Gary Adams; Hit the Riches with Metalwoods

Every year people show up with new products and ideas to help golfers play better, look better and feel better. It is time we gave them their due.

In the first three parts of this series, we pay tribute to those who have really taken their ideas from design to multi-million dollars. Next, we’ll go over some newcomers who have ideas they hope will make them overnight successes or at least millionaires.

First, there’s Gary Adams, who started TaylorMade Golf, Founders Club, and McHenry Metals. Not everyone will be rich in golf with a new product, but a few, like Adams, have certainly inspired many other golf inventors and entrepreneurs to try their luck.

Most golfers today probably don’t know anything about Adams, but he popularized the modern metalwood, the Pittsburgh Persimmon driver under the TaylorMade Golf umbrella.

The year, according to the Taylormade Golf website, was 1979, but I first met Adams a few years later in the mid-1980s at a breakfast during the PGA Show where the sale of his society in Solomon was announced.

It turned out that Gary Adams had a product that was gaining traction and making sales, but he needed more money to grow and expand.

The Salomon company wanted to add other sports to its product line and become more than a one-season sports equipment company. (They were ski specialists.) Golf, with three seasons, was their answer. But it all started a few years ago.

In the 1970s, it is unknown when, Gary Adams met a man named John Zebelean who had created a homemade metal wood. He was intrigued, and Adams’ inventor brain cell started working overtime. At the time, he worked for Wittek, a company that made products for exercise ranges.

Coincidentally, Surlyn golf ball covers were invented in the late 1960s and became popular soon after.

Eventually, Gary Adams created his own metal driver and in the process discovered that he could hit a surlyn golf ball farther with a metal driver than with a khaki driver. Adams’ tinkering led to the birth of his first metal driver, a 12 degree lobed club with a steel shaft, the first in the Pittsburgh Persimmon line.

Gary Adams debuted his new metal wood clubs at the PGA Show in 1979.

A few months later, he convinced the 1979 Club Professional Championship golfers to give it a try.

Ron Streck was an early adopter and became the first PGA Tour pro to use the club. He won what was then the Michelob-Houston Open using it.

Once a Tour pro wins with a new club type, everyone checks it out, in case victory rubs off on them.

Soon Pittsburgh Persimmon clubs were discovered by many golfers. I know because my dad had one. He was an early purchaser of everything new and improved in golf. He said he could hit the ball further with the metal driver and showed it to his friends.

It must be assumed that the experiment has multiplied throughout the country. But the majority of the best players in the world still used khaki.

In the early 1980s, at the Walt Disney Classic, Mark O’Meara used a metallic wood on the stove. It was the last tournament of the year at the time. O’Meara said he made the switch for a reason: he could hit 15 yards further from the tee than he could with a khaki club.

O’Meara, you will recall, was never a long hitter, but he was always a brilliant putter. The extra 15 yards probably allowed him to hit one or two fewer clubs into the greens.

At that time, the longest riders on the PGA Tour still favored wooden woods. Convincing long-running drivers and golf traditionalists to hit the metal woods was a tough sell. Many hung on until the mid to late 1990s.

According to the PGA of America, the last players to win major tournaments with wooden drivers were Bernhard Langer at the Masters in 1993, Tom Kite at the US Open in 1992 and Nick Faldo at the British Open in 1992.

To explain how long the resistors lasted, Justin Leonard switched to metal woods just before winning the 1997 British Open. Davis Love III lasted a bit longer, until he won the PGA in 1997.

While metallic woods spread because they hit the ball farther, they had a downside early on. They had a metal ring when hitting the golf ball. Adams solved this problem by placing a foam product inside the hollow club.

However, sometimes after many uses, the foam would come loose and vibrate inside the club, which was annoying. It happened to my dad’s driver, and he fixed it by putting laundry detergent in the club head.

But he got a permanent fix one season as he and my mom drove from Illinois to Michigan for a vacation. He took a detour to TaylorMade’s original facility in McHenry, Illinois, where he explained the problem to someone there who took his club and fixed it for him.

Turns out it was Gary Adams, because when I told him the story, Adams said he remembered that club because of all those funny white fluffy things that just came out of the driver. I laughed and told him what it was. He said that was a good solution.

Adams went on to create hollow cavity irons and other innovative clubs. Unfortunately, in 1991, he was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer and everyone expected his life to end within six months.

However, Adams had what he called a near-death experience which included a dream where he woke upside down from a FootJoy shoebox with a bright light on one end, then heard a voice tell him to “come back” because it wasn’t done yet. And he wasn’t.

Later that same year, after leaving TaylorMade, he started a new company called Founders Club. Again, it was a metal and wood company, and it managed to get Hale Irwin, Tom Watson, Curtis Strange, and Lee Janzen to use them.

In 1996 Gary Adams sold Founders Club, and most people thought that was it. But the following year, he starts again.

At 54, still frail and very thin, his weight dropping from 170 to 119, he started McHenry Metals.

While other riders had gotten bigger, he created a retro-style titanium traditional-sized driver that became one of the hottest products in 1998. He also became the best driver played on PGA TOUR Champions for 1999. It was used on the PGA Tour in 1999 and 2000.

Then, two years after he started McHenry Metals, nine years after his first cancer diagnosis, Adams’ cancer returned and he eventually succumbed. However, his near-death experience turned out to be true. He hadn’t finished. Plus, his legacy as an innovator and entrepreneur lives on.

Michael C. Ford