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Virtual Reality

Shopping for clubs has never been easier—or more daunting

March 03, 2022

Call it Dan Sueltz’s Lexus Theory. As the founder of D’Lance Golf, a clubfitting company started in 1997, Sueltz is heavily invested in the business of matching golfers with their sticks. What began in the early 1980s with Ping founder Karsten Solheim’s revolutionary use of colored dots on irons has evolved into an arms race of technological advances that just keep coming. We’ve moved from mere video capture to Hollywood production-level body sensors to swing analyzers we can buy online and use in our basement, all of which ignores one important element.

The Lexus Theory.

“If you want to buy a Lexus, you still want to go to the Lexus showroom,” Sueltz says.

You want to be wowed. You want to be wooed. You want to run your palm over the finely engineered curves and smell the new leather. You want to play with the gadgets and relish the test drive.

In that sense, choosing and buying golf clubs is no different. It is a wholly personal experience: tactile, cerebral, maybe even emotional. It’s about working and maybe bonding with a clubfitter and finding that one driver or full set that (we dream) will make all the difference.

You can’t get that in your backyard—not yet anyway. But (if you’ll allow us one more automotive analogy) the game might well be rolling up to a crossroads in how golfers choose and buy clubs. Brick-and-mortar stores still account for more than 85 percent of club purchases—in fact, sales are positively volcanic right now—but there is a slowly churning movement toward more purchases of golf clubs online as retailers start to crack the code of somewhat replicating the in-person fitting experience.

“I’ll tell you that we fully believe that there is nothing better than an in-person fitting with one of our fitters. That’s the best experience you’re going to get,” says John Gonsalves, a TaylorMade vice president who oversees direct-to-consumer production and digital marketing. “But it’s not for everybody. Not everybody has access to that or is willing to do it. People want to have choices, and we’re seeing that right now.”

THE PANDEMIC EFFECT

Credit or blame it on the past two years of managing life and recreation during the COVID-19 pandemic. With no other options during the depths of lockdowns, consumers had to ditch the Lexus Theory and shop online, doing everything from hoarding paper towels to (gulp) buying houses after virtual tours. Golf manufacturers did a stutter step, first envisioning desolate courses and then scrambling like never before when the game became the pandemic’s “it” sport. Those new to golf needed a full-bag setup, and lapsed players ventured into the garage and found that old Big Bertha looking like something that belongs in the Smithsonian.

Predictably, a sizable portion of players turned to the Web while physical stores were shut down, and some stayed with the habit even after re-openings. Golf Datatech, an industry leader in tracking retail sales, specifically created a monthly report in early 2021 to be able to compare the numbers during the pandemic. “That’s when everything exploded,” notes John Krzynowek, a Golf Datatech partner. “And that’s when we saw a really significant shift in how people buy golf products.”

Online sales aren’t linear in nature. The biggest increases—and they’ve been seismic—have come with products such as balls and shoes because people generally know their sizes or preferences. In the first six months of 2021, 66 percent of golf-ball sales were made online, followed by shoes (45 percent) and gloves (43 percent), according to Golf Datatech. There was a rapid drop off after that, with all club categories coming in the 13- to 15-percent range. (Interestingly, wedges were the most-bought club online at 15 percent.)

However, the club category that has comprised a smaller piece of the digital landscape has seen significant growth. Comparing January 2021 to the same month in 2020, before the pandemic hit, online sales of irons were up 155 percent; woods rose 143 percent, and putters were up 111 percent. In March 2021, one year after the beginning of the pandemic shutdowns, most club sales were more than 200 percent better. That trend eventually tailed off, and by September 2021, online club sales were mostly flat or a little down.

It was still an extraordinary time. For the year through September, Golf Datatech reported a 39-percent increase in online sales from 2020, compared to 30 percent in the brick-and-mortar sector.

“What happened is that you saw this rapid expansion, and then there was a quick leveling,” Krzynowek says. “But that leveling happened at a much higher level than where it was before.”

