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Stars of the Show

As ever, The PGA Merchandise Show in Orlando set the scene for 2009 with another avalanche of high-tech gear in all categories. Gi’s equipment editor, Dominic Pedler, reports from the Florida bash which began with the golf industry’s very own D-Day.

“It's the single most important date of the year – apart from my wedding anniversary, of course,” quipped the Californian club pro in the next door bay as he put the new Mizuno MX-700 driver through its paces. He was no doubt speaking for most of the 5,000 industry guests at the essential Demo Day that kicks off the annual PGA Merchandise Show, held at the end of January in Orlando, in style.

The action unfolds on a vast driving range as club pros and media are invited to try out the latest clubs and balls from over 50 leading companies; and judge on what to stock in their pro shop (or write in their magazine) for the new season. It was only 10amand already the latest offerings fromMizuno (their first evermatched range of drivers, fairways and hybrids) were on the shortlist on the basis of their sound, technology, looks and performance.

Mizuno R&DManager, David Llewellyn was on hand to explain the 'hotmetal' face construction “designed with a grain structure that allows flexibility in the sole-to-crown plane – traditionally themost rigid area that limits the scope formaximising ball speed.”

From there it was a quick sprint to Nike's private tent where Trevor Immelman and LPGA star Suzann Pettersen were among the top tour pros representing their sponsors this week. “I was able to find a head I really like the look of and adjust the face angle by a degree to get the desired flight I was looking for,” said the Masters champion as he tested the elaborate Nike SQ Dymo STR8T-Fit driver.

“The beauty is that consumers can now do the same,” he added referring to the eight settings of face and lie angle that should complement most styles of swing.

The punters were also queuing up over at Cobra to try the sleek King Cobra S9-1 driver with which Geoff Ogilvy won both the season-opening Mercedes-Benz Championship and the recent Accenture World Match Play titles. “We started from scratch and developed a completely new outer head shape and internal geometry for the S9-1,” explained Scott Rice, Cobra's R&D Director.

“Each of the various models has a distinct Centre of Gravity location to provide optimum ball flight conditions needed by different player types and ball speeds.”

Other top new drivers we tested included the reassuringly solid-feeling Wilson Smooth which Padraig Harrington paraded at the Buick recently.

Some other impressive models included the Adams Speedline, as endorsed by Tom Watson, with a rounded, aerodynamic body claimed to add an extra 3-4 mph of clubhead speed (equating to 3-9 yards of extra distance).

“Extreme geometry drivers continually test with higher drag and lower clubhead speed,” claimed Scott Burnett, Adams' Director of Advanced Product Development.

“By changing the aerodynamic properties of the face and crown to keep the airflow attached, we were able to deliver a significant distance advantage for the average player and tour pro alike.”

But the most ambitious driver design came courtesy of PowerBilt whose sci-fi Air Force One ambitiously features a head containing a nitrogen-filled chamber. At an internal pressure of 150 p.s.i., the gas supports a clubface of just 2.8mm – so thin it can apparently flex (unhindered by any mechanical bracing) sufficiently to provide faster ballspeed.

The latest irons for 2009 couldn't quite match that high falutin' technology but there are nevertheless some interesting models for the new season, even if some debuted in Munich and have already been flagged in previous issues of Gi. Among them are the much-heralded Nike Victory Red irons in three versions of blade, split-cavity and full-cavity to match your desired degree of forgiveness and workability.

Callaway refine their Notch Weighting principle in the X-22 while adding a vibration-dampening polycarbonate tip plug within the Thru' Bore head design for a smoother feel. Mizuno has four new irons for '09, including the latest Grain Flow forged MP-52 and MP62, and the more game-improvement styled MX-100 and MX-200. The latter have a special YTune cavity pad which extends the hitting area more into the toe of the face to match the most common miss-hit patterns of amateurs.

