Keepers of the game


Popular Mechanics (South Africa) - - Cotents - BY TOM CHIARELL A

In­side golf’s an­nual gad­get-fest

A quiet Satur­day in June, at the very mouth of the north­ern sum­mer, and I’m stand­ing be­neath the white disc of the Sun, on a very trimmedup lit­tle piece of Earth, star­ing down into the grass at my feet. Not an in­sect in the air. Not a sound, save my breath­ing. I look to the hori­zon – small line of trees, a swell of green, the Earth drop­ping to meet the lip of a pond, that tiny rip­pling flag – then back at the ground be­neath my shoes. Yes, that’s my ball there. Dam­mit. Two hun­dred thirty-nine yards and one wet sheaf of grass from home.

But this is golf and I have to play. I don’t like the lie. Side-hill, slightly down­hill. All around me, my friends ad­vance. I’m above the hole though and the wind is at my back. Dif­fi­cult. It is my shot. I know I am ca­pa­ble. That is the af­fir­ma­tion of the game: I can do it. The com­pact of the game? I have to make a lot of choices – club, stance, target line, swing speed, hip po­si­tion and so on – and I must act. Quickly, pro­fi­ciently, us­ing only the skills I bring and the tools in my bag. Just then, I wish I’d brought a lit­tle more. I want some­thing new in my bag. It’s a long way to the hole.

Golfers al­ways want. This is one of the great truths of the game and one of the ways it’s such a good sport for hu­mans. We want. More dis­tance, more spin, more game. More time. More tools. More choices. This is not greed I’m talk­ing about. Not lust, or envy. A golfer wants to match his equip­ment to his game. A golfer doesn’t need ev­ery put­ter ever made so much as the sin­gle put­ter for him, for his pos­ture, his bal­ance, his con­fi­dence level. Want, in golfer’s terms, is the abil­ity to make bet­ter choices within the frame of the game. And in golf, those choices (the ones you can con­trol with your wal­let, any­way) come in the form of prod­ucts, brands, makes, de­signs and spec­i­fi­ca­tions: ball com­pres­sion, stiff­ness of shaft, tack­i­ness of grip, cav­ity-back iron or blade. There are hun­dreds of choices, thou­sands of dis­crete de­ci­sions in the mat­ter of want: what to carry, what to wear, what iron to play, what ball to favour, what tee, what glove, what bag to carry all that in.

Th­ese choices are framed months be­fore that quiet, bug-free Satur­day in June on the muni course in Wher­ever, In­di­ana. They’re born, in fact, in a pre-re­tail car­ni­val in cen­tral Florida in January called the PGA Mer­chan­dise Show. The show gath­ers 40 000 at­ten­dees on 92 000 square me­tres of con­ven­tion space. All 50 states are rep­re­sented among the ex­hibitors. Eighty-four coun­tries.

Those are the small num­bers. Here’s the big one: golf is a R900­bil­lion in­dus­try in the United States.

To find where a golfer’s mid­sum­mer choices on a long par 5 are born, you have to go to the show.

Tues­day in January now and I’m stand­ing on the main con­course of the Orange County Na­tional Golf Cen­tre watch­ing a man ride a golf bike, which is pretty much what it sounds like: a bi­cy­cle with a built-in golf bag on the back. Never seen that be­fore. He’s mak­ing wide, com­fort­able cir­cles and eat­ing pop­corn. I stand for a while next to a gum-chomp­ing as­sis­tant golf pro from southern Maine, with his arms folded across his chest.

“What do you think?” I ask. He an­swers with­out tak­ing his eyes off the golf bike.

“I’d want one,” he says. “I like moun­tain bik­ing.” He nods. “But if I brought one of those back with me to my club, the greens keeper would hang me.” Now he’s shak­ing his head. “We have a rule against bikes on the course. There’s a sign specif­i­cally about bikes.”

