Why selling golf clubs was both easy and painstakingly difficult in 2021
Karl Kimball, the Director of Golf at Hillandale Golf Course in Durham, N.C., and a former PGA Tour professional, has been living the paradox of the COVID-era golf industry for almost two years now: It's the best of times, it's the worst of times. He remembers one recent email that made him laugh in the midst of the madness. It came from a customer who had ordered a set of clubs, but like many of Kimball's customers—and many golfers around the world since the pandemic began—he was stuck in the purgatory of back order, with no set ship date.
"Hey, Karl," the customer wrote. "I finally found my clubs."
And when he opened it, Kimball found an aerial photograph of the California coast, with an arrow pointing to a container ship docked in the harbor.
To quote the old expression, It's funny because it's true.
To get a sense of what life is like for those people in the golf world whose professional lives revolve around running golf courses or selling equipment in a time of supply-chain issues, you have to first understand the strange contradictions of the global pandemic. Like many other industries, from furniture to cars, the process of manufacturing and shipping golf products has become an overwhelming, backlogged mess. In September, Golf Digest’s Mike Stachura examined the granular detail of the worldwide failure, which stems from a multitude of factors that includes "factory shutdowns, raw-material shortages and shipping delays." Unlike those other industries, though, the pandemic also has functioned in golf like a reverse Trojan Horse, with a gift inside the curse. As you've no doubt read before, and likely experienced first hand, we're in the midst of a participation boom in the sport. At Hillandale, Kimball keeps data from the last 18 years, and in 2020 he logged a new record in that time: 41,000 rounds of golf. In 2021, he beat that number … by October.
Not surprisingly, the rise in participation also has led to a rise in equipment sales. In theory, that means more profit for the industry as a whole, and in practice, it has sometimes played out that way. And yet—bear with me—if there's a gift inside the curse, there's a second curse inside the gift. The central frustration of people like Kimball, and of Justin Tripp, the manager and master fitter at Continental Golf, a retail and custom-fitting outfit in Raleigh, N.C., is that supply-chain snafus mean that even with record sales, they're losing out on even more potential revenue and profits.
"As much fun as this should be for everybody, including the customers, it’s been equally as frustrating," Tripp said. "The problem is you just can't get the clubs to go with [the demand]. You go back any time before this, and it was a shock if you ordered a set of golf clubs and it took three weeks."
Now? Tripp, who has been in golf retail since 1999 and at Continental for 15 years, says he’s seen orders take up to six months, to the point that customers would often cancel orders. And if they didn’t, he’d often have to go back to customers and tell them that he could no longer predict with any accuracy when the clubs would arrive.
The problems have trickled down to literally every part of the equipment ecosystem, from clubheads to shafts (steel has proven particularly difficult) to grips to gloves to shoes to balls. Nothing is immune, and as Tripp said, it's proven exactly how vulnerable everybody is to component problems.
In turn, the general rush to put product on the market has led to quality-control issues. Tripp pointed out that club manufacturers are refusing shafts from certain companies, and even at stores like his, by the time he gets product in, he’s found himself being even more attentive than usual, particularly on custom orders.
The problem for Kimball and Tripp is that even if they're logging record sales due to the boom, they're also trying to make up for lost time during golf's lean years. "It's real easy to see that golf is thriving right now," Kimball said, "but let's peel the pages back, go back a few years, and [golf pros and retailers] were really struggling to keep two ends of the rope tied together. And now they're playing catch-up, so every round, every sale that's left on the table hurts."
For Kimball, who runs an actual course, the problems extend to areas that an average golfer would never think about, like the shortage in the trademark plastic Surlyn, which is used as a durable cover on range balls, or the petroleum-supply interruptions that make it harder to buy chemicals or even mowers. The global shortages lead to newer, bigger problems, and the fact that there's no indication of when the chain will be restored forces him to get "creative" in the most frustrating sense of the word.
This kind of enforced creativity has become common even in bigger stores. Jill Spiegel, the Chief Merchandising Officer at the PGA TOUR Superstore, is somewhat insulated from the problems facing local proprietors like Kimball and Tripp, if only because the size of her organization and its relationships with manufacturers means that delays are shorter and that they enjoy a higher priority when new products ship—the waiting time for special orders, these days, may be closer to a month or two than six. Nevertheless, she and her company have not been immune from the pandemic's impact. When it first hit in 2020, her worry, as with everyone else in the golf industry, was that there would be too much supply and nobody to buy it. By the time stores were re-opened in June, though, the new reality became clear—there was a boom on, and surplus was not going to be an issue for a very long time.
That’s when the on-the-fly adjustments began. In an attempt to get Vokey wedges in the stores, they displayed them without grips, essentially letting the customer choose their own grips. Not ideal, but it beat empty display racks. Faced with a demand for golf bags, they began to stock more from Cobra to make up the shortfall. (An accidental byproduct of this kind of maneuvering is that brands who can fix supply-chain issues faster gain an immediate advantage—Spiegel pointed to their surge in sales of Mizuno irons, simply because they're available in stores.)
The problems have trickled down to literally every part of the equipment ecosystem, from clubheads to shafts to grips to gloves to shoes to balls. Nothing is immune.
There are external factors that no amount of corporate influence can change, like the factory shutdowns in Vietnam that led to a backlog of shoe orders around the holidays. Even some domestic issues are tougher to solve; the surge in participation has included many women and children, and for them, and for men who are new to the game, starter sets that include clubs, bags and other accessories are an attractive item. Not surprisingly, this has been one of the hardest items to keep in stores for everyone. Not only does that pose an obstacle to profit, but also, potentially, to the growth of the sport on which everyone depends.
Despite the frustrations and challenges, the boom conquers all. In just the first half of 2021, PGA TOUR Superstore did more sales than in the entirety of 2019, and opened its 50th store in San Antonio. Hillandale was on track for a “banner year” in sales in 2021 before the shortages hit harder in the second half of the year, and Continental is far outperforming 2019 sales. So while money is undoubtedly being left on the table, the fact remains that it's a pretty big table in the first place.
These are the contradictions made manifest, and they will continue. That’s no great secret—when the coronavirus is the thing gumming up the works, nothing can move freely until it's over. Clearly, it's not over.
Throughout the headaches of the pandemic, Spiegel, Tripp and Kimball, all echoed one point: The customers don't necessarily like it, but they get it. They're not blaming the pro shop, or the local store, or even the manufacturers, because shortages and back orders are a simple fact of life since the transformational spring of 2020. And the most heartening fact to all of them is that nothing has stopped the surge.
"In our country, between our phones and our computers and everything, we can stay busy 24 hours a day," Kimball said. "It's a really easy thing to do. And golf is one of those things that people sacrifice their time for, and they're realizing, once again, the holistic value of the game in their lives. It's a wonderful thing to see.”