Golf retailing thrives on eBay

WARNING: The following contains material that may trigger an obsession,
waylay your spring cleaning or otherwise threaten your domestic
tranquility and daily routine. Reader discretion is advised.

That 12-year-old TaylorMade Burner bubble driver, the one with the worn
grip and the copper paint chipping off the head? It just may be a gold
mine in your closet. Or basement. Or garage. Wherever you store it - or
wherever your significant other grudgingly allows you keep it - dormant
golf paraphernalia is finding new life. The aforementioned Bubble. The
half-dozen must-have putters that made everything ... for 48 hours. The
infomercial-induced Swing Jacket you took the bait on. Oh, and the Power

Worthless you say? Pssst. Then you haven't looked on the Internet
lately, specifically the web's assortment of online auction sites, where
buyers and sellers converge in capitalistic bliss. A recent glance at
the golf-related items for sale on eBay, Yahoo!, Amazon, the
GolfClubExchange or any of the other auction venues reveals the
following eye-catching, head-scratching, idea-hatching discoveries:

  • 1980 Masters-logoed ball marker. Final bid: $104.50

  • Ping golf ball, half gold, half blue. Final bid: $305

  • Scotty Cameron 1997 platinum putter headcover. Final bid: $455

  • Ford 1932 replica California roadster electric golf cart. Final bid:

    "It's the Ping balls I still can't figure out," says Ken Morton Jr.,
    whose family has owned and operated the pro shop at Haggin Oaks GC in
    Sacramento, Calif., for nearly five decades. "They often seem to be
    going for $100 or more. Here's a product 15 years ago we couldn't give
    away and now people are paying humongous amounts for them. It's
    fascinating to watch."

    Welcome to the world of online auctions, a place where one man's trash
    is indeed another man's treasure -- as long as you can find that man (or
    woman). And where a product is never too obscure to be sold to the
    highest bidder.

    Particularly if that product has anything to do with golf, a niche that
    stands as the Pine Valley of online sporting-goods categories. At any
    one time on eBay, far and away the most popular Internet auction site,
    roughly 75,000 golf items are up for sale. Everything from tee times at
    trendy resorts or with celebs (a foursome with Tiger Woods has gone for
    $400,000), to a pair of U.S. Open tickets ($50 to $300), to a
    still-in-the-wrapper Callaway ERC Fusion driver ($175 to $375), to an
    18-hole golf course (last month, for $1.38 million, Willow Springs GC in
    Athens, Tenn., could have been yours).

    Upon seeing the dollar amount of eBay's overall golf sales, including
    clubs and collectibles, for 2003, it's also important to realize that's
    not a misprint. It is supposed to read $200 million, a 40-percent bump
    from 2002 and one-fifth of eBay's roughly $1 billion in total sports
    sales. Put into context, the figure exceeded the sales of Wilson,
    Cleveland, Ping, MacGregor and Adams last year. If eBay was a standalone
    equipment manufacturer -- 75 percent of golf sales on the site are
    hardgoods, primarily used clubs -- it easily would rank among the top 10
    companies, nipping at the top five.

    "Customers and sellers who participate in online auctions are like a
    cult," says Bill Falkson, co-founder of Tin Cup Auctions, an online
    business in the San Francisco suburb of Lafayette that generated $3
    million in sales last year. "Bidding on auctions is a game to them, one
    they play to win. And golfers? Well they're always looking for something
    to help their game, that silver bullet."

    Or the MacGregor 693 Tourney driver they had as a kid. Or a replacement
    for the Nike Slingshot 9-iron they lost a few weeks back. Having
    survived the implosion of the dot.com bubble in the late-1990s, online
    auctions are gaining credibility as an outlet to buy and sell golf
    merchandise. It's why you find the PGA Tour hawking tournament
    memorabilia to raise money for charities and why the PGA of America is
    ramping up an initiative to help its members use eBay to sell used and
    trade-in equipment. (Don't have the time to sell on your own? Let a PGA
    professional do it for you.)

    Golf shops at many of the country's top courses (Augusta National GC
    among the latest) are dipping their toes into online auctions,
    supplementing their brick-and-mortar income. "The neighborhood we're
    used to living in is not just a little neighborhood anymore," says
    Morton, who started utilizing auctions in earnest last spring.

    Still, the majority of auction sellers -- 66 percent, according to an
    eBay survey -- aren't retailers, but rather Joe and Jane Golfer,
    individuals who either inherited an old set of clubs they had no use
    for, uncovered an antique golf book they thought might tickle someone's
    fancy or simply ran out of room in that closet.

    So why, exactly, is golf the jewel of the online auction marketplace?
    According to Drew Marich, director of sports for eBay, the category
    benefits from a combination of a) the right demographics, affluent
    adults with access to the Internet and a willingness to spend money
    online, and b) the right type of product.

    "Fitness items at retail are a bigger seller than golf, but there are inherent problems with them,"
    Marich explains. "It's harder to ship a treadmill than a golf club. Golf
    is nice and neat. You can pretty much define the quality of the club or
    a collectible and go from there."

    "By and large golf products hold their value," contends Leigh Bader, a
    PGA pro at Pine Oaks GC in South Easton, Mass., whose online venture,
    3balls.com, is among eBay's biggest sellers of golf merchandise. Modern
    technology has made a pair of 13-year-old skis obsolete. "A used Big
    Bertha driver [from 1991], however, can still help you break 90 or 80 or
    70 or whatever you're looking for. It still has value."

