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Companies Big and Small Find It's a Good Time to Be in Golf Business : Recreation: America's love affair and Japan's "addiction" with the sport have sent equipment sales rocketing. The only worry now is of too many manufacturers and not enough golf courses.

October 12, 1989|GENE YASUDA | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Langert Golf Co., a 2-year-old sporting goods manufacturer based in Carlsbad, offers vivid proof that there has never been a better time to be in the golf equipment business.

The company, whose leading product is the Foiler metal wood golf club, has seen its sales zoom to an expected $5.1 million for the fiscal year ending this month, triple the $1.7 million in sales last year. Paul Herber, the company's vice president of sales and marketing, expects 1990 sales to exceed $10 million.

Golf is "no longer just a rich man's sport," Herber said. "Just about anybody can play these days. And, in the past, people who were stuck working in factories didn't have time to play golf. But now, everybody has so much leisure time."

The success of Langert and several other San Diego golf equipment and clothing manufacturers is linked to an unprecedented surge in golf's popularity in recent years. The growing number of courses and the added glamour of the sport through exposure on television, combined with Americans' increased leisure time, have created a booming golfing population.

Nearly 23 million Americans participate in the sport today, an increase of 5 million since 1985, said Dan Kasen, a spokesman for the National Sporting Goods Assn., a trade group for sports equipment manufacturers and retailers based in Mt. Prospect, Ill.

And America's love affair with the sport has meant glory days for equipment manufacturers. Nationwide golf equipment sales, including clubs, balls, bags and carts, rose to $963.2 million last year from $630.1 million in 1984, according to Kasen. In 1989, golf equipment sales are expected to exceed $1.3 billion, the NSGA said.

Those figures do not include sales of related goods such as golf shoes and clothing, which reached $330 million in 1988, Kasen said.

Such prosperity is clearly evident in San Diego's North County, where several well-known manufacturers such as Titleist Golf and Taylor Made Golf, as well as start-ups such as Langert, are experiencing tremendous growth.

Herber and Langert left Taylor Made, the well-known Carlsbad club manufacturer, in 1987 to start their own company. Nearly 70% of the fledgling company's sales are in exports, with the bulk going to the Asian market, particularly Japan.

"The Japanese, well, they're addicts," Herber said. "They're so consumed with the sport and, as a result, are very receptive to innovations in technology. I think you'll see more and more manufacturers trying out new products over there. The Japanese will consume it, give the product more exposure, which will then help influence golfers here. That's what we've done."

Herber credits much of his company's success to its innovative Foiler metal wood. The club, with its patented aerodynamic design, will account for nearly 60% of the company's sales this year. In order to keep up with production demands, Langert is abandoning its 6,000-square-foot manufacturing facility in Carlsbad and moving into a 24,000-square-foot building, also in Carlsbad, in December.

But it's not just the little guys who are prospering. For the past six years, Titleist Golf has been growing at an average annual rate of 12%, posting $250 million in sales in 1988. The company expects to exceed $300 million in sales this year. Titleist's corporate headquarters are in New Bedford, Mass., but the company manufactures its clubs and putters at a 70,000-square-foot plant in Escondido.

"This is definitely good times for people in the golf business," said John Worster, director of Western operations for Titleist, a company that manufactures a full line of golf equipment and apparel but is best known for its golf balls.

"We attribute much of our growth to the fact that baby-boomers are coming of age," Worster said. "Most of these people have outgrown playing football and other dangerous sports. They probably have good jobs now and can't afford to get hurt and miss work. Golf's the perfect sport for them."

Many of the sport's observers and equipment makers don't expect the popularity boom to diminish anytime soon.

"It's one of the few sports that you can play for a lifetime," said Tom Gustafson, executive director of the Southern California Golf Assn. The nonprofit group in North Hollywood is the largest amateur golf association in the United States, with 137,000 members.

Indeed, manufacturers aren't concerned about a decline in popularity, but they are worried that a lack of golf courses may dampen sales.

"Our biggest concern right now is, can the opportunity to play golf keep up with the number of players?" Worster said. "It costs a lot of money to build and maintain courses. Lines are already pretty long. If they get much longer, people might get frustrated and stop playing."

Some manufacturers, including Taylor Made, say the rosy scenario can't last forever.

A combination of continuous bad weather and too many suppliers could "tee off a decline in sales," said Jim Reilly, Taylor Made's president.

"That's what happened in 1983," he said. "It rained all spring and summer, and that led to a shakeout. In the last year or two, many smaller companies have prospered immensely from the sport's popularity. But that's resulted in too many manufacturers. There's going to be a shakeout; I just don't know when."

But Reilly doesn't expect Taylor Made or any of the established names to fall on hard times. It intends to continue its recent success: For the fiscal year ended Sept. 30, Taylor Made posted $103 million in sales, up from $76 million in 1988. The company's corporate headquarters and manufacturing facilities occupy a 102,000-square-foot plant in Carlsbad.

"I don't expect to see people walk away from golf," Reilly said. "It's not just a sport that you pick up, then drop. It's a way of life."

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