JIM SIMONS STOOD ON THE 18TH TEE AT PEBBLE BEACH ONE SUNDAY afternoon in 1982, and although he couldn’t have known it at the time, he faced a choice between the past and the future. Leading the Crosby by two, more than four years removed from his last victory and desperate to find the fairway, he ignored tradition and reached for the club that would redirect the course of golfhistory. It was a metal wood, still largely a curiosity in golf. “No fire is going to catch in his bag,” CBS television analyst Ken Venturi said on the air.
Simons struck a perfect shot, setting up an easy par that gave him a victory, the first in PGA Tour history by a man using a metal wood. His win provided the seal of approval for an idea fostered by a Yugoslavian expatriate and championed by an Illinois salesman. Venturi, it turns out, was wrong. The club in Simons’ bag indeed caught fire. Clay Long, an independent club designer who once built clubs for persimmon monolith MacGregor Golf, was among those who came to find out there was no way to extinguish it. “We were No. 1, renowned as the best,” Long says of MacGregor’s glory days. “Somewhere around 1988, we went from [producing] 2,200 persimmon woods a day to 50 a week. It just evaporated overnight.”
The persimmon wood–for generations chiseled and shaped by skilled hands, more art than science–had been reduced to sawdust memories.
The beginning of the end of golf’s wooden era had its roots behind the Iron Curtain. John Zebelean, a nuclear physicist, and his wife, Elizabeth, escaped to Italy in 1962 from the oppression of communist Yugoslavia, outrunning armed border police. They were soon on their way to America. Landing in California a few years later, Zebelean spent time working on weapons at the Lawrence Livermore Laboratories, but gave it up, determined, as he says today, “to create something more favorable to human beings.”
By 1972 Zebelean may have known less about golf than golfers do about nuclear physics, but when he happened upon a golf tournament on television, he heard the mention of a wood, and his interest was suitably piqued. He visited the nearest practice range, examined a driver and was dumbfounded. “I could not understand why wood was used,” he says. “Wood absorbs kinetic energy, whereas metal will deliver a higher rate or a lesser loss of kinetic energy. It would shoot the ball a little farther.”
He also surmised a hollow metal head, by pushing weight to the perimeter, would work more efficiently than a mass of hardwood to create a more forgiving club. Metal was also more durable than wood, the latter susceptible to contraction and expansion in cold and heat. So Zebelean went to work, and with the assistance of Bob McClelland and his foundry, Alpha-Cast, developed a rudimentary clubhead not constrained by the shackles of tradition. Indeed, it was an affront to the senses: both an eyesore (a hooked nose) and an ear sore (it produced a loud ping).
Though metal in drivers wasn’t new (the Currie Metalwood made in Scotland was granted a British patent in 1891, and dozens of “metal wood” designs appeared during the next eight decades), nothing could break persimmon’s stronghold on the wood market. The metal wood found acceptance only as a driving-range club, and only then because of its durability.
In 1976 John Riley developed a hollow metal wood for Pinseeker, a club called the Bombshell that resembled today’s hybrid clubs. But Riley had no marketing expertise and was unable to generate interest in his creation. It would be the tinkering of men such as Zebelean and the free thinking of others that would shift metal from oddity to necessity.
If Zebelean was the engine for the success of the metal wood, an ambitious young golf equipment salesman named Gary Adams was its fuel. Zebelean’s club, the Leroi, was shown to Adams, who took it to his father, Vale, the head pro at McHenry (Ill.) CC. “It hit the ball farther than my MacGregor wood and performed better than I would ever have expected,” says Vale, now 84, who is retired and still lives in Illinois. “The hollow shell gave it magnificent heel-and-toe weighting, which gave you an effective sweet spot of two inches, compared to a conventional wood’s half-inch or less.”
His son’s intrigue with metal was enhanced by the fact Top-Flite’s new two-piece Surlyn ball seemed to out-perform balata balls when struck with an iron, but not with a wood. If two-piece balls represented the wave of the future and they performed better with metal clubs, Gary Adams thought, why not metal drivers, too?
On the strength of his father’s testimonial and his own intuition, Adams started a metal-wood company he would call Taylor Made. Club designer Terry McCabe was enlisted to assist Zebelean in refining the look of the prototype, to give it a more conventional appearance to strengthen its appeal to consumers and to soften the sound, which he did by filling the clubhead with foam. The result was Taylor Made’s initial offering, the Metalwood, with more marketing genius than capital behind it.
