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Back to the Future - PGA Merchandise Show
March 2011

With over 40,000 industry visitors and 1,000 companies from 88 countries parading thousands of new products, Florida’s January PGA Merchandise Show is the largest pro shop in the world. Dominic Pedler hit dozens of clubs at the Demo Day and walked the 10 miles of aisles at the Orange County Convention Centre to bring you this special report.

It was 20 years ago (today) that I attended my first Orlando Show and reported on the strange looking Big Bertha driver – the first ever ‘wide-bodied’ metalwood – launched by the previously little-known Callaway company whose charismatic founder worked in the wine trade before dabbling in quaint hickory-shafted clubs.

Two decades later, the 58th PGA Merchandise Show was unrecognizable from that time when persimmon woods, bladed irons and wound balata golf balls dominated and graphite shafts were still a luxury item. But, fuelled by the Big Bertha legacy, the giant enterprise of Callaway Golf continues to lead the industry’s relentless pursuit of innovation, as shown by the luscious Lamborghini Sesto on display at their booth now boasting ten times more floor space than in 1991.

All part of the Orlando razzmatazz, the supercar was also a slick reminder of the company’s joint R&D venture with the crack Italian engineers which has already yielded a fascinating new forged composite material benefiting both the car and the latest Callaway metalwoods.

Having debuted in the Diablo Octane model at Munich last autumn, this lightweight, design-friendly derivative of conventional graphite [see Issue 99 for technical details] is also a crucial crown component in the company’s new RAZR Hawkmetalwoods which, right on cue, Thomas Bjorn played to victory in Qatar the following week.

Rivaling RAZR Hawk in the technical ‘space race’ are TaylorMade’s R11 metals with their adjustable sole plate system offering independent adjustment of face angle along with Flight Control and Moveable Weight technologies that vary loft and centre of gravity, respectively. The £329 R11 driver is a worthy flagship of precision golf engineering today but, ironically, the biggest talking point was over the white crown finish inspired by the similarly spooky Rossa Ghost putter that claims to improve dramatically the contrast against grass – and hence clubhead alignment.

With an equally exhibitionist family of fairways and hybrids, R11 is certainly a bold backlash against the trend of ultra-dark PVD. Though (hedging their bets somewhat) the faces and soles are actually jet black – unlike, say, the all-white look of Ian Poulter’s Cobra Limited Edition ZL which, we suggest, was another influence.

Indeed, the ‘white hype’ arguably dates all the way back to the creamy Cobra Ultramid – another star of Orlando ’91! But if you want to stand out on the 1st tee, you could also consider the limited run of the new Cobra S3 driver (due in slightly larger numbers than Poulter’s ZL that sold out in two hours) or MD Golf’s Seve Icon driver which (as well as black) comes in the exact shade of ‘R11 white’ for under £100.

Cosmetics aside, the standard Cobra S3 driver (£249) with its elliptical sweetspot reflecting the latest ‘9-points’ face technology drew considerable praise at the Orlando Demo Day, the essential curtain raiser where trade visitors can try out the latest equipment from the top brands on a vast circular practice range a mile in circumference.

Consolidating their tie-up with Puma, both companies made a big splash throughout the week, reasserting Cobra’s trendy-yet-techie image. The S3 comes in a complete range of metalwoods and irons (each with even more forgiving S3Max model) that cover all the bases from hacker to tour pro.

Mizuno is another enjoying an image makeover with the globalization of the previously Japan-only JPX-800 series whose irons have already proved that extreme forgiveness can be packaged in stylish dimensions. The matching metals sport the latest evolution of the company’s HotMetal principle that uses high-tech materials, configured in various thicknesses, to maximize ball speed across a widest possible area of the face. HotMetal UDS – standing for Ultimate Dynamic Stability – focuses particularly on improving the results of off-centre hits in the vertical rather than horizontal plane.

“Most 460cc drivers already have good Moment Of Inertia in terms of off-centre shots struck towards the toe and the heel, but strikes high or low on the face can be even more penalising,” explains Mizuno design chief, David Llewellyn, highlighting how these often lead to the worst combination of low launch and excessive spin.

“The JPX-800 driver [£229] solves this with an internal 10g back weight and a 5g heel weight that together stabilize and close the face while, in the fairway woods and hybrids, we’ve increased the ballspeed through a plasma-welded cup face that raises the ‘trampoline effect’ that is technically much more difficult to exploit in a smaller steel head, ” adds Lewellyn. The result are fairways and hybrids [from £139] whose performance now almost rivals Mizuno’s stunning titanium models but at a significantly more attractive price point.