The bi­cy­cle floats its loop on the con­ven­tion car­pet once more. The rider wears a tie. It is a hyp­notic sight. “Ev­ery­body’s got an idea,” the as­sis­tant golf pro from Maine says. We stare.

Pretty soon, he cracks his gum con­vinc­ingly. “Makes you want to sing ‘Rain­drops Keep Fallin’ on My Head,’ ” he says.

I squint and stupidly look up. Rain? But – no. Ahh, of course. Butch Cas­sidy. He’s right. When I look back to him, he’s dis­ap­peared into the crowd.

You have to have a badge to get into this vast, vaguely muf­fled space. There is some noise, to be sure. Mu­sic blares from speak­ers, ro­bot golf bags prowl the wider aisles. More than a thou­sand ven­dors rep­re­sented – garage-based in­ven­tors and mas­sive cor­po­rate ven­dors and ev­ery­thing in be­tween. All of them talk­ing, sell­ing, pitch­ing. The place gives off the en­ergy of the casino floor of the Bel­la­gio. Mi­nus the drap­ery.

The badge asserts that the wearer is on one side or an­other of the pro­fes­sional game: a mem­ber of the PGA – a teach­ing pro, or club pro, swing coach, short-game coach, putting coach, strength coach, brain coach – or some­one with some­thing to sell to those guys: golf balls, golf tees, swing-train­ing de­vices, golf carts, Seg­way-like golf carts, golf bikes, golf bags, ro­bot golf bags, sim­u­la­tors, weighted clubs, poker chips, flight­track anal­y­sers, gloves, launch mon­i­tors, ar­ti­fi­cial-in­tel­li­gence-driven wire­less cad­dies, socks, shoes, in­sole lin­ers, rub­ber three-piece shoes and, of course, golf clubs, driv­ers, hy­brids, res­cue clubs. Put­ters plated in gold, put­ters made of acrylic, put­ter­face in­serts. Head cov­ers, lead-tape dis­pensers, ball mark­ers, pro­tein bars, pro­tein shakes, pro­tein gum. An in­de­struc­tible tee. A shade gen­er­a­tor. A mi­cro­bially safe steer­ing-wheel cover for rented golf carts.

If it has been thought of, it re­sides in th­ese rowdy quar­ters.

It takes two and a half hours to walk ev­ery aisle and row of the golf show, stop­ping only for the oc­ca­sional con­ver­sa­tion or sales pitch. With golf, dis­tance is a part of the game and pat­terns emerge. The mosttalked-about de­vices at the 2017 show are launch mon­i­tors, tee-side elec­tronic pan­els that track the tra­jec­tory and flight of any shot – even if you hit it into a net three me­tres front of you – by gaug­ing the el­e­men­tal mechanics of ev­ery swing, in­clud­ing club speed, launch an­gle, swing path, ball po­si­tion, spin rate and an­gle of the club face.

And this year’s buzzed-about launch mon­i­tor is the Track­man A/S, a Dan­ish prod­uct: iconic orange and black panel, like an imac with­out a screen, that uses radar and swing data for teach­ing pros and course de­sign­ers. Re­tail­ing for a lit­tle over R240 000, Track­man is more of a high-end in­sti­tu­tional teach­ing tool than a toy for a techie golfer. Those are avail­able, too, though. Like the re­mark­able Ar­c­cos sys­tem: in­serts in the grip of a club (th­ese are even built in to the new line of Co­bra driv­ers) record the data for ev­ery hack a golfer takes in a con­ven­tional round and col­lects that over ev­ery round. That data is then fed into pro­pri­etary Mi­crosoft soft­ware that spits

out the best club choice for a given shot on a given course (us­ing GPS tech­nol­ogy, a pre­vi­ous year’s big-ticket bet). The smart­phone dis­plays it, al­low­ing golfers to tweak their swings and fuss less over club choice and fu­ture shot se­lec­tions. The soft­ware learns your game. The cad­die moves to your front pocket. Bet­ter golf fol­lows.

