Ace of Clubs
Gary Adams has been a seminal force in driver and iron design, having invented the metalwood among other classics. Now he's back with a new titanium driver that promises to be a hit
To one in golf, not even mighty Ely Callaway himself, owns a more impressive vita than Gary Adams. You may not know his name, but he's the reason you and I are carrying metalwoods in our golf bag today. Adams not only pioneered modern metalwood design, but he engineered its popular acceptance. He was also the first club designer to put loft and strength labels on golf clubs, the first to employ radical aerodynamic dimpling patterns on clubheads to reduce drag, and the first to promote the use of graphite shafts on woods—almost singlehandedly convincing some of the game's top pros to make the switch. He was the first to use progressive weighting in drivers and pro-style wrap grips on clubs, the first to promote the idea of selling clubs individually. He was also an innovator in marketing, coming up with the first pro shop displays for equipment and strategies for selling premium-priced drivers.
Adams founded Taylor Made Golf, and he made it the number-one golf equipment company in the world. Then he created Founders Club Golf Company and nearly took it to the top. Now he was back in the equipment business once again, which occasioned my visit to his southern California home.
After surviving both success and failure, and, more recently, a battle with pancreatic cancer, Adams has a new company, McHenry Metals, as well as a new driver, the TourPure, which he introduced at the PGA Merchandise Show in Orlando in January. "This is the result of a lot of evolution," said Adams, a slight, almost frail-looking man dressed in muted gray Ashworth tones, as he leaned over his polished desk and handed me his latest creation. The TourPure has a traditional look, a beautiful finish, and yet it bears the Adams hallmark—radical features that once again push the envelope of game technology. A slightly small driver with head made of titanium and face of beta titanium, the TourPure features a tungsten-copper ring at the rear of the head, a "compression-matched" face, and integrated shaft technology that in effect customizes the club to an individual's swing speed. Adams will sell the TourPure for almost $600—more than the price of an entire set of top clubs back when he founded Taylor Made. Did he ever imagine such a day would come?
"No," he admitted. "But back then nobody did things like customize clubs, or experiment with the new materials we're now using—innovations that have made clubs so much better, or at least easier to hit. I never dreamed equipment would get to be as expensive as it has, though. It's a measure, I believe, of how advanced technology has entered the game at all levels. The materials and the manufacturing processes we're using today are simply so different from what they were even just a few years back. There is so much science behind the development of golf equipment these days. And I really believe we are on the threshold of even more breakthroughs like those we made at Taylor Made, and Callaway made with Big Bertha."
So where is it going to lead, I asked—to the $2,000-plus driver? We've already cracked the thousand-dollar threshold. Was any piece of equipment worth that much?
Yet again Adams smiled. "The golf business has what I call a built-in 'truth factor.' That is, you can make something new that sounds exciting, but if it doesn't do what you say it will do, then that club isn't going to be around long. There are few industries that I can think of where the feedback is so strong and immediate. That is why so many golf companies start up—and disappear.
"Having said that, pendulums do swing. I think you'll see equipment prices begin to level off somewhat and maybe even scale back a bit. For example, we're planning to introduce a series of maraging stainless-steel metalwoods that will be in the $250 to $300 range [maraging is a process of toughening stainless steel]. Very comfortable for most good players.
"I don't believe the market for a $600 driver is overwhelming. But it is there, and our tests of the TourPure with Tour pros and other field testers of all handicap levels show this new driver is something very special. It hits the ball farther—and with a much tighter dispersion factor. It's probably the best thing I've done to date, and frankly, it has exceeded our hopes. Our sales forecasts have had to be revised three times in the past few weeks."
He pauses for a moment, then concedes with a modest smile, "I guess the word has leaked out a bit."
That's proved to be an understatement. Not two weeks after this conversation, I stopped by the McHenry Metals booth at the PGA Merchandise Show in Orlando to see how the official reception party was going. Adams was off doing interviews, but equipment buyers were lined up three- deep to learn more about the new driver. One McHenry rep told me that the company had reached its projected business target by day two of the four-day show. But Adams' understated assessment constitutes the brashest thing you will hear from him, even though he has given the world such hits as the Burner Driver, Pittsburgh Persimmon, and 16-degree Taylor Made Raylor utility wood. Gary Adams may lack Ely Callaway's flair for public relations and marketing machismo, but he easily makes up for it in quiet strokes that change the game from the inside.
It was 20 years ago that Adams, then a golf equipment salesman residing in McHenry, Illinois (his hometown), began fiddling with the concept of making a metalwood. At the time wooden-headed clubs dominated the industry. There were aluminum-headed drivers on the market (and had been since the turn of the century), but they were used only at driving ranges.