OBSTACLES OF ONLINE FITTING

Club sales do not equate to actual fittings, and that’s why retailers continue to ruminate over the challenges and possibilities. Some companies dived deeper than others into attempts to fit online, but all admit they have a long way to go before they can replicate in-person fittings. The idea of a fitter appearing via hologram in your living room like Obi-Wan Kenobi still seems to occupy a galaxy far, far away.

“People, generally, don’t really believe that custom-fitting online is very valuable, as of right now,” Krzynowek says. “Eventually, somebody is going to figure out how to unlock that. For now, nobody has.”

The obstacles are numerous, with the foremost being that golf is inherently experiential, and people want to see and feel the clubs they’re considering—and hit them, of course. That factor has created during the past decade a relatively new and growing industry of specialty fitting outlets such as Club Champion, True Spec and Golftec, which have access to dozens of name-brand clubheads and hundreds of shafts that they assemble in-house or order from the major manufacturers. Those are in addition to the larger golf stores like PGA Tour Superstore and Golf Galaxy—the latter owned by Dick’s Sporting Goods, which has started ramping up the fitting experience in its outlets.

Seeking to enhance the in-store shopping experience, Golf Galaxy began opening “performance centers” in the summer of 2021. Amenities include TrackMan and Bio- Mech fitting technologies, plus hitting bays, golf lessons and custom-fittings.

“With Golf Galaxy comps significantly outperforming the company average in recent quarters, we’re leaning into this streak by investing in our Golf Galaxy business,” Dick’s executive chairman Ed Stack told analysts on a call in May.

At Club Champion, founder and CEO Nick Sherburne says he has explored online fitting and will undoubtedly move toward some form of it in the future. But he has yet to see a system that works as well as the individual attention a golfer gets from his fitters. Today, a Club Champion client can make an appointment and have every aspect of his or her swing analyzed, and then, with interchangeable shaft technology, a fitter can produce spec clubs in a matter of minutes.

Illustrations by Mario Wagner

“Fitting software can put you in these buckets, but at the end of the day I can give a recommendation that will beat that,” Sherburne says. “There is no replacement for in-person fitting. I don’t care what body type you are, or what swing speed you are, golf swings are like snowflakes. We all swing differently. It’s how your body adjusts to clubs differently.”

That experience comes at a premium, of course. A driver fitting at Club Champion, for example, costs $175; a full-bag fitting is $400. That’s on top of whatever you decide to spend on the clubs, and the price is likely to be higher if you fall in love with a high-performance (and much more expensive) shaft. A driver might eclipse $1,000.

Golf Datatech’s Krzynowek, who has written extensively on the history and experience of custom-fitting, says that the satisfaction level for those who go to specialty fitting stores is “very, very high” and posits that’s because customers trust the process. “There’s the perception that it’s not being driven by anybody’s motivations other than the data that comes back to me,” he says.

As for the extra cost, “The closest thing I can compare it to is the research they’ve done at Disney on people’s satisfaction with the experience,” Krzynowek says. “People say, ‘Oh, my God, it’s so expensive!’ And then you ask them, ‘Would you come back?’ And people say, ‘Oh, God, yeah.’ ”

The counter to the in-person experience is online shopping, which can seem less intimidating and formal, with less sense of pressure to buy, and maybe a reduced inclination to write a bigger check. That’s where online retailers see an opening, and they’re going to great lengths and expense to test the market.

GOLF RETAIL’S DIGITAL FUTURE

Sueltz, of D’Lance Golf, which has a store outside of Denver, sat in on a meeting at TaylorMade a few years ago and heard executives envision a day when 50 percent of their business would be online. Inspired, he developed a separate website, TrueFitClubs, and says that business has grown rapidly over the past two years, including an increase in revenue of 50 percent in 2021.

A Golf Digest 100 Best Clubfitter, Sueltz already had developed a proprietary fitting algorithm based on the company’s own research into shaft performance, and he’s working to eventually translate that into the online fittings that are currently free of charge on the site. At present, consumers who go to the TrueFitClub site will be asked seven questions about their golf game. Some, such as desired ball trajectory, are straightforward, and others—tempo, transfer speed and point of release—would take a more experienced golfer to navigate.

