hesitant to say flop) high, soft shot is called for, thus the 64.

And this should be enough clubs, right?  Except it’s not. I am not even that good, and I’ll switch out a long club for a short one if the course has more holes than not where I can land short of the green and hope to run it up. I’ll pack another wedge and leave the long hybrid in the trunk if most of the greens are protected in front on today’s track. Why do I need to make this choice? Isn’t golf hard enough?

Clubs are generally designed for 10-yard increments. The length between one club and its immediate neighbor can vary anywhere from a quarter of an inch to a full inch. Lofts between clubs change from three to as many as five degrees. So, having the club to match the distance (and using the same swing) makes perfect sense. Up until inside 100 yards that is.

Around the green, where most of us end up on their second shot, the scoring zone, the choices are limited to one, maybe two clubs for the entire range of 100 to zero yards. That is, every increment of ten yards has to be addressed with the same club or two requiring you to vary the loft and distance either by chocking down, opening the face, hitting it off the toe, or varying the length and speed of the swing. It bears repeating; some eight – very important – shots must be accomplished with a single club.

I am not suggesting a set of 10 wedges but there should be legal to carry another club to help fill in the gaps between 100 and 0 yards. Or to fill in any other gap for that matter. While not necessarily making the game any easier, allowing a fifteenth club in the bag does carry the possibility for lower scores. And happier golfers. And if customer satisfaction is not motivating enough to the USGA and R&A, how’s this:

The economic impact is obvious and huge. And needed. Let’s face it, the industry is struggling to remain relevant and viable.

Every manufacturer, both major and minor, is given an opportunity to sell one more club as is every retailer and reseller.

Designers and manufacturers might be motivated to create an innovative hybrid, a specialty club, a super-draw bias driver. Creativity would be unleashed. Whole sets could get tweaked.

A fifteenth club generates more demand for heads, shafts, grips, head-covers, glue, tape, shipping materials and shipping services benefiting the entire supply chain.

Old bags are at once obsolete as consumers run to golf shops everywhere for bigger bags with 15 slots. Will they be a little pissy? Yes, at first, but every golfer loves to buy golf stuff almost as much as they love to play.

Course owners and managers benefit too. The golfer now has another tool. It could be a specialty chipping club, a long iron to cheat the wind off the tee, a trouble wedge for getting out of, well, trouble. Scores go down, golfer is happier, plays more rounds, buys more rounds, puts more money in course owners’ pockets.

What’s not to like?


Alone in a Sea of Humanity

Golf is a lonely sport.  This may seem counterintuitive if the only golf you play is on daily-fee tracks and the only time you watch it is 12:00 to 3:00 Pacific Standard Time.  But if you are among the chosen few to whom golf is a calling then you know just what a stupendously lonesome game it is.

A survey in a national golf magazine asked men about their favorite part of the sport. The majority stated that it is the camaraderie, time spent with buddies, that is most enjoyable.  This is response that pollsters refer to as a socially acceptable answer. Meaning that this is the response you give because it sounds right, plausible and somehow acceptable.  Yet any player worth his green fee knows that the true, unmitigated joy of the game is out driving your buddies, out scoring your pals and flat out spanking that little dimpled orb as far and as straight as humanly possible.  And these all too rare joys are achieved irrespective of your playing partners.

That golf is a lonely hunter is no more evident than at the practice rounds prior to the traditional Thursday commencement of a professional tournament.  For it is on these Mondays, Tuesdays, and early misty Wednesdays, that one can observe the grinders alone with their thoughts in an undulating emerald sea.  On these days the players, who are only slightly better known than their caddies, but significantly better groomed walk alone, play alone, and live and die alone.

Preferring solitude to crowds myself, I spent Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday watching the nameless and faceless prepare for the AT&T National Pro-Am on the Monterey Peninsula.  Prior to the antics of a Bill Murray, the 15 handicap swing of a professed scratch Dennis Quaid, and the wind-cheating two-irons of “these guys are good” tour pros, walk the near great, the dare to be great, and the I wish but know I never will be great.

They walk, and I follow, among the most dramatic landscape ever created by nature and enhanced by man.  Yet the sum-total of their attention is on a common white ball and a four inch hole in the ground. They care not for natural beauty but only for the physical beauty of launch angle, spin rate, swing speed and moment of inertia. I am, but tell myself I am not, awed by an azure ocean, breaching whales, and homes bigger than the Inn at Spanish Bay. But none of this really matters to the lonely wanna-be. What is truly inspiring is the silky poetry of a golf swing generated by even the most common of aspiring tour players.