Because his father was a club professional and he'd grown up around the game, Adams understood the fundamental principles of club design. "I knew that metal comes to the ball at the moment of impact more squarely than wood," Adams said, explaining the thinking behind his intuition that a metalwood could outperform a traditional club. "In addition, much more is going on, movement, I mean, in the swing of a wooden club. The metalwood is much more efficient and produces, as a result, a tighter dispersion pattern. That's to say, because the impact is squarer the spin is less and the ball tends to fly straighter. You can also de-loft a metal club in ways you can't a wood, which means the ball will come off the face at a lower trajectory, fly farther, and roll more. And unlike wood, you can move the weight around in a metal club, which is where the improved forgiveness factor comes in."
Nevertheless, selling the new design to golfers was a challenge in itself. Golf is a tradition-steeped business—and tradition universally favored wood. Even so, Adams thought he saw the future.
"I was judging a long-drive contest at Firestone Country Club," Adams said, picking up the tale, "and I noticed something curious. This was just about the time that Top Flight was introducing two-piece Surlyn-covered balls, claiming they would fly farther than traditional wound balata-skinned balls. I discovered that these balls did indeed go farther, but only when they were hit with a steel club. In many instances, the harder balls actually bruised or caved in the face of a persimmon driver. It was pretty clear to me that two-piece balls were the future, and that told me the time was finally right for a metal driver."
Adams called his first metalwood the Taylor Made "because that had sort of a custom, classy sound to it, and I thought, well, if the club bombs, at least maybe I could sell my inventory off to people named Taylor." Gay Brewer has the distinction of being the first Tour pro to use the club—on the practice tee at the Riviera Country Club one afternoon in early 1978. "The ball came off the metal much hotter than it did wood," recalled Adams, "but the metallic sound was simply awful, almost like a bell. I knew that I had some tinkering to do yet. I added a screw, which I hoped would dampen the vibration and make the club sound less metallic."
Adams introduced the club at the 1979 PGA Merchandise Show. Critics called it the Tin Club, but Adams surprised them (and himself) by writing $47,000 worth of orders for it. He returned home to McHenry and asked his wife, Sam, if she'd agree to put the house they'd just built on the eighth hole of McHenry Country Club on the line so he could go into the golf equipment business. "It was," said Adams, "a true act of faith." Using the house as collateral, he borrowed $24,000 from a local bank and then leased the vacant 6,000-square-foot Admiral television assembly plant in McHenry—initially employing only three people, counting himself.
The following November, at the PGA Club Professional Championship at Callaway Gardens Resort in Georgia, Adams put his newfangled driver into the hands of a strong young club pro, who began banging balls not just to the back of the driving range—but over the trees at the back of the range.
"That moment was pivotal in our history, because it showed conclusively that the club did exactly what we claimed it did—hit the ball farther. It earned us attention from some of the most respected teaching professionals in the business," said Adams. He sold 47 Taylor Made Metalwood Drivers at the championship, and a few weeks later he sold 13 more to Tour professionals at the Disney tournament in Orlando. Soon Adams had a host of name players collaring him at tournaments—or calling the plant to ask for a demonstration of the club. One of the latter was Arnold Palmer. "There were three of us sitting in the plant that day," Adams recalled with a smile, "the office girl, plant manager, and me. She suddenly said, 'Arnold Palmer is on the phone and would like to speak to you about our driver.' I honestly thought she was kidding, but it was really Palmer. That was one of the biggest thrills of my life."
There was still a widespread perception at the time that Adams' metalwood would go the way of the Hula-Hoop. But by 1981 his upstart company had done $1.2 million in sales and moved part of the production facilities to Vista, California, to be near the casting foundry. The next year, Adams did $12 million in sales and noticed that Northwestern, Wilson, and McGregor, king of the persimmon market, had all hustled out new metalwood lines to compete with his Taylor Made. The following year sales jumped again—to $15 million. Then it began to rain.
"Demand for metalwoods really exploded in 1983," said Adams, "but it rained like cats and dogs across America that year, washing out a number of big golf tournaments, which in turn created an equipment backlog in the industry. If people weren't either playing or watching golf, they certainly were not buying new equipment." Wilson responded in classic fashion, by cutting the price of its metalwood driver to $19 and eventually discontinuing it. "Our price was $69.95 retail, a pretty premium price in those days," states Adams, "but it was clear to me that if we cut our price to match theirs, just to reduce our inventory, it would indicate to the public that this technology really was a Hula-Hoop."
