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What I learned from my single-length irons experiment

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Among the stories for this year’s Masters, the serious club folks show a serious interest in Bryson DeChambeau, specifically his single-length clubs. This evokes memories for me, as I experimented with a single-length set many years ago.

First a little history. Back in the mid ’80s, a golf pro by the name of Jimmy Shack from Royal Oak Country Club in Titusville, Florida, came up with a concept for a single-length set. He managed to get the Tommy Armour Company interested, and they came out with the EQL irons in 1989. They were a single-length set using the 6-iron length as standard. Despite a strong marketing push, they were relatively short lived and eventually disappeared into the great club box in the sky.

Fast forward to the mid ’90s when I was designing sets for Adams Golf and the idea of single length re-appeared, at least for my personal clubs. I read that Bryson is 6 feet 1 inches tall, and I strongly suspect his height was a factor in his single-length set. Before arthritis and age took their toll, I was 6 foot 3 inches tall, and was facing a personal club-fitting problem. It’s funny, but I clearly remembered my mindset at the time.

“Where was it written that a set of irons had to be based on a 37.5-inch 5 iron? Why couldn’t the 5 iron be 40 inches or 34 inches? Why did the increments have to be 0.5 inches?” I figured it all started with a Scotsman, who was probably 5-foot 9-inches or so, shaping a set of clubs that fit him. As decades passed, it became “standard.”

As I saw it, the objective with a set of irons/wedges was to have a club that went a maximum distance, working back to a club that went the shortest distance. The key factor was an equal gap from one club to another. Given this rather broad premise, I turned to the club-fitting system I had designed to see what evolved.

One of the keys in our club-fitting system was establishing a comfortable position at address. We measured knuckles to the ground standing erect (more consistent than fingertips because of hand size). We combined this with what we called maximum drop — how much the hands lowered gripping the club — the idea being a solid address position before we got into flex, lie, etc. 

One thing I learned is all of us are not ideally suited to a proper address position in conjunction with clubs we could play. For example, I am long from the waist up, which means to get a comfortable address position I needed clubs 3 inches over standard length, and they were simply too long. For a guy 6 foot 8 inches to 6 foot 10 inches, no problem, but for me, problem. I used to tell people that not everyone has a body that can handle the required length, so in some cases you have to bend over at address a little extra. Given that I couldn’t automatically fit myself, I started with the maximum distance and gapping and worked backward. It wasn’t about the clubs; it was about ball flight.

I remembered the equal-length story and started to experiment. I liked the length of short irons when I made them all like 6 irons, but 5 iron and down were too short. One thing that I’m taking as a given here is the readers understand the need for different head weights and lie angles. Add 3 inches to a standard PW and it becomes significantly “head heavy.” The playing lie changes, too, and all of those things have to be recognized. As I experimented, my emphasis was also on trying to make a set with constant inertia. I wanted the clubs to all swing the same so I would be more consistent controlling ball flight, even when hitting different kinds of shots.

After much work, I ended up with a “tri” single-length set, which I labeled The Oxymoron’s. My longer irons (4-6) were all one length, my 7-8 irons slightly shorter and the higher-lofted clubs were a little more than 2 inches over standard. I felt comfortable at address, so any gapping issues were attacked with loft. Every club had unusual head weights, and they were all were back-weighted — again, my approach to obtaining constant swing  inertia. I didn’t have a 3 iron, because another experiment resulted in a rather odd-looking long iron patterned after the Troon clubs of the 1800s.

How did the irons work out? They were pretty good; I think I would have really liked them with a bit more fine tuning. I’ll never know. We got pretty busy, and I essentially stopped playing for the better part of 10 years, so my inertial irons idea disappeared. We did introduce irons as a company, but they were industry standard specs. We didn’t influence the market; it influenced us. Besides, my clubs were for me and I’m not standard.

I’m not convinced there isn’t a way to improve a set of irons, so at 77 I’m still messing around. Do I think there is a place in the industry for single length sets? I’d say in the general market, no. Possibly in some custom fitting applications where the size of the player is outside normal standards.

In the business, there are things that are nice and play well, but aren’t technically different. And there are ideas that when fully tested identify a technical improvement to making clubs. It’s the latter that keeps us experimenting.

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Barney Adams is the founder of Adams Golf and the inventor of the iconic "Tight Lies" fairway wood. He served as Chairman of the Board for Adams until 2012, when the company was purchased by TaylorMade-Adidas. Adams is one of golf's most distinguished entrepreneurs, receiving honors such as Manufacturing Entrepreneur of the Year by Ernst & Young in 1999 and the 2010 Ernie Sabayrac Award for lifetime contribution to the golf industry by the PGA of America. His journey in the golf industry started as as a club fitter, however, and has the epoxy filled shirts as a testimony to his days as an assembler. Have an equipment question? Adams holds seven patents on club design and has conducted research on every club in the bag. He welcomes your equipment questions through email at barneyadams9@gmail.com Adams is now retired from the golf equipment industry, but his passion for the game endures through his writing. He is the author of "The WOW Factor," a book published in 2008 that offers an insider's view of the golf industry and business advice to entrepreneurs, and he continues to contribute articles to outlets like GolfWRX that offer his solutions to grow the game of golf.

