Can Money Buy You A Lower Handicap?

How much those pricey, high-tech clubs help your game is unclear

Look who's pitching golf equipment. Callaway Golf Co.'s newest endorser is a celebrity you wouldn't figure on in a million megabytes, er, years: On the first tee, playing out of Double Click Country Club, Mr. Bill Gates...

But having the emperor of high tech tell us, in so many words, that his Callaway clubs are turning triple bogeys into doubles really isn't so far-fetched. Golfers crave high tech--and the higher, the better. You name it, and they'll get in line, hoping some genius holed up in a Southern California lab has designed the antidote for the lame lag putt.

The pursuit of the perfect shot--and the breathtaking prices of some clubs--continues to fuel the golf equipment industry. In 1996, domestic sales of the top 25 clubmakers totaled $1.6 billion, up from $1.3 billion in 1995. And there's no end to the array of new models designed to fill weekend warriors with visions of vying for the U.S. Open.

"MAGIC." These state-of-the-art clubs definitely look snazzy, and they make sweet music rattling around in your golf bag. But after you've impressed your pals and paid down your credit card, what do you have to show for your investment?

Maybe not as much as you'd hoped. "We golfers believe in magic," says Frank Thomas. "We absolutely convince ourselves that a golf club we've just purchased has totally changed our game, when subconsciously, we know full well that hasn't happened." Thomas ought to know. Since 1974, he has overseen the testing of equipment for the U.S. Golf Assn., the game's governing body.

Working out of a sprawling test center in Far Hills, N.J., Thomas and a staff of 17 evaluate as many as 450 golf clubs and 2,000 balls a year. They reject some 40% of the clubs that are submitted as not conforming to the rules of golf, though they clearly have no control over the rules of the marketplace. A set of oversize irons with the latest graphite shafts now runs $1,000. That may not sound like a bargain until you consider that the Biggest Big Bertha--a single club--retails for a cool $600.

As clubs become more expensive, they haven't necessarily become more effective, notes Thomas. Since 1981, the average men's handicap in the U.S. has improved by less than a half-shot, from 16.8 to 16.6. So what, say golf equipment execs. Newer courses are much more challenging--and that forces up scores. Besides, the USGA has no reliable method of distinguishing the benefits of high-tech clubs from the hodgepodge of variables that go into a golf score.

"Too many factors affect handicaps: a mental attitude that is positive, a swing that is at least remotely effective, and the ability to execute that swing in a way that your mind and emotions don't interfere," says Callaway Golf's 78-year-old founder, Ely Callaway. "And we haven't even talked about the element that affects scoring most: putting." Joe Teklits, an analyst who tracks golf equipment for Ferris Baker Watts Inc., a Baltimore brokerage, downplays the USGA's figures, too. Oversize clubs and larger sweet spots "have made the game much more enjoyable for the beginning golfer," says Teklits. "He's a lot less likely to whiff on the first tee."

All that proves, counters Thomas, is that "when you pick up a new piece of equipment, it does work for you. You want it to work. You tell yourself it works. And so it works. You've made a better swing, and the ball goes a little farther. But three or four months later, the club doesn't work anymore. What's changed? The club? The golf course? The laws of physics?"

One thing is certain: There are more golfers, and they're throwing cash around like Lotto winners. Since 1986, spending on greens fees and equipment has nearly doubled. Much of that growth dates back to the early '90s when club design took a revolutionary turn. The landmark year was 1992. Callaway, then a relatively obscure manufacturer, unveiled a funky-looking, oversize metal club dubbed Big Bertha, after a World War I cannon. Today, Callaway's domestic sales surpass that of its next four rivals put together, a stunning rate of growth for a company that in 1991 ranked sixth among clubmakers.

But becoming No.1 was easy compared with staying on top. Callaway's first-quarter earnings plunged 54% over the same period a year ago as the Asian crisis hit and El Nino drenched California and Florida. Sales in Asia (excluding Japan) have slid 65.6%. And there's talk for the first time that maybe, just maybe, the Big Bertha craze has run its course. "Big Bertha needs a facelift," says Teklits. "Since it was launched eight years ago, the only thing they have done to it is to make it larger."

Knockoffs don't help matters. With their bulbous club heads, they may look like Callaways. And, some might argue, even swing like them. But these clubs, which carry evocative names like Big Brother and Big Smoke, sell for as little as $130, roughly one-fourth the price of the Biggest Big Bertha.

"VERY SKEPTICAL." Still, Ely Callaway contends that his company will keep succeeding because new technology has been a boon to the casual golfer. Those resisting that idea invite a stern talking-to. "If our clubs didn't assist the average golfer in hitting more pleasing shots," demands Callaway, "then why are we selling as many as we do?" Thomas, at the USGA, doesn't have the answer. He is "very skeptical of 99%" of the pitches on the pages of golf magazines. "If the claim is, `more distance, great accuracy,' I tend not to believe," he says. "If it's `slightly better feel,' O.K., maybe. That's so hard to define."

But then, such advertisements aren't aimed at Thomas, a five-handicapper who's looking to shave a stroke or two off his game this summer. In his golf bag, Thomas carries a set of classic blade irons he believes work as well as any on the market today. They're 29 years old.

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