While golf is still a ways from normal, the feeling of normalcy brought to us by a return to our beloved game cannot be understated. Golf is being played in all states and territories, and booking sheets have been filling up so much that many clubs have been forced to introduce ballot systems to sort out the logjam. New players in the form of juniors and adults who have either never played or rarely played also are on the uptick.
Still, challenges remain.
Australian Golf Digest spoke with five senior members from some of the game’s largest equipment manufacturers:
- Callaway Golf South Pacific managing director Matt Meredith
- TaylorMade Golf Australia and New Zealand general manager Andrew Bayliss
- American Golf Supplies (distributors of Ping) director Paul Roser
- Cobra Puma Golf national field sales manager Matthew Farley
- Mizuno Corporation Australia sales and marketing manager Anthony Gercovich
To get their thoughts on the impact of Covid-19 on the Australian golf industry, their businesses, and what golfers can expect in terms of product launches and whether discounts are coming for consumers.
Can you put into context how the coronavirus impacted your business, and how quickly was it bad?
Matt Meredith: Callaway Golf South Pacific started seeing the signs of a slowdown in late March. Fortunately, this was following a record start to the year so, as the politicians say, we were in a good position going into the crisis. Along with most of my counterparts all over the globe, the outlook seemed to change daily. Planning for the impact and extent of lockdowns and trying to ensure the safety of our team and valued customers became the priority. In early April golf courses and some retail stores were closed and remained closed in Victoria and New Zealand until early May. This had an instantaneous effect with most stores looking to reduce stock and bunker down. We had to quickly look to do the same from a wholesale level.
Andrew Bayliss: To coin a phrase, “it was like the lights went out”. Quite rightly our customers went into survival mode and orders pretty much stopped flowing in immediately. From Monday, March 16, where we were forecasting 100 percent of our budget for the month, we had to call out a 30 percent drop the following Monday. In 25 years of golf, I have never seen an event have such a drastic effect on demand for product. From here we went into planning mode: how long was it going to last? How do we protect our business and people? How could we support the industry and adhere to government guidelines?
In 25 years of golf, I have never seen an event have such a drastic effect on demand for product. – Andrew Bayliss, TaylorMade
Paul Roser: The virus affected the whole community’s confidence and we were all filled with uncertainty and worry about the future. This was reflected in the sales for April and May. We had our sales team off the road and we were not able to carry out fitting events, which are the key to our promotional effort. We split our warehouse staff into two teams and worked week about. Unfortunately, Ping in Phoenix, Arizona, did have to close for six weeks and this meant that we could not import stock or tagged customer orders. We did supply a lot of orders from the stock we held in Sydney, however there are so many fitting options to suit all golfers that there have been long delays on some customers’ sets. On the whole, the Australian golfing public have been very understanding and supportive. The federal and state government support has been very important in helping our company manage the Covid-19 challenges.
Matthew Farley: Coronavirus eventually led to golfers not being able to access the playing and purchasing of the game. This reduced sales for three to four weeks from mid-March. Business became tricky and for a couple of weeks it seemed to nearly stop as restrictions came into place. From a sales/service component, we had reduced access to our customers and from an execution piece we had changes at our head office, which impacted outgoing deliveries and turnaround times. From a future supply chain, it also became apparent there would be challenges and changes around existing open orders and shipments of current market product into Australia. Across the country there were some states affected more than others due to state government restrictions, most notably Victoria.
Anthony Gercovich: In the back half of March there was a downturn that created an amount of uncertainty and cautiousness in regards to forecasting for the coming months. The real issue was: how long was it going to be like this for?
The year was off to a great start. How do you re-establish that momentum Down Under?