Also attempting to bring the COR levels of fairways up to that of drivers was Adams Golf with their ambitious Velocity Slot Technology – a thin channel drilled out of the head of the F11 fairways (£149), parallel to the face. “This is a real design breakthrough, it makes both the crown and the sole much more flexible, promoting a ‘spring-like effect’ on the face for faster ballspeed,” explains Philip Morley,Managing Director of European Sales, explaining how Tom Watson and Ryan Moore have already put them in the bag.

A variation on the principle can be seen in the matching Adams Speedline F11 driver (£199), a large footprint game improvement model with three channels located on the sole and crown, now to keep the air flow hugging the head efficiently in an attempt to reduce aerodynamic drag. 2011 also sees adjustable technology extending convincingly to the fairways/hybrids category.

Rivalling the TaylorMade R11 mentioned earlier is the Titleist 910 that now offers the SureFit system across the complete family of metals. At the Demo Day we got the chance to marvel at this “tour van in a hosel” involving a sleeve and a ring, each with four settings that deliver a matrix of 16 unique loft/lie combinations. The lie adjustment is most effective for lateral ball flight changes (left-right dispersion) while the loft options are the route to tweaking your launch angle and spin rate. Already a hit in the two models of 910 drivers (£300), you can now customize yourself for the fairway as well as the tee – or both in the case of the versatile, deep-faced 910Fd (£210).

For all the dizzy array of new-fangled features and finishes, there was a refreshing response to the Cleveland Mashie (£129) whose rugged, retro raw steel look matches the nostalgia of the name and the “return of the utility” marketing mantra.

No fancy hosel or adjustability here, but some effective design thinking nonetheless. Powered by the impressive Miyazaki graphite shaft (found throughout the Cleveland and Srixon ranges) the Mashie is some 30g lighter than expected, promoting more ballspeed and greater carry. Available in five lofts, the club has a contoured Glide Rail on the sole to cut through the turf, though we also enjoyed the exceptional, penetrating flight from the tee with the 18-degree we tried at the Demo Day.

Miyazaki’s ultra-stable lightweight shafts have already ensured that the Cleveland UltraLite drivers (£239), offered in three different weights, are making headlines (see Issue 99) and this concept of club fitting according to total weight was an interesting theme of the show. TaylorMade’s Burner Superfast 2.0 driver (£249), for example, weighs in at 279g – the lightest in the company’s history (if not quite down to the Cleveland XL270).

And yet while lighter weight is logically regarded as a key to greater distance, Boccieri Golf take a diametrically opposed view with its Heavy Woods and Heavy Irons to go with their existing Heavy Putter that is the key to a faster release at impact”. Now, we’ve been here before with the much-maligned, heavily back weighted Wilson High Fulcrum clubs of the early ‘90s, but the extra total weight is certainly novel, and the few shots we hit at the Demo Day with both woods and irons were a pleasant surprise. With the balance point nearer to the body, the club really didn’t feel heavier, and offered a sense of controlled momentum and a powerful impact (even into the 30 mph wind that morning). One for open-minded enthusiasts to try.

On a rather less extreme scale there was another counterbalancing story over at UST Mamiya whose latest grips feature a heavier end cap. “The overall weight of the grip is still fairly standard [at about 50 g] but we’ve redistributed it to accommodate a cap that’s twice the normal weight, giving you a slightly improved feel – especially in the left hand,” explains Stuart Smith, Managing Director of UST’s European operations.

The feature is found on the UST’s new single compound soft rubber grips as well as the latest dual CompDV dual compound and firmer ProDV dual compound/half cord combination. The new crop of irons also sport some notable features. Like the subtle sloping back sole design of the new Callaway RAZR series designed by Dr. Alan Hocknell. “Our new research was telling us that average golfers tend to hit lower on the clubface than we had previously thought,” he tells Golf International.

“This is typically down to a shallow, sweeping attack angle and a mortal fear of hitting it fat. The RAZR concept aligns the CG where impact is taking place but with a slim design that improves turf interaction and keeps the technology out of sight at address.”

The result is an iron that clearly supercedes even the revered X-22, while coming in three models of varying profile and forgiveness: RAZR £599/£729, the sleeker RAZR X-Tour (£699) and the RAZR X-Forged (£799) which Phil Mickelson is already playing on tour.

