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August 1, 2015

Your Competitive Edge: The Range

By: John TORSIELLO

Golf professionals at every green-grass level know it has become more challenging to make a go of equipment sales and clubfittings because of intense competition from “big box” golf stores and the Internet, not to mention shrinking margins. “With the super Walmarts of golf, margins become netted down so they can offer lower prices. It’s driven a lot of (buyers) to off-course,” says Paul Bucy, PGA director of instruction at Desert Willow Golf Resort in Palm Desert, California. In fact, a recent Golf Datatech clubfitting study revealed that “off-course retailers continue to be the most popular location for custom fitting” among golf consumers. Since many off-course retailers buy in bulk, they’re able to endure reduced product margins and drive down prices. It’s those reduced margins and the challenge of price matching that has drive many professionals out of the equipment business altogether.

But Bucy, the leading on-course clubfitter and seller of golf equipment in the Palm Springs area, where there are more than 100 golf courses, continues to be successful. For him, the range has been vitally important to that success. The outdoor range remains the ideal place to fit a person for clubs, have them place their order and for you to cash in. The range can be your strongest weapon in the fight to regain equipment sales, and many golf professionals, including Bucy, are already utilizing it as a pivotal place to sell equipment and improve the bottom line.

Ball Flight is King

Dave Bahr, PGA head professional at Maketewah Country Club in Cincinnati, Ohio, says seeing ball flight is “everything” when selling individuals on clubfitting. “It is imperative that the customer sees the ball flight in order to complete the custom fitting,” says Bahr, whose facility partnered with nearby Xavier University on the construction of a new teaching facility that includes four hitting bays with rollup garage doors to hit outside. “The customer needs to see the ball in the air to understand how their clubs properly fit their swing.” “The first tee is where you have the ability to touch every customer, but the range is where many golfers are introduced to staff and their ability to assess someone’s game,” adds Ray Cutright, PGA director of golf at Idle Hour Club in Macon, Georgia and the 2014 PGA Professional of the Year. “PGA Professionals have a special gift when it comes to watching swing motions and ball flight, which allows us to suggest instructional or equipment changes.”

A Green-Grass Powerhouse

Haggin Oaks Golf Complex in Sacramento, California, doesn’t take a back seat to any off-course golf store when it comes to having all the bells and whistles needed to entice customers to get fit and then purchase clubs. But the outdoor range and that beautiful blue sky overhead remains the key to making the sale. Sure, Haggin Oaks has an extensive testing center that includes two TrackMan Launch Monitors, a S.A.M. PuttLab Computer Fitting System, multiple Mitchell loft and lie machines, and an A-Star Video Monitoring System with multiple cameras. “Major manufacturers have also provided hundreds of test clubs to Morton Golf, which helps us fit nearly every conceivable kind of golfer,” says Ken Morton Jr., director of retail and marketing at Morton Golf, which is based at Haggin Oaks. “But even with all the latest technology, ball flight is still at the heart and soul of golf equipment fitting and our biggest asset.”

Morton says that because of the varying levels of fitting tools available today, there’s a fair amount of skepticism from golfers hitting on a machine into a net in large big box stores. “Technology is improving in some places, but hitting a ball 12 feet into a net doesn’t provide the ‘proof in the pudding’ for many golfers,” he adds. “We promote our TrackMan, but equally promote our ability to see ball flight. The lion’s share of our customers learn through visual cues, and there is no bigger visual cue than to see their ball fly out straighter and longer than they’re used to.”

Real Turf, Real Results

There’s no denying the benefits of technology, particularly in golf. The improvements to equipment, distance-measuring devices and even apparel have been bountiful. But as with most sports, there are few things more beneficial than being outdoors under the sun working on the craft.

Shawn Cox, PGA director of golf at the Fairmont Grand Del Mar in San Diego, California, believes that trusting “something hit into a screen or net” is never as good as watching ball flight and there’s no substitute for being outdoors, especially when fitting for irons. “Hitting off grass is so important for figuring out various head designs when fitting people into a new set of irons,” says Cox. “A lot of people are on the fence between game improvement, slight game improvement or players clubs. You need to feel how they react to contact with the ground, and the soles of the clubs vary greatly from one model to the next.”

