“It’s crazy, crazy times.”

“Chaos.”

“It’s f’n nuts.”

Consider those summary thoughts from a few of our contacts inside medium to large golf equipment companies as they come to terms with COVID-19. It’s not any kind of a stretch to say they speak for everyone.

Let’s not mince words. The impact of COVID-19 on the golf equipment industry’s biggest players will be brutal. It already is and the longer it drags, the worse it’s going to get. While some have taken aggressive action, some believe the next couple of weeks will be the most destructive.

“Bold moves, or die,” said one source. “Simple.”

Everything is on the line and there’s no indication that things are going to be fine any time soon. That’s not to say there isn’t some optimism. Across the industry, teams are working hard to ensure that when doors reopen, they’re ready to deal with the COVID-19 fallout, push forward and make the most of the new reality – whatever it happens to be.

This isn’t unique to the golf world, which speaks to the reality that COVID-19 is impacting us all and whether we choose to be or not, we’re all in this together.

The Impact So Far

The biggest equipment retailers are mostly closed. Only a minority of courses were open (44 percent according to an NGF report released last week – and that was before courses closed in NY). Some of us are choosing not to leave our houses.

It should go without saying that golf equipment brands of all sizes have taken a beating.

Hot starts: TaylorMade back on top of the driver category, Bridgestone’s new Tour B selling well, and Mizuno riding the momentum of MP-20 into the new year… Evaporated – at least for now.

  • Callaway – while the specific numbers are unconfirmed, Callaway laid off more than 100 people. More than 300 others were furloughed. Some of those remaining are taking pay cuts. CEO Chip Brewer is taking no pay at all.
  • Titleist – With its Carlsbad club assembly plant and Fairhaven ball plants shutdown, Titleist has furloughed workers whose jobs can’t be done remotely. The plan… the hope… is to bring everyone back as soon as safely possible.
  • PING – factory floor is closed. It has furloughed workers as well.
  • Taylormade – It’s a similar story at TaylorMade where operations are effectively shut down. It too has furloughed some employees and executives have taken a pay cut.
  • Cobra and Mizuno – smaller brands where headcounts run leaner than the industry leaders, have thus far avoided staffing cutbacks. Thus far is the operative phrase as, in situations like these, it’s a rarely spoken truth that everyone is on the clock.

It may get worse before it gets better.

What Companies Are Doing Right Now

For most, there’s a backlog of orders that isn’t nearly as big as it needs to be to make up for the lost time. Those same backorders will present a challenge when it’s time go back to work. In the short term, headcounts will need to be high enough to catch up but there are concerns that ramping up and bringing everyone back too quickly will result in workers being furloughed a second time.

“Normal” is way off in the distance.

Those employees who can are working remotely; designing, engineering, and holding virtual Happy Hours to stay connected and keep spirits high. And planning…everyone is planning to whatever extent is possible for a seemingly limitless number of scenarios.

  • When will the PGA TOUR return to action?
  • When can factories and headquarters reopen?
  • When will the big box retailers like Dick’s and PGA TOUR Superstore reopen?
  • Smaller brick-and-mortar shops, green-grass, and custom fitters? When, when, and when.

So many questions. Absolutely no answers. None.

Everyone has a date, of course. Some are plenty more optimistic than others. Two weeks, May 1, June, July? Later? Nothing is chiseled in stone; light pencil marks only.

It’s not that nobody knows for certain; it’s that nobody really has a clue. COVID-19’s schedule can’t manipulated and so, like many of us, the big golf equipment companies are making do and hoping for the best while attempting to navigate every conceivable what if – all with the understanding that absolutely everything is subject to change with less than a moment’s notice. And because of that, nearly every conceivable option for what comes next remains on the table.

Everyone acknowledges there’s no script and so there’s no definitive plan of attack. A national shutdown, a hard stop resulting from a global pandemic; those I’ve spoken with suggest that before last month, it was as close to the literal definition of “inconceivable” as you’re likely to find.

