How a surge of smash
Golf retail’s past dealings with crime have been a vexing annoyance but hardly the existential threat that recent events may be inspiring. What used to be known as “shrinkage”—a putter slipped down a pant leg or sleeves of Pro V1s hidden in a box of Pinnacles—is becoming an epidemic. Smash-and-grabs, in which criminals break the front glass doors to steal clubs by the armload, might happen just as often with the back end of a Hummer than with a hammer. When you see an online ad on a consumer-to-consumer website like eBay, Craigslist or Facebook Marketplace for, say, a plastic-encased Taylor-Made Stealth 2 driver for $450, or 25 percent off its current retail price, chances are it’s stolen.
“It has trickled into golf for one simple reason: The game has become so popular. The market is so much bigger than it used to be, the equipment is so desirable and the stuff is just so easy to move,” says Mike Mata, vice president of cybersecurity and loss prevention for Worldwide Golf Shops. “The individuals who move this merchandise are typically involved in a lot of different criminal activity. These organizations are linked to the drug cartels and the various mafias.
“They’re just diversifying,” he adds. “If there’s a crackdown on the U.S.-Mexican border, and some of these cartels are having a tough time moving drugs into the country, well, they’ve got to figure out a way to make money somehow, and the big one right now is organized retail crime.”
Mata could easily pass for law enforcement. Head shaved, stocky strong from his daily 4 a.m. workouts, his eyes reflect the intensity of someone in battle. He has been in the trenches fighting this issue for a quarter century but hasn’t seen anything like the current environment. In 2022, leading golf retailers (Golf Galaxy/Dick’s Sporting Goods, PGA Tour Superstore and Worldwide Golf Shops) reported 900 crime events. The value of club thefts industry-wide was roughly $6 million in 2022 or five times more than what it was in 2019.
Several elements are fueling this surge. (1) Selling prices of clubs have risen sharply, making the appeal of getting a deal on a luxury item especially intriguing for the criminal element. (2) It’s relatively easy money for products that hold their value. (3) During the pandemic many golf stores weren’t as robustly staffed, allowing for more undetected crime to occur. Theft has continued because even if caught, criminals likely have to steal multiple thousands of dollars to see real jail time. (4) Criminals know that retailers are instructing their employees not to intervene physically. Not only is a driver not worth dying for, but the retailer could be liable for any injuries in a confrontation.
Maybe the biggest factor is that golfers are eager to take advantage of even the slightest discount. Online selling sites like eBay, Facebook Marketplace, craigslist, OfferUp and Amazon have provided the perfect vehicle for dealing stolen goods without any questions asked. That also means a stolen driver likely generates more straight profit for a criminal because he or she knows that price doesn’t have to be 50 percent off to draw interest. “Criminals love a product like the Pro V1 because it holds its value,” Mata says. “It’s almost like cash. The Pro V1 isn’t just the No. 1 ball on the PGA Tour; it’s the No. 1 ball on the black market.”
Those committing retail crimes vary from individuals stealing a driver or two (like removing a driver’s adjustable head and slipping it into the pocket of an oversize jacket) to criminal networks that feature burglars with assignments for late-night smash-and-grabs that lead to hundreds of the newest drivers and putters stolen in minutes. Sellers, meanwhile, are working the Internet. In a way, crime has become a competitor to the stores, says Ed Rainey, director of loss prevention for Golf Galaxy and one of Mata’s fellow travelers in the battle against organized retail crime.
Rainey says there were two cases in the past year in which individuals were arrested for selling more than $1 million each in stolen golf clubs out of their garages. To do those kinds of numbers, the attacks on stores have become targeted. Thieves case a store for days and might hit the same store multiple times. These aren’t random acts of violence; this is about acquiring inventory.
It’s not easy to measure how this crime surge is impacting prices for clubs and balls. A large retailer like Target says organized retail crime cut into profits by 1 or 2 percent in 2022, but there are no clear numbers in golf. Clubs and balls certainly cost more than they did a few years ago, but those prices can be attributed to supply chain issues, raw materials and increases in shipping and labor more than the hidden fees retailers have had to absorb in building new security measures, rising insurance costs or the need to have a team in place dealing with this problem. Leading golf retailers aren’t considering closing stores yet, but that doesn’t mean mom-and-pop operations haven’t closed. Mata knows of one shop so decimated by a crime hit that it couldn’t recover. Its affable owner, an ex-teaching pro who dispensed swing advice with every clubfitting, is now picking the range at a nearby muny.
The leading golf retailers are monitoring thefts closely and are engaging with law enforcement. If an arrest of a thief happens, it’s largely because the retailers have done much of the legwork to find the bad guys first. This means a lot of surveillance of “new” club sales on secondary websites, and in Mata’s case, going undercover to catch someone selling clubs stolen from one of Worldwide’s stores.
