Former executive director of the United States Golf Association Frank Hannigan, who now works as a TV commentator, once said something like, "There is no bigger fool than a golfer with a high handicap and a valid credit card." The monstrous size of the annual Golf Merchandise Show (in Orlando, where else?) attests, if nothing else, to the credit limit, if not the foolish dreams, of the average golfer. Day by day, however, one vehicle aims to make golfers ring up those charges: the infomercial.
Seductive, teasing, promising, never quite revealing, half-hour infomercials run one after another during the low daytime hours on The Golf Channel. Longer, they say. Stronger. Straighter. A few advertise clubs. Most seem to concentrate on instructional aids. As with the seductions of new car stylings, it is helpful to look at the models of a few years back so as to infuse oneself with the proper grain of salty skepticism.
Not too many years back, for example, golfer and super-personality Peter Jacobsen did a half hour spot for a device that looked kind of like a corset, kind of like an iron maiden. Its central structure, a sort of vest, had two grooves in it running around the front of the torso. Into each groove fitted a sleeve, and into each sleeve, one inserted an arm. Then you swung a golf club. The sleeves and the grooves guided the arms along the proper swing path, thereby "grooving muscle memory," a phrase beloved of infomercial screenwriters.
(Which makes me wonder: How many producers and writers of golf infomercials are there? Many different ones, or are all of them produced by a single shop, kind of like the mythical underground Chinese kitchen serving every restaurant in lower Manhattan?)
The corset, needless to say, appears no more.
Golf instructor David Leadbetter came out with a laser pointer that one inserted into the butt of the golf grip. During the backswing and through swing, the laser beam, pointing at the ground, could trace the proper swing path, thereby "training muscle memory." I wonder how many golfers discovered, as I did, that you could do the same thing with a flashlight. Enough so that the product did not survive.
Leadbetter, apparently desperate to cash in on the instructional device dollar, has another gadget out, a stick shorter than a golf club, with a club head sticking out the middle of the shaft and a sliding ball on it that goes "click" when you swing it back and "click" when you swing it through. It does not inspire hope.
MANY OF THE PRODUCTS ARE HELPFUL. Many of them evince good thinking. Many of them, indeed, display exactly the same thinking -- sometimes even the same demonstrations of good thinking. There are three putters being advertised on infomercials currently, for example, that purport to eliminate the initial skid after one hits the ball and "get the ball rolling quicker." One has two bars running back from the head (to create a bigger sweet spot), one has semi-circular grooves in the face, and one is extra-heavy. All use the same piece of video to demonstrate their capability, a slow-mo film of a ball struck by a putter, first bouncing and skidding, then beginning to roll, comparing the performance of the "average putter" to the advertised product.
I must say it looks good to me.
I have recently bought two of the infomercial perennials, the Momentus weighted club and the Medicus jointed five iron. The Momentus is a two and a half pound shortened seven iron, a weighted club for exercise. Makes all kinds of sense, though you could of course do the same thing with a piece of pipe. The Medicus looks kind of like a Laurel and Hardy joke club. It's got a dual hinge about a foot about the head which forces you to swing the club along the proper path, else the hinge breaks. Medicus has sold several million of the five irons and has recently brought out a dual hinged driver, too. It is really quite ingenious, and enforces good swing tempo as well as proper path.
WHAT DETERMINES SUCCESS OR FAILURE in the instructional device infomercial market? Price point, for one. It appears, based on current offerings, that golfers will pay about $100 (or "three easy payments of $33.95"), but will not pay much more. They will certainly not pay a lot more.
Item: An exercise device for the legs appeared a year or two ago, consisting of a track, with a stationary platform for one foot at one end and a sliding platform for the other foot, spring-loaded against the stationary platform, at the other. It enhanced footwork in the golf swing and developed leg thrust for power, and I actually went so far as to call the toll-free number, enticed by what seemed to be a $39.95 price. When I found out that the price was actually "five payments of $39.95," I hung up and started trying to figure out how to make one myself.
Ease of making something yourself will also kill the sales of an instructional device. The Inside Track is a six-inch high sort of tripod that you set alongside your golf ball, with a protruding snout that comes out and over the ball. It forces you to swing "along the proper inside path" by making you swing under the protruding snout to get at the ball. Not only could I imagine myself hitting the Inside Track thirty yards down our local driving range on my first swing, it was dead easy to make your own out of a few pieces of PVC and joints.
For another, the device, or instructional series, or club, has to make sense. It has to make sense in a simple way, with a direct concept, without too much elaboration. A weighted club makes sense. A video stretching program for golfers makes sense. A grooved corset does not.
I LOVE INFOMERCIALS. Sometimes, when I'm not exactly feeling like a nap, but when I do need to take a break, I'll turn on the Golf Channel and watch two or three of them in a row. They're soothing, they're seductive, and they offer a golfer the best of all things possible: Hope.