“The majority of people who buy from us have been through a custom-fitting already,” Sueltz said. “They get the drill. They know what they’re looking for.

“The ones I think we miss in terms of e-commerce are the people who are relatively new to the game. We’re going to have to do a better educational job up front with our videos. We have 150 blogs that try to explain everything, but to be honest, I don’t know that’s our market now. We will get to that.”

Online fittings also suffer another hurdle: the reality check. Some sites ask players how far they hit their driver or 7-iron. Bravado can make for a bad result because we all know golfers can be a bit delusional about their skill, and TrackMan usually doesn’t lie. For that reason, Sueltz has his online orders double-checked by people who understand the golf swing. “We’ll ask [the customer], ‘Are you sure you want a 47-inch driver with an [extra-stiff] shaft? Did the system tell you that?’ ”

More companies are moving to give online shoppers an opportunity to talk to knowledgeable golf people by phone or via live messaging before they choose clubs. Ping and Callaway began offering fitting consults two years ago, and during the early stages of the COVID pandemic, Gonsalves said TaylorMade launched a virtual fitting system in which customers could speak to a fitter via Zoom on a 30- to 60-minute call.

“It was so well received by the fitters and golfers that we’ve continued to offer it,” Gonsalves said, adding that the company plans to have future online fittings performed from The Kingdom, the company’s headquarters in Carlsbad, Calif. In the fall, Golf Galaxy introduced an online fitting aid with live advice, calling it Virtual Club Advisors.

Nearly all of the major club companies, as well as smaller fitters such as D’Lance, have some kind of fitting element to their website. Go to TaylorMade, Callaway, Cobra and Titleist, and once you’ve identified the clubhead you’re looking for, you then go through a series of windows in which you pick a shaft (TaylorMade has eight companies and dozens of models represented), and grips (again, many choices). It’s critical to keep an eye on the running dollar total because it can go up quickly depending, particularly, on the shaft you choose.

DRIVING DIGITAL ENGAGEMENT

The online access to all of this information and technology has probably made the golfer of the 2020s the most educated and savvy in history. Players can gather swing specs rather easily from a local fitter or even a practice range that has tracking equipment. “They’re almost fitting themselves online today,” says Cobra Puma Golf president Dan Ladd, whose company will launch an updated website in 2022 with a greater emphasis on fitting details. “That’s a great opportunity for wholesale business. People understand about length, lie and grip. They are able to talk about their clubhead speeds and their launch angles. We’re able to speak to them in a way they understand. It’s good for the game, good for retail.”

For those who enjoyed going to their local golf store and sifting through the barrels of used clubs, trying to find a discounted magic wand, the pandemic was a buzzkill. Golfers eagerly snatched up preowned clubs, and we went from bountiful choices to a shortfall. That turned out to be a very good thing for companies such as Global Golf, one of the leading online retailers for clubs. Ed Byman, the company’s CEO, said he has seen a 30-percent increase in revenue over the past two years and more than 100-percent rise in new-product sales among the pandemic staples of equipment, from hitting nets to pullcarts.

Global Golf was well-positioned during COVID-19 for the demand onslaught because of its large inventory, and it had already introduced some unique aspects to club buying. In 2018, it launched UTry, which offers golfers a chance to try any club at home for a $25 fee ($50 for an iron set). If the player likes the club, he or she keeps it, and the tryout fee is rolled into the full price. If not, the player sends it back with prepaid postage. The program, Byman believes, solves some of the issues with online purchasing because players can get a club in their hand with little risk.

In 2021, Global Golf added another feature, USelect, which asks golfers to answer a number of questions and then club recommendations are offered. Like similar efforts by other golf retailers, it’s still somewhat rudimentary, but Byman said he’s developing protocols for a more advanced fitting that could debut sometime in 2022. “We need to leverage the technology out there,” he says. “Everybody has a smartphone that is great for videos. Just about everybody is familiar with Zoom. You can use tools to be able to see how someone swings a golf club, to see how they load a shaft. Now we can get them into the right shaft.”