Against the advice of many, he held his price. Equipment sales fell, and his bank forced him to find a large financial partner, which ended up being the giant French sporting goods company Salomon. Adams then notched yet another first: hiring a direct marketing firm to sell the metalwood through the pages of The Wall Street Journal, Playboy, and Golf magazine. "That was the move that got us true acceptance with the public," he said; "we sold something like 180,000 drivers through direct response marketing and proved that metalwoods were here to stay."
In 1984, Lee Trevino captured the PGA Championship at Shoal Creek, Alabama, using a Taylor Made driver. That drove the company's consumer market share of woods in play to about 34 percent, an unprecedented rate of growth. It was eclipsed only by the PGA Tour, where something like 98 percent of the metalwoods in play were Taylor Made products. And by 1988, Taylor Made owned the driver and fairway wood market, wooden clubs were rattling in the remainder bin of history, and Adams was antsy for a new challenge. He was also unhappy with his Salomon partners. Among other things, they'd decided to ditch Lee Trevino as a company spokesman, fire the ad agency Adams had employed since day one, and—most galling of all—cancel the development of a new putter that Adams believed could challenge mighty Ping.
"It was primarily a philosophical disagreement, a pride of ownership issue, the kind of thing that happens when success arrives and you have a number of creative people involved," said Adams. "The bottom line was, the little company I'd started back in McHenry was no longer mine. The difficulty of achieving saturation of the market, as Taylor Made did around 1989, is that very quickly the public is going to ask, 'What's new?' and start looking around for the latest innovation."
Adams sold his interest in Taylor Made and started Founders Club. Within a year it had achieved $14 million in sales and become number two in drivers and fairway woods (behind Taylor Made). And it was rapidly closing the gap. Almost overnight Founders Club had 5,200 accounts at some of the finest pro shops in the country, selling what some called the driver of the future. The pros liked the club as well. The first metalwood Tom Watson used in competition was the Founders Club Fresh Metal Plus driver; other believers included Curtis Strange, Dave Stockton, and Hale Irwin.
Founders Club, however, foundered on marketing. In 1991 the huge Japanese sporting goods company that owned controlling interest decided to sell the premium-priced Founders clubs in discount houses. Adams protested, and ultimately resigned over the decision. He predicted the strategy would create a vacuum that someone else would soon come along and fill.
That someone turned out to be Ely Callaway, whose Big Bertha driver, which was based on principles pioneered and popularized by Gary Adams, swept the world of golf. By 1997 Founders Club was finished. But by then Adams had an even larger challenge on his hands—saving his own life.
In August 1991, he discovered that he had an inoperable tumor the size of a golf ball in his pancreas. He was sent home to his house on La Costa Country Club's third fairway to await death. He had six months at most, his doctors predicted.
"It is very strange to have this sort of verdict handed to you out of the blue," Adams reflected, looking out at the swimming pool. "For a while you search for an explanation and you run the gamut of emotions from sadness to anger. In my case, though, I never accepted the idea that my time was over. There was so much more I wanted to do. I had always been such a positive person. But going through this sort of ordeal does change you. Among other things, it humanizes you, makes you realize how grateful you should be for the small things. A lot of people began praying for me to pull through, and I think that, and my mental attitude, were all that kept me going."
For almost three years, Adams sat in a La-Z-Boy chair in his bedroom, hooked up to an intravenous feeding machine, which was necessary because his stomach had atrophied and his upper intestines were blocked. Nonetheless, during this time he helped a friend, Jim Flood, start a putter company based on some of the ideas Adams had kicked around at Founders Club, and he got his son Brad involved with the project. "Each weekend Brad would come home; we would discuss the new putters they were producing. He'd take them out on Tour and come back, and we would talk about all the input. Because of my situation, I felt it was proper for me to be only a consultant with the company, but it was nice to see that little company take off."
That little company was Odyssey Golf, and it eventually dethroned Ping—just as Adams thought he could do back in 1988. "I think I lived through their success for a while, enjoying how they kept climbing up on Ping until they overtook it. I'd be less than honest if I didn't admit that even as I was ailing, I had a tremendous desire to get back into the business. In my heart, I felt that day would come around again. My wife, Sam, began something that was called the Gary Adams Invitational tournament, and every year I would give a speech at the event. The third year I gave the speech, I said I no longer had cancer. People were startled, and Sam was really shocked. When we got home she asked how on earth I could say such a thing. I looked at her and said, 'Because I think it's true.'"
