Last week almost 1,000 vendors displayed their wares at the PGA Merchandise Show in Orlando.
David Walberg/SI
By Michael Bamberger
Wednesday, February 03, 2010

A ball sits on a tee, waiting.

It's Demo Day, the salad course before the three-day PGA Merchandise Show. You're at a massive driving range in Orlando. Seventy degrees, slight breeze, bright sunshine. The grass is growing right under your feet. It's the last Wednesday in January and the first day of spring. Happy New Year.

The tee is no ordinary peg. Oh, no. It's new for 2010. It has three stripes on its trunk and an aerodynamic head, and it offers you the promise of four extra yards, a shorter club into the green, a better chance at... Go ahead, dream.

In various ice capitals, in Bangor and Fargo and Provo, where spring is nothing more than a rumor, the best thing going on this final Wednesday in January is the Phil Mickelson press conference, live on Golf Channel from Torrey Pines. There's Phil, in high-def, wearing white pants and a short-sleeved shirt with an itty-bitty collar, getting ready for his first event of the year, and everyone wants to know only one thing: Will Phil really carry a 20-year-old Ping Eye2 wedge?

But you're not in San Diego, and you're not in Fargo. You're at the Show, like everybody else in the biz. The PGA Show in January, the Masters in April, the World Golf Hall of Fame inductions in November — the dates for those events could burn a hole in your iPhone calendar app, and now you're at the start of the whole thing, with a golf ball just sitting there, on a new-for-'10 tee, with its racing stripes and its speed slots, waiting for you.

The ball is brand-new, bright white, and the Florida sun washes out its markings. It's made by Srixon or Titleist or Bridgestone or ... somebody. Somebody — many somebodies — engineered and manufactured and delivered that golf ball. More somebodies laid down the sod and programmed the sprinklers and cut the grass. It takes an army.

The face of a driver comes within a whisper of the ball. What is that familiar sensation? That's right: the waggle. The head of the driver is made of titanium and magnesium and optimism. The shaft is 66 grams of graphite and has a butt size measuring six tenths of an inch. The off-season has rendered your hands pale and soft, and the jet-black, half-chord grip feels coarse and hard. You note it and your fingers do too.

The next day, at the show itself, at the Orange County Convention Center, there are more grips to check out than there are James Patterson novels at a Barnes & Noble superstore. Grips by Lamkin, by Golf Pride, by Winn, scores of them. They're lime green, they're Carolina blue, they're dirt brown. They're oversized, they're undersized, they're for the arthritic. They feel like sandpaper. They feel like velvet. The choices are staggering. Only a country with a strong middle class and an outsized commitment to its leisure time could require so many grips.

There are miles of aisles, almost 1,000 vendors, and celebrities of a sort. There's John Solheim, Karsten's son, talking about the new Ping wedges. There's Tommy Roy of NBC talking about his new addition to the second tower, Brad Faxon. There's David Leadbetter, standing on plastic grass, mike on his collar, selling improvement. There's Greg Norman — Greg Norman! — courtesy of Club Car, talking about a new GPS system, not your father's GPS system, which is so last year. They're all doing the same thing, one way or another. They're all saying Happy New Year.

But nothing says Happy New Year to a golfer like a ball on a tee and a hot driver in his hands, and there you are, on the range at Orange County National on Demo Day. Your hands go up, your hands go down, your lips tighten, your eyes bulge, your driver meets your ball. The sound and the fury. Off the ball goes, hurtling into the warm, blue Orlando sky. The new year is here. Just in time.

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