ORLANDO, Fla. -- The hottest trend in golf might also be the most surprising: spikeless golf shoes.
Golf shoes without replaceable spikes accounted for barely 10 percent of sales two years ago. Many industry observers dismissed them as a short-lived fad. This year, spikeless shoes (without replaceable spikes) and hybrid shoes (a mix of molded spikes and replaceable spikes) are expected to be 40-50 percent of all golf shoe sales. That's right, almost half.
This is not a fad. This is a full-blown trend on display during this week's PGA Merchandise Show. Spikeless shoes are doing to plastic spikes what plastic spikes did to metal spikes in the 1990s -- making them obsolete. Nubs, molded cleats and assorted traction lugs are taking over.
I've been buying spikeless golf shoes since the mid-90s. When reporting on tournament golf, I need shoes for walking the courses that I can also wear into carpeted areas of the clubhouse or media center. Until The Dawn of Spikelessness, in 2010, there weren't many choices. Who knew I was a trendsetter? Nike has five different spikeless models. FootJoy, adidas and ECCO are also forging ahead with several spikeless offerings. It's a whole new ballgame for consumers, a golden age of spikeless shoes, and I'm loving it.
How did this sea change happen and why? The short answer is Fred Couples.
"It all started for us in 2010 when Freddie wore those shoes at the Masters, played with Tiger the first two days and was in contention," said David Helter of ECCO. "There was a picture of him sitting in a golf cart with his foot up. He had his ECCO Street Premieres on, and he was wearing them as he wears all of his shoes -- with no socks. We got a ton of press. People started calling our retailers and asking, What's that shoe Fred is wearing? Freddie is such a cool guy. People just called it the Freddie sneaker. The whole thing just exploded."
The rest is history. For a tour pro to compete without replaceable spikes supplied instant credibility. Even serious players could go spikeless. When recreational golfers discovered how comfortable it was to walk 18 holes with these shoes, they caught on.
Now you're seeing Justin Rose, Ryan Moore, Vijay Singh, Graeme McDowell and Ernie Els, among others, sometimes playing in spikeless models. Even Tiger Woods's shoes, Nike's TW '13, have a combination of plastic spikes and molded traction.
Advancing technology has helped. "People are pursuing light weight in technology," said Jared Wall of Oakley, whose Cipher and Cipher 2 are the lightest performance shoes in golf. "It's prominent in clubs and shoes and bags and apparel. If we can say, Hey, your feet won't hurt as much, and if 95 percent of golf is walking, that's big." In the beginning, there were leather and metal spikes. Now? "We have all these advanced polymers where you can build separate densities and different barometers and all sorts of fun stuff and get almost the same performance," said Davide Marrucci of adidas.
Increasingly sophisticated traction designs have also dramatically improved the performance of spikeless shoes. Nike, for instance, studied the pressure points on the sole of the foot during the golf swing, and how those pressure points changed. It then came up with a unique design in which the nubs on the sole vary in size and density accordingly.
"It's kind of a cool time in golf footwear," said Nike's Lee Walker. "In the past, people were ready for new technology in drivers but more reticent to change their footwear. I remember when our first Lunar Bandon spikeless shoe came out, people looked at me like I had two heads. They'd say, Is this a basketball shoe? What are you doing?
"For years, people mistakenly thought that heavy shoes equaled stability. You'd go, 'Yeah, I've gotta break it in, it cuts into my heel and my dogs are barking, but dammit, that's a golf shoe.' If you can get just as much traction and performance in a shoe that's lightweight and comfortable, why wouldn't you wear it?"
Here are a few of the elephants in the room about old-school golf shoes:
Many golfers don't really like wearing spikes because they can be uncomfortable, especially on hard surfaces.
The traditional all-white or saddle shoe was out of date, your grandfather's golf shoe. Who wants to be seen wearing a pair of Edsels?
Nobody likes changing and replacing spikes. Metal spikes were guaranteed knuckle-busters, and plastic spikes were troublesome too. I once asked a locker-room attendant his secret to changing plastic spikes. He used a power drill. That is not my idea of a user-friendly product.
"People aren't buying after-market spikes now," said Nike's Walker. "When was the last time you replaced yours? You avoid doing it for as long as you can, and when the spikes are completely worn out, a lot of golfers just buy a new pair of shoes."
Another reason for the spikeless surge is convenience. You don't have to go to the locker room before and after your round, and many are fashionable enough to wear almost anywhere, anytime. Oh yeah, and you can play golf in them.
"Before, you bought a $200 pair of shoes and held onto them for three or four years," said Marrucci of adidas. "Now, guys are buying three or four pairs of shoes every couple of years. Style has injected itself in a big way."
The experts said metal spikes would never die, but for all intents and purposes, they have. Plastic spikes?
"I don't think replaceable-spikes shoes will ever go away," said Nike's Walker. "It's a matter of blending them, like in other cleated sports -- soccer, baseball, football.
"Innovation," he added, "is a good thing."