GOLF PENCILS: Gross Story With a Happy Ending

By admin December 30, 2014 00:58

GOLF PENCILS: Gross Story With a Happy Ending

Written by Ried Holien

Like oxygen and sex, golf pencils become a huge concern only when you’re forced to do without them. “Everyone takes the golf pencil for granted,” says Larry Krane, co-owner and Vice President of Sales for Panda Pencils, the USA’s largest producer of the ubiquitous 3½-inch writing utensils. “Most golfers don’t give any thought to the pencil they use to write down their score, but it’s an item that you have to have. Everyone has to start each round with a pencil and a scorecard, but everyone takes those two for granted. But get to where people don’t have one, or the pro shop doesn’t have any, and then people panic.”

The pencil serves a pivotal role in golf’s most common question, which is: “What’d you get last hole?” (That being followed closely by, “How the *#%@ did that stay out?” and “Where’s the drink cart girl?”) The scorekeeper asks that after nearly every hole. Writing down scores during play allows for a tidy accounting of where everyone stands in relation to par and each other. It also prevents much potential post-round confusion. The scorecard receives credit for such clarity but really the pencil deserves the glory. You can, after all, record a score on any scrap of paper. A discarded Snickers wrapper works well enough when an official card is not around. You can’t say the same thing when missing something to write with.

Golf Gurus Worship Pencils
Golf experts honor the pencil with great power. Dr. Bob Rotella, Dave Pelz and Harvey Penick all wrote about how a golfer can play his best only when he forgets about his overall score. In their best selling books of golf advice, each guru teaches that golfers should write down their score for a hole then immediately forget it. Let the pencil and scorecard keep the past because that’s the only way you can free your mind from anxiety and expectations and successfully stay in the moment.

Despite such potential benefits, and regardless of their absolute necessity, pencils receive scant recognition from the golfers they so loyally serve. Most players pay attention to pencils only when one’s missing or broken. And, at the end of the round, the vast majority of golfers simply discard them.

The golf pencil suffers an astonishingly short life span. Few survive past 18 holes. A typical pencil can write a continuous line 35-miles long. Most golf pencils die prematurely after writing an equivalent line of, oh, about three inches. “It’s like people consider them good for only one round and then they throw them away,” Krane says. Not that he’s complaining, mind you. Whenever a golfer trashes a pencil, the player must grab a new one before the next round. Even at the cost of less than a nickel per pencil, other businesses would kill for that kind of turnover.

After weeks or months of such callous disregard, a pro shop’s pencil supply dips low and more must be ordered. “Although so much depends upon the season and the weather, as that determines the level of play, the average club orders about 25 to 30 gross (144 to a gross) at a time. And they’ll order that amount about four times a year,” says Krane.

Demise of de Vincenzo
Although golf history contains many hilarious and horrific stories, very few feature the pencil and those that do tend to be negative. The most famous happened in 1968 when Roberto de Vicenzo signed an incorrect scorecard. Tommy Aaron, Vicenzo’s playing partner, marked him down for a par-4 on the 17th instead of the birdie-3 he actually earned. According to the rules, if you sign for a higher score then you keep that score. The error cost Roberto his chance at a playoff and the coveted Masters green jacket.

Most pencil errors happen in the reverse, however, when golfers sign for scores lower than what they earned. In such cases the rules stipulate immediate disqualification. One recent example involved Sergio Garcia getting kicked out of the 2007 PGA Championship after signing for a 4 on the 17th when, in fact, he shot a 5. His playing partner, Boo Weekley, who kept Garcia’s score, was apologetic, saying: “It’s my fault for putting the wrong score in, but it’s his fault for not checking.” Garcia meant no deceit. It was an honest mistake.

With amateurs, however, such mistakes are usually not honest ones. To put it bluntly: some golfers cheat. As Bob Hope joked: “Most golfers shoot six, write down five, and yell fore.” The pencil serves as the unwilling accomplice, but unlike Pinocchio this wood won’t grow when telling a lie. Noting the propensity for many golfers to fudge lower scores onto their cards, an old golf adage proclaims: “The best wood in most amateur’s bags is the pencil.”

And even when one end of the pencil isn’t sullied with dishonor, the other end is. Arnold Palmer once said: “I have a tip that can take five strokes off anyone’s golf game: it’s called an eraser.”

