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A Few Thoughts on the PGA Championship and Changes to Golf Equipment on Tour

First and foremost, I apologize for being gone for a week and a half or so. Not that I’m delusional enough to think that any of you missed my riveting golf coverage, but I was in the process of moving from beautiful Tampa, Florida to just outside of St. Louis, Missouri. To say that I’m thrilled is a vast overstatement. Lucky for me, I arrived just in time for the 100th playing of the PGA Championship. 

I promised myself to write a blog or two, and I had some decent ideas for blogs, but they all just kind of came and went. The storylines just weren’t compelling. The major stories to start the week were that Bellerive was going to play super shitty and that players were wearing shorts during the Wednesday practice round due to the heat. Talk about a fucking snoozer. 

Even coming into the Sunday round, with a stacked leaderboard, there was just no blood flowing to my phallic region over the possibilities of an awesome finish. The reason for that is simple. Despite Tiger being a few strokes back, Rickie just on Brooks’ heels for his first major, and Adam Scott within striking distance of another major win, the course was just not set up for an interesting finish. 

The course was as straightforward as it can get. Play the first three holes under par, survive the tight fairways of holes 3-6, then just pound drivers and hit wedges in for par and the odd birdie. 

Of course, the course took a few victims. Jordan Spieth and Kevin Kisner both took some high numbers on a few holes, but overall, there was no trickery to the course. There were no snake pits, no bear traps, no Sawgrass-style island greens. Nothing. Tiger made a run and went low, but ultimately, Brooks just happened to card a couple more birdies to counter his bogies on 4 and 5. 

I think a lot can be said about courses like these being problematic for championship golf. Hosting majors on country club courses that were built to have membership be a mark of social and financial achievement versus hosting them on courses built for and by golf nerds, which create interesting Sunday finishes, fucking sucks, to put it bluntly. 

There are so many courses out there that have the architectural capability of hosting major tournaments. We saw it at Chambers Bay, which was a bit rough around the edges, but made for a great finish. Streamsong’s courses, Bandon Dunes, Sea Island, even Harbor Town provide interesting courses with a lot of historical potential. But honestly, this is an aside that I didn’t plan to go down in this blog. I want to focus on something far more interesting.  

Now that this season’s majors have concluded, we can say that all major winners in 2018 won without a club contract. Patrick Reed, Brooks Koepka, Francesco Molinari, and Brooks Koepka again all played with mixed bags. In contrast to the greats of the 2000’s whose names instantly draw connections to equipment companies, this is something we haven’t seen probably since the persimmon club era. 

Starting with Tiger Woods who probably take shits stamped with a Nike logo on it, having a bag filled with the same brand of clubs became synonymous with being one of the top players on tour. Phil Mickelson played Callaway, Tiger won the 1997 Masters with a mixed bag of Cobra Driver, Mizuno Irons, Cleveland Wedges, and a Scotty Putter. He then signed with Titleist until Nike began making clubs, when he switched to an all Nike Bag. Sergio was the face of Taylormade for the longest time, and Rickie fowler has always had Cobra. 

Even today, many top players choose to stick exclusively with one brand. Tiger now plays Taylormade, Rory plays Taylormade, Spieth plays all Titleist, Sergio has switched to Callaway, Phil is still with Callaway, and Rickie still games Cobra. 

Now this brings into mind the famous words of the Wu Tang Clan. C.R.E.A.M. Cash rules everything around me. These companies LOVE having players use their gear exclusively. Any deviation from a single brand in the bag brings into question the quality of that player’s main sponsor. Up until a few years ago, Jordan Spieth played all Titleist clubs, but held on to his Taylormade 3 wood. Hmm. Why is that? Does Titleist make inferior fairway woods? It’s a very natural thought. 

If you look at most amateur players’ bags who spend a significant amount of money on clubs, they’ll usually have all the same brand. Brand loyalty is a weird thing. Sometimes golf holds a weird, masculine hubris, where even amateurs want to look like pros. 

So where are we now? It’s clear that a major champion could easily sign a huge deal with a single club company. If one company’s wedges don’t feel as good as another’s, who gives a shit? You’re still getting paid seven or eight figures to play that wedge. 

The answer is technology. 

No, I don’t mean that the club making technology has gotten better over the years or anything, I mean that the technology used to see your club or golf ball’s performance has become more accurate and accessible for pros and amateurs alike. 

In recent years, a piece of technology called Trackman has come on to the market. You’ve probably seen it on driving ranges when pros are practicing. They’ll hit a few shots and hover over an iPad with their swing coach and caddy to see how they’re hitting. 

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It’s just a launch monitor that has been around forever. Any time you go hit on a simulator at your local Dick’s Sporting Goods or Golf Galaxy, you’re hitting on a launch monitor, but Trackman monitors are different. They factor in launch angle, spin rate, swing speed, ball speed and distance. Then they are able to take your inputted numbers and spit out optimal numbers for your swing. So the guess work is ultimately taken out of playing golf and and players are doing whatever it takes to get the best numbers. 

So the million dollar question, or multi-million dollar question in PGA players cases is: why wouldn’t you play the equipment that spits out the best numbers for your game? If you can play a mixed bag and shoot lower scores, you’ll be able to win more. 

This thought process has even revolutionized the way amateurs buy golf clubs. In the past, you go to Golfsmith or Dick’s and hit a few clubs with stock shafts and pick the one that you hit the longest or the one that feels the best. Of course with the internet, golfers began trying out clubs, then leaving the store to buy that club on eBay. In order to adapt, club fitting has taken on a new face. Golfers are now paying to get custom fit for clubs and they are able to try thousands of club and shaft combinations on a trackman, then they can buy the club from wherever they want. It’s resulting in more mixed bags with better clubs for the player. 

In the same vein, blogs like My Golf Spy are doing real testing on golf clubs and making recommendations based on data, not paid sponsorship. This has made the Golf Digest Hotlist completely obsolete. 

Do you want proof that these changes have taken over the golf industry? Conde Nast just sold Golf Digest and Golfsmith has gone bankrupt, while Club Champion fitting stores are opening up around the country and My Golf Spy is being referenced in equipment commercials on TV.

Well, it goes back to the money discussion. In two of the majors this year, Brooks Koepka won a gross amount of over $4 million. So a simple crunch of the numbers would say that it behooves a player to play a mixed bag and win that money on tour with a mixed bag, unless a club company can make that $4 million look like chump change. 

Reaslitically, that is what’s happening to some degree for top players. Rory McIlroy has a $100 million deal with Taylormade over 10 years and he has been quoted in several interviews saying that he selected Taylormade because of the performance he experienced with the TP5 golf ball. Even if Rory won all four majors, he still wouldn’t be paid as much as the guaranteed money from Taylormade. 

It all comes down to a matter of preference. I’m sure Patrick Reed is perfectly happy carrying his mixed bag of clubs without a club contract while wearing his green jacket. I’m sure Brooks Koepka would prefer completing half a grand slam over cash from a club deal.

I think in the next few years we’re going to see a shift. I believe that Tiger, Rory, and the other big names in golf will continue to play full bags of a single manufacturer even if it isn’t what’s best for them. But as younger players come up, they will begin to rethink revenue streams. As nice as it is to cash a guaranteed check each year, chugging Dom Perignon out of the Claret Jug while wearing a green jacket is probably a little sweeter. 

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