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Home OUT WITH OLD, IN WITH THE NEW:

It may be an understatement to suggest everyone is eager to close the books on 2009. It has been the most difficult year in recent memory for a wide variety of reasons. The most obvious one was the economy. Hopes are that 2010 has a friendlier one waiting in the wings for all.

To say it was an unusual year is equally an understatement. No one could have predicted how the final weeks of 2009 would be dominated by news coming from tabloid sources. Not that anything was actually reported with respect to the game just the private life of its most distinguished member. Nevertheless, this chapter can’t come to a close soon enough.

Looking back, golf in general fared better than a lot of other industries. It didn’t get a bail out package from Washington. Yet, odds are it likely would have accepted one had it been offered. The auto industry or banking business was presented with far greater challenges than golf had to contend with. Tournaments were staged and yet there were no bounced checks. Tiger came back better than ever after his knee surgery. Let’s hope the same can be said when he is able to repair his personal life. For the time being, the PGA Tour and golf itself has its greatest marketing asset on an indefinite hiatus.

Avid to passionate golfers continued to play, more or less depending on a case-by-case basis. It is generally accepted that the cumulative number of rounds played on a national basis was equal to 2008. But we have no idea what relationship price played in this equation. The early catch phrase making the rounds about 2009 implied that flat was the new version of up. The rounds played report fit the bill for the sake of this line of thinking despite anecdotal reports of members walking away from their private clubs. The latter point is certainly something no one would have seriously entertained before. Its unclear at this point how many courses closed up shop, a trend that also was experienced in the retail side of the industry? Will consolidation at either of these levels indicate a less is more application for those left standing. There will be those who float this idea as a means to suggest an area of growth exists, despite less than ideal playing conditions.

And consumers continued to buy new products during the year even when conventional wisdom suggested a tight fist should be applied to discretionary spending. The equipment companies, by in large, held their own in 2009. To date, two companies entered the year but essentially exited before the calendar was turned to 2010. Nickent went into receivership and Golfsmith acquired MacGregor. It is being converted to a house brand for it and the retailer is preparing to reintroduce the brand to consumers in 2010. But it will be confined to the retail space provided by its new owner. Equipment sales in 2009 came in lower as evidence by retail and equipment company sales reports released through Wall Street. However, the industry didn’t completely fall off a cliff as some may have privately worried. Price was employed as an equalizer. It bridged the gap between fear (towards the economy) and greed as it helped to stimulate sales to varying degrees. Consumers in turn were somewhat accommodating. Looming for 2010 is whether the past will influence the future. Will golf consumers be on the look out for a deal before opening up their wallets or simply spend on impulse? Value, which is open to interpretation, is most likely the new battleground.

The industry, now more than ever, could use the influence of a hot product. It would invigorate the retail landscape and perhaps even motivate consumers to play more frequently. However, equipment designers have been confined with the space available to them under the existing rules. While they have demonstrated a significant amount of creativity in their collective work, the challenge is the simple fact they have to find a way to create more from less. Golf’s ruling bodies have been active in recent years towards equipment regulations and equipment companies have demonstrated a propensity to live within these confines. How long can they continue to deliver incremental performance improvements before they run completely out of space?

Some businesses are talking up their prospects in such far away places as China, India or South America. Golf has often been considered by those who haven’t been bitten by its bug, as a game for the affluent. It remains to be seen whether new geographies will embrace golf or those with the time and money to populate it. Can it overcome cultural differences in places where it hasn’t been accepted before? The game gained inclusion into the 2016 Olympic Games so the possibility of government intervention towards sponsoring a nation to play is possible. But its a safe bet to say the jury is going to be out for a long deliberation before any clues can be uncovered to suggest or imply it has found a new hot spot of growth.

In hindsight, 2009 was ushered in with many challenges for the golf industry. Some were more apparent than others, but the industry that supports the game has survived. The economy is expected to pick up next year but no one is calling for a marked improvement even if there are soft numbers to be compared to. Unemployment levels are expected to start 2010 hovering around 10%. It remains to be seen whether this will improve by a significant amount thus allowing more Americans to fuel an economic recovery. As it was in 2009, the economy will still present a head wind for the golf industry in 2010. Perhaps it will change direction but no one knows its timing. It is shaping up early on to be another difficult year. But all businesses will be wiser from the lessons learned and skills acquired in 2009 to tackle 2010.