ORLANDO — I don’t get it. Nike spends tens of millions of dollars promoting and outfitting the most dominant golfer of all-time. But at the PGA Merchandise Show, which wrapped up here on Saturday, you didn’t see even a glimpse of the man.
At the outdoor Demo Day on Wednesday, Nike had a giant white tent on a giant green driving range and was luring in club pros and shop owners with a giant color picture of… Justin Leonard. Sure, Tiger Woods is in the doghouse with AT&T and Accenture and his wife. But are you telling me he can’t sell golf clubs?
The house comedians at Nike HQ in Beaverton, Ore., could have ordered up a robotic Woods and set it up on the practice tee at Orange County National. You know, a sort of life-size mannequin in a blood-red Nike polo shirt able to sign 10 facsimile signatures per minute, with an almost-human voice that would respond to all questions with, “I’m not here to talk about my sex life. I’m here to talk about the new Victory Red Driver.”
Still, it was a good show, and I didn’t even make it to the Kansas concert. If you did, please let me know if they played “Carry On My Wayward Son.” The memories come flooding back.
A highlight for me was spending a half-hour on Thursday — at the actual show, in the Orange County Convention Center — in a mini conference room equipped with Greg Norman and a dorm-room refrigerator. We talked about the Presidents Cup, the explosion of golf in China, his design business, his wine business and his newest thing, something called the Visage Mobile Golf Information System. Yikes!
Visage (pronounced VIS-ige) is a joint project of Club Car, the cart-manufacturing company, and GPS Industries, the industrialists who brought you satellite positioning systems. Norman, who still looks like he could go 12 rounds with Camilo Villegas and 18 Sunday holes with Y.E. Yang, has a stake in the venture and is its fittest spokesman. Visage is a monitor on your golf cart that can give you a 3-D flyover view of any hole on the course, distances from anywhere, the ability to order your dog-and-beer while waiting in the eighth fairway, track the length of your drives, report slow play to the pro shop and so much more. Maybe you can tweet on the thing, too, I don’t know. Norman looks forward to a day when caddies could carry a handheld version of it, although when he plays his home club, Medalist in South Florida, he takes a caddie and a cart.
Norman has a lot of charm and much presence, too, but he could have sat in that mini conference room all day and not sold me on the Visage advantages.
I asked him (and I’m paraphrasing), “Say you’re at Augusta National, playing as a guest, and you and your caddie get to your ball and he pulls out this device and gives you all this information, plus what the stock market is doing — you’re telling me you want all that?”
(Nearly meaningless informational interruption: Club Car, Inc., a division of Ingersoll-Rand, is based at 4125 Washington Road, Augusta, Ga., across the street from the celebrated Augusta National, where Greg Norman contended several times in the Masters.)
“Absolutely,” Norman said. No one says the word absolutely with more authority than Greg Norman. “He’s already got the yardage book. That’s not an outside agency, why would this be? Now he’s got a little handheld device in his back pocket. What’s the difference between that and the rangefinder? The USGA has already allowed rangefinders.”
“I don’t know,” I said. “I’m trying to get away from cell phones and all that when I’m on the golf course.”
“The war with the cell phones is over,” Norman said, with good humor and a certain finality. “The cell phones won.”
Another enjoyable exchange was with Kevin Gessino-Kraft, the Tour rep for a small company called Scratch Golf that has made custom wedges for some years and is now becoming known (in certain circles) for its complete sets of classic blade irons, with thin top lines and slightly rounded soles. Scratch has one player on Tour, Ryan Moore, who is now playing forged blades after playing Pings as an amateur and in his early years as a pro.
“His irons are not marked with traditional numbers,” Gessino-Kraft explained to me. G-K, as I now think of him, played the Nationwide tour with some success and knows the game and talks about it well. “Instead of increments of 4 degrees between clubs, which is the industry standard, Ryan has five degrees. He figures he has exactly 15 yards between each club. So his irons are marked 20 degrees, 25 degrees, 30 degrees, all the way to 60 degrees.”
I’ve had one long conversation with Moore, at Bay Hill in his rookie year, in 2006, right before he was sidelined with a wrist injury. He’s religious (but doesn’t wear it on his sleeve) and individualistic (he wears it on his head). He’s got his own swing and his own way of doing things. It’s remarkable, really, to go from thick-looking cast cavity-back Pings to skinny forged blades, but that’s what Moore has done with these Scratch irons. He’ll say to his caddie, “I’m between the 40 and the 45 — what do you think?” If you’ve watched Moore play, you know he’d rather hit a hard 45 than a smooth 40. That is, the hard 9-iron.
Other highlights included: seeing Annika Sorenstam post-baby; being rebuffed in my efforts to buy a driver with cash at Demo Day at the Hireko Golfbooth; finding a used E Club, a utility club I invented years ago, in a $5 bin at a shop called Golf Mart down the road from here in Dundee, Fla. (Bittersweet, really.) And, finally, seeing the golf instructor Tom Patri at a party at the Peabody Hotel, across International Drive from the convention center and the unofficial watering hole of the 57th Annual PGA Merchandise Show.
Patri and I knew each other in high school in the late 1970s in Suffolk County, on Long Island. He was a hotshot junior golfer and I was a duffer. Still, he talked to me. Maybe I lost a nine-hole match to him in five holes, although I’d rather not say.
Later in life he became the head pro at the village-owned course I grew up playing, in Bellport, L.I., a cramped but pleasant Seth Raynor layout. (Remind me to tell you about Mountain Lake, the Seth Raynor course I played the other day in Lake Wales, Fla., near Dundee. Wow.) Anyway, now Tom teaches at swanky Friar’s Head on Long Island in summer and at The Quarry in Naples, Fla., in winter. He’s one of Golf Magazine’s Top 100 Teachers. He has a vacation house in Key West with a fishing boat. His one instruction book has probably sold better than all of my books put together. Plus, he can still break 70. Naturally, I can’t stand the guy.
But you know how it is. You’re at the PGA Show, you run into long-lost friends, you bury all the old petty jealousies. I mean, that’s what you do, right?