The Short-Term Impact

The immediate impact, beyond the disruption of daily life – the human stuff that has impacted all of us – is what you’d very much expect.

Sales.

They’re nonexistent. While some are playing golf, as COVID-19 spreads, states are closing courses. Fewer are reopening. Brick-and-mortar and green-grass shops are shut down. You can still order online but for companies who assemble in USA – Titleist, PING, and Mizuno – everything is effectively on hold. Your custom order? Yeah. No.

For the golf equipment biz, the timing couldn’t be worse. Depending on when warmer weather arrives, the lion’s share of the revenue – upwards of 50 percent for some brands – is made in a three-month span somewhere between March and June. Thirty days in either direction. Q2 is the lifeblood of the golf equipment industry and in 2020, even under the rosiest of scenarios, it effectively doesn’t exist.

Projections are all over the map but between sales that aren’t happening now and those that may not happen even after restrictions lift, estimated losses are expected to fall somewhere between 25 and 50 per cent. For some, perhaps a bit less. For others, it could be a bit more.

Massive Inventory

As economic concepts go, supply and demand as is simple as it gets, which makes it easy to understand why the situation the industry finds itself in right now –seemingly infinite supply with near zero demand – is problematic.

The Big Four (Callaway, PING, TaylorMade, and Titleist) along with Cobra on the metalwoods (drivers, fairways and hybrids) and Mizuno in the iron market – in either category, the top-five brands control more than 90 percent of the market and all of the above entered Q2 with inventory levels somewhere between well stocked and fully loaded.

The largest brands have enough inventory on hand to sustain upwards of six months’ worth of sales projections. In early February, the concern was that once that initial inventory was depleted, there could be delays in restocking from overseas. Within weeks, fears shifted.

“Who is going to spend $500 on a driver right now?” asked one source rhetorically. There’s an oversupply of product and nobody is sure how to get rid of it.

Specifics weren’t discussed but it’s reasonable to assume that Callaway, TaylorMade, and Cobra – all of whom released new metalwood and iron lines just before the virus hit – all qualify as fully loaded. Titleist launched new irons and wedges, but it’s more than six months into the bulk of the T-Series iron lineup and approaching the end of the cycle of the TS lineup. It, perhaps, is a bit better off where inventory is concerned.

The same is likely true for PING. The company recently launched G710 irons and new putters but G400 MAX has been on the market for more than two years. G410 PLUS and SFT are now into their second year and the 410 LST will be entering the second year of its cycle well before social distancing exits the conversation.

Like Titleist, it’s in every-so-slightly better shape, but there’s no doubt that both are sitting on more inventory than they’d like. Better is a long way from good.

Everybody’s products are collecting dust on the shelves of shuttered retail shops. There’s massive inventory in warehouses too, and it’s all losing value by the day with no reasonable expectation that much of anything will sell before June 1. And, as with everything else in this conversation, June is just somebody’s guess. Optimistically, it could be May. Realistically, it could just as likely be July.

There’s a very real possibility that for golf equipment makers, 2020 will be lost – the season that never happened.

Every Potential Answer Leads to More Questions

COVID-19 is proving to be the worst kind of live fire risk assessment exercise. Total Shutdown Due to Pandemic probably didn’t make the list of possible disruptive events. Localized disasters, sure, but a complete lockdown measured in months wasn’t on the radar. And even if it was, what do you do?

What can anybody do?

There’s no plan for this, no tried-and-true surefire recovery method. That’s especially true when everything is a moving target and nobody knows when normal resumes or even what the next normal looks like. All any of us – and that includes the guys eventually making the decisions for golf companies – can do is speculate about what things might look like on the other side of this while attempting to plan for any and all eventualities.

