Is this golf's magic potion?
As Andrew Stephens describes it, he was “burning the candle at both ends.” The 2018 Kentucky PGA Section champion was battling through a partially torn ligament in his left hand, all while trying to maintain a teaching academy, buy his local driving range and, as he says, “raise the 2040 Masters champion” with his wife, teaching partner and range co-owner, Sara. “It was an extremely stressful time,” he says. “Definitely the anxiety level was up.” So when Stephens came across a booth at January’s PGA Merchandise Show in Orlando touting a product that seemed to solve all his problems, he was intrigued.
As it turns out, what he found might be the hottest product in golf this year. In fact, it might be the hottest product in any industry this year. Cannabidiol, or CBD, a compound extracted from cannabis plants, is finding its way into everything from droppers of ingestible oils and topical creams to pizza and milkshakes. Its claims of curative powers seem to run the gamut of diseases and maladies, from Alzheimer’s and cancer to first-tee jitters and golfer’s elbow.
Stephens, 34, started taking CBD oil in the form of a tincture, using a dropper full of extract every morning, just like a daily dose of vitamins.
“It definitely feels like it’s got a bit of a calming factor,” he says. “Whether that’s real or a placebo, I’m not sure. But I feel like it’s lowering anxiousness, especially before a round of golf. You don’t get quite as amped up, the butterflies aren’t quite as powerful as they sometimes are. It’s subtle. I’m also trying to monitor the wrist to see if taking it sort of dulls some of the pain or makes it a little easier to swing as hard as I have to. If it’s a natural pain-reliever, that’s probably better than putting a bunch of pills in your body.”
And there is the argument and the uncertainty for CBD. The fundamental issue is that because the compound is not regulated by the Food and Drug Administration, its claims have not been fully sussed out. There is research—gobs of it, in fact—but not much clarity. A public hearing by the FDA on the questions surrounding the bursting CBD industry in late May drew more than 100 speakers, caution and enthusiasm trading the microphone back and forth through every five-minute presentation. Even acting FDA commissioner Dr. Ned Sharpless acknowledges that the federal government is overwhelmed, that there already are “significant gaps” in the FDA’s understanding of all aspects of CBD’s features and usages.
“While we have seen an explosion of interest in products containing CBD, there is still much that we don’t know. . . . There are lots of questions we will need to answer to ensure that the FDA is taking an appropriate, well-informed, and science-based approach to the regulation of cannabis and cannabis derivatives, including CBD.”
Does it get you high? Is it legal
Before we go farther, a brief science lesson. First, CBD is not marijuana. Rather, it is one of many cannabinoids or compounds that can be extracted from the cannabis plants that include the closely related marijuana and hemp plants. CBD and THC are the two compounds that get the most attention when it comes to cannabis research. THC is the psychoactive element that produces marijuana’s high. CBD is not psychoactive, and according to a World Health Organization report, unlike THC, CBD “is generally well tolerated, with a good safety profile. . . . [and] is not associated with abuse potential.”
Unlike marijuana, which is not a legal substance in most states, hemp-derived CBD got what amounted to a federal endorsement with the passage of the 2018 Farm Bill. That legislation legalized the production of hemp, which previously had fallen under a 1937 law that essentially prohibited the production of all cannabis plants. (In recent years, 10 states have legalized marijuana for recreational use, and most others allow it with a prescription.)
Under the Farm Bill’s new guidelines, as long as the cannabis plant has less than 0.3 percent of the psychoactive compound THC, it’s much easier to grow, sell and possess.
“The passage of the 2018 Farm Bill was the final step in our company’s process to go to market,” says John Hawkins, CEO of Pure Swing CBD, a line of CBD products aimed specifically at golfers.
After the new legislation, all sorts of CBD companies and brands are flowing with cash. A cannabis industry group estimates the CBD business could reach $22 billion in the next three years as it moves beyond the realm of alternative remedies and into mainstream products and food additives.
CBD companies already have secured endorsement contracts with PGA Tour players, and rumors swirled at the Masters that Phil Mickelson and Tiger Woods were using CBD products, including tincture and chewing gum. Though video surfaced of Mickelson taking a swig from a dropper mid-round, neither have indicated they use CBD products, and representatives for both players did not respond to requests for comment in early June.
Regardless, CBD is not merely a fringe product being whispered about in golf circles but nearly mainstream. Ben & Jerry’s has promised its customers that a CBD-infused ice-cream flavor is coming. In May, CBD company Medterra announced a deal with Worldwide Golf to sell its products in golf ’s second-largest retail chain. CBD products even are sold in the golf shop at Muirfield Village, and head pro Larry Dornisch says he has reordered the supply twice already this season.