By mid-af­ter­noon, I’m sit­ting with three en­gi­neers from Ping in a faux lounge set up in the Ping prod­uct area. The first is a hand­some Bri­tish PHD. The sec­ond: also hand­some. The third is a de­sign en­gi­neer. Amer­i­can. Weirdly good-look­ing as well. Ping was started by an en­gi­neer, Karsten Sol­heim, in his garage in 1959, they re­mind me. “We’re still fun­da­men­tally an en­gi­neer­ing com­pany,” En­gi­neer 1 says.

So if the mea­sur­ables re­main largely the same from year to year, how do you cre­ate some­thing new with each sea­son? How do you help a golfer hit it bet­ter? “We’re al­ways talk­ing about the Mo­ment of In­er­tia,” he says. MOI is a per­for­mance mea­sure­ment taken at the bot­tom most mo­ment of the swing, when con­tact is made, mea­sur­ing the re­sis­tance of the club to be­ing twisted at the mo­ment of im­pact. This is the Ping lounge and the idle chitchat of en­gi­neers. “We’re very proud of the fact that ours is among the long­est in the busi­ness,” says En­gi­neer 1. MOI is an as­ser­tion of for­give­ness. “It’s es­sen­tially a mea­sure of the club’s re­sis­tance if you don’t hit it per­fectly,” says En­gi­neer 2. To help the golfer hit it bet­ter, they ex­am­ine the misses. Per­fec­tion is easy to model. Be­sides, no one hits it per­fectly.

En­gi­neer 1: “Th­ese are games of misses. Ten­nis is a game of misses. Golf is a game of misses. We ex­am­ine ways to af­fect that mo­ment.”

Iwalk the mid­way. A caterer hands me a small em­panada. A Rus­sian woman sells me a ther­mo­lite bracelet to pro­mote neg­a­tive ion­i­sa­tion in the bones of my hand. I tell her I have a bad right shoul­der and she puts the bracelet on my left wrist and hangs on my bad shoul­der. I do not buckle. No pain. It feels like a trick. But I buy an­other. I lose a putting con­test. I hit a bucket of balls into a vir­tual driv­ing range. I am handed a beer. I then win a putting con­test. I am handed tees, hats, wrist­bands, 23 ball mark­ers. En­ergy bars are chopped into sam­ples. Mu­sic blares at one ta­ble. Si­lence rules at a nearby putting green. Brand names pile in the skull. Ice­block

put­ters. Cad­dytalk. Gp­squick­­clip. Gel­tees. Cer­tifresh Cigars. Real Jerky. ky. Golf­s­mash. Zero Fric­tion GPS Dis­tan­ce­pro. ro. Ththese Th­ese names either ex­plain the prod­uct in n its essence – the Ice­block put­ter is a put­ter er made with a clear acrylic head – or ob­scure ure mean­ing a lit­tle, so you have to stop and ask.ask Zero Fric­tion GPS Dis­tan­ce­pro is GPS tech­nol­ogy built into a glove.

The price you pay for the ball mark­ers and the en­ergy bars, the tees and belt buck­les? More golf talk with the tribe of talk­ers. All man­ner of com­merce – multi­na­tional cor­po­ra­tions, fam­ily-owned busi­nesses, thread­bare LLCS, over­seas ven­ture­cap­i­tal projects – stand on alert as sto­ries are traded. And ev­ery­body is ready, most of all, to act like golfers. Golfers talk­ing, with­out apol­ogy, about golf. Aisle af­ter aisle and aisle. I’m not judg­ing. I like golf. I’m just say­ing the game is an­cient. Old­est sport there is. And yet the PGA Mer­chan­dise Show buzzes like th­ese guys in­vented it five days be­fore.

At night, in the ho­tel bar, I re­al­ize that, like the fact that golfers al­ways want, this is an­other great truth of golf: golfers talk. They love to talk about their game, their short­com­ings, their new club, their old put­ter, their last round, their next round. In club­houses and golf carts and pubs and, here in Or­lando this week, in Hil­tons and Hy­atts: hap­pi­ness. New ideas. Drinks.