    Just as online auctions have given golf products second lives, they also
    have created opportunities for people to begin second careers. Catherine
    Allen of Bellingham, Wash., had spent almost 10 years teaching sixth
    graders at a local middle school, leaving the late afternoons, weekends
    and summers to satiate her obsession with golf. It was only on a lark
    that the 2-handicapper tried auctioning a couple of Scotty Cameron
    limited-edition putters she had acquired from friends and fellow golfers
    in 1998. No one was more surprised than she upon earning as much as
    $3,000 per club.

    Within a year Allen had given up teaching to start Golfingaddict.com,
    listing products online from her home on her Sony desktop PC and using
    the empty bedroom formerly belonging to her 20-year-old son for storage.

    "I can go anywhere and take my work with me," confesses the 44-year-old,
    whose modest $40,000 to $45,000 annual gross income easily covers travel
    and other expenses for participation in state, regional and national
    events, including the last two U.S. Women's Amateur Public Links
    Championships. "When I'm playing somewhere, like at Ocean Hammock last
    year, the first thing I'll do is search out the local Internet access
    and the post office," she says. "Then I go to the golf course."

    At home a typical day begins at 4:30 a.m., when Allen gets out of bed,
    turns on the computer and answers e-mails from prospective buyers. By
    6:30 she's at nearby Sudden Valley GC, golf bag decorated with odes to
    eBay, working on her game until noon.

    "They know me as the eBay woman," she jokes. "I don't hesitate to tell people about what I do. You never
    know when you might find a source for new products." Back at her
    computer in the afternoons, Allen monitors her listings and researches
    future offerings. The evenings are reserved for her husband, Tom, who
    has an "office job" in town.

    Over time Allen has developed a network of suppliers, fellow golfers,
    club pros and other eBay merchants, who feed her merchandise. She also
    frequents second-hand stores, antique shops, tag sales and any other
    outpost that might be home to the next hot item.

    "Often I'm bringing the clubs and packing stuff with me," she says.
    "It's what you've got to do to maintain customer service. Items don't
    sell themselves, and negative feedback [a self-policing device
    associated with auctions that helps grade buyers and sellers] can put
    you out of business."

    There is room to get bigger, says Allen, but she resists because it
    would cut into her golf. "This is the perfect fit for me," she says. "At
    the risk of sounding like a teenager, I can do my own thing, make my own
    money, set my own hours. I'm very happy."

    The same can be said for Falkson, although he can't remember the last
    time he was out on the course. "I don't play much anymore," says the
    53-year-old, who was semi-retired in June 2002 when he offered to help
    his club pro sell some out-of-date TaylorMade drivers online. In a
    month's time all 40 drivers were gone, so he asked if there was anything
    else the pro needed to get rid of. Thirty days later, he was back again.
    By December Tin Cup Auctions was up and running.

    Falkson now spends his days working in a 1,500-square-foot office with a
    partner and two full-time employees. While others finalize the roughly
    100 sales completed each day, he focuses on securing future product.
    "We've got accounts with probably a dozen manufacturers right now, but
    that's been tough," he says. "If we had a consistent source of supply,
    we could double our business next year."

    Indeed, about the only ones who've yet to warm to online auctions are
    the equipment companies themselves, most of whom remain hesitant to
    allow current products to be sold in this manner much less do business
    with retailers who sell exclusively via auctions. Unlike the traditional
    retail experience, says Joe Nauman, senior VP and general counsel for
    Titleist parent Acushnet, online auctions limit consumers ability to ask
    questions and try product. "In the auction marketplace you just can't
    deliver [the same] kind of information to the consumer," says Nauman.

    Other manufacturers note concerns that online auctions overall might be
    cutting into new equipment sales. Rather than splurge for a new set of
    irons, shoppers will comb the Internet and grab a like-new set for a
    fraction of the cost. "Actually, the margins on top-line items are
    really too thin to justify the time and effort it takes to list," argues
    Chris Smith, head of the 10-person e-commerce department for Dallas
    Golf, another retailer who has found success with auctions. "We'll stick
    with used stuff."

    Adds Bader: "What we've seen is the people who want to buy new clubs are
    going to buy new clubs. That's not going to change just because more
    used clubs might be available."

    Manufacturers may well be getting a lift from online auctions simply by
    the grass-roots buzz they seem to provide a product or brand. While the
    performance of Titleist's Pro V1 golf ball on the PGA Tour in 2000
    certainly generated interest, the folklore of the ball grew when it
    began showing up on eBay prior to its release to the public, selling for
    upwards of $200 per dozen thanks, it's believed, to a few enterprising
    tour caddies.

    "You're not going to go to a retail store and find [the kind of] stuff
    you find on eBay," says Bob Paro, a retired 52-year-old from Lifle,
    Ill., who collects Augusta National memorabilia and purchased the
    $104.50 ball marker. "It's what makes [online auctions] so unique."

    Ultimately what contributes to the distinctiveness and intrigue of
    online auctions is the same thing most believe will allow them to
    continue to gain acceptance as the market matures: The fundamental
    ability to put the individual on a level playing field with big
    retailers, thus allowing grass-roots entrepreneurs such as Allen and
    Falkson to compete with professional merchants such as Morton and Bader.
    "No matter how prevalent [the use of the sites] becomes, they're still
    going to be a community driven," Marich says. "I don't see that

    And so the allure of bellying up to the bar and entering the free market
    seems likely to endure, the chance to mine one's gold - or at least find
    someone to take that Burner Bubble off your hands - too attractive to
    turn down.

    Meanwhile, golf spouses can't help but be smiling, too, as the
    phenomenon of online auctions seems to be flourishing, their
    long-awaited dream coming closer reality. One day, just maybe, their
    houses will be rid of all that junk.

    Ryan Herrington is a senior writer at Golf World Magazine

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