This theme of ‘precision alignment of centre of gravity’ is taken up in various ways by Yonex in their ultra-premium eZone irons and woods that are guaranteed high-profile coverage this year from Japanese whizz kid, Ryo Ishikawa, and, hopefully too, Colin Montgomerie. The £299 drivers come in 450cc and 420cc heads with, visibly, a classy traditional pear shape (in a market dominated by outlandish geometrics) and, invisibly, a CG configuration that’s exactly in the centre of the clubface – something few drivers have in practice.

Meanwhile, as with Callaway, the lavish eZone Composite iron lowers the CG dramatically - though now with a cleverly concealed tungsten sole weight and a subtle L-shaped cavity construction that effectively hottens up the sweetspot across a larger area. Far sleeker than a hybrid-style set and yet, as we found at the Demo Day, it still delivers a super-forgiving performance, which explains the price tag pushing four figures.

Like the woods, this model of iron comes standard with Yonex’ new Nanoprene shaft developed in collaboration with a US nanotechnology specialist to provide more power but, crucially, also more controlled stability through impact.

The eZone range also includes two top end Japanese forgings, the PB Pocket Back, a moderate cavity that comes standard with the excellent Nippon 950 lightweight steel shaft; and the sumptuous MB muscleback that Ryo himself will be playing. Combo irons continue as an important trend in various guises from blatantly hybrid- influenced designs to more subtle weighting concepts that vary progressively through the set. Standout examples of the former are Cleveland’s hollow-bodied HB3, and Adams Idea Tech V3 (£799) with its a novel (and apparently patented) ‘Transition’ 7-iron to smooth the break from chunky-soled long irons to more workable shorts.

At the other extreme, the latest version of Nike’s VR Pro Combo(£720) sees pocket cavities moving to split cavities in the mids and onto more clearly blade-like short irons. The fact that Paul Casey played them when winning recently in Qatar confirms their across-the board appeal. Casey’s set, incidentally, was fitted with new Nippon ProModus shaft – a notable first that we discuss in Planet Golf along with other key shaft stories from Orlando. Elsewhere with irons, TaylorMade has all the bases covered with the unashamedly game improvement Burner 2.0 irons, featuring a 90g shaft and slice-eliminating offset, joined by a trio of Tour Preferred models that, uncharacteristically for this company, are all pure forged.

With a forgiving TP Cavity Back, a mid market Muscle Cavity and a no-frills Muscle Back, there’s something for everyone, albeit at prices of £699-799 for just seven clubs reflecting the market’s growing demand for separate purchases of hybrids and wedges. Aside from the usual suspects, it was good to see the return of the legendary John Letters brand to the Orlando Show with some impressive launches in every category from drivers to golf bags, including the revival of the famous Master Model irons (£599) sporting a stylish modern twist.

Similarly, the Nicklaus Golf company, whose strong legacy of anti-slice drivers continues in 2011 with the Air Draw, along with new ultra-high MOI Polarity HCT irons and various models available in a series of Exotic Finish Options which take the black PVD craze to a new level. It also looks to be a vintage year for putters, with some excellent new designs at all price points.

Odyssey drew the punters to a special dart oche themed installation promoting the arrow-like pattern on the new DART series – standing neatly for Direction And Realignment Technology (£129-£159).

Chief Odyssey Designer, Austie Rollinson, explained the science: “First, the eyes align the putter to the target using the straight lines on the top of the head. From there, the mind’s eye completes the realignment by placing the apex of the D.A.R.T. design at the centre of the ball. This ensures that the face is in line with the target and promotes consistent centre contact for greater distance control.”

The system is a variation on Odyssey’s 2-Ball range (enjoying its 10th anniversary) and is available in various models, including with the Dave Pelz’ Backstryke shaft that has proved so effective in reducing wrist hinge (as Thomas Bjorn continues to demonstrate on tour).

There was a welcome for return for Never Compromise whose Gambler series is right up there with the most desirable of hand-crafted premium putters. Precision-machined from forged 303 stainless, this limited edition range is available in four classic heads (including Anser and TPA-styles which we monopolised at the Demo Day) in either ‘toe down’ or face balanced weighting with stylish playing card graphics etched onto the sole. Playing for similarly high stakes are three new series from Bob Bettinardi, the original pioneer of 100%milling, with the BB, Studio Stock and Signature series all available through Golfsmith Europe.

Among the latest Ping putters are the Karsten 1959 series. At just £85 for the Anser 2, B60, Zing, My Day and Anser X models, these are more affordable version of the top-of-the-range Redwoods, while still boasting an elastomer insert behind the face to soften the pure steel contact.