I cannot watch golf for more than a nano-second before wanting to swing away myself so I wave down one of the ubiquitous Buicks trolling 17-Mile Drive. A very old and very nice volunteer drives me at three-miles an hour to the closest course a struggling writer can afford.   And although I am partnered with three other golfers, I am alone as I would be in the middle of the desert. 

With visions of the senior tour, I flail, I thrash, I slash. The ball hooks, ducks, slices, worm burns, drop kicks, tops, chili dips, skulls, teases and taunts. My playing partners feel for me. But once, once in 87 swings, I attain the solitude that only a golfer can enjoy.  My swing is effortless, smooth, fluid.  The ball sails against the blue and drops on the green just as me and Mr. Titleist intended.


A Guide to the PGA Tour

Who generates more annual income the NFL or the PGA Tour? If you were a high school student taking the college boards and didn’t know the answer you would puzzle it out through simple test taking strategies. To wit: this is a golf site for one and the obvious, common-sense answer is the NFL so clearly that’s not it.

Yes, it is the PGA Tour and as an avid golfer you’d know that but what is staggering is the size differential between the two.  Per IRS schedule 990 the PGA Tour generated income of nearly $1.1 billion in 2014.  The NFL? Almost $300 million.  That’s right the PGA Tour is nearly 4x the size of the NFL, reputedly the most powerful and certainly the most visible American sports league in history.

$1.1B in income doesn’t get you on the Fortune 500 but as a nonprofit you are ranked in pretty good company just ahead of the YMCA and Goodwill.  And that’s only what’s reported as a nonprofit.  Its actual income is bigger, considerably bigger.  Though truth be told a little harder to tease out.  A big organization comes with a big spreadsheet.

The Tour’s income is generated through a diverse, and more importantly steady, set of revenue streams.  It owns six other Tour properties: the Tour, the Mackenzie Tour (Canada), The Champions Tour, PGA Tour, LatinoAmerica, and PGA Tour China.

It manages plenty of events, no surprise, but none of the majors.  The closest it comes is the President’s Cup, the WGC’s and the Players.

It is in the golf course business owning or licensing 32 resort and private clubs through its TPC Network.

It is in the software business with EZLinks, a golf course management platform, and has recently launched a, a tee time reservation system.

It is in retail, licensing its brand in dedicated superstores, store within store concepts and restaurants familiar to most airport visitors.

It is in the partnership business maintaining marketing relationships with virtually every significant golf-related nonprofit from the First Tee to the World Golf Hall of Fame.

While it is now among the most profitable of non-profits it was not always so.  Like all sports franchises the Tour is an advertising driven endeavor and more to the point television advertising. But televising a golf event is a herculean task requiring more cameras, more announcers, more travel, more equipment, more staff, and more to the point, more money.

From its inception through the late 1970’s the business model depended on selling broadcast rights to the networks. And while it worked for a time, it was becoming increasing untenable.  It was then that commissioner Deane Beman developed and executed a strategic plan worthy of Harvard Business School Case Study.

Instead of selling the broadcast rights and placing the burden of peddling the advertising space on the networks, the tour packaged the events and sold them as sponsorships to the advertisers themselves.  It was a brilliant win-win deal all around.

The broadcasters loved it.  They received a pre-sold inventory of advertising and little trouble filling the balance of time slots because they were now a limited and thus more valuable commodity.

Corporate marketers loved it.  They purchased high quality exposure to an affluent demographic and the positive halo that comes with being associated with a charity.  They reached new customers and feted current ones.

The players loved it.  Purses grew then soared with the professional debut of a certain golfer who just happened to born around the time the first deals were struck.

It is hard to see this business softening anytime soon.  While the other leagues face their own set of hurdles; NFL and concussions, baseball and boring to name two, the PGA Tour is uniquely positioned to thrive.  It is the only franchise where its fans actually play the same game as the pros. Not exactly the same, obviously, but every fan has the opportunity to play the same courses and once in a great while hit shots with similar results.

This aspect is a significant competitive advantage to the Tour as it competes for eyeballs. Avid golfers are an addictive lot and will scoop up new equipment, lessons, gadgets and experiences to feed their need. They are also an affluent lot purchasing insurance, financial advice, luxury automobiles and cruises.  And this does not begin and end with the coveted millennial demographic of 18-34. Golfers golf and buy stuff as long as they can still drive a cart even if they are no longer allowed behind the wheel.

It is a perfect storm of a business: happy fans, happy players, and happy marketers all bathed in the soft sweet light of a charitable enterprise.