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Wilson, Nike Steal the Show at the 2002 PGA Merchandise Expo in Orlando

ORLANDO, FL - Ben Hogan never made any blind assumptions when it came to the game of golf. Hogan realized that golf balls weren't perfectly round, so he used to put his supply in a bathtub with Epsom salt to force the heavy side of the ball to the top. With his golf balls strategically marked on the heavy side, Hogan could minimize the error on his putts.

Wilson created quite a buzz at an otherwise subdued 2002 PGA Merchandise Show in Orlando, Fla., by introducing its new Wilson Staff "True" golf ball. Wilson officials claim to have created a perfectly balanced golf ball, and the company put on a series of demonstrations at its booth utilizing a robotic putter to prove the technology.

Some retailers, however, question Wilson's ability to market the ball when most PGA Tour players have endorsement agreements with ball behemoths like Titleist and Nike.

"If it were Titleist introducing this (concept), it would rock the world," says Jerry Woodall, owner of Tee to Green Golf Shop in Eden, N.C. "Wilson doesn't have the power people, so they are indicting other ball makers as having imperfect products. Callaway has already come out and said that Wilson better be careful about how it markets this product."

Wilson may not have a Tiger Woods or a David Duval, but it did convince one of the greatest putters of all time that the True ball is for real. Wilson used the PGA show to announce that two-time Masters champ Ben Crenshaw would play the ball during his Senior PGA Tour debut at the Royal Caribbean Classic in Key Biscayne, Fla. in February.

That Wilson beat Titleist and Nike to the punch with this technological break through surprised many industry experts. Golf ball manufacturers have known for years that golf balls are imperfectly balanced, and short game expert Dave Pelz even crafted a video on the subject and covers the issue extensively in his "Putting Bible."

John Bunn, owner of Carolina Custom Golf, believes that the sheer number of new golf balls on the market could temper Wilson's announcement today.

"The average golfer has so many choices of new balls that Wilson's True ball may not have the impact that it could have at another point in time," he says. "And with Wilson, if the guys that don't do it for a living don't use it, then who will? The Lady Precept took off without any high profile endorsements, but that is rare."

Indeed, Titleist unveiled its follow up to the ridiculously popular Pro V-1, the Pro V Star, which company officials describe as a "niche'' companion to its seductive sibling; Maxfli introduced the "Noodle", an all purpose ball that proclaims to be both "long and straight;" Pinnacle added two new Power Core balls to its increasingly popular Power Core line; and Precept followed-up its successful MC Lady ball with the even softer "Laddie" ball.

On the golf club front, Nike's entrance into the clubmaking business was flashier than a Tiger Woods grin. Interestingly, Nike's new irons are of the forged variety -- ideal for low handicappers, but geared towards only three to five percent of the market. The forged Titanium 275cc and 350cc Nike drivers are two of the sleekest metal woods on the market, and the company is touting Duval's increase in driving distance as their major selling point. The 400cc version of the driver was temporarily banned by the USGA, but a reversal in the decision enabled Nike to launch the club at the PGA show.

"What Nike is trying to do up front is get the better player," Woodall says. "They are not trying to sell a bunch of golf clubs right now. With their reported marketing budget, it's the biggest launch in history. Next year at the show, they'll probably introduce a perimeter weighted forged club to capture more of the market." Callaway, the original purveyors of the toaster oven sized driver, trotted out its new C-4 driver and expanded its ERC line with the debut of its Big Bertha ERC Forged Titanium Fairway Woods. The fairway woods utilize a five-piece head construction with Callaway's patented "cup-face" section, which officials say allows them to make the clubface area extremely thin without losing strength.

"Callaway is still hot," Bunn says. "Its easy to forget they were the big player in this club game for so long, with all that Nike is doing."

Companies like McGregor that used to cater to price sensitive golfers also appear to be entering into the high stakes game of upscale clubmaking. McGregor's forged V-Cavity drivers are retailing for $299, and Woodall simply describes the club as "awesome." The 2002 edition of this high profile event left most retailers wondering if anyone was looking out for the high handicapper on a limited budget.

"The thing that really amazed me about the show was the number of companies putting out forged clubs for the three to five percent of the market at such high prices," Bunn says. "Most golfers will wait until the end of the year and buy them marked down."

Tour Edge, a niche market clubmaker that has consistently provided golfers with an affordable competitor to more expensive big brands, unleashed its Bazooka F4 driver and its Bazooka 350J irons. Suggested retail for the F4 is $199 and the 350J's with metal shafts come in around $540. All Tour Edge products include a unique lifetime guarantee that has won the company a loyal following.

"They have a great research and development department and they have done one heck of a job filling a niche market," Bunn says.

Nike and Wilson turned most of the PGA show's 30,000 plus heads, but traditional powers Ping, Spalding, Taylor Made and Cleveland also made their presence felt. Ping's new TiSi Tec driver features Chemical Milling Technology (CMT), a process that removes the brittle alpha layer of the titanium casting and precisely controls wall thickness.

CMT allows Ping engineers to reposition mass in the form of weight pads on the soleplate near the face of the 323cc driver and toward the heel and toe. Translation: the driver's center of gravity is lower and more toward the face to help reduce spin for a boring ball flight and greater distance.

Cleveland, long known for its superior wedge technology, is delving further into the iron business with its new TA7 series ($899 three through pitching wedge). The company's TA3 and TA5 lines were targeted towards low handicappers, but the TA7 is marketed as an "all ability club" because of its perimeter weighting.

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