Meredith: Our year started extremely well in the first quarter. The exceptional new product launches of Mavrik and Chrome Soft in particular helped us achieve this. The interesting thing is that with the decline through April, the initial excitement around the new products seems to have maintained and we are seeing sell-through as good as we see at launch. There is no doubt that golf is seeing a growth in play at the moment. I have heard a few explanations that all make sense: the curtailment in competitive sports and pastimes, flexibility in working from home, reduced work hours, government injections and early superannuation withdrawals, and the fact that golf is a naturally social-distanced sport that also allows strong social interaction… even people who are starting to appreciate the environment of a golf course and time to themselves in these difficult circumstances. At this stage it all adds up to very strong golf player numbers and subsequently Callaway sales through retail.
Bayliss: Our commitment was to keep the doors open for as long as we were legally allowed to, while being responsible from an OH&S perspective. I truly believed that it was our obligation to the industry to support our trade customers who needed us to supply product to our loyal consumers who were still able to play golf. We believe this attitude and the fact we kept a fully functioning DC, custom-build team and customer service operation has reaped its rewards with the incredible bounce back we are now seeing. We are now forecasting locally that we will exceed our pre-Covid budgets, which seemed somewhat unimaginable when the reality of the pandemic first hit.
Roser: The game of golf has proven to be very resilient and golfers and the club administrators have been extremely responsible. Golf has been a sport that has been able to be played under modified conditions through the entire Covid-19 lockdown (with the exception of Victoria). Once players were participating in the sport, they began to purchase product again. We are doing fitting events with very strict hygiene protocols and player management. These events are being well attended and very successful. The PGA Tour and the Korn Ferry Tour have both begun again and this does generate interest in the game. Golfers have the Masters and other major events to look forward to later in the year.
Farley: Focus on what we had achieved to date and the wins we had in the bank across Cobra Puma Golf and big Puma globally. The products and connections our brands are making will continue to grow and by working with our partners we need to ensure we stay front of mind and relevant. The market bounced back very quickly and, citing May as one example, we achieved our biggest ever month of custom hardware sales since Cobra Puma Golf began 10 years ago.
Gercovich: With golf not being closed completely, we created programs that supported and assisted our retail partners that were still operating, allowing them the best chance at success during these uncertain times. Momentum comes around August and September of every year with interest in our iron launches and as we track out of this situation, the timing of this could be at a very opportune time.
How has the Australian retail environment changed?
Meredith: There is no doubt we and many of our retail customers had to pivot quickly in April. Online sales definitely had some growth as retail stores worked through the challenges of lockdowns and safely serving their customers. We will see how much this continues as stores have managed to get back to very strong service levels. The growth in new and social golfers definitely created a spike in packaged-up sets as people wanted a whole new kit to hit the course. For the more regular golfer, the importance of fitting has never been as strong. We are increasing our capacity for fitting to keep up with demand. We are doing this with new protocols around social distancing, personal protective equipment and sanitation.
Bayliss: There are two obvious changes: 1) The focus around OH&S has been sharpened considerably, which we fully support and adhere to; 2) The necessity for all our retail players to have a fully functioning and high performing eCom channel to support their bricks-and-mortar offering. Covid-19 forced adaptation in the way retailers sell and how consumers buy… in many ways this could be a seminal moment for golf which has forced the industry to transmute. As a wholesaler we have fully embraced a “new normal” and there is no doubt the pandemic has helped expedite the adaptation of our B2B site. Rather than solely traditional interactions with sales reps for placing orders, we are seeing the adaption in how our customers purchase. We also see the current situation extending the golf season and providing us with the opportunity to support our customers to an even greater extent with more fitting days scheduled than ever before during the winter months of the southern hemisphere.
Roser: The strong sales rebound in June and July has made us realise what an amazing industry we are fortunate to be part of. Victoria going back into Level 3 lockdown highlights how fragile the future retail environment can be. Health and control of the virus is the most important goal at the moment and we all have a responsibility and a part to play.
Farley: Consumers have directed their attention to the internet and eCom space as they search for product information and pricing online. Store visits and face-to-face shopping was taken away with Covid-19 and may be part of a slight shift in the market segment to do more business online. At a both an eCom and store level, consumers are in the box seat with most retailers going to discount mode (in the region of 20 percent off as a benchmark).