There surely is more to the pencil than most golfers ever consider, but calling Panda Pencil’s headquarters in Venice, Florida, proves the point. Panda offers a surprising assortment to choose from. Start with colors. Panda uses fifteen standard hues, but Krane says, “We can do any color.” (Green, predictably, is the overwhelming favorite for golf pencils.) Next comes the shape, with hexagon or round being most popular. Most customers also want their “stamp” put on, which is the personalized lettering identifying the course. Most list just the name, but some use three full lines of text and fancy symbols. The stamp comes in myriad colors, as does the eraser and the ferrule. The ferrule is the round metal cylinder that connects the wood to the eraser, and they come in gold, silver or black.

280,000 Pencils A Day
Although this assortment could slow them down, Panda still manages to manufacture an average of 280,000 pencils every day. Panda sells upwards to 100 million golf pencils annually, which makes them the biggest of the handful of businesses that compete in the $16-million a year industry.

That doesn’t mean it’s easy, however. “There’s so much to the process of making a pencil that nobody thinks of,” says Krane. Golf pencils begin life in fields of fast-growth lindenwood and basswood in China. Processed into slats then shipped to America, Panda’s employees make pencils like sandwiches. They insert the lead (actually, lead was replaced by graphite in 1564) between two wooden slats resembling pieces of bread. Then employees mill the sandwiches down to form independent pencils.

From there, the pencils get shipped to thousands of courses in the USA, as well as to South America, Europe and Australia. At that point, this pencil—which was created by master craftsmen and which has traveled the globe—gets used once then thrown away. (And you think your life isn’t what it was cracked up to be.)

“It’s a long process, and not an easy one, but that doesn’t stop some people from thinking we can make them immediately,” says Krane. “Golf pros are the worst. They don’t pay any attention to pencils until they run out and then they panic. They wait until the last second to order and then they want them overnight.”

The panic results because golfers expect and demand free pencils prior to teeing off. While not essential equipment like balls and clubs, pencils rank with tees as a necessary accoutrement.

Ironically, such panic helps Panda’s profits. Around 14 billion pencils are made every year in the world. The USA used to dominate the business, but only a handful of domestic manufacturers remain. Most of the work is outsourced to China. But, shipping from Asia takes time, and that presents a market niche that Panda exploits. “They (China) can’t hurt us in golf because it’s all personalized and because everyone wants their order so fast,” says Krane. “We send orders out in 5 to 7 days, or faster, and they can’t do that from there.”
“Golf” pencils comprise about 75% of Panda’s total sales, yet not all those go to courses. Panda sells a lot of the 3½-inch variety to racetracks, off-track betting locations, and lottery organizations. “There are many places for their [the short pencil] use,” says Krane, “but no matter where it goes it’s still always called a golf pencil.”
Panda relies upon about 70 distributors to sell its products throughout North America, and that presents Krane with a frustrating problem. The distributors, all of whom are avid golfers, would love to host Larry for a round but he’s not been able to play for a long time because of a serious knee injury. He bought a new set of clubs two years ago and has never used them. “I have a great opportunity to play some of the best courses in the country, and I can never take them up on the offer,” he says.
Wayne Gendron would love having Larry Krane’s golf course connections. Gendron is an avid golf pencil collector who started the hobby by keeping a pencil from every course he played. He built up quite an assortment from courses around his home in Massachusetts and on golf vacations. “Every year my wife and I take three vacations,” he says. “She goes on one. I go on one. And we go together.” Gendron plans his personal vacation with his golf buddies. “I don’t necessarily plan the trips to get new pencils, but just to play new courses.” He considers acquiring new pencils just an added bonus.

Beginning in the early 1990s, Gendron amassed over 200 pencils. His collection expanded slowly until 1999 when he discovered that glorious forum for trivial pursuits known as the Internet. He posted a web page dedicated to his collection and soon got introduced to others who shared his passion. Almost immediately, “I met about 26 people who were as crazy as I was.”

Pencil-Neck Geeks
“Once I got [my webpage] on the Internet my collection grew by leaps and bounds,” Gendron recalls. Over time, he met pencil enthusiasts from around the globe. People would visit the page, read the list of courses Gendron had pencils from, then email him their own lists.

