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Going For Green

It's young. It's hip. It's golf.

Golf used to be about white men in plaid pants and funny hats. Then came Tiger Woods. Sure, he stars in advertisements for Buick, but let's face it: Golf's gone from grandpa to groovy.

With just over 30 million golfers in the United States last year, the Sporting Goods Manufacturers Association (SGMA) ranked golf as the country's 15th most popular sport. Americans spent $2.68 billion on golf equipment in 1999, making golf the second largest category of exercise equipment behind exercise machines.

The Woods phenomenon has fueled golf's growth in recent years, particularly among young people, and some entrepreneurs have taken notice. A lifetime golf fan, Johnny Carr started Swingers Golf Gear in 1997 as a direct-mail and wholesale business featuring cool clothing designs. The now 26-year-old Carr opened his Willow Glen, California, store last year and concentrated on the youth market through ads on hip-hop and rock radio stations as well as Schwing! magazine.

"When we first started the company, our main focus was 'Tiger Woods is on fire.' A lot of the younger generation was starting [to play golf]," Carr says. "I'm the kind of guy who didn't really like the conservative style, and we started the company to make something that's more hip, more youthful." With a little help from mom, dad, his brother and two graphic designer friends, Carr has expanded his original concept to include Swingers designs as well as clothing from brands like Dockers Golf and St. Croix in order to appeal to both younger and older golfers. The company earned about $180,000 last year and is growing at approximately 50 percent in its storefront sales.

Because the high-tech nature of golf equipment makes it difficult to break into this field, the SGMA's Michael May advises entrepreneurs to target the youth market. "Making clubs and balls is not exactly something everyone and anyone can do," May says. "The best [way] to get involved is probably to cater to the youth market and maybe come up with some type of accessory that can be assembled in a relatively cost-effective manner."

May believes golf's popularity will grow, particularly among juniors, women and those over 50. More and more women are teeing off, in fact. The National Golf Foundation has found that women golfers make up less than one-quarter of players, but they spend nearly as much as men on golf.

Patty Woo, for one, started playing as a job requirement (of sorts). She'd often take clients golfing as part of her 12 years in the financial services industry. Tired of wearing unfashionable gear on the green, Woo started her own women's golfwear company in March 2000 even though she can't sew on a button. Using luxurious fabric imported from Italy, France and Spain, Woo Gear includes special materials like wind-stop Teflon, CoolMax, lycra and a washable, breathable suede. The 35-year-old also developed original items like a score card pocket on pants and most polo shirts, a glove grabber, dresses, and skirts.

Woo, who currently sells her products to retail stores and pro shops throughout the United States and Canada and hopes to launch an online catalog in July, notes the power of persistence: "When people say, 'No, you can't do it' or 'You're crazy,' let that [fuel you] to actually work even harder," advises Woo, whose company's sales have tripled every season since she started. "There are going to be exhilarating days, and there are going to be really, really crappy days. When you get to that low point, you've got to just pick yourself up off the ground and get up the next day to do it again."

May suggests entrepreneurs try to get some exposure for their product at public golf course pro shops, which tend to attract youngsters, and to get involved in public golf programs. Says May, "The real future of the sport money-wise is participation-to get more bodies out there on golf courses who are thinking about buying clubs and all the accessories to go with them."

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