All of the major golf equipment manufacturers are pushing their latest and greatest products Monday and Tuesday at the 20th Carolinas PGA Merchandise Show at the Myrtle Beach Convention Center.
While long and belly putters are among them, they’re scarce.
“I have seen sales in the [retail store and pro] shops go down, and ordering of belly putters has all but completely stopped by my customers,” said Adams Golf and Yes! putters territory sales manager Michael Cooper.
A proposed rule change by the United States Golf Association and the Royal & Ancient – golf’s governing bodies – that would ban anchoring a club in making a stroke has put the unconventional putters on the endangered list.
In a little over a year, longer-shafted putters have gone from a fast-tracking trend to a forlorn product.
“A year ago at this time the sternum-length and belly putters were in enormous demand,” Ping Southeast Regional Manager Bob Van Fleet said. “It got really interesting in the last three months of 2011, where every manufacturer was selling out of anything they had in over-length and belly [putters], before they began to talk about the legality of it.
“… People are concerned about whether or not they’ll be legal, and whether or not they can use them to establish a handicap, and use them to travel with their handicap.”
The USGA and R&A proposed the rule change in November and are accepting comments through the end of this month on the subject before officially approving or dismissing the proposal. A final decision is expected sometime this spring. Equipment companies are hamstrung as they await the USGA’s final ruling.
The proposed rule change would take effect on Jan. 1, 2016. Long putters and belly putters allow users to anchor the end of the club to their stomach or chest, acting as a base for a pendulum motion. The governing bodies say they want to preserve the traditional character of the golf swing.
The affected rule will be 14-1 “Ball To Be Fairly Struck”, which states “the ball must be fairly struck at with the head of the club and must not be pushed, scraped or spooned.” Anchoring would be added to the definition of what’s prohibited.
The long and belly putters themselves would not be banned, but there isn’t likely to be much of a market for them if anchoring isn’t allowed.
The PGA of America has already spoken out against the ban, and the PGA Tour had a conference call Monday involving members of its Player Advisory Council and Policy Board during which the anchoring subject was reportedly broached.
Brad Faxon, an eight-time PGA Tour winner who is now on the Champions Tour, wrote in a piece for Golf.com on Sunday that he believed PGA Tour commissioner Tim Finchem was going to attempt to persuade the board in the call to urge the USGA to back off the proposed ban.
The tour could also make an independent rule pertaining to play in its events that differs from the USGA. It has been wary of doing that in the past, however, and the majors are governed by the USGA, R&A, PGA of America and Augusta National Golf Club, so that would complicate the administering of any dissenting rules.
Yes! has remained more committed to longer putters than many other companies. It has new belly and long models for 2013, and still has a fitting system for long and belly putters. Bernhard Langer uses a Yes! long putter on the Champions Tour.
“I think as soon as they say, ‘Hey, this is going to be okay to do,’ the demand will go back up,” Adams/Yes! sales rep Alan Rowsam said. “We’re just kind of in limbo waiting to see what happens.”
The fact that three of the past five majors have been won by players using belly putters – Keegan Bradley (2011 PGA Championship), Webb Simpson (2012 U.S. Open) and Ernie Els (2012 British Open) – gave the irregular putters a spike in popularity. Adam Scott, ranked seventh in the world, uses a long putter.
“There were just a lot of guys who played great last year and won majors with them last year,” Callaway and Odyssey putters outside sales rep Nick Krueger said. “That is what contributed to us selling so many of them.”
Van Fleet said belly and sternum-length putters are only about 1 to 2 percent of all Ping putters being produced, down from an average of nearly 4 percent last year. Other companies at the show expressed similar if not greater decreases in demand and production.
Frank Firman, TaylorMade product line manager for putters and wedges, told the New York Times last month that sales of long and belly putters accounted for 12 to 15 percent of the company’s putter sales for much of 2012 but dropped to about 3 percent in December, after the announcement of the proposed rule.
