Long odds have never seemed to bother Barney Adams, the amiable inventor, club maker and founder of Adams Golf, a company that defied experts to become one of the top sellers of hybrids and fairway woods. Evidently, they still don’t, because he recently came out of retirement at 72 to take on what may be his biggest challenge yet.
Adams’s new quest is to change the attitudes of millions of recreational golfers by persuading them to Tee It Forward. As the point man in a national effort to, among other things, “put the fun back into golf,” Adams is working pro bono with the P.G.A. of America, the United States Golf Association and the Golf Course Superintendents Association of America to introduce golfers to a whole new world: the enjoyment of hitting shorter clubs into greens, the opportunity for more birdies and pars, and the prospect of faster rounds.
He and the organizations are hoping this also will address the decline in rounds played and the net loss of a million golfers last year.
The first step will be the toughest: moving up to tees that correspond with the actual distance average golfers hit their tee shot; not how far they think they hit it, how far they would like to hit it or how far they hit their Sunday best on a downhill hole with a big tailwind.
That most male golfers average 200 to 230 yards off the tee may be ego deflating for the guys who, armed with the latest technology, routinely play off the blue tees or even the tips. Adams, who hopes to replace the current color-coded tee system with tees that correspond to the Tour Distance system he has calculated, said years of fitting clubs taught him that many men with double-digit handicaps firmly believed despite evidence to the contrary that they averaged from 250 to 280 yards off the tee and hit their 5-irons 20 yards farther than they actually did.
“I cannot overstate the enormity of the job in front of me,” said Adams, keen eyes sizing things up above his familiar, open, square-jawed face. If Adams’s long career in golf has demonstrated anything, it is that few things are beyond his ken. A 1962 graduate of Clarkson College, where he lettered in three sports and earned a degree in business administration, Adams got into the golf business in the late 1970s as a club fitter at the Hank Haney Golf Ranch after using credit cards and venture capital to start the tiny Adams Golf company.
Armed with his calculations, Adams is forging ahead in his education campaign. He compared the distances professionals drive the golf ball and how far they hit their irons with where most amateurs hit their shots He determined that a pro would have to play a course measuring 8,100 yards in order to use the same clubs on approaches as an amateur who drives the ball 230 yards on a 6,700-yard course.
From that, he arrived at the converse: for an amateur who averages 230 yards off the tee to hit the same clubs into greens as a pro does on a 7,300-yard layout, the amateur would have to play no more than 6,200 yards.
And amateurs who average 200 yards off the tee should play 6,000-yard courses. And women who average 140 yards off the tee should be playing courses at about 3,500 yards rather than the red-tee average of 5,600.
All of this appeals to Casey Alexander, an analyst at Gilford Securities who covers the golf industry. With a handicap of 1, Alexander is bullish on Tee It Forward with a caveat.
“I think it’s a very good concept, a great first step,” Alexander said. “But I don’t think it’s enough by itself, or that it will be sufficient as the one way to make the game more enjoyable or encourage more people to play. The game is in such a state of either crisis or stasis that, in order to grow and get better capacity utilization, we have to find alternative ways of using the facilities that isn’t necessarily traditional golf.”
By that, he means including some elements from the game called Flogton, which is not golf spelled backward. Flogton, advocated by the Alternative Golf Association, believes it can increase participation with guidelines that include allowing players to use one mulligan on every hole on any shot they choose; letting players move their ball 6 feet in any direction except closer to the hole; using tees in the fairway; and conceding any third putt, regardless of distance from the hole.
The decline in golf participation in the United States over the last two years with the National Golf Foundation reporting about three million fewer golfers in 2009 than in 2005 and 24 million fewer rounds played in 2010 than in 2005 has spawned other unorthodox approaches, like the revival of the self-correcting Polara golf ball, which is virtually impossible to slice.
The U.S.G.A. has made it clear it will not embrace Flogton or the Polara ball, and it recently turned down a financing request from SNAG “starting new at golf” because the plastic clubs used in the program intended for children ages 4 to 12 are “non-conforming to the rules of golf.”
What Adams is doing has the backing of the U.S.G.A. and the P.G.A. of America precisely because nothing in it violates the Rules of Golf, and Adams said he was not ready to concede that the game was ready for radical departures.
“O.K., we have Frisbee golf, too,” he said. “We can invent all kinds of different games. I wrote an article a few years ago on how to design clubs that ignore the Rules of Golf. Sure we know how to do that. But do we want to?”
Still, many traditionalists are open to making the game more inviting and fun.
Judy Dickinson, a former L.P.G.A. star and golf pro at West Palm Beach Country Club in Florida, said she was all for Tee It Forward and, in fact, applied parts of it to her group lessons with women and juniors, taking shorter hitters well into the fairways on longer par-4 holes to tee off from a spot where they reach the green in two.
“I’ll say to them, ‘Let’s start out here at the 200-yard marker,’ ” Dickinson said, “and some of them are surprised and say, ‘Can we do that?’ I think Play it Forward is a great idea, but there will be some resistance, especially from the men. I had a hard time convincing my dad to move up. And he’s 94. He finally did it, though, and is loving it.”
Programs like TGA Premier Junior Golf, a California-based company with more than 50 franchises around the country, are already making an impact with children and were using some of Adams’s ideas before Tee It Forward was born. Dave Robinson, whose two Michigan courses have programs for 1,600 children up to age 14 this summer, said it was working well.
“We have 12-, 13- and 14-year-olds who will play kind of the normal forward tees and then we’ll have some 9- and 10-year-olds that we might move up to around 220 yards for a par-4,” Robinson said.
As for older players, well, it may take a while for some, but at least two players at West Palm Beach thought the idea of using a wedge for the second shot on a par-4 hole had appeal, as did the idea of spending less time looking for lost balls.
“I know I should be hitting from more forward tees,” said Javier Mora, 47, a self-taught 12-handicap golfer from Aguascalientes , Mexico, who picked up golf three years ago. “Today, I was thinking about it when I saw this threesome of guys all the way back on the black tees, and they had no business anywhere but the white tees.”Julius Dunn, a long-hitting 9 handicap who shot two over for nine holes, said he was playing right where he should be. Dunn, whose average tee shot was 280 yards, and straight, sometimes likes to tee it back.
“I like to pretend sometimes, so I’ll go back to the tips to see if I can do what the tour players do,” he said.
For most golfers, seeing if they can do what the tour players do with their approach shots is a lot more likely from the vantage point of teeing it forward. That’s the whole idea. It will take a while before it sinks in, but this month, coinciding with the P.G.A. of America’s Family Golf Month, more than 2,200 courses are registered and many will have versions of Tee It Forward on display.
“It will probably take two, three years,” Adams said, adding: “But I tell all these guys who are working on the program, unequivocally, this is their legacy. They’ll be able to look back in a few years down the road and say, ‘I did something for golf.’ ”