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The Swing Set

As Kids Follow in Tiger Woods' Footsteps, Golf Equipment Makers Are Close Behind

April 23, 1998|GREG JOHNSON and VANESSA HUA

At an hour when most of her compatriots were slurping breakfast cereal or were lost in Saturday morning cartoons, Cierra Gaytan had her eye on the golf ball at Tustin Ranch Golf Club.

After setting her children's-size 2 Little Mermaid tennis shoes in place, the 6-year-old Corona Del Mar resident gripped her sawed-off, adult-sized club and unleashed a 115-yard drive.

For equipment manufacturers, apparel companies and golf-course operators, the first-grader who took first place April 18 in the 9-and-under age bracket at the club's driving contest represents a potentially lucrative market niche. Thanks to Tiger Woods, who won the prestigious Masters tournament last year at the ripe young age of 21, youth interest in golf is skyrocketing.

"We had what we thought was a good business wave," said Will Cropper, vice president of sales and marketing for La Jolla Golf, which sells a line of clubs designed for younger players. "Tiger made it into a tsunami."

While most kids make do with cut-off clubs like those that Sal Gaytan Sr. prepared for his granddaughter, golf equipment companies sense a lucrative market as Tiger's cubs mature.

Junior-golf club manufacturers racked up $143 million in sales in 1996, accounting for 6.6% of the overall market, according to the Mount Prospect, Ill.-based National Sporting Goods Assn. As manufacturers round out youth products--including specialized clubs, balls and apparel--they are betting that parents will spend as freely for golf equipment as they do for video games and home computers.

"You want them to have equipment that helps their swing, which will improve their game and let them enjoy it more," said Roger Kidani, a Garden Grove resident who spent about $500 on a set of Zevo Golf Inc. junior clubs for his 10-year-old son, Brian. "They're fit perfectly for his swing, and they've improved his distance by 20%."

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The number of golfers between the ages of 12 and 17 rose by a stunning 33.8% in 1996, driving the sport's first significant increase in players in nearly a decade, according to the National Golf Foundation. In recent years, more than 5 million kids under the age of 17 have become fans of a sport long viewed as a stuffy, elitist pursuit.

The picture could be even brighter because golf pros are now witnessing an influx of young golfers like Jordon Chang, a 5-year-old kindergarten student who began swinging plastic golf sticks when he was 3.

"A few years ago, the average junior player began golfing at 8 or 9 years of age," said Jordon's father, Randy, who is director of golf at Tustin Ranch Golf Club. "Now the norm is 5 years old. And you're starting to see the manufacturers come out with equipment for 6-, 7- and 8-year-olds."

Neophytes generally begin with plastic clubs and graduate to cut-down women's clubs. Entry-level clubs for junior golfers run about $130, including a golf bag.

But as youngsters mature and technique grows in importance, kids are likely to benefit from technology found in higher-priced equipment. Zevo, which introduced its Kid Zevo line a year ago, promises "higher trajectory, longer carry, longer distance with less effort." The company re-shafts short clubs for about $15 per club so parents won't have to keep buying new equipment.

Calabasas-based Taylor Made is betting that kids will clamor for and parents will finance Burner Bubbles--pint-sized but technologically true versions of the state-of-the-art clubs used by professional golfers. The Taylor Made line is making its debut in June and will feature clubs that sell for about $70 and a set of five clubs for about $250 that comes with a 15-minute videotape giving golfing tips for kids.

Arnold Palmer Golf Co. recently donated 15,000 junior clubs to an organization that hopes to make golf more affordable for minority and underprivileged youths.

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Much like ski manufacturers who made their sport more accessible by offering graduated-length skis, golf companies are rolling out lightweight clubs with flexible shafts and thinner grips designed for younger players.

Manufacturers say they're pleased with consumer--make that parental--response.

Chicago-based Wilson Sporting Goods launched three youth lines during the 1997 holiday shopping season--Ultra Jr, ProStaff and Michael Jordan. Junior sales are up 15% for the first three months of 1998--nearly triple compared with the same period last year, said Ron Addison, business director of commercial golf clubs.

But some major companies--including Calloway, Titleist, Cobra and Cubic Balance--are more cautious, watching how the market takes to junior brands before launching their own.

Analysts say a possible double-bogey is that golf may just be a passing interest with juniors.

"One risk is that it might turn out to be a fad, and kids will go back to roller-blading and video games," said analyst Joseph Teklits, at Ferris Baker Watts, an investment firm in Washington, D.C. "Companies are entering slowly, which is wise."

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