The results of his next regular exam astounded the X-ray technician. No tumor was visible in his pancreas—or anywhere else in his body, for that matter. Within a week his doctor called to confirm the results. "My doctor had no explanation for it," said Adams, "but I have no doubt that it was a miracle. I've learned from direct experience that for all our great science, the powers of prayer and positive thinking are very convincing."
Adams underwent surgical procedures to repair his shriveled insides. His golf game—Adams was a champion in college and nearly a scratch golfer before his illness—was in tatters. "I knew I'd never be able to break eighty at La Costa again," he quipped with a gentle laugh, "so why torture myself? I play all my golf on executive golf courses now." But the father of the modern metalwood was very much alive and kicking, and as he regained his strength, he began to have new thoughts about an old love—the metal driver.
"By then Ely Callaway had created the ultimate golf company and achieved, for better or worse, the kind of saturation we achieved at Taylor Made," stated Adams. "But of course that presented an opportunity in itself. There's always a niche for the right technology—and people are always going to ask, 'What's new?'"
In November 1996 Adams was back in McHenry, Illinois, snooping around the basement of his father's house, looking at the hundreds of old golf clubs stored there. "I can remember picking up an old Taylor Made driver I had been terribly fond of, and then it suddenly came to me just what that new technology was—the idea of matching the face thinness or compression of a club and the weight distribution to a golfer's swing speed."
Within months Adams had secured some of the key investors in Odyssey Golf (recently acquired by Callaway—an irony not lost on Adams) for his new venture, which he named after his hometown. He even leased the old Odyssey production facility in Carlsbad, moving into Brad's old office. By then Adams' new ideas had found their way into the McHenry Metals TourPure Driver, which should be hitting the retail racks about the time you're reading this.
I asked Adams what will be different in his company this time around.
"A couple things," he answered. "For the first time in my career all of the pieces are in place. To begin with, we no longer have to try and convince the buying public that metalwoods aren't a Hula-Hoop. Furthermore, my health is good—my doctor just sent a letter to our investors once again giving me an all-clear. And for the first time, my financial partners are real golf people."
The stock of McHenry Metals (NASDAQ) has nearly doubled since the initial public offering in 1997, and its sales forecasts have nearly tripled. Those who know Gary Adams are betting that he will be a winner once again.
As for me, I have half a dozen of this slight, soft-spoken man's clubs in my golf bag. And if history means anything, I'll soon have another one.
McHenry Metals Tourpure Driver
Cast from high-quality beta titanium and titanium, the classically shaped driver (235-cc head) features a 16-gram tungsten-copper ring that moves the weight to the heel or toe of the club, thereby compensating for hooks or slices, as well as optimizing the launch angle. The TourPure Driver is available in three different face thicknesses with three different lofts: 10.5-loft for the higher-handicap golfer; 7.5 for the professional; and 9.5 for the in-between player. The face and shaft of the TourPure are compression-matched. That means there is a thin face/flexible shaft for those with a slow swing; a thick face/rigid shaft for those with a fast swing. In short, technology that customizes the club to an individual's swing speed, while the face allows greater transfer of energy to the ball. I found the club extremely forgiving on off-center hits but didn't get the distance I expected, though another member of my party did. The metallic finish makes the TourPure the prettiest metalwood on the market. Retail price: $586.
Founders Club Fresh Metal Plus
Beautifully finished, classic in both lines and design, the Fresh Metal Plus was a bestseller that nearly propelled Founders Club to the top of the metalwood industry. It was the first metalwood that Tom Watson, among other marquee names, ever played in competition. Professional players raved about Fresh Metal Plus' control and versatility, a result of the sweet spot placed in the center of the face. Simply one of the best woods (of any material) of all time
Taylor Made Raylor
Some say that it's the ultimate utility club. It certainly inspired a host of imitators. The Raylor's astonishing versatility is the result of the low-sole weighting design, which allows the sweet spot to be widened. The pair of grooves on the bottom (right) allowed the club to cut through the rough better than an iron; in addition, the Raylor worked wonders from the fairway. Check pro bags and you will still see this club in service.
Tour Preferred Driver
The first club to feature "dimples" on the perimeter, this Burner series club, which appeared in 1985, was the first metalwood to achieve dominance among Tour pros. It vaulted Taylor Made to the top of the wood market. The original sold for $90 and is now considered a collector's item.
Taylor Made Metalwood Driver
This simple stainless-steel wonder, Gary Adams' original metalwood, which debuted in 1979, took the world by surprise. Its 12 degrees of loft meant better players could use it off the fairway for extra distance as well as off the tee. It was the first metalwood to gain broad acceptance by touring pros; the original model sold for $69.95.
