David Leadbetter's voice blares from three television sets as I walk through the doors at Pro Golf Discount in Encinitas, California. Tempting as it is to stop and pick up a quick swing tip, I'm here on a mission: To pose as a salesman for a week and see how golf consumers shop -- all so I can teach you how to be a more savvy shopper. These are the six lessons I learned. (Not surprisingly, this scribe failed to close a sale.)
Lesson One: Be curious
Ask why a certain product might be better for your game. Salespeople in reputable golf shops are avid golfers, well versed in equipment. Have them explain things on your level. If you've comparison shopped, remember the prices at other places. By learning about the products you're considering, you'll receive more for your money -- an extra warranty or a sleeve of balls -- along with the lowest price and better service.
Case in point: A man comes in looking for a "cheap" pull-cart. He hones in on one model, then notes that he "saw it at Sports Authority for less." Still, he is willing to buy it until he learns he will have to assemble it. Sales associate Craig Stuehringer offers the pre-assembled floor model and shows the man how to fold and unfold it easily. He also matches Sports Authority's price. "Sold," the man says. Stuehringer then throws in a one-year warranty. Everyone comes out a winner.
Lesson Two: The most expensive brand may not be the best for you
A 40ish woman comes in, guard down. "I need everything for my husband," she says. "He's been playing for a year. He's going to be playing with clients and experienced players, so I know he'll want a big-name club." She admits she's only heard of Callaway and Titleist. Assistant manager Chris Donaldson asks about her husband's golf ability, then steers her toward Cleveland TA-7 irons. "It sounds like his game is advancing, and this is probably a perfect set for him to grow with," he says. Because she's unfamiliar with Cleveland, she phones her brother-in-law for a second opinion.
After she leaves with her purchase, the guys start talking about how novices are attracted to the names they know, rather than the proper equipment for their games. One says, "They all know Callaway and assume because it's an expensive brand, they're the best clubs and they'll hit the ball farthest and straightest with them, and their game will improve." Sometimes that's true, but a brand's popularity doesn't automatically make it the best for your game. Keep an open mind and try clubs from several companies, including lesser-knowns; you may find one that works even better for you.
Lesson Three: Hit clubs before buying, preferably outdoors
A man looking at a set of irons complains that the 2-iron isn't included. He then tries the 4-iron in the indoor range and can't get it airborne. I want to shake this guy and tell him not to let his ego get in the way of his purchase.
By hitting clubs before buying, you'll know if they look right to you at address, feel good at impact, and produce the proper ball flight for your game. Try them outdoors, if possible, where you don't have to guess about the ball flight or sound. If you purchase clubs at a store without an outdoor facility, make sure you can return them for full value if they're not right for you. Then go test them at a driving range.
I notice shots hit into this indoor net are loud with a lot of echo. Store manager Matt Possanza tells me a lot of shops do nothing to mute the sound. The psychology is that when your shots sound thunderous, you think you'll hit that club long and be more apt to buy it.
Lesson Four: Find out about clubfitting
Zach Sams, another sales associate, says golfers generally don't know their specifications. "They'll come in and try to buy them off the rack," he says. "But that's rarely the right fit for anyone. I like to measure their swing in the cage, then give them the proper set from the outset. It only takes a few extra minutes, but people always want a quicker out. Then they wind up coming back for a different set."
Save yourself a lot of trial and error and get your swing measured to find out exactly what kind of club you should be playing. You may not find an exact fit, but you'll come a lot closer than if you bought clubs off the rack. Many shops will gladly fit you for free or charge a nominal fee that they'll deduct from the purchase price.
Lesson Five: Sell your old clubs yourself instead of trading them in
I'm amazed by the number of people who want to trade in their old sets. "We do that, based on the Global Golf Exchange blue book," says Possanza. Scrutinizing two other used-club price guides on the counter, I notice these services pay next to nothing for used clubs, except for the latest popular models. Try eBay or Golfclubexchange.com instead.
Lesson Six: Regrip clubs
If you're not sure you want to buy new clubs, consider changing the grips. For a fraction of the cost, you'll get a new club feel. The guys in the shop say it's smart to change grips at least once a year, even if you don't play often, since grips can harden and deteriorate just from sitting in your car trunk or garage.
They estimate many better players change grips twice a year. Conversely, one in four golfers hasn't changed grips in five to 10 years. So be sure to ask about the price and how long it would take. (A full set of grips typically takes a full day.) And most shops, including this one, charge only for the price of the grips -- installation is free.