ORLANDO, Fla. -- In my 20th year of attending the PGA Merchandise Show, I've become almost oblivious to the six figures that big companies spend on their extravagant booths. I'm somewhat numb to the idea of yet more distance from golf clubs. And I'm a little blasé to the fact that golf bags have become so light that one industry professional joked that when you hold their empty bag, you actually weigh less because they've figured out to make bags lighter than air now
Yes, the latest drivers promise another five to seven yards (having heard this for 20 years, we should be able to hit 500-yard drives now), irons and golf balls are now self-correcting, and there are putters so accurate they make the stroke for you (check out Biotech's new Acculock putter).
The truth is, however, that golf products really do improve every year, just not to the degree manufacturers would have us believe. And through all the skepticism, there really is innovation. And though I certainly just scratched the surface in my time on the show floor of the 62nd annual PGA Merchandise Show conducted at the Orange County Convention Center last week, some products from the 1,000-plus exhibitors certainly made an impression.
Absurd can be great
It was right there in plain view as thousands of Show-goers entered through the main concourse -- a golf glove that seemed to be giving you the bird. Apparently, this Canadian company brought their brand of goodwill called "Nice Shot" golf gloves (nice-shot.myshopify.com) to enthusiastic and patriotic golf fans outside the Ryder Cup at Gleneagles in Scotland last year and sold all 5,000 units in no time flat. The words "nice shot" are printed on the outside of certain fingers in different configurations (there are different gloves for different cultures) with the most offensive one just being on the middle finger. There's also one that has those words on the thumb (thumbs up), which would provide a slightly more friendly gesture. It's a quality glove, too. I tried one of the soft cabretta leather gloves over the weekend and loved the feel as much as the sign language.
Also noticeable was the logo of the apparel brand Boast, a company started in 1973 by a tennis and squash enthusiast and now a bit re-branded for golf. At first glance, the logo for the Connecticut-based company (boastusa.com) seems to be a Mary Jane plant, but it's actually a Japanese maple leaf. Company officials actually don't mind the confusion; it gets them noticed. But they'd rather have you check out their line of traditional polos, sweaters and outerwear that pay homage to an earlier era of sport.
I was also impressed by a new shirt company called N5 (N5golfapparel.com), named for one of the company's founders, Neal Williams, a fine Dallas golfer who has five aces to his credit. The bold styling is unlike anything else I've seen, offering unique color and pattern combos and perhaps more importantly, precise fitting options.
A completely different ball game
One of the big trends in golf balls is to make them even softer, like the new Titleist NXT Soft, Chrome Soft from Callaway or the Wilson Duo golf balls, which have a 29 compression.
More eye catching to me, though, is the concept that startup company OnCore (Oncoregolf.com) brought to this year's show -- a ball with a hollow steel core (surely inspired by the Star Trek episode "For the World is Hollow"). I'm not sure I understood all the science behind it, but its perimeter weighting is supposed to reduce sidespin (less hook and slice), while providing a more penetrating lower ball flight with plenty of distance. It also putts truer, the company claims. And yes, with a little trepidation, it passed USGA muster, so it's legal. The ball is around $44 retail, so it's priced right up there with the premium offerings from the big guys, but as company president Bret Blakely told me, "innovation doesn't come cheap."
I was also impressed by the new pushcarts on the market. So if you're looking to take a car trip somewhere and want to play some walking courses, you're in luck. For example, Sun Mountain's Reflex Automatic Folding System pushcart has four wheels and is so compact when folded down, that you'll have no problem getting two golf bags and two of these carts in the trunk of a midsize car (sunmountain.com). And Big Max (BigMaxUSA.com), a European company making its debut at the Show, has a cart, the Big Max Golf Blade Trolley ($299), which folds down to 5 inches flat and springs back to life with a couple of switches.
Getting a better grip on your game
With each passing year, the PGA Merchandise Show seems to be morphing into an electronics expo. The technology for improving your game or simply capturing data keeps getting better and better. There were plenty of new offerings in GPS watches, personal swing analyzers and stat tracking.
The new lines of watches, from companies like SkyGolf and Golf Buddy, for example, do pretty much everything an electronic rangefinder does (yardages and even stats), plus most of the functions of today's fitness watches for about the same price.
Thinking of taking a big buddy trip? Then you might want to have the latest app from VPAR (vpar.com). The technology allows golfers to get GPS readings, and post scores to a live leaderboard so players in different groups can keep track of what other players are doing. You can even trash talk your buddies or post on social media.
Need help with your swing? Then you might want to check out the hardware and software from Zepp (zepp.com). Using a tiny processor that fits on your golf glove, the app (complete package is $149) creates 3-D image of your swing, complete with speed, plane angles and about anything else you can think of. You don't even have to hit balls, so if you're struggling on the road, you could conceivably cure you woes in your hotel room. The cool thing is you can get this for tennis and baseball, too, if you're thinking about switching sports.
Or if you'd like to track your rounds -- I mean really track every part of them -- then check out Arccos Golf (Arccosgolf.com). You know those golfers who can recall every shot of every round they've ever played (even though you'd rather they didn't)? Now you can, too, with Arccos, a system that combines a highly sophisticated app with sensors that fit onto the end of your clubs. Just pair the sensors with your phone and the app automatically records every shot you hit at every course you play, providing every stat imaginable. For $400, you can see where your weaknesses are, how far you hit each club, with averages, getting a true picture of your game (if you can take it).
Of course, if you're not into electronics, you might want to grab a little simpler technology.
Remember those immensely popular Super Stroke putter grips (superstrokeusa.com) that everyone seems to have now? (Yes, I have one on my putter). Well, the guys at Super Stroke have expanded and are doing regular grips now. The Premium Club grips (about $10 each) are a half cord tour design that feels similar to Golf Pride's Decade grips, but maybe a little softer.
And if you really want to get a grip -- with or without a golf glove -- then maybe all you need is a little bit of Gamer Grip (gamergrip.com), a nonslip, antiperspirant formula you put on your hands to keep the club from slipping out of your hands. It won't cure a slice or the common cold, but then again, maybe it will.