Cold Kansans dreams of spring at their neighborhood Golfsmith store

Once stuck behind a desk making calls as an Internet marketer, Wilkes takes great pride in every repair job.
Ryan Nicholson for Sports Illustrated

"I'm in the business of fulfilling people's dreams," Cory Wilkes said. His goggled eyes sparkled behind the blue flame of a blowtorch.

I watched, mesmerized, as Cory guided the narrow flame over the hosel of a 3-iron nestled in his gloved left hand. The plastic ferrule crinkled up and dropped to the workbench, leaving a tiny trail of smoke. Seconds later, flames enveloped the clubhead. Moving quickly, he turned off the torch, twisted the clubhead off the shaft with his gloved hand and reamed out the hosel with a screwdriver-like tool. He then poured cool water over the hot clubhead, producing a loud hiss and a cloud of steam.

Cory looked up and smiled. "I love doing this," he said.

And I loved watching him. You know how some folks start the new year at the cineplex, catching up on the holiday movies? I kick off the new year by spending a day at my neighborhood Golfsmith store. Or at least that's my resolution for the rest of my golfing life. Up until a couple of weeks ago, I had never set foot in a Midwestern golf shack between October and April. But then the polar vortex gripped the Kansas City area, dropping the mercury to -11° and the cabin-fever index above a hundred.

Commiserating by phone with Chuck Garbedian, my Wisconsin golf-radio-host pal, I mentioned that the days must be long and lonely at his day job. (He's the merchandise manager for the Golfsmith store in Brookfield, Wis.) "Au contraire," he said. "When it's colder we see more people. We've got new toys to play with, and they want to come inside and shake off some of the rust." He added, "And dream about the golf season to come."

That was my first hint it was about dreams.

Full disclosure. My late brother Tom, after a long career in the golf equipment game (Rawlings, MacGregor, Bridgestone, Brunswick, Founders Club), managed a Golfsmith store in Houston. Through him I gained an appreciation of the two great challenges facing anyone who works in retail: 1) bone-weariness, from hours standing on thinly carpeted concrete floors, and 2) misanthropy, from hours dealing with sometimes cranky customers. Tom used to chuckle about the golfer who tried to return a stand bag as defective because "a squirrel gnawed through the ball pocket and ate my sandwich."

Anyway, a sharp wind, a bright sun and piles of snow met me in the parking lot of the Golfsmith in Overland Park, Kans. Inside, as Garbedian had promised, were the heat-seeking humans. Four or five fellows smacked balls into the netted corner of an indoor range. A few more putted on an artificial green, yelping whenever they holed a long one. Not bad for a frigid Tuesday.

Moving tangentially through the aisles were the Golfsmith staffers, identifiable by their employee badges and black polos. "The first couple of weeks of the new year we're cleaning up, dusting off the cobwebs," said Joey Dumont, the store's general manager. "But mostly we're getting ready for the product launches. We've got the re-release of the Big Bertha driver from Callaway, the new Bio Cell clubs from Cobra, Cleveland's Smart Square putter…. " He smiled. "Exciting stuff!"

Some customers, I noticed, burst through the doors with practical intent. A retired Leavenworth Penitentiary officer with a Santa Claus beard brought in his TaylorMade r7 driver for adjustment. Another fellow wanted new grips for his irons because he was flying to South Padre Island for golf therapy. But others drifted past the merchandise and congregated at the range, shedding their coats and making small talk. These, I deduced, were the regulars: amiable members of the golfing fraternity who gather at Golfsmith the way hunters gather around a hot stove — except hunters, now that I think of it, don't fire their shotguns into the walls. Thwack! Thwack! Thwack-thwack!

I introduced myself to David (Mac) McDonald, a retired Kansas City cop (and 12-handicapper), who reached for his cane after bashing a couple dozen balls with a demo 6-iron. "I'm just hanging out," he said with a smile. "Wife's at work, nothing else to do. So I swing some, try to stay loose." He tapped his cane against his right leg — it clanked — to reveal the brace he wears for an arthritic knee. "Cuts my walking down, but it doesn't affect my swing."

Equally at home on the mats was a flinty old-timer named Chuck Norris ("I've had so much fun off that name") whose smooth tempo and one-handed follow-through betrayed an ingrained athleticism and 41 years as a high-school football and golf coach. "My buddy is looking for a driver," he said, nodding toward a friend rummaging through a bag of Adams demos. "He thinks these new drivers are the best thing since sliced bread. But as I like to remind him, 'It's the Indian, not the arrow.' " Chuck cackled and looked across the sales floor. "I tell you, I love this place. It's got everything a person could want."

Indeed, as the hours passed I found myself contemplating a Golfsmith retirement, as opposed to my usual daydream of a fairway condo at Cypress Point. "People ask why we don't charge for the simulators or the mats," said Joey, watching a staffer clear the range with a PVC ball pusher. "But we want people to come in and try out equipment. That's why we're here."

"These guys are brand ambassadors," chimed in Lucas Hatten, a Golfsmith regional marketing rep. "You can go to any one of our stores and you'll find the Macs and Chuck Norrises. They may not buy something every time they come in, but they carry our message out."

Message, singular? It seemed to me that every Golfsmith department had its own fresh imperative. The apparel specialist for the Overland Park store, Jennifer Black, told me her spring lines would be infused with gemstone and royal colors ("emeralds, sapphires, purples, and lots of patterns") as part of a trend toward high-fashion golf wear. "All those pros wearing the TravisMathew line, that's got our attention," she said. "And the ECCO street shoes got so big, now every brand has them."

In the high-tech lesson bay, meanwhile, PGA professional Parker Janssen yelped "Aha!" upon discovering that Diane Pickett's grip on the club was too much in her left palm. "That's a big power killer," he said. "It restricts your ability to hinge the club, which makes your wrist want to bow, which leads to flipping, which adds loft" — he raised his eyebrows — "and now your driver is turned into a 5-iron!"

Sometimes, as Marshall McLuhan noted, the medium is the message.

Crossing paths with Joey a bit later, I reminded him that I was looking for crazy customer stories like my brother used to tell. "Well," Joey said, "I had a guy bring back some balls as defective. He said they wouldn't go in the hole." Joey paused for a beat before laughing. "Sure! I exchanged them for another brand, and I guess those weren't defective because he never came back." He shook his head. "Golf is such a mental game."

I would never argue that point, but as darkness fell outside I paid another visit to the repair alcove, where Cory was regripping a set of irons. The new grips were Golf Pride VDRs, which stands for "variable depth rubber" — something to do with different-depth grooves for varying conditions. "I try to regrip every club as if it were my own," Cory said. "I've seen grips come in where they're only 75% on the club, and they're wobbling on top."

He tried to look disgusted, but that look comes hard to dream fulfillers. Club repair, he insisted, was way more fun than his old job in Internet marketing. "I sat in a cubicle, nine to five, staring at a computer and talking on the phone. And at the end of the day I was banging my head on the wall." Behind him, on a sign listing his services, I noticed this item: REMOVE HEAD RATTLE.

"What causes head rattle?" I asked, being cute.

"Could be loose epoxy," he said. "Or a loose shaft."

Or a loose screw. That was my wife's diagnosis when I'd told her I was going to spend a day at a Golfsmith.

Postscript: In the hour before closing, I put away my notebook and rolled a few putts with various models, making nothing. Then I picked up a no-longer-revolutionary Odyssey 2-Ball putter and holed everything. A couple of days later I went back to the store and bought it for $115.93.

Three months till spring (fingers crossed).