Gercovich: We have developed safety protocols and procedures for our fitting days that we are conducting from this point forward that adhere to distancing, cleanliness and hygiene, hopefully making all attending our events feel comfortable with the experience that they encounter. This is the way forward for now in dealing with the environment that we encounter and for how long this remains in place we do not know.
How did you maintain a connection with Australian consumers?
Meredith: During the lockdown in particular, Callaway Golf tried to continue our social-media engagement. We felt initially it wasn’t the time to sell to people, so we had more informative and fun posts like isolation tricks, etc. As it became clear that consumers were looking to buy golf products again, we have created some strong consumer promotions to reward people looking to upgrade at this time. We gave regular updates to our trade partners to keep them informed about our operational capacity so they could always give clear information to the Callaway consumer.
Bayliss: From a brand perspective we continued our trade coms with a consumer focus around social media, while drawing away from normal promotional activity globally and on a local level. Globally we adapted our strategy, which saw a focus on our athletes engaging golfers as seen with TaylorMade Driving Relief, which was an incredible moment for the game in its attempt to rebound and show support for our frontline workers.
Roser: Ping did some wonderful YouTube and Facebook communications. “My first Ping club” was really fun… many Ping professionals having played Ping clubs for their whole golfing life. Lee Westwood was very active on social media, as was Miguel Angel Jimenez.
We were never forced to cease operating so were constantly interacting with golfers through social media, e-mail and telephone communications.
Farley: We increased our focus on our relationships with retailers/resellers and ensured they had everything they needed from us. In addition we directed significant efforts to our Instagram channels and continued to drive brand heat and connection to our consumers with several fun “Enjoy Golf” connections.
Gercovich: Our global marketing team chose to use our social media platforms by providing interviews with some accounts and Q&As with contracted tour players. In addition to this we had the launch of the MP20 Limited Edition Copper sets, so there was added interaction around this product as well.
How has the buying cycle for this year changed?
Meredith: The product cycle hasn’t changed much for Callaway here. We are full steam ahead with our launch plans other than a couple of slight delays for products that were planned to hit the market during the lockdowns. We continue to focus on only updating our ranges when we have a superior product. We always want to have the best performing product we can possibly make in every category for every golfer.
Bayliss: There is no planned change to our cadence around launch. We remain committed to consistent product cycles where we only bring product to market if it is markedly better. We are currently seeing incredible market share growth across all categories globally including metal woods, irons and balls, which has seen us sell through 30 percent more product at retail in Q1 2020 versus what we sold in 2019. We feel very confident in our ability to be nimble from a supply-chain perspective to ensure we are well positioned to supply the trade and consumer with their needs in the back half of the year.
Roser: A number of product launches have been deferred to a later period, meaning the existing range will be in the market for longer.
Farley: Yes. Several key product launches have been redirected to Q1 2021. It should be noted most of these are on the back of factory capacity as opposed to what some may think. We would not be able to meet immediate demand and produce the next wave of products at the same time, thus something has to change.
Gercovich: There has been a significant change and growth experienced at the start of winter that the industry has never experienced before. As we track out of winter with the lead-in to the start of our traditional golf season, there is an anticipation that the buying patterns will return to what we know. We will have to wait and see.
There has been a significant change and growth experienced at the start of winter that the industry has never experienced before.
– Anthony Gercovich, Mizuno
Are the discounts coming?
Meredith: At the start of the crisis it looked like the local golf industry could potentially have some excess stock caused by a significant reduction in demand. Now with sales ramping back up, it feels like there is unlikely to be a serious requirement for abnormal stock clearance. In reality, the value for the local consumer is very strong at the moment.
Bayliss: I can only speak from our perspective and we won’t be changing the strategy which has served us well globally and locally over the past five years during my time at the helm of TaylorMade in Australia and New Zealand. We have a great responsibility to learn from the past and I feel we have quite rightly adjusted our strategy to supply our customers and the market with what they need and when they need it.
