News & Opinion

Soaring club prices ignore golf’s reality

The business of golf has a buffet of problems. I’m going to add one more to the list: sticker shock.

Prices for top-of-the-line golf equipment have sneaked up to levels that make me and my wallet uncomfortable. (My wallet is a cheapskate.) Meanwhile, the number of avid golfers is declining. That’s not how supply-and-demand normally works. If demand slumps, prices typically fall, to increase demand. Is this going to end well for golf? We’ll see.

My recent visit to a big-box golf store reminded me of a trip to Neiman Marcus a few years ago. After I looked at racks of $1,800 and $2,000 dresses, the $400 dress started to seem reasonable. It almost made me forget that my budget max was $120. (No, wise guy, I did not buy the $400 dress. It didn’t come in my size.)

Maybe I just haven’t shopped for clubs lately and kept up with pricing. I understand why prices are higher. Golf equipment never has been better. Sophisticated technology means that golfers never have been able to buy equipment better optimized for their specific swings. We are in a golden age of equipment and data analysis. But there’s no such thing as a free lunch.

I remember when $300 was the price point that no golf equipment-maker wanted to cross. Drivers were stuck on $299 for years. Then $399. Now it’s $499, and the $500 mark is about to be challenged. I call the $500 price point for a driver the Forbes Line, in honor of the Forbes 500 list of the super rich. It is golf’s version of the Mendoza Line, a dubious nod to light-hitting former shortstop Mario Mendoza.

The Forbes Line already has been crossed a few times. Callaway made the GBB Epic Star driver that sold for $699.99. It came with a thin titanium face (which was difficult and expensive to manufacture) and a customized, proprietary shaft. OK, that club wasn’t for everyone. Callaway’s other drivers were priced below the Forbes Line.

PXG Golf, founded by creator Bob Parsons in 2014, triple-jumped over the Forbes Line with his PXG driver that costs $850. His new model is "reduced" to $575. The original PXG irons were $300 apiece. The new Gen2 irons are $400 a pop. Add fairway woods or hybrids and you’re deep into the $4,000 neighborhood. I do not live in that neighborhood.

Maybe Parsons simply was ahead of the curve. Maybe he’s the Neiman Marcus equivalent and his prices make competitors’ $400 dresses seem reasonable.

So far, most manufacturers are hugging the $499.99 line. Titleist’s newest drivers, the TS2 and TS3, retail for $499. Callaway’s Rogue driver is $499.

The Cobra King F9 is marked at $449, the Ping G400 Max, $435. Wilson’s new Cortex driver, the winner of a design contest on a Golf Channel show, is listed at $499.99.

TaylorMade is about to seriously test the Forbes Line, which is curious. The company has launched four new drivers in the past three years: the M1 in 2016, M2 in 2017 and the M3 and M4 in 2018.

Here come two more. TaylorMade announced Thursday that its new M5 driver, which is adjustable, will be priced at $549, and its M6 driver, $499. The matching 3-woods for those drivers will sell for $399 and $299, respectively.

My definition of sticker shock is owing $948 for a driver and 3-wood … before sales tax. That still seems like a deal next to PXG.

Good luck, TaylorMade.

It’s not up to me to say what will sell and what won’t. Customers decide that. A lot of golfers, like me, are value-conscious. You could say we’re cheap. I prefer to think of myself as thrifty. I can’t see crossing the Forbes Line to buy a new driver … unless I’m going to pick up 25 yards off the tee. Then, yeah, I’m all in. I’d pay any price for that. But if I can save $300 on a driver that I hit only 2 yards shorter than the high-priced one, I’m probably not going to pop for the expensive one.

Iron prices have risen, also. A good player used to be able to get into a full set of Titleist irons for $899 or so. Titleist’s best sets now start above the $1,000 line. Callaway’s Epic Star irons retail for $2,400 per set.

The cost of replacing clubs is one reason I still use a driver that’s 8 years old (Adams Speedline Fast 10, with a custom Fubuki shaft) and irons that are 5 years old. I bought those irons, which have custom carbon-steel shafts, slightly used from a friendly club professional for $350. That’s the price the manufacturer with whom he had an affiliation offered to take back his clubs when he upgraded to a newer model.

Another reason I haven’t bought new clubs is that I haven’t tried any that seem significantly better. At least, they haven’t seemed better enough to warrant dropping a large sum of money.

Golf’s quandary is this: How much are you willing to pay for a better game? And will your game be markedly better or just slightly better?

Club-fitting technology is at a peak. Club Champion is one of the outfits that does in-depth club fitting to identify which brand of clubs fit best for an individual and how those clubs should be set up. It’s $350 for the fitting – yes, the same as what I paid for a set of irons, but that was five years ago. After Club Champion fits you, you still have to pay for the selected clubs. And, oh, yeah: You probably ordered custom shafts. That was the whole point of being fitted. You may pay another $100 or $300 more for each shaft, and suddenly your $1,200 set of irons turns into a $2,300 set.

Don’t forget that you paid $350 for the privilege of buying those custom clubs.

Golf has three areas of crisis. The game is too difficult, it takes too long to play, and it costs too much. The latter problem includes green fees, club memberships and equipment (including shoes, balls, bag and travel cover).

It takes money to play golf. Maybe it’s me, but the amount of money it takes to play golf has grown faster than ever.

All right, so maybe I am cheap. But when I see a $549 driver that may or may not improve my game, I remember Adam Sandler’s line from “Happy Gilmore” after he thinks he knocked out game-show host Bob Barker during a pro-am fight. Happy looked down at the prone Barker and crowed, “The price is wrong, bitch!”

Golf equipment manufacturers, are you listening?

Gary Van Sickle has covered golf since 1980 for Sports Illustrated and, Golf World and The Milwaukee Journal. Email:; Twitter: @GaryVanSickle