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'A passion for the product'

Adams Golf rose from obscurity to become a popular and lucrative retailer of equipment. But despite all of his success, Barney Adams still loves club design best.

By BOB HARIG

© St. Petersburg Times, published May 10, 2001


It wasn't exactly selling clubs from the trunk of his car, but it was close. Barney Adams was a nobody in the golf business, a man with just a dream. He figured he knew something about what the average guy wanted in a golf club, but getting him to buy it was another matter.

So Adams would show up each year in Orlando for the PGA Merchandise Show, hoping for a breakthrough but wondering all along if it was such a good idea.

"I used to remember walking by these giant booths, and I had this little one back by the restroom somewhere," said Adams, the owner and founder of the Adams Golf company. "And I'd think, 'What am I doing here? One corner of this booth is bigger than you are and we're competing for the same market.' I'd have to have these little pep talks with myself."

Some 15 years later, Adams is a household name in the golf business. He is not one of the "big guys," but his company is well-known and respected for its line of fairway woods that has grown into drivers and irons.

Adams started his company in 1986 and went virtually unrecognized for 10 years until he invented the Tight Lies fairway wood, a club meant to take the place of long irons that middle- to high-handicap players have difficulty hitting. Adams did this by lowering the center of gravity in the club.

Later, he came up with new versions of the Tight Lies, a line of irons and his latest innovation -- multimaterial shafts.

"I have a passion for the product," said Adams, who got his start in the business as a club-fitter. "I learned early on I was in the business of providing a service. The Tight Lies was never for an instant to be marketed. For many years, when I did club-fitting, people would have trouble with long second shots. I tried to come up with a club that would make me a better a club-fitter. 'I'm not going to sell you a 3-iron because you can't hit it anyway. I'm going to sell you this club. You'll have more fun with it.' That's where it all started. Then the club started taking on a life of its own."

Did it ever. Adams Golf did $1-million in sales in 1995, a figure that rose to $85-million in 1998. The company made the Inc. 500 list of fastest growing small companies, and in July 1998 had the largest initial public stock offering in golf history.

"It was a heck of a ride," said Dick Murtland, a college friend of Adams' who worked for the company from 1994 until retiring last year. "It was one of those storybook growth scenarios. . . . We had a custom-fitting line, we had our irons we were working on. While he was fooling around one day, he wanted to come up with a utility wood. He sketched out some things and it sort of went from there."

The golf industry recently has suffered, and Adams, like others, has seen its stock price plummet. But the company still motors along, coming up with new products for a group of golfers who are always searching.

"There's nothing that's going to turn a 20-handicapper into a 10-handicapper," Adams said. "That's just baloney. What innovation does in golf is it makes the game more fun. It allows players to come into the 19th hole after a round of golf and say, 'Did you see that shot I hit on 18 or I can't believe I got over the water on 3.' The average golfer doesn't win the war, he wins battles. As long as you're doing that, you've got a shot."

Adams' latest innovation is the multimaterial shaft. The choice before was the accuracy of a steel shaft or the distance provided by a graphite shaft. Adams has put it all together and says they are the first and only multimaterial shafts available, combining steel and graphite.

The concept is not new, but the ability to make it happen is. Adams worked on the shaft for some eight years, taking a break to deal with the explosion in popularity of the Tight Lies woods in 1997 and '98.

Getting the shaft to stay together was the problem. At first, Adams would combine the steel and graphite, hit some shots and realize he was on to something. Inevitably, the shaft would break. Adams came up with a way to bond the graphite tip into the tip of the steel shaft.

"I truly think the multimaterial shaft is a product breakthrough," Adams said. "I'm as convinced as I'm breathing that it's a technical breakthrough. I think you'll see multimaterial shafts in many different forms. This is just the beginning. They're better. They're more stable at the tip section without sacrificing feel or flex, because you've got two different materials. And a stable tip section makes it easier to square the head coming into the ball. That means good shots. If you can do that, then you can make a superior product."

And that's what Adams plans to keep doing.

"We were an overnight success after 12 years," Adams joked. "I never planned it in the first place. It just kind of happened."

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