Roser: No. Australia is a very competitive golf market with some of the best golf retailers and professionals in the world. The market has always offered Australian golfers great value and service and I believe that this will continue despite Covid-19.
Farley: Hard to say with any certainty but I would imagine in our relatively small market, retailers watch each other closely and if one goes they tend to all go into some form of price matching or similar practice. As a supplier, we are not sitting on mountains of product so we do not have a knee-jerk need to discount to sell-through inventory under pressure.
Gercovich: Retailers discounted prices at the start of restrictions to secure sales in the online space and they have pretty much remained throughout the entire lockdown period.
Could this end up bringing more people to the game?
Meredith: There appears to have been many factors that have encouraged new people to the game over the past few months. Many courses are reporting record social and competition rounds as well as significant increases in new memberships across all categories.
Bayliss: There is no doubt in my mind that this will not only bring new people to the game but also some old friends back. Golf naturally lends itself to social distancing, which has meant we have seen golf go from being seventh or eighth in the ranking of participation sports/activities pre-Covid to third behind walking/running and cycling at this point. We have seen rounds played spike over the past two months and an influx of people buying beginner package sets. The real trick to close the loop now is to keep these people coming back and engaging with the sport.
Roser: I think that it already has. Anecdotally, we know that many new members have joined clubs and existing members are more active in playing at their clubs. It confirms that one of the key impediments to participation in the game of golf is time. People have been forced to have more time on their hands and many are using that time to play golf.
People have been forced to have more time on their hands and many are using that time to play golf.
– Paul Roser, Ping
Farley: Yes. The key element here is experience. If the newcomers have a good experience and create authentic and fun connections to the game via suppliers/facilities and coaches, there is definitely an opportunity to grow the game.
Gercovich: Possibly, but the feeling is that it is bringing a combination of returning-to-golf and new-to-golf consumers. Returners to the game are not having to taxi children around to community sports on the weekends. The new-to-golf consumer has potentially come from adult community sports backgrounds – rugby, AFL, basketball and other weekend sports not being played. With these people wanting to remain active they looked to golf for that activity as gyms and PT groups were closed down.
What would you like to see our sport’s governing bodies do to ensure we keep this newfound interest in the game?
Meredith: The governing bodies have the best interests of the game at heart. They do a very good job with the competing interests throughout the game. My personal view is about giving people a fun and inclusive experience with the game and the environment it provides. I feel a lot of younger and new participants to the game want a casual, flexible experience. Ironically, the Covid rules like compulsory flags in and preferred lies in bunkers cater to this. Callaway is a shareholder in TopGolf and we can see the demand for a casual golf experience. I see nirvana as the ability to have the option to play nine holes and wear a TravisMathew T-shirt, all while competing in the Saturday comp and having my handicap updated after the round.
Bayliss: More municipal par-3 courses where everyone is welcome. More golf simulator facilities. More putt-putt facilities. More focus on golf as a school sport – training the teachers. Free golf-lesson weeks. A more relaxed approach to families joining each other in a non-playing capacity on the course. Open days at golf courses to encourage inclusiveness. More focus on scholarships. Outreach programs to demographics that don’t normally have access to the game. More supplier support/involvement.
Farley: Simplify access to golf and highlight the fact the game is actually fun. There is a raft of facilities that are closer than people may think and many of them are hubs for connection / friendships and networks. Golf clubs need to check what it is like for a new golfer to approach them. What is their process / attitude / follow up / flexibility like for the potential new customer. Governing bodies need to remind golf clubs not to celebrate exclusivity or feed their ego about having a “championship course” and instead focus predominantly on where the bulk of players lie in the category we call “super game improvement”. If we don’t introduce new players to the game it will downsize. Too much emphasis is placed upon the “high performance” side of the game.