Late in 1978, Adams introduced himself to a young PGA Tour player, Ron Streck, and asked him how much Titleist was paying him to carry its bag.
“Nothing,” Streck replied.
“If I match that, will you carry my bag?” Adams asked him. Adams showed him the new invention, which Streck thought looked like a driving-range model. But he agreed to give it a try and eventually became Taylor Made’s first staff player.
In April 1979, Adams took his clubs to the MONY Tournament of Champions, where he employed a friend, photographer Chuck Brenkus, to hawk them on the practice tee. Simons was hitting 3-woods that landed and rolled to the feet of his caddie down the range. Badgered into trying the driver, Simons disregarded the “1” etched in its sole and hit a ball off the ground. “It starts off and it looks pretty normal to me,” Simons says more than 20 years later. “Then it zooms over the caddie’s head, like a flyer on an iron shot, a club-and-a-half longer.”
The Taylor Made Metalwood represented a bonanza for Simons, a short hitter perpetually scavenging for yardage. He put the club into play the next day, in a pairing with Jack Nicklaus, 39 years old and still capable of overpowering a course. Simons recalls that on a couple of the par 5s, into a cool breeze, Nicklaus out-drove him by 30 yards, “and darned if I didn’t pick up 15 or 20 yards on him with the second shot with this club.”
A month later, Simons joined Nicklaus for a clinic in Dublin, Ohio, at The Memorial, where Simons was the defending champion. Simons handed Nicklaus his Metalwood, put a ball in a poor lie and watched as the Golden Bear effortlessly produced a long, high shot. Nicklaus remained nonplussed. “I couldn’t do what I wanted to do to the golf ball with them,” Nicklaus says. “When I hit the ball with an early metal wood, I would pretty much hit a knuckleball, and it went straight. That’s what I really didn’t like about them at first. I like to be able to throw the ball in the air, hook it, fade it–basically play golf shots.”
Still, evidence was mounting. Streck’s shot on the par-5 second hole at the 1979 New Orleans Open got players talking. He had 283 yards to the front of the green, but flew the green with his Taylor Made metal. He didn’t win the tournament, but word of his clout spread quickly among his peers, many of whom asked to try the club on the range. The club’s next boost came from Bobby Clampett, who joined the PGA Tour in 1981 and began using a Taylor Made “1” as his 2-wood. At the Buick Open that year, Clampett got into a playoff with Hale Irwin, Peter Jacobsen and Gil Morgan that began on the par-5 16th hole. Using his Taylor Made model, Clampett nearly reached the green, 285 yards away, on his second shot. But, like Streck, he didn’t win–Irwin did.
“The big stars didn’t want it, didn’t need it,” says Harry Taylor, a PGA Tour pro hired by Adams to promote the clubs on the practice tee. Taylor once attempted to persuade Johnny Miller of the merits of a metal wood, citing the enlarged sweet spot, which presented the opportunity to hit it more consistently. Miller responded by pointing to the dime-size spot worn in the middle of his driver, illustrating that he needed no help in locating the sweet spot.
Despite the absence of big-name endorsers, Adams’ marketing prowess gave the metal wood the traction it had lacked. By 1981 more than 100 tour players were experimenting with metal clubs in their bags. It was resonating with the common man, too. Adams co-opted the name “Pittsburgh Persimmon” when he discovered the term was being used to help sell Taylor Made metals at San Clemente (Calif.) GC. Word of mouth was its only real advertising, though. In fact, Adams was so strapped for cash that initially he could not afford to give his clubs to professionals, instead charging them $39 apiece, $6 off the wholesale cost.
Greg Norman was coming into his heyday in the mid-1980s and wasn’t about to switch from persimmon. “I hated the sound of it,” he says. “I’d listen to it on the practice tee and think, `You idiots.’ It sounded terrible.”
The USGA didn’t like what it was hearing, either. When it received reports from one precinct that metal woods were hitting balls 50 yards farther, something seemed amiss. It was. “When we investigated,” says Frank Thomas, former technical director for the USGA, “we found that there hadn’t been rain for five weeks.”
Arguing forcefully otherwise was the growing number of tour players converting to metal, eviscerating the cynic’s perception that the club was another fad. “Metal woods were easier to play, more durable, straighter, more forgiving,” Taylor says. “They were better. It wasn’t a flash in the pan. You could sense it was going to change the industry.”