Jason Fryia, who owns the Golf Exchange retail chain of five stores in the Greater Cincinnati and Lexington, Ky., region, says he was “blown away” by the response to a CBD question on the company’s Facebook page.
He says 81 percent of respondents were interested in buying CBD in April, and by May he decided to stock the Medterra products in his stores.
“We could post an image of a new 2020 Pro V1 and ask, ‘Are you interested in trying this?’ and I’m not sure we would get 81 percent of people to say ‘Yes,’ and that’s the highest market share, most universally loved golf product there is,” Fryia says. “I just don’t think there’s anything else right now that has that sort of enthusiasm surrounding it.”
Fryia admits the price of $55 a bottle for a month’s supply might be a hurdle, but he also plans to bring in a CBD chewing gum that will cost customers $10 for a pack of eight. “As a golf product, it’s unique in that it’s something everybody who plays can use, and it’s literally a consumable, so they’ll go through it the way they would golf balls,” Fryia says. “Plus, it’s unique because it seems that it’s a product they’re already buying, but not in golf shops. It could be a little like selling beer at golf courses, and that’s worked out pretty well.”
Anecdotal evidence versus science
CBD’s penetration as a retail product entails some distinct challenges for marketers. Those include not only explaining how CBD might be beneficial, but also allaying the confusion about what consumers are getting and how they should be using it.
At the moment, CBD companies have to walk a fine line that includes some stern fine print from the FDA. Technically, CBD cannot be used as a food additive in restaurants, although that stipulation hasn’t exactly deterred the practice. Still, states and municipalities are formulating rules while the FDA considers how far it will reach into CBD-infused menus. In a Washington Post story, one store owner in Colorado said adding CBD to his smoothies “makes everybody better . . . I tell people, ‘CBD—it’s a natural Tylenol and Xanax mixed together.’”
Every standalone CBD product must carry an FDA warning: “These statements have not been evaluated by the FDA and are not intended to diagnose, treat, cure or prevent any disease.” The agency has issued dozens of warning letters to companies promoting CBD products since 2015.
Still, CBD mania proceeds at an almost pandemic pace. The reasons are largely anecdotal, not the clinical verification you might see from experimental drug therapies. There is no doubt that CBD has real documented promise when it comes to treating specific childhood seizure disorders. CBD oil-based alternative treatments for a rare childhood epilepsy known as Dravet Syndrome spawned a cottage industry.
The FDA approved Epidiolex last year after controlled trials showed it significantly reduced or eliminated seizures in children with previously drug-resistant epileptic seizures. That made it the first FDA-approved, plant-derived cannabinoid medicine. A typical regimen costs $32,500 a year.
Its proven success in this specific case is compelling, but no doctor is handing out prescriptions for Epidiolex to help you battle the yips or loosen your frozen shoulder—certainly not at that price. But CBD also has been studied for more common maladies.
Those include an experiment involving improved public speaking, as well as animal studies evaluating CBD’s anti-inflammatory properties.
Currently, there are more than 150 ongoing studies of CBD’s effects, says Dr. J.H. Atkinson, co-director of the University of California’s Center for Medical Cannabis Research. But the picture isn’t entirely clear.
“There is very little evidence of efficacy as far as its use as an anxiolytic [anti-anxiety agent] or for pain and muscles aches,” Atkinson says, but he notes there are studies that show CBD acting on parts of the brain tied to emotions and the serotonin receptors thought to be involved in anxiety.
“How this might translate to ‘performance anxiety’ under competitive conditions is unknown,” he says, but “again, the potential here is certainly worth investigating.”
Just because interest in CBD is fueled by anecdotal claims doesn’t mean those claims aren’t valid. Rather, those with expertise in the field wish for more knowledge, a difficult commodity given that up until late last year, cannabidiol was a Schedule 1 drug and obtaining it for research purposes and getting that research funded was as problematic as funding marijuana research.
If CBD were only available as the high-priced Epidiolex, it likely would never have become the hot topic it now is for consumers, says Kent Hutchison, professor of psychology and neuroscience at the University of Colorado and founder of the Center for Research and Education Addressing Cannabis and Health. He has received funding from the National Institutes of Health to study the effects of CBD and served on a National Academy of Science committee that produced a 2016 report on the health effects of cannabis.
