Each January, the PGA Merchandise Show in Orlando, Fla., brings together the industry’s biggest corporations and smallest entities for a weeklong showcasing of golf’s newest and improved products.
This year, 24 companies and programs with ties to North Carolina were in attendance. Included among the Tar Heel-state representatives were SportTrak, which debuted a joint venture with SkyGolf — one of the more recognizable names in the sport — and MagneKlip, a fledgling two-man operation.
Both companies, though, sought their own unique niche.
EXTENDING THE EXPERIENCE
Don Thorup understands the monotony that comes from standing on a practice range, pounding golf ball after golf ball to a vast open range. But he has often wondered if that did not have to be the case.
“What we’re trying to do is make practice fun for people,” said Thorup, president of SportTrak, a Winston-Salem-based digital technology solutions provider.
“What I tell people is that it is like having a basketball goal in your driveway. You go to the sporting goods store and spend $1,200 on a basketball goal, and then you go out and shoot baskets. But you don’t stand there just shooting baskets. You play games; otherwise it would be too boring. You play horse, around the world, free throws ….”
In November, SportTrak and SkyGolf, maker of the immensely popular SkyCaddie rangefinder, merged their respective expertise to create SkyTrak, a personal launch monitor, game improvement and golf simulation system.
SkyTrak, which retails for $1,995, brings commercial-grade technology — the type a consumer would likely find used by professional instructors and clubfitters — into the home. A golfer armed with his own clubs, a mat and net and an iPad can transform his garage or man cave into a 3D practice facility or golf course.
“In essence, we have created a way for a golfer to take his or her passion past the 18th green with what we see as the XBox of golf,” said Richard Edmondson, the CEO of SkyGolf. “It’s been designed to deliver the reliability and accuracy required to help golfers play better, play more and derive more enjoyment from the game.”
The SkyTrak — what Thorup refers to as “the black box” — component is about the size of a dictionary and possesses a similar amount of useful information. By capturing thousands of data points within the short period of a club making impact with the golf ball, SkyTrak determines the ball speed, launch angle, back and side spin, and side angle of the ball. The information is then displayed on a 3D practice range from a variety of selectable angles.
The appeal of SkyTrak is its ability to take the tedium of practice and transform it into a fun challenge. Games such as closest-to-the-pin and longest drive can be played, while game-improvement information such as performance by club is tracked for analysis.
In January, SkyTrak entered into a licensing and development agreement with WGT Golf, maker of the No. 1-rated online and mobile golf game. In the coming months, SkyTrak users will be able to play such iconic courses as Pinehurst No. 2 and Pebble Beach Golf Links virtually or compete against other online players with their own clubs and balls.
“If I’m just standing pounding balls into a net, it’s terrible,” Thorup said. “There is no feedback, you don’t know if you’re getting better or you might even be getting worse. But if you turned it into a game, where it’s closest-to-the-pin or a target, then the magic of it is you’re practicing but you’re having fun. You don’t even realize you’re practicing.”
Thorup tells of a video submitted by an Ohio man made of his winter practice — or gaming — facility. A net and projection screen hanged from inside a closed garage door and a projector sat atop an old dresser. Off to the side was a space heater.
“He looked as happy as a clam,” Thorup said.
For Thorup, the video represented the current success and endless opportunities of SkyTrak.
AN IDEA COMES TO FRUITION
John Keeter has always been intrigued by how gadgets are constructed and how they operate.
A life-long tennis player, including playing collegiately at Gardner-Webb, Keeter always wanted a way to keep a towel nearby, but not have it be a nuisance.
“I always had a towel stuck in my shorts or tossed over in the corner of the court, and it was just never convenient because I was either pulling it out and tucking it back in or running to the corner,” he said. “So if I really wanted to wipe my forehead or face there was no real way to do that quickly.”
Keeter had an idea, one that Jon Fuquay, his fellow Sunday school teacher and eventual business partner, said Keeter was talking about as far back as nine years ago. One night Keeter noticed the magnetic nametag his son wore for his restaurant waiter’s job and believed he could make a similar magnetic attachment work with his idea.
In August 2012, Keeter, using only a hand towel, duct tape and a few magnets, created a crude prototype of his product, the MagneKlip. A few iterations have polished the MagneKlip — a flexible magnetic band that clips over an athlete’s waistband or belt and holds a towel, which has a magnetic strip on one end seam for attaching to the band.
“[Keeter] kept talking about it for tennis, but I told him it would be perfect for golfers who want a towel to wipe their face or hands or clubs,” said Fuquay, who was an assistant golf professional at Primland Resort in Meadows of Dan, Va. Once John got the prototype, I started sharing it with golfers to get their feedback and they loved it.”
Keeter is still bringing the MagneKlip to market, but expects the final price point to be between $19.95-$21.95. The MagneKlip (www.magneklip.com) is available with either a terry cloth or microfiber towel.
By day, Keeter, 47, is an IT sourcing manager for Delhaize America Co., but by night he spends an estimated three hours in his Clemmons home working through the various aspects of making his vision a reality.
“I am taking a risk, and sticking my neck out there,” Keeter said. “It’s worth it in some respects.”
Fuquay said the process has brought its understandable share of highs and lows, but that Keeter “has a lot of stick-to-itiveness. He will get a call that gets him really excited and the next day he might get a call from a manufacturer in China telling him something is going to take another six weeks. And he keeps plugging along because he believes he is on to something.”
Keeter admits the educational curve has presented him a lot of unexpected experiences, like learning about towel construction and how to sew. He was even unaware of the PGA Merchandise Show until Fuquay mentioned that it was an opportunity. Keeter also was able to submit his invention to the United Inventors Association and receive a cost break on a small booth on the exhibition floor.
Over the course of the show, attendees shuffled by the booth. Some stopped with general interest, others with simple curiosity.
“Meeting people, networking, getting good feedback,” said Keeter of his takeaway from the annual show. “It was beneficial.”