The metal wood’s real impact may have been more fundamental than that. As a vastly more forgiving club, a metal wood allowed and maybe even encouraged players to swing hard and disdain working the ball around obstacles in favor of blowing it over them. Three-time major winner Nick Price’s early pro career developed during that transition from persimmon to metal. He says metal drivers weren’t only a change in equipment, but a change in technique and attitude, too.
“When I was growing up if you had a four-knuckle grip with a wooden driver, all the old pros would laugh at you because they knew when you got under pressure you were just going to snap hook it,” he says. “All the younger guys have cranked up those grips because they know the ball comes off straighter now. Guys have learned to swing the club harder.”
From virtually any vantage point, metal woods were becoming superior. They were considerably less labor-intensive to manufacture, and each clubhead was a perfect clone (no more searching through barrels of persimmon woods to find the right one). “If you broke one, you could replicate it,” says Clampett.
By 1983 Taylor Made (which changed its name to TaylorMade in 2000) was offering drivers with four different lofts, in contrast to persimmon drivers that came with only one. Harry Taylor could alter the loft and lie of a metal wood on command. “All the clubheads then were a little too hooked,” he says. “I bent virtually every club right in the hosel. I threw it over my knee and bent it more open.”
Taylor Made had become the No. 1 driver in play on the PGA Tour by 1984, the year Lee Trevino won the PGA Championship with a Rawlings metal wood, a superstar endorsement that further embedded metal in the mainstream. Curtis Strange became a Taylor Made staff player at a propitious time for the company, in 1985, a year in which he won three times and led the money list.
Nicklaus and other stars of the day identified the downside, that metal was an equalizer. “It eliminated some of the need for skill,” he says. “Metal woods changed the game and made it easier for a lot of players.”
Nevertheless, metal’s insurrection was swift in the context of history. In a half century or more, woods had evolved little. Then in a span of less than 10 years, metal woods overwhelmed the industry and in the process altered the way the game was played, transforming it from one of finesse into one of raw power.
Through 1987, orders for persimmon continued to arrive in sufficient numbers to warrant the status quo at MacGregor. “Then they stopped,” Long says, “and [our customers] started ordering metal woods. We were thinking, `Gosh, we’ve got 65 people, highly skilled, and now there’s no work for them.’ Their skills were obsolete.”
One of those places that stopped ordering was the pro shop at Sacramento’s Haggin Oaks GC. “Within one year, our inventory went from about 90 percent wood to about 90 percent metal,” says Haggin Oaks Super Shops owner Ken Morton Sr. “I’ve been in the business 44 years, and I don’t think there has been any innovation as dramatic as moving from wood to steel.”
The industry often cites the S-curve of technology (drawing the S from the bottom up) to illustrate the ebb and flow of technological advance. Near the end of the ’80s, it was on the threshold of a steep upswing, driven by a confluence of forces. There had been an influx of men (Ely Callaway foremost among them) more interested in golf as a business than a hobby. The southern California aerospace industry was in steep decline, leaving foundries in need of business and scientists and engineers in need of employment. Consumers’ pockets were flush, and the Senior PGA Tour hit its stride, contributing to golf’s popularity.
“It all coincided so that a little company like Callaway Golf could invest millions in research and development,” Callaway Golf’s Richard Helmstetter says. “Not thousands. Millions. And Karsten [Solheim, founder of Ping] was doing the same thing, and Taylor Made was doing the same thing, and the Japanese were doing it, big time.”
The metamorphosis was complete. Professional golf retained only a few persimmon proponents, each of them eventually falling, one by one, like a species on the descent to extinction. In 1997 Justin Leonard converted from persimmon to a titanium driver, gained substantial yardage and went on to win the British Open. That same year, Davis Love III was convinced titanium gave him 15 more yards than persimmon and reluctantly made the conversion, shortly before winning the PGA Championship.
Zebelean, who is now 65 and has a machine shop in Canoga Park, Calif., was able to see those golfers win using clubs inspired by his design. Gary Adams died in 2000 at the age 56, following a long, brave fight against pancreatic cancer. By then the club he popularized had evolved into expensive, high-tech versions crowding the bags of pros and amateurs alike.
The advantages outweighed the disadvantages, as Simons recognized one fateful day in January 1982, when he had a choice between persimmon and metal and chose the club that launched a revolution.
As for those who may have mourned the end of an era, Simons, who at 52 is attempting to play the Champions Tour, has a surprise for them.
“I still have a wooden club in my bag,” he says sheepishly. “A wooden Baffler.”