All ears, I listened intently to the founder of TaylorMade Golf, Gary Adams, as he recited the insistent words: “Go back.”
He was discussing his own near-death experience. I felt I was in the presence of an evangelist. I sensed he was getting ready to deliver a sermon. In this life-and-death drama, he aimed the words in my direction. Nobody else was in the room. I interpreted this as a message. It was my responsibility to tell his story.
Adams was living in Carlsbad, Calif., at the time. He had been dreadfully sick and was trying to map his future when he received his “go back” mandate. It was the early 1990s.
Writers are supposed to be keen observers, although nothing like this had ever happened to me. I felt shaken.
Regardless, this was Gary Adams, the father of the golf metalwood, a man of uncommon occurrences. “It was like a shoe box with a bright light in the far end,” he recounted. “There was a deep voice. It told me to go back. Somehow I was able to leave the box.”
There was no doubting Adams. This was far, far beyond golf.
Go back. This was the story he told so convincingly in the next few years. He was deemed unready for death. Those who knew him well took note of a renewed calmness about him. I wasn’t the only journalist who benefited from a one-on-one audience with the man who changed golf. He seemed to enjoy talking with writers. For those who wondered about the relationship between death and golf clubs, Adams frequently broke into a Cheshire cat smile. It was as if he knew something we didn’t. I figured that perhaps golf was somehow a passport to a kinder, more charitable reality.
A few years later, in 2000, Adams died at 56 from pancreatic cancer. He had started three golf companies that specialized in metalwoods – TaylorMade, Founders Club and McHenry Metals – and he single-handedly had driven wooden woods out of the marketplace. By the end of the 1990s they were gone, just another golf relic.
His driver was made of metal, but his body was not. He fought the medical demons ’til he could fight no more. Ironically, when he died, he was in preliminary, secretive discussions with TaylorMade to return to the company he had founded and later sold.
Perhaps TaylorMade II never would have happened. Adams was concerned about his investors in McHenry Metals, and throughout his career he remained an honorable businessman. Without some creative financial planning, it is unlikely he would have abandoned McHenry Metals. Still, it was TaylorMade that established the identity of Adams as golf’s most creative thinker and its premier product innovator.
A few years later, he would be joined in that category by Ely Callaway of Callaway Golf, as golf moved into a new phase of high-performance equipment.
I wasn’t there in the 1930s, when steel golf shafts took over from hickory, but I definitely was there for the introduction of the modern metal driver. Adams started TaylorMade in his hometown of McHenry, Ill., in 1979. At first these metal-headed implements were made of stainless steel.
According to Brad Adams, Gary’s son, his father named TaylorMade Golf after his friend Jimmy Taylor, a highly regarded golf industry sales representative. Then there was Harry Taylor, a PGA Tour player at the time. He became a spokesman and ambassador for TaylorMade, but that relationship did not begin until 1980, one year after the company was founded. Harry Taylor recalls: “At the Western Open, Gary introduced himself to me and, asking if I was Harry Taylor, explained how he had launched a new golf company by the name of TaylorMade. He said to me, ‘Harry, I have a company named TaylorMade but I have no Taylor. Since you are the only Taylor on the PGA Tour, we need to form a partnership.’ ”
Eventually titanium replaced steel. It was lighter and stronger. Adams was here long enough to preside over the switch to titanium, and his accomplishments were spectacular. How lucky was I? Very, very fortunate to have a ringside seat for this monumental development of a club that would alter golf.
Now, in 2019, we celebrate the 40-year anniversary of TaylorMade. Back in 1979, Adams joined golf pro and entrepreneur Eddie Langert in producing the first professional-grade, hollow-bodied metalwoods. Although Langert was prominent in the history of this club, it was the gregarious Adams who attracted the most attention. However, the two should correctly be identified as co-founders of TaylorMade Golf.
Adams frequently talked about the phenomenon of energy transfer in his metalwoods. More energy produced more distance.
Sure, before Adams and Langert came along, there had been metal-headed drivers at driving ranges. There’s even some 150-year-old prototypes of heavy metalwoods behind glass at the British Golf Museum. But they were mostly a curiosity and failed to offer any significant performance benefit.
Adams, a sales representative for PGA Victor Golf, envisioned a metalwood (often called Pittsburgh Persimmon) with thinner walls in the metal clubhead. This allowed golf to take its first giant step toward “trampoline effect” in the face of metalwoods. As the thin face compressed at impact, the metalwood achieved extra velocity.