I find my­self sit­ting with a golf pro from Sali­nas, Cal­i­for­nia, an ac­counts man­ager from Kaiser Per­ma­nente and a sales rep for a golf um­brella outfit.

“Sure,” the golf pro says, “it’s the hap­pi­est mo­ment of the golf year. Why wouldn’t peo­ple be happy? Ev­ery­thing is out in front of you.”

“Do you make good money? Like on the tour?” the Kaiser Per­ma­nente woman asks.

The golf pro, who bought the drinks, shoots her a with­er­ing look. He’s a teach­ing pro. He’s al­ready told her that much. She is not a golfer, so she couldn’t lis­ten. “It all seems fine now. Ev­ery­body’s pumped up,” he says. “Some­times you get stuck. I bought all th­ese one-pocket pants one year. No one liked them. I dumped them at Good­will.”

“You gotta have two pock­ets,” the um­brella guy says.

“Four,” the pro says. “That’s all you need to know. Four pock­ets is an idea you can’t im­prove on.”

“Here’s a new idea,” the um­brella guy says, whip­ping his foot up on the bar stool, gen­tly tak­ing off his bright yel­low shoe. “This is a golf shoe,” he says, dan­gling the shoe from his fin­ger. “Ew,” the Kaiser woman says. “It only weighs four ounces. It’s rub­ber. I bought this at the show. You can wear it any­where, but it works as a golf shoe.” “No­body wears yel­low shoes,” she says. “Peo­ple will wear yel­low shoes.” “Bright colours are very pop­u­lar th­ese days. Peo­ple wear bright orange.” There is a si­lence then. They drink. “What about um­brel­las?” the woman asks. The um­brella guy hmpfs. “What about them?” “Do golfers buy yel­low um­brel­las?” He slips on his shoe. “It’d be a spe­cial or­der,” he says. “But I bet they would.”

“You gotta have an um­brella,” the golf pro says. “That’s why they sell,” the woman says. “Maybe not in Sali­nas,” says the um­brella guy.

I tell them about the por­ta­ble shade­gen­er­a­tor I’d seen that day, made for driv­ing ranges in desert ar­eas. “It was just an um­brella on a pole,” I tell them.

The pro tilts his head. “An um­brella is al­ways a good idea.”

Ev­ery­body agrees.

Sec­ond day, busier than the first. Peo­ple hud­dle up. Me­chan­i­cal en­gi­neers stand with driv­ing-range own­ers, travel agents meet with Pow­erpoint ex­perts, met­al­lur­gists crowd in to look at new in­door golf sim­u­la­tors. Soft­ware an­a­lysts gas on with club pros.

At the edges of the floor, the in­ven­tors make their stand. Th­ese are peo­ple who have quit bet­ter jobs, staked their re­tire­ment, gone out and raised cap­i­tal de­vel­op­ing a prod­uct they de­signed, pro­to­typed and of­ten patented, us­ing ideas they had dur­ing their Tues­day-night league. They want the talk, too.

Near the Papa John’s cart, on the far side of the show, I meet Dave Criv­elli of Phoenix, a for­mer Los An­ge­les homi­cide de­tec­tive and celebrity bodyguard. He’s hawk­ing a prod­uct he calls the Bu­gle Tee. His flyer says it’s rev­o­lu­tion­ary. By this time, I have 40 sam­ple tees laid out on the queen bed in my ho­tel room. I am scep­ti­cal.

Criv­elli is a big hulk of a guy with arms like rolled phone books and a too-tight base­ball cap on his melon. He’s lean­ing into the act of wolf­ing a sand­wich, pac­ing in front of a fold­ing ta­ble, urg­ing peo­ple to take some free tees. “It’s the only tee you’ll need this year,” he says. “It’s un­break­able.”

