Shaken, but stirred by Woods

CHRIS STEVENSON, SUN MEDIA

, Last Updated: 8:28 AM ET

ORLANDO -- The weather here has been spectacular the last couple of days, but as the annual PGA Merchandise Show was about to start yesterday, a strong wind whipped up and clouds scuttled over the city Mickey Mouse built.

That's a pretty good match for the mood hanging over this annual gathering of the golf industry's movers and shakers at the massive Orange County Convention Center. With the global meltdown battering every sector of the economy, the movers might be shaking.

Golf is an indulgence for most of us and is one of the things targeted as a luxury item when times turn tough. An industry that had turned to the corporate outing for sustenance is suddenly finding many of those customer -- vaporized. The pro tours are losing sponsors like a 20-handicapper loses balls at the 17th hole at Sawgrass.

Technological innovation has driven the equipment market, but a quick tour of the 10 miles of aisles here indicates the huge leaps made over the last few years -- composite drivers with radical new shapes; the rise of hybrids --have slowed to but a few steps.

Adjustability remains the flag around which most of the innovators are rallying again this year.

CATCHING ON

Last year, the buzz was all about adjustability, the ability to mix and match shafts and clubheads according to playing conditions. It was an option clearly not for everybody, but appears to have found some traction in the marketplace.

The early story is about the new drivers Nike and TaylorMade have introduced, whose loft and lie can be altered by up to four degrees, allowing you to work with a face two degrees closed to two degrees open, thanks to modifications to the hosel (where the shaft joins the clubhead).

The TaylorMade offering, the r9, got a big boost when Pat Perez used it to win the Bob Hope Classic last week.

Nike has introduced the SQ Dymo/Dymo2 STR8-Fit, a prototype of which Trevor Immelman used while winning The Masters last spring.

I've been to Carlsbad, Calif., where most of golf's big companies are located. On the palm-tree lined streets behind glassy, reflective exteriors are hundreds of engineers spending millions of dollars trying to find ways for you to hit the ball a little farther and a little straighter.

They work in bunkers behind the kind of security a James Bond villain usually employs, minus the machine-gun toting, coverall-wearing minions who you know are going to be mowed down for your entertainment.

The engineers' weapons of mass distraction are brought here every year and were trotted out with the kind of glitz reserved for a red-carpet walk. Given this year's offerings, you wonder if perhaps they have hit golf technology's version of the grass ceiling.

Things are muted here this year, but there remains hope for the industry.

Tiger Woods' return from knee surgery --the best guesses here are it will be around the beginning of March -- will push golf to the top of the highlight shows. Michelle Wie earned her LPGA Tour card and could be poised to fill the huge void left by Annika Sorenstam's pulling back from the competitive scene.

BRAND LOYALTY

Both those personalities are capable of giving golf some jam and keeping people interested.

The movers and shakers are putting on their brave faces here.

"(The economic outlook) changes daily," said Cindy Davis, the new president of Nike Golf, who addressed the Canadian media contingent here the other day. "Our attitude is concentrate on what we do well and that's innovate and connect with consumers.

"When times like this happen, people go to brands they trust and that swoosh is a brand they trust."

Canada seems better positioned to ride this one out, said John Sibley, the general manager of Nike Golf Canada.

"If the U.S. catches a cold, we'll definitely get the sniffles," he said. "But we're in a better position to withstand this."

But hard times can have their benefits, too, for the average golfer.

Talk here yesterday is one high-profile course in Toronto is poised to slash its green fee from the $170 range to $99 to battle what is expected to be a shrinking marketplace. That course probably won't be the only one.

Good news, I guess, for golfers out there who still have jobs.


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