The Backslapping Years

Our industry’s annual West Coast trade convention takes place in Las Vegas in a few weeks and I am taking a pass on it. When the big national show comes along in January I’ll make the trip and scout the aisles, but it’s never the same feeling as it was in my early years as an attendee. Back in the 1980s and early ‘90s I clipped on my show badge with fevered anticipation. As I waggled new drivers and rushed from one press conference to the next, I felt myself a part of something big and exciting.

Golf equipment in that era was a beggar’s banquet of positive business factors. I was one of a thousand ordinary white guys on the scene, feeling smart when I should have felt lucky, and the PGA show was a mid-winter Mardi Gras. If you could knot a necktie and apply deodorant you had every chance of success in our industry, which all at once was experiencing the baby-boom generation coming of age and falling for golf; aerospace brains drifiting in with graphite, Kevlar, beryllium and titanium; and the end of the unspoken ban against off-course distribution of pro-line goods and the opening of strip-mall stores by the thousands. Ely Callaway (and his original Big Bertha club, pictured) would come along and skim the top of it all, but before he did the mice would surely play.

There were other pleasant coincidences. Lawsuits had rattled the ruling bodies (USGA, Royal & Ancient) and sent off signals that envelope-pushing, at the very least, would go lightly challenged. More important was the great switchover in clubhead-making. Instead of being turned on lathes or drop-forged in the U.S., iron and wood heads alike could be investment-cast for a small price in Asia.

And the glue that held it all together was—well, it was glue. Space-age epoxy, to be exact. The shaft and grip manufacturers were the ones with the sprawling, smokestack-studded factories, while the people who put their brand names on golf clubs were basically in the assembly and marketing business.

These market dynamics would eventually usher in change, especially cultural change. Numbers would take over the hardgoods business. Results would come to rule. But for one blithe pocket of time, golf’s low-key, fraternal form of competitiveness still pertained, even as headroom for sales and profits was increasingly rapidly.

I walked through the front doors of the show in about ‘89 and found myself in stride with a streetwise Florida retailer I knew and admired, a guy named Stan Ross. Stan sighed and said, “The PGA Show. What a monument to overcapacity.” He was right, but as long as the stores kept opening and the barrier to entry into brand-name golf gear was so low, the fun was bound to continue. Our outings and parties and freebies would flow on.

The Langert fin was my signal that the jig might soon be up. It was a tiny triangle of stainless steel decorating the hosels of a brisk-selling new iron from Langert Golf. Its stated purpose was aerodynamic: As you swung the club down and through the ball, you would feel it guided in its path—the way a feather guides an arrow. In a hype-prone field, that was a tall tale to swallow, indeed, but the entrepreneur behind it was a charismatic, high-energy former club pro named Eddie Langert who had a lot of friends in the trade and whose new club was pretty hittable, with or without the fin. His gimmick was a bit more gimmicky than some others, but for at least a couple of years the answer to Langert’s come-on was a resounding “why not?”

If the times are really this fat and the getting is really this good, people seemed to ask, why shouldn’t a good egg like Eddie make a little killing with a technological feature that took 10 minutes to figure out and cost three cents a club to manufacture? 

Somewhere outside the convention hall, Ely Callaway was pondering  all this, getting ready to obliterate all the Langert fins and other tossed-off technology via oversize stainless steel clubheads with one-inch hosels and through-bore graphite shafts. Product features that made a noticeable difference and were painfully difficult to copy.

Inside the hall, my skepticism was growing. But the good times rolled on. And by now we had some history between us. We were at the bar, at the buffet, out in the nightclubs… we felt like we could pal around like this for a long time.

Then, when it all fizzled out, there was that shared embarrassment at having all been naïve and knuckleheaded at the same time. Each year that goes by it’s tougher to meet the gazes of my fellow holdovers from the backslapping years and call to mind each others’ credulity.

I told you it wouldn’t all last, you can see your old acquaintance thinking. And he can sense your silent reply: I told you first.

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