Let’s pause here for a bit and consider an important factoid that must be calculated into your overall clubfitting plan. Studies have shown that there are differences between how players attack the ball swinging inside on a mat versus swinging outside on grass. Allen Gobeski, PGA general manager of Cool Clubs, a premium clubfitting operation that has 14 locations in the continental U.S., and another six international spots, has looked at archived data from the thousands of annual fittings done by Cool Clubs. “For players who normally have a steep attack angle, the first few indoor swings have their normal descending blow. But because the sensation of hitting the mat is different than hitting real turf, they naturally adjust and shallow out their swing to compensate,” he says. “If you’re hitting 50 or so shots during an indoor fitting, you could end up making an inaccurate recommendation because it’s tough to see that trend.” Thus, it is vital to conduct the clubfitting on a grass hitting area.

Service Sets You Apart

Beyond being outdoors and having a full practice range it’s experience, familiarity with the customer and proven skill that sets on-course golf professionals apart from your everyday retailers. “I am a firm believer that a PGA Professional has the education and experience to provide the best service before and after a clubfitting,” says Bahr. “I provide all my members with a 30-day guarantee that they can return any club purchased in my shop if they are not 100-percent satisfied, because I am so confident in my ability to properly fit a person. I have not had one set returned in my 20 years of clubfitting.” Service is going above and beyond to ensure your customers are happy. Bucy recalls having customers come to him after returning drivers they’ve purchased off-course. “You have the sexy monitor and everything. And you buy a driver that says you’re hitting it out there 300 yards. Then the reality sets in two months from then that the on-course results don’t really add up to what you were seeing on the monitor because you never saw the ball flight,” he opines. “With outdoor fittings, the customer is as much a part of the process as the fitter. I’m not pushing anything on them, I’m not trying to interpret numbers and give them a diagnosis. It’s trial and error. We’re both looking at the numbers and we’re both looking at the ball flight. I rarely have a customer come back and try to return equipment. For me, service is about the quality of the fitting and making sure that I have golfer’s best interest at heart.”

What’s the Bottom Line?

Of course, clubfitting on the range results in increased sales in the pro shop, as well as upticks in lessons and range usage. Morton reports that Haggin Oaks does roughly $5.5 million in club sales annually, with 92 percent of iron sales custom fit on the range and half of all fairway wood and driver sales done the same way. Cutright believes ranges must have instruction and fitting available to grow their businesses, and it is up to the individual PGA Professional to envision, design and execute instruction and fitting programs that work for them. “As a collective group, we must remember instruction, fitting and playing are core values,” says Cutright.

For fellow Georgia-based PGA Professional Robert Stocke, forming a bond is at the root of equipment sales. “It isn’t always about price, it’s about establishing a relationship and trust with customers. Clubs are a big investment, and if players know you are working with them to give them the best tools for their game, they will reward you with a sale,” says Stocke, a PGA teaching professional at The Golf Club of Georgia in Alpharetta. “There are always going to be players who choose price or convenience, but most will choose the trust and relationship over a few dollars.”

The big boys don’t intimidate Rick and Patti Sittler, owners of Sittler Golf Center in Kutztown, Pennsylvania. They had a big box store move in on each side of them about seven years ago, and this year they are on pace to do 600 clubfittings, with an estimated 95 percent of those fittings resulting in the sale of clubs. Rick says ball flight is his major weapon in his battle against indoor fitters, even though he has all the modern fitting technology at his disposal. But for Patti it goes slightly beyond that. “We do market the importance of ball flight a lot and the fact that you have to be on an outside range to see that. But we also have had to match price points on equipment,” she says. The couple also has valueadded incentives, such as a loyalty rewards program, and they keep in contact with customers through a newsletter, email blasts as well as a dynamic website that informs and educates present and potential customers on clubfitting. Says Rick with conviction, “We aren’t going to let the big box stores bully us around.”