BOB WEST — 5 Under Golf Center CEO Austin Williams shares industry updates from PGA Merchandise Show

Published 12:16 am Wednesday, February 8, 2023

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It’s called the PGA Merchandise Show and everybody who is anybody in the golf business has the annual late-January bash in Orlando on their calendar.

Included in that group is 5 Under Golf Center CEO Austin Williams, who was enthralled by some of what he saw and heard a couple of weeks ago.

“It is an absolute must to attend if you are in any form of the golf business,” said Williams. “This was my 20th year. I can remember going with my mom and dad when I was a teenager, and they were always looking to improve our Games People Play driving range.”

Williams has since taken Games People Play to the next level with Top Golf and Top Tracer Technology.

The eight-time Beaumont City Champion’s vision has turned 5 Under Golf Center into a cutting edge, award-winning facility that continues to expand and prosper.

The one thing that Austin wouldn’t change from watching his mom and dad grow the family business is the annual trek to Orlando. He considers it so important that he takes members of the 5 Under inner circle along to observe and learn.

“From a business perspective, I can get in front of decision makers,” he said. “I can get with them on what they are trying to achieve and what we are trying to achieve and see how we can come together in ways that will benefit everyone.

“We attend Continuing Learning and Education Classes. One of the cool things was that we were nominated for the Tracy Awards, which honor the best top tracer facilities in America.”

To get a perspective on all that is encompassed, the latest numbers for the 70th PGA Merchandise Show were staggering. Two years after COVID nearly snuffed its existence, attendance was more than 30,000. There were 800 plus vendors, including 267 new exhibitors.

Exhibits and displays overwhelmed on two fronts — the near one million square foot Orange County Convention Center and the Orange County National circular driving range. Clubs, balls, every kind of equipment known to man and all brands of apparel and gear had wares on display.

It’s such a big deal you might look up and see somebody like Jim Nantz of CBS or noted instructor Butch Harmon checking things out. Williams and his crew did. They also rubbed shoulders with LPGA star Danielle Kang.

“There is so much to absorb,” Williams said, “because the industry is constantly changing and evolving. You are always looking for the next hot product that can be a game changer. This year the biggest takeaway is that the game is headed toward a super emphasis on fitness and swing speed.

“But the real eye opener was a mind-blowing stat that came out of our Top Tracer meeting. Today, for the first time in history, more golf is being played off the course than on the course. That one really knocked me back on my heels. There is about a three percent difference.”

Sure enough, figures from 2022 provided by the National Golf Foundation show that of 41.1 million total participants some 15.5 million came from Top Golf, Drive Shack, driving ranges and simulators. The on-course number was 13.2 million and 12.4 million were involved both ways.

Those numbers sort of underscore the theory dating back to Top Golf’s inception that it was going to be an overall blessing to the game, that it would increase participation.

“What is happening is pretty dramatic,” Williams noted. “Par 3 courses like the new lighted East River Nine in Houston are a really hot concept right now. Driving ranges have been the fastest growing part of the business for years. Miniature golf is at the highest it’s ever been. Then you have the new stuff – the Puttery and the Pop Stroke.

“A lot of the new concepts trace back to Top Golf opening the door to people who weren’t into golf, with food and entertainment tied into hitting balls and playing games.”

The folks who assembled for that first PGA Merchandise Show 70 years ago couldn’t possibly have dreamed where their game was headed.

CHIP SHOTS. Lamar ex MJ Daffue was the only player with area ties to make the 54-hole cut in the weather-plagued Pebble Beach AT&T Pro-Am. Daffue shot rounds of 69-72-70-73 to finish T48 at 284. He collected a check for $22,821 . . .

Chris Stroud, after playing his first 10 holes in five over at Spyglass Hill, battled back to get under the minus 1 cut line, then ran afoul of howling winds that forced a suspension of play when he was at Pebble Beach on Saturday.

Before the horn blew, Stroud lost four shots from 9 through 14. He came back the next morning, waited out a hail delay and wound up missing the cut by two strokes at one over. The PNG ex did have the distinction of tying for the most eagles (2) in the field . . .

Andrew Landry, after a first day 72, withdrew early in the second round. He is scheduled to play this week in the Waste Management Phoenix Open . . .

In the Monday Senior 50 Plus 2 ball at Babe Zaharias, the team of Danny Robbins, Kenny Robbins, Ron Mistrot and Dan Flood won the front with even and tied the back at even. Also even on the back was the foursome of Jim Cady, John House, Archie Myers and Charlie Perez.

Closest to the pin winners were Danny Robbins (No. 2, 6 feet, 9 inches), Tony Trevino (No. 7, 3-3), Joe Gongora (No. 12, 15-5) and Charlie Leard (No. 15, 12-2).

5 Under Golf Center will host a PING demo day Thursday, Feb. 9 from noon to 5 p.m. Call 409-232-0205 to reserve a spot.

Golf news should be e-mailed to Bob West at