BUSINESS How to Make a Million Golfers Happy

Plano’s Barney Adams has developed and marketed Tight Lies fairway woods-the clubs that everyone loves to get their hands on.

BARNEY ADAMS IS THE GOLF EQUIP-ment industry’s version of the Hollywood superstar who took a decade to become an overnight sensation. In Adams’ third career and the Piano-based company’s third incarnation, Adams Golf finally took off.

Adams’ ticket to fame and ever-increasing fortune is the Tight Lies line of fairway woods, which has become one of the hottest commodities in the golf world. Its upside-down head gives the ball a more effective balance of lift and spin than other clubs, Adams says, and it gives its users an added boost of confidence. The line of S160-S240 clubs consists of the original 16-degree club (a 4-wood), and 3-, 5-, 7-, and 9-woods made of either steel or graphite.

“It works,” Adams says simply. “The reason the club is successful is it works.”

But Adams has to admit that il also worked before an award-winning infomercial aired last year, struck a chord, and set off an ambush on the company’s inventory. Today, almost one million Tight Lies clubs are in golf bags worldwide. It was the third most-used metal wood at last year’s SENIOR PGA Championship, according to a survey by the Darnell Survey Company.

Adams Golf sold an estimated $20 million worth of equipment in 1997, which is about seven times 1996 sales and 20 times the revenue of the year before that. It was ranked the 211th fastest-growing company in the country by Inc. magazine, and the proof that the club has come of age is that Adams Golf has to fight off clones that may infringe on the Tight Lies patent. Legal mess aside, imitation is still the sincerest form of flattery.

That’s the overnight sensation part. Ten years ago, Adams could never have dreamed that he’d be the toast of the tee.

GOI^ntere^Aaam^Dloo^^g^^r when he started caddying in his native upstate New York, and the lure of the links never subsided. Adams, 59, didn’t even get into the golf business until 1985. He had been a field engineer for Dow Coming and a high-tech management analyst-experience that proved useful when the Tight Lies light bulb popped into his head. It was then that he decided to use some of that management consulting on himself.

The company started out as a manufacturer of components for people who wanted to make their own clubs. Then Adams started custom-making and custom-fitting clubs. High dollar, low volume. In early 1995, however, Adams had an epiphany. That was the height of the “Big Bertha” craze, when oversize drivers were king and manufacturers were making oversize fairway woods to build a set.

“I thought, ’These fairway woods are terrible,’” Adams says. “They don’t help the golfer.” In an anecdote now famous in the golf community, Adams designed the Tight Lies 4-wood concept in 20 minutes on a yellow legal pad. At the time, Adams wasn’t even considering the club as anything but a nice little addition to his custom-club line.

“The club was never designed with the thought that it would go out and market itself,” Adams says. “The question was, are these clubs going to help me hit long iron shots better?”

But Adams himself says he has learned his company “is not in the sales business; we’re really in the market-testing business.” And this market test was getting A’s on all its report cards.

“After the club went into the custom-fitting system, we started getting phone calls,” Adams says. “We had never gotten phone calls before. So I thought this may have some marketing potential as a standalone product.”

The reasons for the club’s popularity, Adams believes, are technical and psychological-and the way mind and matter interrelate.

First, the technical side. Look at the head of a normal golf club. The curvature is at the top, and the bottom is flat. The head of the Tight Lies is the opposite. The curve is at the bottom. “The center of gravity is lower [about a quarter-inch], below the equator of the golf ball,” Adams says.

The low center-of-gravity technology is especially useful in a rough, in a divot, or anywhere the ball isn’t just resting comfortably on the fairway surface-the so-called “tight lies” that give the club its name. Trying to hit such a ball with a higher center-of-gravity club is almost as difficult as making birdie out of the bunker. Here’s where the psychology comes in.

With the Tight Lies club, “You can see the ball above the head of the club,” Adams says. “You say to yourself, ’I can hit this.’ Golf is such a mental game, so part of the design was to give confidence to the golfer.” Adams counts sports psychologist Richard Koop, whose works include studies about the mental aspects of golf, as one of his primary influences.