Recently, Worldwide’s work with the California Highway Patrol’s special task force led them to an unassuming bungalow in the west L.A. neighborhood of Monterey Park. A white box truck in the backyard sat partially hidden behind scraggly palm trees adorned with out-of-season Christmas lights and a stand of freshly planted cypress. At dawn, 15 officers waited in tactical gear. They had been able to pinpoint the location through Mata’s team scanning ads on the consumer-to-consumer website Offerup.com. Only because Mata’s team could match the bungalow’s reflection in the photograph of one of the drivers being sold online could they be sure they had found the right house.
It’s not that solving the surging organized retail-crime problem in the golf industry is Mata’s whole world. He has a beautiful family, a weakness for restoring cars, plays golf with a newfound passion and has a deep commitment to his faith. But he also knows this arrest took days of work on the part of his team. He doesn’t want it to come up empty.
“We’ve spent two months guessing and using our imaginations to get at what the connection is between these crimes and this seller,” Mata says. “We’ve exhausted every possible angle to the point where we’ve even been on the streets. Still, you just don’t know if it’s going to be enough. Honestly, if we went any further, we’re putting ourselves in an unsafe situation, and I’m just not willing to do that.”
Fortunately, no weapons were required. Though somewhat confused, a 60-something golfer who we’ll call George, a self-described range rat, gave himself up quietly. What the CHP’s taskforce found in that box truck in the backyard was nearly $50,000 of golf clubs stolen from multiple shops in the L.A. metro area, with a stash of $15,000 in cash stored neatly in a spare golf bag, the bills wrapped in bands.
Said one wide-eyed officer emerging from the box truck, weighed down with an armload of stolen drivers, “This is the mother lode, like a golf version of a drug bust.”
Mata knows this effort is at best a humble step on a long journey toward exposing and eradicating golf’s problem with organized retail crime. It persists because the demand isn’t going away. Golf is more popular than it has been in decades, and equipment prices are higher than ever. Organized retail crime is providing an outlet for that demand, and golf’s welcoming retail environment leaves it exposed.
Even the industry’s leading manufacturers are handcuffed by the problem. Some are shocked that it has reached this level, and though they are doing everything to restore stolen clubs to individual stores and help track down serial numbers, their biggest concern might be whether the discounted prices in online marketplaces are having a chilling effect on golf consumers’ interest in current MSRPs. They also know that the smallest retailers, the ones with the most direct contact with customers, may suffer the largest losses.
At the consumer level, buying a new driver for less than the legitimately advertised price seems like nothing more than getting a good deal. In reality, every discounted online purchase of what ends up being a stolen club makes the buying process worse for all consumers.
“Think about the golf professional who gets his door kicked in at 5 o’clock in the morning, and all his Scotty Cameron putters are stolen,” says Lisa Rogan, director of trademarks and brand protection at Acushnet, the parent company for Titleist and FootJoy. “He has insurance claims and missing inventory. He has a mess to clean up. All those costs and losses at the end of the day get put back on the consumer, and it makes everything go up.”
A swat team recovered $50,000 in stolen clubs and $15,000 in cash from a recent bust.
Retail golf’s vulnerability becomes apparent when you surf through a cache of videos Mata plays in a conference room at Worldwide Golf’s headquarters in Santa Ana, Calif. It’s a hit parade of surveillance videos that detail trucks ramming through store walls. In one scene, thieves lay a blanket on the floor and pile stolen drivers onto it, making it easier to haul out hundreds of clubs. On their way out, they smash a glass case of limited edition putters and haul them away, too.
More distressing are the videos of crimes happening on otherwise ordinary weekday afternoons, like 10 new $600 drivers stolen in barely two minutes at a PGA Tour Superstore outside San Francisco. At another California store, half a dozen driver shafts were scattered in the men’s bathroom, adjustable heads removed and pocketed by a thief wearing a long leather coat.
It isn’t only the large retailers getting hit. At No Bogeys Golf, a 100 Best Clubfitters shop in Laguna Niguel, Calif., an entire glass display of the latest driver heads was destroyed by a sledgehammer, the heads dumped in a cardboard box and carried out the door in minutes. The hit was one of three in the past 18 months and seven in the past decade at the shop off the San Diego Freeway, says founder and chief fitter Kyle Cullum. Cullum has upgraded security, added surveillance cameras and installed bulletproof security windows. Still, the pre-dawn break-in earlier this year was the worst yet, resulting in the loss of 100 driver heads with a retail value of more than $60,000. The crime took all of four minutes. “It’s frustrating, and I feel vulnerable, a little gun shy now,” he says. “I guess I just put too much faith in that riot glass.”