How To Buy Golf Clubs – NOW
A guide for purchasing golf equipment in these uncertain times
If you’ve finally started playing golf, then you almost surely have started to feel those familiar pangs golfers know just as surely as they know the way to their course. No, we’re not talking about back pain or golfer’s elbow, we’re talking about the natural yearning for new clubs.
We know you want to buy new clubs. The question is, in the current environment, just what is the smartest way to not merely buy new equipment, but to get the ideal clubs to optimise your potential and make you want to play even more (and, yes, safely)?
Here’s a quick game plan for buying new equipment now.
- Step 1: Do your research
Understanding the equipment universe in a basic way makes you less likely to buy a club or ball just because your friend did. Which would at least be the wrong reason and more likely be the wrong club. That’s why we created the Australian Golf Digest Hot List (australiangolfdigest.com.au/hot-list) to narrow the search of the equipment universe and to offer an education about how the new stuff is better than it ever has been. And don’t stop with the basics in the Hot List. Nearly every product on our annual list and past Hot Lists, as well, has also been more broadly profiled when it was first introduced.
- Step 2: Seek the wisdom of experts
It is not enough to know about the technologies in products. No two golfers are the same, so you need to know whether a certain design fits with your specific tendencies. One big way to get you started in the right direction are online and phone-based fitting sessions with manufacturers. These are at the very least a good chance to get sound advice from companies with tens of thousands of fittings in their database to help you form an action plan.
The right knowledge can lead you to make an informed online purchase, and that’s the only kind of online golf purchase you should be making … unless you’re buying tees. We still believe that an in-person fitting in a setting with a launch monitor and plenty of options is the best way to make an informed decision. And the truth is if you’re comfortable going to the supermarket, you should be comfortable with a clubfitting. Rest assured, all of Australia’s leading brands are following strict Covid-19 safety regulations for their fittings, employing all sorts of sanitising and safety precautions (we know one who even personally tees up every ball in a driver fitting, so the balls are never touched by a golfer). Still, the majority of that same group of fitters tells us that their operations have been modified to maintain more than sufficient physical distancing. Also, there’s comfort in the one-on-one appointment nature of clubfitting, where all clubs are disinfected before and after every fitting, and where any interaction between customers in many cases is completely eliminated.
Bottom line: a golf-club purchase shouldn’t be an impulse buy. Getting the advice of a fitter in person or virtually gives you confidence that you’re not only making the right decision, but you’ve got somebody to consult after the fact if what you buy isn’t working the way you want.
- Step 3: Trust your gut
Buying a club or switching to a new ball demands you actually try the product. For a new golf ball, based on the proper knowledge, buying a few different sleeves for some on-course testing should tell you all you need to know, especially if you employ the methods we outline in our golf ball Hot List. When it comes to clubs, without going to a fitting, your options will likely be more limited. Plenty of stores, even the giants such as Drummond Golf and Golf Box, are not going to be content to have you take up one of their hitting bays for you to work your way through their full fairway-wood inventory, for example.
Demo days, long the staple of how clubs are introduced, will be different in the wake of the pandemic. In many cases going forward, it will be appointment only, not the usual all-you-can-swing buffet. Nevertheless, if you’re genuinely interested in a major club purchase soon (and the evidence supporting the value of new technology over what you currently are toting is considerable), making these appointments are no less valuable than test driving a handful of cars before you find the right one. Moreover, companies have redoubled their efforts to make the demoing experience safe and efficient. One tip: taking notes or making voice memos on your phone will be helpful in reminding yourself what you were experiencing at the time when trying out a new driver or iron.
In summary, it’s an exciting time to think about new golf equipment, and that’s not just blowing smoke. Every golf company, whether in our interviews, sales figure research or in corporate earnings statements, along with every retailer we’ve contacted made it clear that 2020 was off to a record-setting pace. That’s a reflection of genuine interest, but also we have evidence in our testing that not only does the new technology beat the old, you need it more than you realise. Being safe and smart in these challenging times is a given, but the good news is getting new gear is more practical and possible than ever.