“We’re at the very beginning; we really don’t know yet,” Hutchison says. “I think in the long run this could be useful to people, just not in all the ways people are currently marketing it for.” Hutchison points out that past clinical trials of CBD sometimes have used much higher doses than what is often available at retail.
For example, in the study that involved reduced anxiety in public speaking, patients took 600 milligrams of CBD right before their speeches. That’s nearly a month’s supply in some CBD oil tinctures.
Let the buyer beware
Hutchison is particularly wary of problems with CBD’s retail dosage and Labeling. Given that CBD products are not only in golf shops but supermarkets, drugstores and gas stations, the buyer-beware aspect of this phenomenon can be overwhelming. Though CBD doesn’t appear to have any significant side effects at this point, it’s not entirely clear that what you’re getting is what’s on the label. And because CBD isn’t regulated by the FDA, there are no standards or guarantees. Depending on what you purchase, the possibility exists that there could be enough THC in it to have you fail an employer’s drug test. Conversely, any product could tout any amount of CBD it wants on its label, and it might not have any CBD in it at all. At the FDA’s public hearing in May, Dr. Rosemary Mazanet, chief scientific officer for the medical marijuana company Columbia Care, testified that as much as 69 percent of CBD products in one study were mislabeled.
That can put the onus on an uninformed or unsuspecting consumer, Hutchison says, and that’s not an ideal scenario. “The reason that’s happening is because the federal government has been outside the equation for so long,” he says. “They abdicated their role in informing the public, and the companies sort of took over.”
Given the complexity, the acceleration and the constantly evolving nature of the CBD industry (it’s in everything from medicated patches to $20 chocolate bars), the government has much catching up to do. What might be more likely is some form of self-regulation. There is the beginning of a certification process from an industry group called the U.S. Hemp Authority that will review and verify CBD products for how they are produced and marketed, although that group has not yet been fully embraced by all levels of the CBD industry.
“If you’re going to try it, you should give it the best possible try, which is to find a reputable company to where you can have some confidence that what they say is in the bottle is actually in the bottle,” Hutchison says.
Of course, if consumers are looking for the FDA to somehow stabilize the CBD marketing rocket ship, consider this: It took the organization and the medical community nearly 45 years before Epidiolex got to market, despite evidence as early as 1973 that CBD might have a positive effect on seizures. That’s one drug with clear clinical results to treat a disease that affects only one in 16,000 children. By comparison, the current CBD industry is targeting nearly every man, woman and child—even pets. By one estimate, in the past three years alone, more than 1,500 CBD products have come to market, all essentially unregulated by the FDA.
The CBD-based opportunities for golfers already seem more vast, variably sourced and as inscrutable as trying to find the right golf ball. And yet there appear to be mountains of anecdotal evidence that something at least intriguing if not remarkable is at work with these compounds.
But companies have to be careful in what they say CBD is doing or risk drawing those warning letters from the FDA. Jay Hartenbach is founder and CEO of Medterra, which sells CBD in tinctures, gel capsules and creams. He’s a user and a golfer.
“I’ll be careful in what we can talk about, but yes, I think golf and CBD are a natural fit,” he says, specifically referring to using a topical cream to loosen up sore and stiff muscles and joints. “With CBD having the potential to be a really strong anti-inflammatory, I think it really can work well with all ages as they either get ready for their next round or practice session or recover from the round they finished. Certainly golfers who are struggling with those issues should be strongly considering CBD.”
There is a sense that CBD is seen as a critical asset for members of golf ’s aging population, possibly keeping them in the game longer. And if they stay in the game longer, they continue to spend money on their games.
“CBD might not grow the game, but is it possible it could help the game from shrink ing and losing players?” says Fryia, the retailer. “I don’t know, but it’s something worth talking about. A guy who just gets fed up with pain or frustration—who knows what this might do for him?”
Laura Baldwin thinks she has seen what CBD can do. Baldwin, a physical therapist, developed BestBall CBD working with her teaching-pro husband, Robbie, and his father, Robert. The two men run the golf operation at Winchester Country Club, a half-hour outside Lexington, Ky., where the elder Baldwin has been the head pro for nearly four decades. When an aging membership began complaining about aches and pains, the Baldwins turned to Laura to see if physical therapy had any answers.
“There are only so many stretches and so many exercises you can give someone, and if they don’t help, then they’re just not going to help, no matter how many times they do them,” she says. What was helping was a CBD formula developed from hemp grown in their home state, which has become an epicenter for hemp-derived CBD oil and CBD oil processing. Baldwin says she can check in on her hemp crop in nearby Paris, Ky., whenever she wants.