Worldwide Golf’s Mata shared another video from March that tracks a thief—we’ll call him Petey—removing an armload of new drivers off the rack like he’s picking a bouquet of roses. When a sales clerk offers assistance, Petey ignores him and walks to the register and grabs a handful of hats, two more clubs plus another driver out of a young sales clerk’s hands. As Petey heads to the exit, he turns to the manager, who is already on the phone with police, and barks, “You better not be on the phone to your guys, or I’m coming back here with my guys.” Petey had been arrested and jailed twice in the past few months for similar incidents only to be released.
“It just wears you out,” says Joey Isaia, who has managed several Roger Dunn Golf Shops stores for the past 20 years. “Now when we’re seeing customers come through the door, it’s like you almost have to say to yourself, Is he coming in to rob us or is he just looking to try a new putter?” Isaia is explicit that he doesn’t want his staffers playing the hero. “There’s almost times where you feel like, ‘Oh, since we can’t do anything, let me get the door for you while you’re running out.’ ”
Some in the business are worried that the golf retail store is approaching a crossroads experientially. The expectation has been that golfers need to waggle clubs in the aisle, make a few swings in a hitting bay or test on a huge putting green. Turning that experience into some kind of appointment-only atmosphere with everything locked down like baby formula or razors isn’t a business model that makes sense, but some sellers like Club Champion and GOLFTEC are doing just that.
What can be done? New legislation in several states is requiring sellers on auction sites to provide more information, presumably to dissuade the thieves. Mata says the state of California has increased the funding of the CHP’s special taskforce on organized retail crime, which should continue to pay benefits by making it clear to criminals that there’s a new point of emphasis. However, he also recognizes there’s a fundamental difference between setting rat traps and fighting an infestation. “It’s not about the thefts anymore,” he says. “The problem is the appetite for buying from unauthorized sources.”
A site like OfferUp.com isn’t necessarily ignoring the problem, but it’s bigger than the site can manage. It’s not always the case that a single seller’s page is moving tens of thousands of dollars of stolen drivers in a week or two. It might be small amounts here or there, particularly as these larger operations fronting mafia, drug cartels or gangs become more sophisticated and diverse. OfferUp will inform customers of their responsibility to contact law enforcement about potential stolen goods being sold on its site, but that only goes so far. OfferUp has a team investigating so-called “bad items and users on the platform,” but it also states that “to ensure user privacy” it will not disclose personal details of sellers “without substantiated requests from [law enforcement] officials.”
The bigger question is how many consumers care. Golf has dealt with the issue of bad clubs for sale on sites like eBay and Facebook Marketplace before, but those clubs typically were counterfeits. What’s happening with organized retail crime is something different. Other than ethical objections, the main argument against buying a discounted legitimate product is that you’re not getting it from an authorized retailer. Unknowingly buying stolen property is not a crime.
For Cullum, the cleanup after a smash-and-grab is just one inconvenience. He also has to restock the inventory of premium clubheads from multiple manufacturers in the quick timeline necessitated by golf’s revolving product cycles. He knows in many cases he’s asking manufacturers who are already oversubscribed and delayed to do something special for him. He also must deal with insurance: “My insurance came through, but because insurance companies in California can’t raise their rates on you, I’m hearing they can just drop you,” he says. “I feel like if I have another claim, I’m gonna get dropped.”
The Monterey Park bust has produced some hope for Mata and his team. The interrogation of George helped target a pair of burglars, and the team has matched a car used in one of the break-ins to a license plate from a car used in another smash-and-grab. The circle is closing. Or is it? Mata knows that though they have recovered some of his store’s stolen clubs, more than 200 drivers, fairway woods and putters are still unaccounted for from that original break-in. His team continues to search the online ads, and he even half wonders if they’ve ended up in an unauthorized store in the bowels of L.A., or possibly even piled into a shipping container where an unauthorized retailer in China or Malaysia or Singapore already might have ordered them off the black market. “Right now, it just feels like whack-a-mole,” Mata says.
Rainey is more optimistic. “We’re attacking this at every angle,” he says. “In the store, networking with law enforcement and dealing with federal agencies on some of these cases. Because of the alliances we have across the industry, I’m confident we’re going to make a difference.”
In Mata’s office, the phone rings. He shakes his head as he listens to the caller. It is Petey, again. Fortunately, no one was injured and no clubs were stolen, mainly because the team on-site engaged Petey, not as the criminal they recognized but as a customer. Bewildered by being asked questions about his grip preference and swing speed, Petey simply walked out. Apparently, interaction and customer service are the strongest defenses against someone looking to walk off with an armload of drivers. No crime, no damage to property and no loss of life could be considered a kind of progress in the battle against organized retail crime. Still, Mata’s investigative antennae remain on alert.