Custom-made golf carts. The latest 400cc drivers. Caddyshack headcovers. Magnetic bracelets. Biodegradable tees. You name it in golf and it’s on display at the PGA Merchandise Show each January. Golf pros, retailers, and industry insiders make their way through rows and rows of goods — it’s almost inconceivable how many — under a 1.1 million-square-foot roof at the Orange County Convention Center in Orlando, Florida.
It seems like a no-brainer that the industry — it’s not open to the public — should have one big show a year, when manufacturers present the latest products and try to generate buzz. But it wasn’t always this way. The PGA Merchandise Show has had a healthy 50-year run, but America’s first golf show came and went long before that.
In late 1923, a handful of New York-based businessmen hit on the idea of holding a golf exposition. They floated the project past Bob Harlow, who was Walter Hagen’s agent and the closest thing to a Tour Commissioner in those days. Never one to miss an opportunity for publicity, Harlow snatched their bait and organized the event for the following spring. His goals for what came to be called the “First National Golf Show” were simple: provide golf vendors a chance to advertise their products, boost golf’s popularity, and make money.
Primitive by today’s standards, the event was a quaint episode in sports Americana. The 71st Regiment Armory at 34th Street and Park Avenue in New York City housed the expo from May 5 to 10, 1924. The show was open to all, and daily admission tickets sold for 55 cents. Harlow did everything he could to attract visitors, even scheduling a special teaser the first night: a diving exhibition by Olympic swimming champion Ethelda Bleibtrey. However, due to complaints about gambling and “games of chance” that the circus had brought to the armory a few weeks earlier, the 71st’s commander called off the diving display at the last moment for fear that Ethelda’s form might offend the public.
As it turned out, Harlow didn’t need Miss Bleibtrey’s one-piece titillation. The world’s best players proved to be strong enough magnets. Walter Hagen, Gene Sarazen, Australian trick-shot artist Joe Kirkwood, Glenna Collett Vare, and Alexa Stirling drew more than 8,000 golf enthusiasts to the armory that week. Once in the massive hall, customers saw some 65 exhibits. Most sold golf equipment or clothing, but a couple of lawn mower manufacturers also set up booths, as did the enterprising Horton Ice Cream Company. Visitors could lick double-dipped Horton cones while taking in the twice-daily fashion show. Models strutted the latest golfwear down an elevated runway as an announcer told the crowd who had designed a particular line of Knickers, argyle stockings, Or silk sweaters.
Once they’d seen all the booths, New York’s golf fans “oohed” and “aahed” over a life-size two-story clubhouse. Designed for the show by C. C. Wendeback, the Colonial structure was lavishly furnished and came with a full-size living room, fireplace, lockers, kitchen, dining hall, and flagstone entrance way; a Lincoln touring car — its trunk full of golf equipment — was parked out front. High society-types compared the model to their own clubhouses, while municipal players watched their golf fantasies take form.
Another attraction was a collection of trophies. For the first time, the trophies from the PGA Championship, U.S. Open, U.S. Amateur, U.S. Women’s Amateur, and Walker Cup were all in one place. To increase the display’s importance and spice up the experience, Harlow hired an armed guard to sit next to the collection.
The biggest draw, though, aside from Hagen, Sarazen, and company, was “Le Petit Golf” course. A glorified putt-putt, the nine-hole, par-20 miniature layout, complete with water and bunkers, was 241 feet long. Most holes required only a putt, but a few forced a pitch. Through the week, visitors watched the game’s greats play scheduled matches over the little nine. Incredibly, the New York Times provided hole-by-hole coverage as if the matches were the U.S. Open. One 36-hole match between Hagen and Sarazen had a gallery of 2,000 (The Haig won seven and six). It seems almost silly in hindsight, but in 1924, when American golf was in its infancy, its superstars understood that the gate — that is, the fan — was everything. Although Hagen did well, Le Petit was perfectly suited to Kirkwood’s creative style. The Aussie set an 18-hole course record of 17-15 — 32, beat all comers, and finished the week as Le Petit’s champion.
The show ended on a Saturday night. Within hours, dump trucks removed Le Petit’s fairways, the model Lincoln was driven back to its dealership, and the armory was cleared for another big event, the city’s annual Aquarium and Poultry Show. In a Metropolitan Golfer story titled “The Inside of the Golf Show,” Harlow revealed that the expo was a financial loser for its organizers, but added that individual exhibitors — and the sport — had profited. He also predicted that Le Petit would be responsible for a miniature-golf boom across the country and that many more, bigger golf shows would follow. Not a bad forecast in the spring of 1924.