I picked up my credential and made my way to the main floor. I was immediately hit with #branding sensory overload, and my mind raced to one question: What the hell was I doing here?
Ten years spent in the hotel industry meant 10 years of learning the annual trade-show and convention schedule. I developed survival skills for events like the gift-shop convention in January, the chicken-processing trade show in February and DragonCon in September, and I readied myself for surprises like the year our team made the unfortunate mistake of hosting a “Furry Weekend.” So I’m not new to these strange windows into the American commercial soul.
But this time it was my show. The PGA Merchandise Show. For years I’d heard about the world’s largest convergence of ill-fitting khakis, quarter-zips and white belts. A lifetime obsessed with the game led me to cofound a golf company, yet I always scoffed at the notion of being one of those people congregating within the Orange County Convention Center in mid-January. But there I was, walking into the show armed with the heightened sense of anxiety that arises whenever I come within a 50-mile radius of Orlando.
Once I got my bearings, I had two startling realizations: 1. The quarter-zip had been viciously usurped by the sport coat (except in the case of Tom Fazio, who wore both simultaneously as some sort of vestigial tribute), and 2. These are my people, whether I like it or not. As golfers, we separate ourselves into distinct tribes based on how and where we play, what we wear and what media we consume, but in the eyes of society at large, we are one homogenous group of weirdos who chase a little white ball around a field.
Those realities gave me some level of peace under the constant flashing of overly produced corporate sizzle reels and the carnival barkers pushing the latest “innovation.” For those who may never attend, here’s a quick tour: The floor is balanced by the poles of apparel on one side and equipment on the other. Bespoke headcovers, carbon-fiber ball retrievers, sadistic swing-aids and pushcarts stretch as far as the eye can see in between. The HJ Glove booth certainly captured my imagination. The Inventors Spotlight section yielded some truly questionable creations, namely the Media Stick, a luxury selfie-stick somehow customized for golf (?). Evidently CBD oils are now a massive presence in our sport. Resorts both familiar and foreign hawked their locales. The equipment-manufacturer area was eerily reminiscent of a military-defense show, both in scale and marketing language. But the apparel scene was the real arms race—a living example of the midlife crisis that golf finds itself in today, with the restrained legacy brands of yesteryear facing off against the in-your-face upstarts. It felt like a high school cafeteria, with the flashy cool-kid booths hosting happy hours at 4:30 while the uninvited also-rans peered longingly at their new competitors.
Beyond the floor were myriad conference rooms hosting the symposium circuit. The “Increasing revenue via on-course experience, flow and pace optimization” presentation appealed to my hotelier past, but I popped into “Who’s watching the store?” which got me to wax philosophical about running an online storefront without a physical presence. It all felt like two different shows: one for PGA professionals wandering the floor and one for everyone else even tangentially connected to golf who dutifully shows up and networks.
The nighttime scene was more spectacular than the show itself. The buzz at the host hotel bar was unmistakable. Shit-faced architects blasted contemporaries, agents’ eyes danced during Dewar’s-fueled discussions of “activations,” media personalities invested in face time with their various benefactors and everyone made fun of the USGA.
When we finally broke free of the show’s grasp for home, I understood that our sea of lunatics wasn’t much different from the furries and the chicken-processing experts. This is our bizarre community, and we, too, need times like this to come together. So I’ll be back next year to mingle with my people—and to make fun of everything again. I’ve even set a reminder to pack a sport coat.
Todd Schuster is better known as Tron Carter from the No Laying Up collective. His opinions on wine might be spicier than his takes on golf.