Now Adams had a marketable club. One problem: He wasn’t sure how to market it His 18-empioyee shop isn’t Callaway or Ping, which have advertising budgets exponendally larger than his annual sales figures. Because he’s a custom club-maker, he doesn’t have many strong relationships with retailers.

Adams told Mark Gonsalves, his vice president of sales and marketing, “to go out and research how to market the thing.” His conclusion was to telemarket to pro shops and retail stores, and Adams didn’t like that answer. He is not one of those people who enjoys having dinner interrupted by strangers acting like long-lost friends in hopes of selling vinyl siding. But Gonsalves assured him that, when done properly in a business-to-business setting, selling via telephone is a perfectly acceptable way of doing business.

Besides, Adams realized, “You either stick with a guy you’ve hired to do a job or you’re not going to trust anybody. I told myself, ’Barnyard, by your own admission, you’ve been a failure, so let the guy do his job.’ I could tell in two or three months that it was going to work.”

(Yes, Adams calls himself “Barnyard” when he’s lecturing himself.)

Telemarketing lifted the company’s sales to the $3 million mark in 1996 and won over some influential fans, such as Dallas golf guru Hank Haney and pro-tour golfers Bill Rogers and Carol Mann. But that kind of revenue is chicken feed compared with the Taylors and Titleists of the world. In the summer of 1996, the Adams Golf brain trust met and decided it was time to join the big leagues.

“We had a terrific product on our hands, but the competition is spending tens of millions of dollars advertising their products,” Adams says. His company’s budget could not afford many spots on network golf coverage. So a two-pronged decision was made: Adams would produce an infomercial that attempted to market the original Tight Lies to individual golfers and also preach the sermon to golf shops. Around the same time, in early 1997, the Tight Lies line expanded to the 3-, 5-, and 7-woods. The 9-wood came later in the year. Only the original 4-wood would be marketed to the individual. To get the rest of the line, golfers would have to go to their favorite pro shop or sporting-goods store.

’The objective then and now is to see retail,” Adams says. “We sell only the 16-degree club from the infomercial, and we say to the pro shop that they have the exclusive on the rest. Our research shows that eight out of 10 people who use the one club will buy the rest.”

Just as Adams didn’t like telemarketing, he disdained the average, “schlocky” golf infomercial. He wanted his 30 minutes of video salesmanship to “address golfers with respect and not be a game show.”

That’s why he refused to pay actors to portray enthusiastic Tight Lies customers. “That would be pandering,” Adams says. “Showing just a ’golfer’ is more credible.” Haney. Rogers, Mann, and CBS commentator Jack Whitaker were among those participating in the ad.

The infomercial started airing on The Golf Channel, and snippets of it were broadcast on various network and cable golf telecasts. The full 30 minutes received an airing during a rain delay on CBS ’ coverage of the third round of the PGA Championship last year. Suddenly, the two years’ worth of inventory Adams Golf had stocked up on speculation was gone in less than 90 days.

Now that Adams has had a taste of success, he’s looking for more. He said he has five potential products in development and expects to roll out his next effort later this year. Adams won’t say exactly what the products are, except to acknowledge that he has a driver in the works and hinted that the others may include a wedge and a putter. But he did let drop that these new products will not necessarily be based on Tight Lies technology.

Developing new products, Adams says, requires overcoming obstacles presented by U.S. Golf Association rules and customer expectations.

“The advances in equipment are heavy on the marketing and light on technology,” Adams says without irony. Besides, he adds, “If I woke up in the middle of the night with an idea for a driver, the USGA would make up a rule to stop it. The USGA’s position is to protect the history of the game.” So a distance-doubling ball or club design would never see the light of day. Most of Adams’ ideas remain simply ideas, and the ones that make it to the market advance things only incrementally.

But an even more challenging task is meeting customer expectations.

“By the fourth quarter this year, we’ll have sold one million Tight Lies,” Adams says. “That’s one million people who are interested in what we do next. When we say, ’Let’s visualize the perfect driver,’ that’s hard to do; what’s perfect for the 2-handi-cap golfer is not good for the 15-handicap-per. When our next product comes out. we want those one million people to say, ’Son of a gun, they did it again.’”

Adams can wait until the time is right for that. He knows he didn’t become an overnight sensation overnight.

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