What’s Certain and What Will Happen Because of It

What we know with certainty is that when things normalize, retailers and golf brands will have an excessive amount of inventory to deal with. The bulk of the busiest part of the buying season will be behind us. Consumer confidence is a question mark but with unemployment numbers climbing and everyone feeling uneasy, the expectation is that when golfers return to the course, we will do so with tremendous enthusiasm but the excitement may not – in fact, it likely won’t – carry over to retail.

The eventual return to normal makes the question only marginally less rhetorical.

Who is going to spend $500 on a driver?

The core golfer is enthusiastic, passionate and, by and large, affluent enough to stomach what gear costs but we have our limits and the expectation is that for the foreseeable future – and that means most of 2020 – golfers will be more reticent to spend than usual.

Whether normal – there’s that word again – returns in May, June or July, there’s no expectation that demand is going to catch up to the supply. Excess inventory is going to leave golf companies with limited choices, none of which are remotely close to ideal and all of which will likely have a domino effect on the entire industry.

When doors open for business again, brands will almost certainly choose from one of three options:

  • Wait…
  • Wait longer… …
  • Blow the roof off this motherf*cker!

The first two options require patience and restraint and given that even in the best of times the equipment industry hasn’t been particular adept at either, it feels, for the moment anyway, that most will choose an alternative course.

Wait

Waiting, by some measure, is a bit like pretending COVID-19 never happened. As soon as possible, carry on with business as usual.

There’s something to be said for maintaining both the status quo and an illusion of normalcy, and waiting doesn’t preclude future discounts. Prices could still be cut aggressively at the end of the cycle and 2021 product could still be launched as planned.

The problem with waiting is that retailers and golf companies are overstocked to the degree that, even with big price drops towards the end of the year, there will likely be significant quantities of discounted inventory competing with the new stuff for both dollars and floor space.

Wait Longer

One possibility is that manufacturers could forgo discounts entirely, essentially accept 2020 for the colossal shitshow that it undeniably is, and let products like Speedzone, SIM and Mavrik ride for two years. Insanity, I know.

Extending cycles is a minimally disruptive scenario that would, over time, alleviate most of the inventory issues. It theoretically maintains both the competitive balance and retailer margins. It would also be less disruptive to the launch calendar as a whole. Skip a year, sure, but otherwise the industry’s typical cadence stays intact.

For the two-year cycle to work, brands accustomed to one-and-done seasons will need to figure out how to reinvigorate their product stories to keep things fresh for another 18 months or so at a time when the timing advantage would likely favor Titleist and PING who would both presumably have new product on the shelves.

The obvious downside to letting it ride is that it doesn’t solve anybody’s short-term cashflow problems. Golf companies will need cash on the other side of this. Retailers will, too. When the dust settles, we’re probably only talking about an extra six months of effective selling but that’s probably six months too long.

Blow the roof off this motherf*cker!

The nuclear option is also the most likely option and I’d wager that at least two from the list of one-year cycle guys will choose this route.

Not so long ago, Slash and Burn (cutting prices and blowing out inventory) was standard industry practice. When the COVID -19 cloud lifts, this scenario has manufacturers rapidly discounting inventory and likely aggressively so. That could mean $100 (probably more) off a new driver or “buy a driver, get a fairway and maybe a hybrid, too”, promotion. Irons will be discounted, as well. Discounting, BOGO or some combination of two, would likely prove the most effective way to move through inventory in time to start over next January.

Slash and Burn is far from a perfect solution, however. It solves one problem while creating more.

First, golf brands would have to figure out how to do right by retailers. A good bit of equipment retail runs on slim margins. In the slash-and-burn days of the past, golf companies typically applied credit to the next round of orders. Even in the best of times, the Net Down credit model didn’t work particularly well. It effectively forced retailers to take in more product (some of which they may not want) and as we’ve said on countless occasions, credit doesn’t keep the lights on. With most golf shops closed, retailers are already taking a massive hit so credit towards 2021 product is of little practical value when what everyone needs is real money.