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45 Comments

45 Comments

  1. SteveK

    Oct 7, 2017 at 2:27 am

    I just can’t seem to hit my irons pure and I blame it on the different shaft lengths. It’s so obvious that a single shaft length is the logical way to go. Why in God’s name do golf clubs need to be various lengths? Doesn’t that mean I must have 13 different swing planes?!!

  2. Mat

    Jul 1, 2017 at 7:12 pm

    It’s funny. Everyone bags either SLI or 1/2″ steps. The truth is that if you built a set at 1/4″ steps, you’d really get the best of both… SLI would fly more “normally” and land better, and the physical change would assist almost the same as true SLI. Imagine only 1″ between a 5-9 iron instead of 2″…

  3. Craig Waggaman

    Feb 15, 2017 at 5:33 pm

    I have been fascinated by the possibilities of single length irons ever since I started dabbling in club making many years ago. So i did something I have never done- pre-ordered a set of Cobra F7 One single length irons. I received them about a week ago and will be writing about my experiences on my golf blog:
    linkswanderer.com
    Feel free to take a look and ask questions or comment.

  4. Scientific Golfer

    Jan 7, 2017 at 8:23 pm

    Ironic and pathetic …. the average golfer (95% of all golfers) keep seeking a golf solution that doesn’t involve physical conditioning, sport-specific training and then performance training. They just seek an equipment solution that avoids time commitment to the sport… and then delude themselves into buying a game with the ‘best’ equipment no matter the cost.

    What we are witnessing now is the squeezing of the last $$$$ from a declining delusional golf population and will desperately spend to rescue their fantasies. Look at the OEM advertising… it’s so obvious.

    Most recreational golfers and other sports don’t devote enough time to practice and refuse to admit they themselves are the fault of their incompetence. “If I could just adjust the clubs to my personal swing!” …. so the OEMs are producing multi-adjustable clubs for failures who have more money than brains!!! Sorry for the rant, and discouraging comments from others who have been hit with this reality.

  5. Andre

    Nov 17, 2016 at 7:27 am

    Very interesting article Mister Adams,
    You mentionned backweighting and constant moment of inertia. Just curious as to how you went about that and if you reached your target MOI. Did you try to obtain a certain swingweight across the set or else?
    Thank you

  6. Andre

    Nov 17, 2016 at 7:20 am

    Very interesting article Mister Adams.

  7. Ryan morris

    Oct 24, 2016 at 5:19 am

    I purchased a set of slc last week. Had the best round of my life and i play about 2 to 3 rds per week. I felt the real magic came in hitting the 3-5 iron (its was almost boringly easy). On the range and course, im showing zero distance loss. Its amazing the misconceptions out there, even the pro at the course said, im sure you wont…..well i bet if…..etc etc
    Regardless, they work. Getting people to try them will be the challenge. I did notice a little control issue with my pw, at first, but i think the range has sorted this out the last few days.

    • OB

      Sep 7, 2017 at 3:33 pm

      Incredible, fantastic, wonderful, almost too good to be true …. which it is not!

  8. Ted

    Oct 6, 2016 at 2:36 am

    I own a set of EQLs: 2-7 are 7i length; 8-PW are 8i length. Easy as pie to hit; distances are predictable. 2 iron is dead straight unless I mess up the swing. Warm ups? Only need to hit 2 irons to warm up. Only drawback (for you chumsp who want a reason to reject the concept) is that the PW @ 8i length could be more accurate at shorter yardages, i.e., below it’s standard PW shot @ 8i length. Fix: choke down, put the ball back in the stance, and knockdowns are dead on. I also own PING BECUs, Cal BB Golds, and set of custom Alpha blades worth more than all these sets combined. Have owned just about every set/concept out there. Am now making a longer set of single length irons with some Matrix graphite X shafts because the concept works. Will go with 4i & 5i lengths to make the transition from these to the driver & woods more consistent through the round, and because I love to choke down & hit knockdowns. To each his own. If God wanted golf to be consistent, we probably would all be left-handers… (no offense, Phil)…

  9. Tour Pro

    Jun 13, 2016 at 3:18 am

    Adams clubs always sucked. What would he know?

  10. Brian

    Jun 12, 2016 at 11:59 am

    wishon Sterlings have resolved all of these issues and now we have the best option for single length on the market. Hundreds of sets have been sold and every client I have built for is thrilled with the results. Look up a competent club fitter from Tom Wishon’s site and you can try them.