Like kids trading baseball cards, Gendron and others swapped duplicates. An unwritten rule stipulates that money very rarely changes hands. “My costs are minimal. I pay for the website, which is only $35 a year, and I pay for postage when people send me pencils. That’s it. These are good people [in the hobby]. I’ve never had a problem with anyone. Our only thing is that if you have 50 duplicates, then you ask the other person for 50.”

After a couple years of trading, Gendron’s collection skyrocketed from 200 to over 4,000. Still, Gendron wants more. “I’m a competitive guy,” he says. That shows on the course—where he plays to an 8 handicap—and in his hobby. “There’s a guy in Maryland who has 6,700 pencils, so I’m going to try to catch him.”

Because duplicates serve such a pivotal role in the hobby, Gendron tries to grab three pencils from every course he visits. This allows one for his collection, and two to trade. He’s even recruited his wife to help. On her solo vacations she regularly travels to Europe, often visiting a friend in England. She’ll stop off at courses, but that’s no guarantee of helping out her hubby. “A lot of courses there don’t even have pencils, and lots don’t put their names on the pencils.” And his wife must overcome other problems as well. “If you don’t play the course, you do get dirty looks when you take pencils,” Wayne says.

While nobody in America so much as blinks an eye when a visitor snatches some pencils—they are, after all, considered disposable like tissues and toothpicks—Gendron does encounter some difficulties, particularly from California. “Collectors in California were particularly happy I live in Massachusetts so we could switch coast for coast,” he recalls. But, he got the short end of that pencil stick. “In Palm Springs, a lot of courses are run by the same company so they just put something like ‘Troon Golf’ on the pencil or something. Even the Tournament Players’ courses don’t put the specific name of the course on it; it’s just ‘Tournament Players.’ Well, that doesn’t help my collection.”

While he doesn’t travel just to get new pencils, such incidents do frustrate Gendron. “You do get a little let down when you get to a new course and they don’t have their own pencil.” It’s a nuisance unique to his hobby. No course would ever consider being without their own scorecard or logo ball, but many courses do go without personalized pencils.

History Mystery
While Gendron does not consider there to be any Holy Grail of golf pencils he does say: “I’ve paid for one pencil and one pencil only: Augusta National.” Even that one, however, cost only a couple dollars. He needed that pencil to fill out his collection of courses that host the majors. “I’m big on golf history. I try to get a pencil from all the Open courses—both the U.S. and British.”

Although a student of history, Gendron can find few details regarding the pencil’s past. Perhaps it’s because of their overlooked nature, but no golf history book devotes so much as one line to the pencil’s on-course origins. When did golfers first use pencils? When did courses start stamping their names on them? Gendron doesn’t know.

Even Larry Krane cannot answer such questions, and he’s a pencil expert. Long before starting Panda Pencil, he began work in 1960 for Eberhart Faber, once a major New York-based pencil manufacturer. He can rattle off general pencil history—like the Romans invented the pencillumor over 2,000 years ago and the Germans started mass producing them in 1662—but cannot cite any golf-specific facts.

“History? Quite honestly, it’s never come up,” says Krane. “I don’t recall when it [the golf pencil] came about.”

While Gendron and Krane classify historical questions as unusual, they are nowhere near the weirdest thing they’ve encountered. “We get strange requests all the time from people who want some nasty sayings put on the pencil,” says Krane, laughing at the memory of some of the more off-colored texts “We turn them down.”

“The strangest thing I’m always asked,” says Gendron, “is how to sharpen them. I get questions all the time from people about that. People want to sharpen them but you can’t use a normal pencil sharpener because it eats up too much of the short pencil and can go into the lettering. Golf pencils need that narrow tip. Well, what you use to give them sharp tips without ruining their distinct shape is an eyeliner pencil sharpener from a woman’s makeup kit.”

Gendron guesses that people ask this because they want to sharpen the pencil before putting them on display. That can be the only logical explanation because, with the lack of regard golfers give pencils, it can’t be because someone wants to use one again. For Panda, because the golf pencil has a very short utilitarian life-span, its product is forever in demand at a current rate of nearly 700,000 gross a year, explaining why the story of the golf pencil is gross with a happy ending.

By admin December 30, 2014 00:58