“Engagement” has become a buzzword in the industry. With people comfortable interacting online, brands and stores are more aware that they need to do more than just pump out products. They need to interact with customers who want to be a part of their “team,” even offering extensive custom opportunities. Callaway, for example, offers a “customs” program in which golfers can choose among finishes and personalize the head with various colors, initials and logos. Customers can see their creation online before they buy. Buying clubs is like buying a car: In some instances, you can pick the color of the “trim” on your driver.

There are other modes of engagement on the social media side, and that’s where the value of people such as Jill Thomas comes in. Before joining PGA Tour Superstore just before the pandemic, Thomas had worked in marketing roles with Disney, Yum! Brands, PepsiCo and Cinnabon. She already was tasked with upgrading the Superstore’s digital footprint when the pandemic hit, and what figured to be a long, steady march became a run-for-your-life sprint. Thomas has emphasized getting the attention of women and newbies, and she was proud in late 2021 to have put the company on one of the hottest apps out there, the seemingly very un-golf-like TikTok. “We got a big response immediately,” Thomas said of gaining 4,500 followers in the first couple of weeks.

Traditionalists might shake their heads, but they’re very likely the same golfers hankering for a fitting so that they can buy the latest and greatest driver. Golf ’s place in the online space has never been more important, and the potential upside never greater or more daunting. “There’s a lot of work to be done here, and everybody would say there’s no end in sight,” Cobra’s Ladd says. “There is no end to the Internet.”

That’s both the beauty and the curse.

HOW TO BE A SMARTER CYBER-SHOPPER

The beauty of buying clubs online, like buying anything on the Web, is how easy it is. We don’t recommend golfers do a lot of self-fitting and click-to-buy, but we acknowledge it has become a major source of golf-club purchasing. As always, we’re here to help.

(1) Proceed with caution. The Internet is a haven for the dishonest and counterfeiters. Make sure you’re buying from an authorized dealer. That means a legit retailer such as Golf Galaxy or similar. Resist the temptation to buy a new club on an auction site like eBay at substantially less than its retail price. Although some stories of “just won in a raffle” or “got as a gift” are true, many are just fronts for bogus clubs.

(2) Do your homework. The endless club choices available can be overwhelming. The fact you’re reading this publication means you’re off to a good start. The Hot List offers information—like knowing the subtle differences between driver models—that will help you narrow your choices to a manageable number. Self-awareness is helpful, too. That new driver played on tour might look sweet in your bag, but if you fight a slice, the draw version is likely a better option. Have an informed assessment of your game.

(3) Do an online fitting—and be prepared for it. Most manufacturers and many online retailers offer some form of online fitting. Is it as good as an in-person fitting? Unlikely. However, the COVID-19 pandemic forced retailers to create better online fitting avenues. To take advantage of them, get some launch-monitor data with your current set. You want numbers that come with a real golf ball, not a range ball. Furthermore, keep notes during a few actual rounds. Note your trajectory and shot shape and whether your desire is to make it higher, lower, more right or more left. This information helps make an online fitting fruitful.

(4) Mind your wallet. The base price of a new car might look attractive initially until you start adding up the extras. The same thing can happen with a set of clubs. Upgraded shafts and customization will boost the final price. Make sure you know what you’re getting into—shipping costs, among them.

(5) Understand the trade-in or return policy. Despite your efforts, you might find the club you bought doesn’t work for you. What to do? Some outlets allow credit toward another club. There’s another concept that is appealing: Some online retailers such as Global Golf have “tryout” programs in which you pay a nominal fee (about $25), and the retailer ships you the club, and if it doesn’t work, you send it back. The only money you’ve spent is the fee, and even the return shipping is paid for. If you like the club and keep it, the tryout fee is usually applied to the purchase price. —TL