Of about 20 TaylorMade putters on display at the show, there was one belly putter and no long putters. “A lot of club pros are staying away from them,” said TaylorMade sales representative Chuck Enloe. “They’re just erring on the side of caution. With the whole thing up in the air right now they’re not sure and they don’t want to get stuck with something that’s going to get deemed illegal.”
Companies are already coming up with new longer-shafted putter varieties that will conform to the proposed USGA rule.
Odyssey, which sells more putters than any other company, has introduced its Arm Lock model that is designed to anchor the grip to the forearm, which will be allowed under the proposed rule. The shaft is moved forward to more easily align the putter while it’s pressed against the lead forearm. Matt Kuchar, who led the PGA Tour in earning in 2010, currently presses the putter shaft of a belly putter against his forearm.
Ping has created adjustable-length shafts for standard, belly and sternum putter models. The standard length adjusts from 31 to 38 inches, and the belly adjusts from 37.5 inches to 44.5 inches. “We’re trying to be proactive and waiting for the ruling,” Van Fleet said.
Equipment manufacturers dealt with a similar rules issue when the USGA announced in 2007 it would be banning deeper “square” grooves in irons in 2010 for competing pro players and 2024 for amateurs not competing in USGA events.
But proposed bans on the square-grooved wedges and longer-shafted putters have been received differently by consumers, according to TaylorMade account executive Bryan Sasek.
“We still are going to be selling them through this year, but it’s not like the grooves on the wedges were at all,” Sasek said. “Everybody bought the old grooves when they weren’t going to make them anymore. People wanted them. But the belly putter … has been pretty negative. Maybe because it’s more obvious and it’s putting.”
Nike touts invention
Nike has on display this week the world’s first high-speed cavity back driver that conforms to USGA and R&A rules, the Nike VR_S Covert driver. The cavity-back has been a popular iron feature for decades.
Nike salesmen say the cavity back brings the center of gravity closer to the face, which decreases spin to create a boring ball flight and increase distance. The top and bottom of the head are connected to decrease vibration; NexCor technology produces three different face thicknesses that become thinner closer to the heel and toe to make the face more forgiving on off-center hits; and both face angle and loft are adjustable.
There are two models of the new driver, the 460-cc clubhead Covert retailing for $299, and the Covert Tour, which retails for $399 and has a slightly smaller head (430 cc) and a deeper face, as well as a fixed-weight screw. Covert fairway woods are available for $249 and $199.
The Covert metal woods were introduced to the public on Feb. 8. “It’s the best two weeks of sell-through at retail that we’ve ever seen for a driver,” said Tony Dabbs, Nike product line manager for metal woods. “So the interest is at an all-time high and it’s not relegated to the states, it’s in Japan and Europe. It has certainly resonated and has been a fantastic start to a new product.”
World No. 1 Rory McIlroy teed up a Covert Tour model in his only event this year in Dubai, and David Duval is using a Covert model.
Show on move
After being in Myrtle Beach for its entire 20-year existence through this week, the CPGA Merchandise Show is moving to the Greensboro (N.C.) Coliseum Complex’s special events center in 2014.
The move of the show follows the CPGA’s relocation of its headquarters to Greensboro in November 2011 after 35 years on the Grand Strand.
CPGA executive director Ron Schmid said the show’s contract in Greensboro is for one year. “We’ll evaluate it after that,” Schmid said. “We’ve had a great run here and we want to make sure if it isn’t as good there as it is here, we would want to be here. If it is as good there, then we’ll have to make a decision.”
The merchandise show, which is not open to the public, was first held at area hotels in its early years.
The show is held in concert with the 1,950-member CPGA’s annual meeting, winter seminars, winter pro-am and awards dinner and hall of fame induction, and is enjoying another strong turnout from both vendors and attendees.
Schmid said about 900 pros attended Monday’s annual meeting and 1,500 people registered in advance for the show, which included approximately 140 vendors occupying more than 200 booths – about the same as 2012. The show peaked in 2007 with about 170 vendors occupying more than 240 booths.
Contact ALAN BLONDIN at 843-626-0284.