There was a simple way to explain all this. Adams frequently talked about the phenomenon of energy transfer in his metalwoods. More energy produced more distance.
The original TaylorMade driver had a loft of 12 degrees and produced a loud sound at impact. The metal club was hardly an instant success, although motorcycle daredevil Evel Knievel played a role in its growing popularity.
In the beginning, TaylorMade had money problems. Adams borrowed $24,000 on his house, and Langert declared bankruptcy. Marilyn Adams, Gary’s wife, pawned her wedding ring to help keep the cash-strapped company alive. Along came Knievel, who lost a large amount of cash to Adams and Langert in a series of golf money games.
Knievel, who died in 2007 at the age of 69, once told a detailed story about engaging in a fistfight on the golf course with Langert.
Brad Adams remembers that Knievel produced a wad of money from a sock he kept in his golf bag. “I still want to be associated with your company,” Knievel told Adams and Langert.
“That driver was a weird club in a lot of ways,” said broadcaster and former PGA Tour player Gary McCord. “It produced a tremendous amount of spin. It had a very high trajectory. So it was inevitable that Gary would make drivers with less loft.”
Regardless, it took only two years for the driver to be victorious on the PGA Tour, as Ron Streck used it to win the 1981 Houston Open. Three years later, Lee Trevino captured the 1984 PGA Championship to become the first player to win a major with a metal driver.
Jim Simons and Bobby Clampett were among the early advocates of the TaylorMade metalwood. Davis Love III and Justin Leonard were not, claiming that working the ball with a metalwood was extremely difficult. Tom Kite, Nick Faldo and Bernhard Langer were the last players to win majors using persimmon woods. For the record, Kite did so in the 1992 U.S. Open, Faldo in the 1992 Open Championship and Langer in the 1993 Masters.
Brad Adams clearly has inherited his father’s spirit for the golf business. In recent years, he has focused on putters, representing Odyssey Golf and later starting his own company – Bloodline Golf. Bloodline pays homage not only to his father, but also to his grandfather, Vale Adams, longtime professional at McHenry Country Club.
Brad’s partner in the Bloodline venture is shaft whiz Larry Bischmann. That’s good, because Bloodline putters take advantage of a shaft-weighting concept that allows the putters to stand up on their own. If a golfer chooses to do so, he or she can stand behind the putter and adjust it for alignment purposes. Yes, putters that stand up on their own are legal under the Rules of Golf.
Throughout his career, Gary Adams continued to make contributions to the golf industry. In many ways, he was a trendsetter. He was unafraid to hire young people who were long on enthusiasm and short on experience.
Mark King was a super-duper salesman who would become president of TaylorMade. Terry McCabe fine-tuned many of the early metalwoods for Adams. McCabe later would become a lead designer for Titleist.
“TaylorMade was ahead of its time. Gary created a whole fraternity of soldiers, and most of them truly loved the game,” said John Hart, formerly known as John Steinbach. Intense competition in the golf industry was just heating up, and Hart wore several hats while becoming an unparalleled expert in the areas of sales, marketing and publicity.
“Gary’s personality was so intoxicating. I look back very fondly on those days.”
– Jim Stutts, former CEO, TaylorMade
Jim Stutts was a graduate student at the University of Illinois. He ran into Adams and Langert in a bar. “We could use a guy like you,” Adams said to Stutts. “We’re gonna take this thing to the moon.”
Stutts, despite the objections of his father, joined TaylorMade as an accountant. Soon thereafter the moon would be in sight, as Stutts would work his way up to CEO of the company. “Gary’s personality was so intoxicating,” Stutts said. “I look back very fondly on those days.”
TaylorMade has endured several ownership changes. After starting his venture in 1979, Adams sold it to Salomon Group in 1984. Salomon ran TaylorMade for 13 years, until Adidas purchased Salomon in 1997. That regime lasted until 2017, when TaylorMade was sold to the current owners, KPS Capital Partners.
Along the way, TaylorMade-Adidas achieved its first $1 billion revenue year in 2006.
Looking at the big picture, this is the stuff that legends are made of. Think about it: There are now several generations of golfers who have never hit a ball with a persimmon-headed golf club. What would Gary Adams say about that?
“I’m sure as hell glad I went back.”
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