Criv­elli ac­quired rights to the de­sign af­ter a friend in Phoenix came back with sev­eral of the tees af­ter a trip to Swe­den. “He gave me one,” Criv­elli says. “And I used it for years. You can’t break it. It’s a two-piece con­struc­tion.”

“I called th­ese guys up in Swe­den,” he says, point­ing to his skinny Scan­di­na­vian part­ner, also man­ning the ta­ble, “and we at­tained the rights to the western hemi­sphere.” He has other sto­ries, too. Chemo­ther­apy. Heart trou­ble. He is frank. And blunt in his hon­esty. Peo­ple stop and lis­ten. He is the mayor of in­ven­tor’s al­ley. Passersby wish him luck.

“Peo­ple look at me here and they think what they think,” he says. “But they don’t know that what I liked best about this tee is that this is a very green prod­uct. In just one sea­son, it re­places hun­dreds of wooden tees, thou­sands that just break af­ter one use. That’s why I like it so much. It’s green.”

He grabs a bot­tle of water and stops a woman in a CBS Sports jacket. “You need to try one of th­ese,” he says. “You only need one and I’m go­ing to give it to you.”

Else­where in the hangar, Co­bra rolls out its new driv­ers. The vo­cab­u­lary of the sell­ing year is es­tab­lished. Tay­lormade names Tiger Woods a mem­ber of its Play­ing Pros. Odyssey rep­re­sen­ta­tives fan out to ex­plain the mi­cro­hinge mechanics of their new putting face; this is an idea that makes sense to me, in­ci­den­tally. The putting-face insert is cov­ered with tiny metal in­serts fash­ioned to lift the ball off the flat sur­face of the green. Damned smart, it seems to me. I’m a lousy put­ter, but I start drop­ping the rolls at a rate I’m not used to. It makes me look for­ward. The in­serts give the ball a slight loft at im­pact, mak­ing it eas­ier to roll. Putt af­ter putt, I find my­self want­ing to show some­one what is hap­pen­ing.

Op­ti­mism. Hope. This too defines you as a golfer. It makes you want to talk.

Bet­ter still, Wil­son puts its new D300 driver in the hands of any­one will­ing to take a swing. And on this sec­ond day, that’s me. It’s lighter than anything I’ve swung this week and comes with an amped-up abil­ity to in­crease swing speed by us­ing a se­ries of in­ter­change­able weights and loft ad­just­ments, im­ple­mented us­ing a small span­ner. Hand­ing all th­ese ad­just­ments over to a lousy golfer feels a lit­tle like let­ting a 15-year-old in­stall a ni­trous ox­ide sys­tem on your fa­ther-in-law’s new Toy­ota sedan, but it’s le­gal. And the D300 is fun. And I can see re­sults, even on the vir­tual driv­ing range. I’ll buy one, I think. This one might do the trick. I’m think­ing I can sneak in a lit­tle range time tonight. Maybe a round be­fore the plane. When op­ti­mism sets in, a golfer is car­ried forth, to­wards the game it­self.

n the morn­ing of my third and fi­nal day, as I park my rental car, the Con­ven­tion Cen­tre flops once again at the far end of ev­ery­thing vis­i­ble, big as a real city. A Fer­ris wheel looms. I stand out

there and won­der if I’ve fi­nally had enough golf. It’s a long way to the show from the park­ing lot, on a buggy Florida morn­ing. Nearly two kilo­me­tres and I’m sick of walk­ing it. So I hire a rick­shaw to ferry me across the sea of as­phalt and gleam­ing rentals.

The driver wants to know my des­ti­na­tion. “There’s a surf show and a golf show this week,” she says. She cranes for a look at me. “I’m bet­ting you’re a surfer.”

God bless her. She thinks I’m a surfer. It makes me laugh to think it. “Sorry,” I sigh. “Golfer.”