Ping, of course, had beaten the Orlando scrum by launching most of their new clubs last Autumn, notably the mega-forgiving K15 woods and irons, with a driver sporting a heel-set 10g weight pad that helps right-minded golfers to close the face.

Meanwhile, three early season victories for Ping tour players kept the popular G15 and i15 series in the spotlight.

There’s always one really whacky flatstick at Orlando and this year the prize goes to the Clearview putter, an eye-catching acrylic design that drew in the crowds keen to try the novel alignment system provided for by the see-thru’ head, which is indeed USGA approved. But with no UK distributor, you’ll have to buy it online.

Wedges also boast some novel features that attempt to claw back the spin lost under the new groove rules.

Cleveland’s CG16 (£105), the company’s first commercial wedges to sport conforming grooves, had been launched in Munich but received a great US reception for the high-friction, ‘micro-groove’ surface which is laser blast onto the areas between the actual grooves. [It’s also on the matching CG16 irons, which conveniently specify club loft on the sole, assisting greatly in the ‘gapping’ process that is becoming ever more important when fitting a full set to your game].

Callaway’s X-Series Jaws CC wedges (£79) incorporate the company’s Condition Of Competition grooves into their popular head shape with new bounce options; while the Yonex eZone,MizunoMPT-11 and John Letters Tour Black wedges all impressed as much for their high-tech shafts as their shapely heads and new grooves. See Planet Golf for our special shaft roundup – and also for full details of the new generation of Titleist ProV1 golf balls which confirmed that, for all the rumours of corporate shake up at Acushnet, it is strictly business as usual when it comes to high-quality product development.

Indeed, the Pro V1’s contrasting high spin/control and high flight/distance versions lead a top-end trend in the ball market, with Nike’s up-to-the-minute 20XI line (£45/dozen) also coming in two similarly contrasting models, this time ‘s’ and ‘x’.

Srixon will also stand out this year – both for its increasingly popular yellow balls and the debut of the Srixon XV (£45/dozen) which, in prototype form, was played by Ryo Ishikawa when shooting 58 in Japan last May. The four-piece, urethane covered construction is targeted at higher swingspeed players seeking maximum distance, and debuts alongside an upgraded version of the already successful three piece Z-Star offering a slightly softer feel and more spin around the green, and especially from the rough.

Srixon is also extending the Z-Star micro-brand to include a lavish range of woods and irons for 2011. Joining the adjustable trend, the 460cc driver (£299) features a Star fitting system offering independent alteration of face angle and internal weighting to optimize both ball trajectory and swing weight; while the forged irons are fashioned from two different types of carbon steel to maximize feel (£599 for seven pieces).

The Japanese giants were flying high in every sense at Orlando where, building on their partnership with Cleveland, they paraded major new signing, Graeme MacDowell, who patiently signed hundreds of autographs at their giant joint booth.

Along with G-Mac, other celebrities bringing pro tour glamour to Orlando included Matt Kuchar, promoting Bridgestone’s Tour B330-RX ball and J38 black oxide wedges; 16-year-old LPGA star, Lexi Thompson who did a terrific clinic for Cobra; while Natalie Gulbis ensured plenty of traffic for TaylorMade and Winn Grips.

Top coaches were also here, with David Leadbetter promoting various ventures including an upgraded version of his My Personal Golf Trainer Wii programme and taking time to endorse the humble but highly effective GetaGrip exercise trainer for hands, wrists and arms.

“It’s designed by Dr Tom Graham who has been instrumental in the rehab of various top players after wrist surgery,” Leadbetter tells us, explaining how it helped Trevor Immelman back to health. “But it’s also ideal as strengthening device for all golfers who could benefit from stronger fingers and hands; it’s adjustable and simple to use,” he says of the $10 device that’s also adopted by top golf tour osteo, Paul Morrissey.

Once again, Orlando showcased some lavish electronic golf gadgets, from surreal three-wall simulators and 3D swing analysers to TrackMan’s latest radar-meets-video software and new generations of GPS and laser DMDs.

Away from the technical onslaught, the highlight of the week was Peter Jacobsen’s impersonation routine as he entertained the crowds at the Demo Day, with Jack Nicklaus, Arnold Palmer, Lee Trevino, Tom Kite and Vijay Singh just some of the stars whose idiosyncrasies he captured mercilessly.

Reminding us that – rather like many of the products at the show itself – impersonation is the sincerest form of flattery.

Reproduced with kind permission of Golf International Magazine

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