Among the surprise stars was Bridgestone Limited Edition J36 Black cavity back iron. Quite apart from the stylish head shape and the tapered sole-design for shotmaking versatility, the the set is forged from raw 1020 mild carbon steel and available only with a thin black oxide finish. The resulting lack of plating provides an exceptionally soft, 'buttery' feel that will be appreciated by discerning ball strikers, who will also rave about the inevitable rusting for that alleged extra spin. Sign up now for one of only 500 sets.

Matching them for delicious aesthetics was the black nickel finish of the forged M28V4 wedges by Japanese company, Fourteen Golf, complete with the company's milled 'mirror' face grooves that require twice the time of traditional milling to create the maximum allowable groove volume for higher spin rates. It was a reminder that 2009 will see the last consignments of any such large grooves, as all new wedges (indeed all irons with lofts of 25 degrees and above) will be forced to comply with the tighter groove volume and edge radius regulations from next year.

The sun having set on the demo day, the ceremonies continued for the rest of the week in the equally vast Orange County Convention Centre. The show was formally opened by Boo Weekley who just happened to be debuting his own range of branded clothing (no doubt inspired by John Daly's signature 'redneck apparel' here two years ago).

The first formal function saw Titleist take over a private room the size of the United Nations conference hall to launch the 2009 version of the best-selling Pro V1 golf balls.

There was scant mention (none, in fact) of the lawsuits with Callaway concerning the alleged infringement of four (originally Top-Flite) patents that doomed the previous Pro V1s – at least in the United States. Instead, plenty of detail on how the new offerings surpass any existing stocks in terms of technology and performance.

The main benefit to the average golfer would seem to be improved durability thanks to a new urethane cover, as well as some extra distance mainly off the tee – and mainly in respect of the three-piece Pro V1 which now has a larger core, higher compression and aerodynamically tweaked dimples. But there are other subtleties between the new balls (along with some fascinating ball-fitting pointers) to be revealed in our forthcoming exclusive interview with Titleist R&D chief, Bill Morgan.

Meanwhile, Titleist's rivals are pushing hard – notably Srixon with the all new Z-Star series previewed in Issue 87 and which created a buzz at Orlando – not least for having recently converted Vijay Singh. Then there's the Callaway Big Bertha Diablo ball: “sneaky long with soft feel” according to early independent tests; and Nike's new One Series embracing the Tour, Tour D and Vapor models which each complement various combinations of launch conditions.

Talking of milestones, Ping celebrated their 50th anniversary at their booth lined with vast murals detailing the company 's many illustrious landmarks in golf equipment hardware.

Capturing the moment, Ping chief John Solheim launched new models of the most famous Anser, Zing and B60 putters in a beautiful bronze finish. That's if you can't afford the Ping 1-A Anniversary model, a limited edition, gold-plated replica of Karsten Solheim's 1957 hand-made putter that kick-started his empire.

Among the rivals, Yes!Golf – fresh from their award-winning internal shaft weighting system that took top honours in Munich – demonstrated an equally intriguing Interchangeable Hosel System. This allows golfers to choose not merely the appropriate shaft bend and lie angle but also the right offset configuration and 'toe hang' to suit their individual alignment method and style of stroke. The concept debuts in 2009 with the forged 303 stainless Tracy III Plus blade and the Lizzy Plus mallet.

Rising star, Rife, also weighed in with the Inline Momentum IMO mallet which deliberately shuns any heel-and-toe weighting in favour of a 'centre mass' concept placing 85% of the head weight in the middle 40% of the clubhead.

“The idea is to encourage the necessary momentum to cure one of the major faults in putting – deceleration,” explained Rife's president, Matt Molloy. “Virtually no golfers mis-hit a putt by more than 5/8- inch either side of the centre of the face, so by concentrating mass directly behind the ball we improve the putterhead 's ability to drive through the ball at impact.”

Along with the Teron and Hawk putters we previewed in Issue 87, Odyssey paraded their latest 2-Ball, the F7, in a similarly progressive MOI design; while Scotty Cameron's modern Kombi mallet is the latest addition to his now legendary Studio Select series.