“Don’t be sorry!” she chides, nudg­ing the bike to­wards some un­seen con­course. “Ev­ery­body is all pumped up. Golf makes peo­ple happy.”

She makes a hand sig­nal for a left turn, pulls out across con­ven­tion traf­fic. I close my eyes.

“Golf will never be as cool as surf­ing,” I as­sert.

“You know,” she shouts back to me, “I drive this bike at Coachella ev­ery year. I do the Su­per Bowl. I did Ve­gas dur­ing the adult video awards. I fol­low Dave Matthews around and drive at ev­ery con­cert.” All of this seems cool. “But peo­ple are hap­pier at the golf show!” she says.

Hap­pier than porn stars, sure. But Dave Matthews fans? Those guys are stupid with hap­pi­ness. Some­how I don’t be­lieve her. “Come on,” I say.

“Come on, your own self!” she barks back. “This is the PGA Mer­chan­dise Show up ahead! It’s like mad golf in there. They brought in a beer truck. New golf clubs all over the place. And golfers talk­ing to golfers about golf. You can’t be sorry about that.”

She’s hit a slight in­cline and strains a lit­tle, so we ride in rel­a­tive si­lence. At the drop-off she tells me, “I grew up play­ing golf in North Carolina with my dad.” She stands and turns. A pair of egrets stab the grass on a traf­fic is­land. “Hoo boy, he would give his tes­ti­cle to get into the PGA Mer­chan­dise Show.” I hand her a twenty.

She makes eye con­tact then. “Yes, sin­gu­lar,” she says of her fa­ther’s tes­ti­cle, though I didn’t ask. “Cancer.” She takes a look at the birds, too. She shrugs. “So that’s re­ally say­ing some­thing, be­cause he only has the one.”

I cringe a lit­tle, nod and gather my­self to head in.

Then she asks if I can sneak her dad in for a look. He lives in Dr Phillips, which she as­sures me is a sub­urb of Kis­sim­mee. “Golf is good,” she pro­nounces, loudly. Pedes­tri­ans look up. “There’s a lot of his- tory in it and all that.” She doesn’t care about the his­tory, though. “I tell him to think about all the golf he still gets to play,” she tells me. “Think about the fu­ture, I tell him.”

This, of course, is the great­est truth of all: golf is a game of op­ti­mism. Oth­er­wise no one would play. You have to be­lieve you’re go­ing to get bet­ter on the next shot and the next and the next, if you can just do this one thing and that and get that new club. Maybe more than any other sport, op­ti­mism sus­tains golf.

I look back and wave. Even as she stands there, over her bike, with the Dave Matthews cranked on rick­shaw speak­ers, I can see she knows what she wants. She’s full of op­ti­mism and she will tell you all about it. She too is a golfer. PM

You have to be­lieve you’re go­ing to get bet­ter on the next shot and the next and the next...

At the an­nual PGA Mer­chan­dise Show in Or­lando, golf’s tem­per­ate dig­nity gives way to a crack­ling en­ergy rem­i­nis­cent of a car­ni­val mid­way. In­no­va­tors, in­ven­tors, hustlers and ac­ro­bats pop­u­late the con­ven­tion’s kiosked al­ley­ways.


Ev­ery­where, the in­ven­tors make their stand. One guy staked his re­tire­ment on a “rev­o­lu­tion­ary” new tee.

The con­veyance of clubs is a cen­tral puz­zle. Travel bags, staff bags, standup bags, bat­tery-pow­ered rolling carts, pull carts, golf bikes and the clas­sic two-man cart are bought and sold by the fleet here at the con­ven­tion.

Gad­gets be damned. Some­times the sharpest golfer has the best pants. On the Put­ter Buddy, we’re not ready to com­ment.

“Ev­ery­body is pumped up,” the rick­shaw driver says. “Golf makes peo­ple happy.

It’s hard to say what makes one ball­mark re­pair tool bet­ter than an­other, but there are al­ways guys in golf shirts ready to talk it through.

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