Taylor Made Tour Spoon
This "strong" three-wood also came out in 1979—and it's still in the golf bags of many of the better players, who frequently substitute it for a driver. The Tour Spoon provided unprecedented control and versatility from the fairway because it handled bad lies superbly and could be used off the tee.
In two decades of creating golf clubs, Gary Adams has proved remarkably prescient. Here, in his own words, is how he sees the future of golf equipment right now.
• "Clubs have gotten about as big as they can get."
• "We'll increasingly see a return to some of the time-tested traditional thinking in golf equipment. Small heads on woods are one example. The new emphasis on forged equipment is another."
• "Wood has made a slight comeback, but thanks to advanced forging processes we can give metal clubs the feel and responsiveness of wood—and that's what golfers want in their clubs."
• "Technology will allow us to create even bigger sweet spots and customize clubs in ways we were never able to do before."
• "But the big innovations are going to come through the use of new materials and new ways of distributing weight, as we've done with the TourPure driver."
I admit it, I'm one of those who thought metalwoods were a fad, like radar-orange golf balls and the plaid-pants-and-white-belt look in golf attire. In fact, I'm such a stiff-necked traditionalist about the game that I hated the very idea of a metalwood. The buzz around my pro shop when metalwoods came out—that they enable you to hit the ball straighter and farther—only made me more devoted to my McGregor Byron Nelson persimmon-headed driver. Moreover, I couldn't see how anyone would pay $69.95 for a single wooden club—at that time woods were sold in sets of three—much less a metalwood.
It was only because a buddy of mine confessed that he couldn't manage the low loft on his new Taylor Made Burner—all he could do was hit mighty slices with it—and offered it to me for $35 that I got a metalwood. I took the driver to a public course on the ocean near my house north of Boston. My father was visiting from North Carolina. He had his new Taylor Made driver with him and kept chirping about the new life it had put in his drives. I remember saying to him that if my Burner was no good, as I fully expected, I could simply fling it into the ocean. The last time I checked, I joked, steel didn't float. The whole metalwood phenomenon, I opined, would soon sink out of sight. Golf was a game of players, not rocket scientists.
On the fourth hole, a sweeping par-four slight dogleg left, I drove the green in one swat, and my father merely smiled. The Burner went into my bag and stayed there for the next three years, until I put down $119 for a brand-new Taylor Made number. There have been, I guess, two dozen different metalwoods in and out of my golf bag since.
I told this story to Gary Adams as we settled into chairs at his house just off La Costa Country Club's third fairway. "I've heard one version or another of that story for almost twenty years," he said with a smile.
The Short Course: New & Noteworthy, Picks & Pans
There was no showstopper at Orlando this year, but I saw several innovative products. NancyLopezGolf unveiled three lines of equipment that match grip and shaft flex, weight and length, to a player's skill and swing speed. The line is aimed at golf's fastest-growing market, executive women and junior girls. 888-752-9654. Odyssey introduced a fantastic putter, the 772, a heel-shafted, slightly offset blade with the company's patented stronomic insert. $120. 800-991-1788. Taylor Made introduced Burner Bubble for Kids, a comprehensive line of equipment that features the patented Bubble shaft and thinner grips. Available in three shaft lengths and flexes. As a child grows, Taylor Made will replace the clubs accordingly. Full set of driver, putter, three irons, and bag: $250. 800-829-5676. Ping unveiled its first titanium driver, the super-forgiving TiSi, which, at 310 cubic centimeters, is purportedly the largest custom-fit driver today. Available in four lofts and flexes, 10 hosel positions. $495. 800-528-0650. And Barney Adams is bound to make new friends with his Tight Lies 28-degree strong nine-wood. $180 steel; $240 graphite. 800-622-0609.
InterGolf has terrific golf packages to Canada: 800-468-0051.
Titleist's new 976R driver (210 cubic centimeters), a traditional sized and shaped club, performs like a thoroughbred. The lower center of gravity and classic bulge and roll features enable better players to control trajectory and shape shots more effectively. I loved the lower flight this club put on my ball. Four lofts, three shaft flexes. $499. 888-324-4766.
One Great Hole
The 212-yard, par-three eighth at Chateau Whistler Resort in British Columbia. The drive is from an elevated tee; the green, wedged between a pond and rock escarpment, looks smaller than it is. The safe shot is simply to the middle of the green—easier said than done. One of my companions fired four teeshots into the water before marking an X on his card. 800-606-8244. Member of Platinum Card Fine Hotels & Resorts.
James Dodson, Departures' contributing editor for golf, wrote about short par-fours in the last issue.