Inventor's Spotlight at the PGA Merchandise Show is an alley of dreams, risk, and harsh reality
For 20 minutes, Bernie Fay is filled with gusto. He's showing off his invention, "The Most Important Stretch in Golf," a product aimed at improving flexibility and muscle memory. His tool clamps on the arm, as a resistance band and club shaft work in sync to mimic a golf swing.
"It's revolutionary!" says Fay. "I added 40 yards to my drives after six months of training with it."
His pitch continues with absolutes. "A PGA pro said he wishes beginners, before picking up a club, would start with this for a month. It's that effective." As far as I can tell, it's not showmanship. He truly believes his idea is the one.
That is, until our conversation ends, and his unwavering confidences suddenly recedes.
"So," he asks, voice lowering, "do I have a shot?"
The floor of the PGA Merchandise Show is Darwinism in action, a display of haves and have nots. Industry titans roll out exhibits the size of department warehouses. Their enclosures are decorated in fine ornaments and digital instruments usually found in Apple stores, stocked with enough manpower to conquer a small town. PGA Tour players routinely make cameo appearances. Walking through feels like stumbling into a movie set.
Then there is the passageway for entrepreneurs and inventors, an area so small that you can only find it by accident.
Instead of pavilions with the measurements of a street block, inventors are confined to festival-booth dimensions. No celebrity sightings, only the founders and perhaps a lackey or two. They don't have the budgets to compete with the landscapes of golf's big boy companies; hell, most of the inventors' exhibits are adorned with a sheet of paper stating their business against a nondescript green curtain.
But a lack of trim doesn't belittle the products touted. If anything, you could make a case this spartan approach magnifies them.
The TourSpin Club Washer does exactly what its title pledges: To manually clean your sticks. Who needs TVs or light shows in the booth when turning the machine on and watching clubs get clean in under a minute is all the pizzazz you need.
Or take the case of the boys from Swing Snap Golf, who introduced the Self-V Fairway Headcover. For those wanting to capture their swing on the course or range, put your smartphone into a holder on this fairway cover, place your golf bag at the angle you want to tape and boom, you have a video.
It's a simple concept that doesn't need tinsel, but one so obviously useful you walk away mad you didn't think of it yourself.
"Although we play golf and hit balls all the time, we're actually hockey guys," says Swing Snap Golf president Jesse Fratkin, who played at Brown University and in the ECHL. "Along with this, we instruct youth hockey in Virginia."
Jesse's story was not an aberration. Out of the dozen merchants interviewed, 10 worked outside of golf.
"By trade, I work in a casino," says John Yahnite, president and founder of Divot Check, which is an ailment aid that also protects driving range grass. Steven Kim, whose Mustgear Aromatherapy Sports Wipes are designed to refresh and refocus golfers mid-round, has a history in design and fragrances.
Fay is the epitome of diversified background. He worked as a newspaper writer and WGN outdoors reporter in the 1990s. He ran a messenger service and vitamin company. He's a carpenter and handyman; he has a YouTube instructional video on carving a Celtic toy chest that has over 125,000 views.
While golf might not be their primary profession, it is their love, the glue that brings everyone here. And they are hoping to turn that passion into something more.
No one questions the talent, creativity and ability of these men and women. But the question overhangs the proceedings: Is it enough?
2016 PGA of America
There is a harsh truth to the Inventor's Spotlight division: Most won't make it. It's comparable to the first round of high school tryouts. There are a chosen few who are definitely on the team, a slightly bigger group that has potential, but it's raw and undisciplined, and the final, larger contingent that doesn't have a shot.
Some of the booths constantly seduce traffic. Others have occasional visitors. Multiple attractions went hours without an interested party. Simply put, not all ideas are practical or offer significant benefit.
Given the financial investment that the PGA Merchandise Show warrants -- by our estimates, at least five figures for floor permit, travel expenditures, etc. -- it's a gamble. Many have life savings tied into products.
"It can be intimidating, and a bit overwhelming," admitted Yahnite. "You have to really have faith in what you're doing."
Which leads to another deduction: Despite the high risks associated with entering the show, a shocking number of booths are woefully unprepared in pitches and forecasts. One dealer we spoke with couldn't identify its target audience. Another didn't know how much the product would cost to produce on a wide scale.
Your heart aches for these folks, witnessing an inevitability they are unable to see.
But the beauty of Inventor's Spotlight isn't the promise of making good; it's the opportunity.
"We doubt we'll ever be a major, major company," remarks Fratkin. "But to say we are in the same building as TaylorMade and Titleist, to have that prospect to talk to the people they're talking to? That's pretty cool."
The PGA Merchandise Show, in coordination with the United Inventors Association, awards winners for Inventor's Spotlight participants, in the categories of Best New Overall Product, Best Market Research and Best Product Concept. This recognition can be crucial for a product's marketing strategy, and ultimate fruition.
Yet for Fay, he doesn't necessarily view the show as a way to get rich. To him, it offers something better.
"Currently, I work as a building engineer at a medical center in Chicago," Fay says. "In fact, scheduled to work the weekend shift after the show is over.
"But if my product sells like I think it will sell, I can quit my job and work in golf! Wouldn't that be something?"
He is not alone in this desire. However, not many are willing to risk the time, energy, labor and money for that chance.
Fay did. And though the Inventor's Spotlight guarantees nothing, it's one step closer to making that wish a reality.