The CBD effect on Winchester’s members was dramatic, Baldwin says. Not only were golfers feeling better, the golf course saw increases in rounds played, cart revenue and golf-shop business. She says that if you would have asked members over the age of 60 about their general level of pain a year ago, most would have rated it at five out of 10 or worse. “Now, I would say it’s three or less,” she says, talking about 80-year-olds spending two hours on the range like a scene out of the 1980s fountain-of-youth movie “Cocoon.”
“I can see that the excitement has returned,” Baldwin says. “They’re getting to do something that they don’t have to dread anymore. Before, they would still love it and go out and play, but then they’d be miserable. They’re not having those same feelings anymore. There’s just the same, familiar, pure joy of being out there with their buddies. It’s good for their mental health, it’s good for their emotional health. I’m not saying that the product is changing their emotional health. It’s just allowing their love of the game to return.”
Al Morris, president and CEO of Worldwide Golf, sees the same opportunity from a business standpoint for his main Roger Dunn store in California and Worldwide’s extensive online retail business. The word-of-mouth effect Medterra shared with him was convincing, Morris says.
“We read countless testimonials they had received from consumers who swear by the products,” Morris says, noting that making the product free of THC was vitally important. “Many of which specifically referenced their ability to play golf better or return to playing the game due to pain relief. Obviously we make money selling it, and if it’s an unchartered revenue stream for us, why wouldn’t we try it? We carry aids for backs, knees and elbows. We sell sunscreen and sunglasses. We offer SPF sleeves and long-sleeve shirts for sun protection. It is my hope that these CBD products turn into a category such as these that help the golfer feel better and
play more golf.”
There still is the matter of educating a consumer that is being bombarded with CBD products at every turn, including new deals that have them showing up on the shelves of Walgreens and CVS, as well as in the fliers you get in the mail from Bed Bath & Beyond. CBD is at a kind of tipping point, but not necessarily one that leads to it becoming a staple like vitamins or aspirin.
“We get really excited about first of all having a compound that is coming from a naturally derived source as opposed to some thing that’s synthetic in a world where there are so many synthetic solutions out there, and at the same time having no side effects,” Medterra’s Hartenbach says. “But I agree a level of caution is essential because what we do have is this wonderful compound. If we as an industry get overly aggressive in how we market it, and we don’t do the necessary research, then there is this chance that this industry goes to the wayside. That’s why we have lots of CBD companies doing safety studies. We have to be careful because this has the potential to be a huge industry and help a lot of people, but with that comes a lot of responsibility.”
Clearly, the industry needs some kind of oversight in terms of purity, dosage and labeling, as well as clear restraint on outlandish or unsubstantiated claims. Ben Cort, author of Weed, Inc., has been a leading critic cautioning against the overcommercialization of cannabis products. He thinks there’s a place for non-THC, hemp-derived CBD, but he urges regulators and consumers to view CBD with a more discerning eye.
“As long as people are looking at a separated-out part of CBD, you can have a good conversation about a good homeopathic remedy that’s got some real potential,” Cort says, noting that it is not an easy process to get pure CBD oil and that the lack of oversight can be especially dangerous when you’re talking about the potential for the presence of pesticides and heavy metals in imported CBD oil.
“When you have a product that’s celebrity-endorsed yet non-FDA-approved, we really run the risk of creating a massive excitement and culture around this thing where we don’t know what people are using, nor do we know a lot of the long-term effects,” Cort says. “The safe answer is that anything that’s stamped ‘FDA’ has consumer protections in it, which means we know exactly what it is. But buyer beware. If somebody tells you something that sounds too good to be true, it probably is.”
Back in Burlington, Ky., at the newly named Stephens Golf Center, Andrew is up early after a late night installing the Toptracer technology in the range’s hitting bays. He is taking his daily dose of CBD on his way to an early tee time in U.S. Open local qualifying. He talks about the CBD rumors swirling around Tiger and Phil, and how it’s almost common in many of the events he’s playing now. It’s so common in his neighborhood that his dad is using CBD to calm down his dog. There’s just no obvious downside, Stephens says. “If it’s legal and it provides the slightest bit of competitive advantage, I think guys are going to take it,” he says. “The list of benefits that they claim ties right into the golf industry. They’re talking about a legal product that basically works on stress, anxiety, aches and pains.
“That pretty much describes golf.”