You only need one question to make it through the annual PGA Merchandise Show what's new?
The big story was the new wave of adjustable and interchangeable shafts, which you read about here a week ago. You may be surprised by the item that I rank as the second-biggest innovation a practice mat.
Maybe I've hit too many balls off worn, thin mats only to wake up the next day with aching elbows, but The Golf Mat ($229, thegolfmat.net) qualifies as a quantum leap in the artificial golf turf business. The mat has a "patented high tech composite spring embedded below the fairway-length turf," according to the company. The important part for the golfer? It feels springy and has a substantial amount of give. I was able to hit knock-down wedge shots on it with no problem. No skulled shots off a hard surface, no shooting pain up my wrist. Even players who take big, deep divots will have no problem on this mat. Vijay Singh, the ultimate practicing pro, endorses it and is a devoted client, which says a lot. I'll immediately begin lobbying my local golf dome to install them.
If you're getting a mat for a home range, you'll need netting, and you might also want to check out PureContact, a monitor that uses radar to measure ball velocity, carry and distance. It makes hitting balls into a net more interesting and a lot more useful.
Here's an incomplete list of other eye-catching items from Orlando ...
Easy Going: Sun Mountain has made a business of making golf easier for the walking player. Two new twists for '08 are the Zero G bag and the Club Glider. The Zero G is a revised version of the Hug, a bag with a waist clamp designed to take most of the weight off the shoulders. The Zero G is the same concept, executed better. Instead of a clamp, the Zero G ($239) has a belt with a Velcro fastening in front. You may have seen the Club Glider ($299) on the Golf Channel. It was a finalist in the network's golf invention contest. This travel cover has wheels on the bottom, but also a wheeled strut that lowers from a recessed area in the base. This lets the Club Glider stand up at a 45-degree angle and roll more easily. It also has a heavily padded upper half.
On the Edge: The most underrated and most improving equipment line is Tour Edge. Once a low-cost brand, Tour Edge has been putting out quality stuff for a few years and pretty much has all new gear for '08. The XLD driver, one of the lightest on the market, is shaped like a pentagon or home plate, depending upon your Rorschach test scores. It also makes a healthy metallic sound at impact, unlike some others. The best shot I hit on a real golf course during show week was off the tee with a 13-degree 3-wood, the Tour Edge Exotics XCG. Another standout was the Exotics Xtreme spin wedge ($129), which had an unusually soft feel.
Drive Time: Ping returned to the Show for the first time in a few years, and it's probably been that long since I've hit their stuff. Of the drivers I tried at Demo Day (I didn't get to them all because of the crowds), I hit the new G-10 the most consistently. The Srixon Z-RW ($299), with a distinctive red band, and the MacGregor MT were also very promising. TaylorMade didn't officially participate in the Show, but some staffers were there, and I got a look at the new CGB Max driver with adjustable shaft technology. It has a sparkling, deep red color on the crown and is TaylorMade's best-looking driver in a while.
On a Roll: Several putters caught my eye, mostly for the right reasons. Yes has a new line of C-groove putters that is, the faces have curved grooves designed to impart overspin. Yes is an underrated, underappreciated putter-maker. It doesn't have a huge marketing budget, but its putters are effective. The model I'm looking forward to trying is the Groove Tube, which has a tube located behind the clubface. There's a slit on top of the tube and a yellow line on the bottom. Look through the slit to line up with the yellow strip for consistent alignment. It's a mallet with nice heft.
Gel putters also tout grooves, but these, located on turquoise-colored inserts, are horizontal. Gel has a new line of four signature models by Paul Hurrion, a popular putting coach for European tour players, including the 2007 British Open champion, Padraig Harrington. The Gel putters have a remarkably large sweet spot. I intentionally hit putts near the toe and heel, and the ball still rolled nearly as far as a solid stroke. The Rego is a center-shafted mallet, the Scindo is a center-shafted blade, and the Sedo and Sedo II are heel-shafted versions of standard-looking putters.
The Nickel putter is ingenious. It's named after its inventor, not the metal. It's a mallet with a hollow, bell-shaped head that allows you to pick up the ball without bending down. Another mechanism deposits a ball marker. That's right, you can mark and pick up your ball without bending. It's illegal in competition, but the marking mechanism can be popped out for tournament play. The top of the grip also opens to release claws that will grab your ball out of the cup. The question is, will the geezers who need these innovations drop $295 for a Nickel?
The S Blade Arrowhead putter ($240) has a bulging face, curved like a sphere (that's what the S in S Blade stands for). Rounded both horizontally and vertically, it creates instant overspin.)
Potpourri for $100, Alex: The Big Daddy Driver ($44.95, BigDaddyGolf.com) isn't actually a driver. Flip open the sole and you've got a weed whacker. Happy Father's Day you didn't really think you'd get you a golf club, did you?... Loud Mouth Golf (LoudMouthGolf.com) makes gaudy, preposterously colored slacks. Choose from patterns including Disco Balls, Bar Code, Rodney and Bushwood. But hey, they look good on you. ... For choppers, there's At Your Feet, an LCD unit that straps onto your shoe and displays up to 18 tips and swing reminders. ... How to spot an imminent recession? When someone comes out with a diamond-encrusted putter that costs $10,000, you know the economy must have peaked. (See Jim Cramer for the doomsday details.) Thanks a lot, Gemspot (GemspotPutters.com), whose least expensive models start at $395.