I’ll never forget the first time I heard Gary Adams’ name. It was in 1991, at the first golf equipment manufacturing company I ever worked for. My boss and I were staring at 40,000 persimmon clubheads.
“What are we going to do with those?” I asked in wide-eyed innocence and ignorance.
“Nothing, now!” my curmudgeon boss snapped. “All thanks to Gary Adams and his wonderful @#%*ing Pittsburgh Persimmon.”
Adams was the guy who in 1984 had the crazy idea to create a driver head out of stainless steel. It took awhile for the idea to catch on, but ultimately it caused a revolution in golf that swept the beauty and artistry of the persimmon-headed driver right out of the game. It took less than a decade for an oxymoron – a metalwood – to become the standard for players from the PGA Tour to the most humble of munis.
Those 40,000 raw persimmon clubheads were in various stages of being turned down (a phrase that refers to the sanding and shaping of the heads from boxy blocks of persimmon into recognizable clubhead shapes). Ordinarily they would be stained and polished, with face and sole plates screwed in and fastened to shafts by wrapping of the hosels. Now, however, they were nothing but firewood.
Woods made from wood had been the standard in the game since well before the days of Old Tom Morris. We were talking about a massive shift in tradition and culture.
Adams, who died in 2000 at age 56, did not start out to revolutionize golf equipment. The son of a PGA professional from McHenry, Ill., Adams was a salesman. He had seen aluminum drivers at driving ranges, clubs that were built to take a beating in the hands of John Q. Hacker, but Adams reasoned that a driver made from a hollow-core frame of stainless steel, not a solid block of aluminum, would perform better than persimmon with the then-new two-piece golf balls. He had already observed how much better the ball seemed to perform with steel irons.
With this dream in mind, Adams mortgaged his house and with the $24,000 windfall it produced, founded TaylorMade Golf in a 6,000-square-foot building in McHenry. The company started with three employees. His first driver, nicknamed the “Pittsburgh Persimmon,” was a 12-degree model that he got into the hands of Tour pros mostly because of his salesmanship. Ron Streck was the first Tour player to put it in play, claiming that it gave him at least another 20 yards of distance. Many, many more were to follow.
The significance of Adams’ innovation was not merely in performance, but in how golf equipment was sold. Golf clubs had mostly been sold in sets - woods, irons and putter in a package. Now, an entirely new market was created where drivers, fairway woods, irons, wedges and putters were sold separately.
As metalwoods evolved, stainless steel gave way to other materials, including titanium, which was stronger and lighter. Clubheads got bigger and faces got thinner and hotter, until the USGA stepped in to set limits. But the modern combination of club and ball produced prodigious gains in distance.
Golf is not known as an endeavor that easily embraces change, but in the forces of commerce and the promise of greater distance, Adams found powerful partners that would usher in revolutionary advancements.