Shaft technology continues to react to developments in clubheads – and now even grooves. Steel specialists Nippon's latest offering is a “flagseeking” line of NS ProWV wedge shafts. Not only slightly heavier thanmost of their trademark lightweight steels for better control, but their bend profile is configured for amore vertical ball descent tomake up for the reduction in groove spin from2010.

A similar 'Angle of descent' theme is taken up by Graphite Design with their YSQ-ST and Aura driver shafts, which are specifically designed to promote the ideal trajectory profile. “The aim is to deliver the angle from the peak that gives you the best combination of carry and roll to maximise distance,” explained shaft expert, Erik Boysen.

“The optimum is between 35 and 44 degrees according to your swingspeed, with the average tour pro needing 38 degrees based on the fairway roll profile of a typical US tour course.” Expect UK custom fitters to take their shaft fitting procedures to new levels in 2009, accordingly.

Another genuine development in components is the latest generation of Tour Velvet grips from Golf Pride which use Brushed Cord Technology to transform the feel of traditional cord grips. The compound itself is similar to the existing Tour Velvet but the cotton twill fibre strands that comprise the cord are now much finer, longer and more tightly weaved to allow them to be spaced further away from each other around the surface of the club.

From our initial tests at the Demo Day, the BCT delivered a far softer, tackier and more comfortable feel, without the harshness of earlier models yet with the same essential low torsion/low twist properties. Expect to pay double the price for the privilege.

Elsewhere, four lines of footwear made a big impression for different reasons. The FootJoy SYNR*G for its full gamut hightech stability features (see Issue 87); the Puma Swing Crown GTX for their tasty uppers and Smart Quill sole technology that use such a radical alternative to conventional synthetic spikes.

Meanwhile, the Nike Air Zoom TW 2009 updates Tiger's favourite footwear with a Teflon-treated 'ballistic mesh panel' highly resistant to dirt and stains. That just leaves Callaway's latest line of Tour Authentic shoes – the Tour Prestige M518 – as our winner in the style stakes. The deliciously designed calfskin leather has a classic look, courtesy of a low-heel and elongated toe, that belies the elaborate moisture-wicking linings and breathable waterproof systems.

There was the usual turnout of cutting-edge gadgets and accessories, led by a slew of hand-held GPS systems as some dozen brands jostled for position. There was a particular buzz at the GolfBuddy booth for their hand-held unit which comes preprogrammed with thousands of courses, making it usable 'straight from the box' with no subscription fees. Already a phenomenal success in the USA, work is underway to map some 5,000 courses across Europe by the end of the year.

Callaway, significantly, has also entered the market, buying specialist GPS company uPro who have developed the most stunning screen visuals – as shown by the demo unit we watched featuring actual aerials and spectacular flyover sequences of Augusta National.

Look out for this when Callaway brings the uPro to the European market, probably in 2010.

The latest golf bags are also worth checking out, not least the topical Wilson Eco, an environmentally-friendly carry bag made from recyclable fabrics.

As ever, Sun Mountain also had something special to show off in the form of the Four 5 stand bag, named after its super lightweight of just 4.5lbs which includes the 14-way, individual-club-dividers normally associated only with cart/trolley bags.

And, as always, the show enjoyed a sprinkling of celebrities, including Annika Sorenstam who, despite her retirement, drew the biggest crowd on the main stage; while Lorena Ochoa and Morgan Pressel weren't exactly short of autograph hunters, either.

Nor was Ian Poulter, who made the short journey from his Orlando winter home to launch his 2009 lines in a clothing collection that is rapidly emerging as a major force in the apparel market. The Ryder Cup star also treated us to a sneak preview of the outfit which he intends to parade at Turnberry on the first day of the Open. Other than to say it is suitably patriotic, I won't spoil it for you…

Reproduced with kind permission of Golf International.

Golf International

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