One company I spoke with believes the company that comes out ahead will be the one that does the best job of taking care of its retail partners. From what I gather, everyone knows that leaving retailers on the hook and netting down isn’t an option (at least not a good one) but I’m not sure anyone has figured out a better alternative. It’s possible a combination of cash and credit could hold everyone over long enough to get back on track next year.

Second, there are several brands which exist all but for the value they represent in the marketplace. Tour Edge, Wilson Staff (in some lines), direct-to-consumer brands like Sub70, Ben Hogan and others differentiate themselves almost entirely by price. While there will always be some who root for and support the little guy, if come July, the price for a Mavrik or SIM drops appreciably, the value proposition for the smaller brands will evaporate. The little guys are feeling the pinch every bit as much as the big guys and if part of the fallout from COVID-19 is that the big guys infringe on the value space, the risk that COVID-19 puts some smaller brands out of business increases exponentially.

Third, steeply discounted product could impact mid- to late-season releases. In a normal year, we’d expect PING to roll out new drivers and likely new irons in the summer. If Titleist cycles hold, the replacement for the TS line should arrive not long after.

When the other guys are blowing out what is effectively brand-new, current-year product, it becomes exceedingly difficult – impossible, really – for others to compete at full price. PING has already decided to push its summer launches until 2021. I fully expect Titleist will do the same.

Given that Callaway has been the most aggressive in making cuts, I suspect it’s going to take an aggressive approach to discounting. As a bit of a tweener between large and mid-sized brands, Cobra will likely follow. The one to watch is TaylorMade. My gut says that, of the three, it’s most likely to take a shot at a two-year cycle. That said, if everyone else is selling at discounted prices (PING’s G410 and Titleist’s TS lineup were end-of-cycle discounted prior to COVID), and with new stuff presumably coming in 2021, extending SIM for an extra year may not be a viable option.

Few, if any, options are off the table right now and these are exactly the type of conversations happening inside golf equipment companies as they work to settle on their post-COVID strategies.

The Timeline Matters

There is one final ripple, a worst-case scenario under which there ceases to be a choice.

R&D teams are largely working remotely, engineers are still plugging away on their CAD files and with the Asian factories mostly back up and running, the expectation is that what is, for now, slated to be 2021 product will be ready to go. With offices empty, however, opportunities to test and validate prototypes arriving from overseas are limited.

If the shutdown lingers, it could significantly inhibit the manufacturers’ ability to test and validate new product to the typical standard. In the absence of complete and thorough testing, brands will fall back on experience. “We know what to do and how to make a good product,“ one of my R&D contacts recently told me. But he does concede there is some risk in moving forward with a product that hasn’t been fully tested.

It’s reasonable to think the timelines aren’t absolutely identical industry-wide but 2021 designs will need to be finalized by October (give or take). If COVID-19 defies expectations and lingers into fall, tested or not, the new product might not be ready. Should that happen, there would be little choice but to continue on with the current product.

The only thing that’s certain is uncertainty

I’m no different than anyone else. I can’t tell you exactly what’s going to happen or when. What I do know is that that like most businesses, the golf equipment industry’s big players are feeling an anaconda-sized squeeze and all any of them want is to recall their employees and get back to work.

It’s going to take some time.

There’s no John Krasinski-grade good news here but if there is a winner, for once it’s going to be consumers. I’ll wager we’re going to see bigger discounts on current-year product than we’ve seen in recent memory – maybe ever.

There’s massive inventory and the natural order of things won’t be nearly enough to unload it in time for a normal 2021. Consumer confidence is an unknown but for golfers comfortable enough to spend on the luxury that is golf equipment, you’ll have your pick of new drivers for $400 or less and you might even get a free fairway wood and some golf balls.

We want to play (we always want to play) and the hope is that the population is affluent enough to weather the storm and that most of the six million or so core golfers who buy the majority of equipment each season will resume their old habits as soon as we possibly can.

The most optimistic view is that normal, like any object in the rearview mirror, is closer than it appears.