  11. Justin

    May 27, 2016 at 7:06 pm

    Before we start: I know… I’m always late for the party. Not just “fashionably late”- freaking late.

    Anyway, I see Single-Length irons as being on par with ideas like True Length. It’s not a fad, but it’s not going to threaten the status quo, either. Someone, somewhere, will benefit from these so-called quirky ideas. If it helps someone enjoy their time on the course more, I’m all for it.

  12. Jack Wullkotte

    May 6, 2016 at 4:08 pm

    I’m not an engineer, mathematician, scientist, or scholar of any kind, just a klutzy old clubmaker, but, I can assure you that the market for a set of irons, all the same length is going to be minimal at best. Naturally, there’s always someone out there who will buy anything that’s new, because they have more money than brains. Way back in the 1950’s, while working for the MacGregor Golf Co., we made a set of irons for someone in which all the irons were the same length. He returned within a few months and requested that we make them all standard length. I believe the length was 37″ and I think the swing weight was D-6. In order to make the 3 iron 38 1/2 inches, we would have had to grind about 3/4 of an ounce of weight off of the head, 1/2 an ounce off the 4 iron and a quarter ounce off the 5 iron. The 6 iron head would have remained the same. We would have then had to add 1/4 ounce of weight to the 7 iron, 1/2 ounce to the 8 iron, 3/4 ounce to the 9 iron and 1 ounce to the pitching wedge in order to get a standard D-6 swingweight throughout the set. Our plant manager, Bob Lysaght told the guy to go suck and egg or buy a new set. True story.

  13. Jonathan Birch

    Apr 29, 2016 at 11:10 pm

    I’ve been playing the single-length irons from 1 Iron Golf for about 12 years and would never go back to traditional length clubs again. Once you get used to using the same swing and ball position with every iron magic happens. I’m not impressed with the other companies who have sprung up over the past couple of years offering single-length irons since it is painfully obvious that they are just climbing onto the band wagon and really have little, if any, experience in this area.

    • 300 Yard Pro

      May 31, 2016 at 1:47 am

      1 Iron are the biggest junk clubs. That’s their problem.

    • Christopher Fotos

      Jun 11, 2016 at 8:57 pm

      I, too, have been playing 1 Iron Golf clubs for something like a decade now. High quality — I’ve never had to replace the irons or woods during that time. I’ve gotta say I marvel a bit about the recent appearance of stories about single-length clubs without mentioning the continued success of 1 Iron Golf, which arrived at this destination quite some time ago.

      I don’t have it handy, but company founder David Lake has a booklet about the history of clubmaking as it relates to length. My recollection is imperfect but IIRC back in the wood-shaft days many clubs were single length. There are also anecdotes thrown out there occasionally about pros using custom-fit single length irons without talking about it. I remember one such tale claiming a set of clubs used by Nicklaus back in the days, now on display in Columbus, show many of the irons are single-length (they’re sitting in a bag).

  14. duke

    Apr 27, 2016 at 6:31 pm

    looking for set of old tommy armour EQLl irons! same length. Im 6’6″bad worn out back so before spending a fortune on custom made, thinkin this might be starting point.

    • Justin

      May 27, 2016 at 6:58 pm

      What do you consider a fortune? Value Golf has their Pinhawk SL set that starts out at $234. Throw in a GW, SW and LW and it bumps it up to $351. In that configuration, it comes with the Apollo Standard Stepless irons (personally, I really like these) and the Karma Black Velvet (similar to Golf Pride Tour Velvet) grips. You can have the shafts and/or grips swapped out, for an upcharge.

      As of right now they’re out of stock, though a couple of sites are saying they’ll be available in June.

  15. KevS.

    Apr 18, 2016 at 5:13 pm

    Barney, you say playing lie angles must adjust through the set of a single-length irons…and yet on the TV broadcast for the RBC at Harbor Town, Nick Faldo said he’s discussed the set with DeChambeau several times and his set features a consistent lie angle for all irons regardless of loft. I believe Faldo mentioned all irons are 77 degrees (13 degrees upright), but don’t quote me on the specific numbers because I did not make a note of it. Frankly, I don’t understand how he plays tough trouble shots at times, and Gary McCord was also mentioning the specifics of sand bunker shots with a sand wedge the length of a 6-iron.

  16. Deano

    Apr 13, 2016 at 4:53 pm

    To all the Shank, Flop, and OB critics – what gives? This was a good article from a legend club maker. What’s Pebble Beach – LOL?

  17. Shallowface

    Apr 12, 2016 at 8:12 pm

    The Armour EQL was available from 1989-1994. I have all of those catalogs. I wouldn’t call that short lived.
    Not saying they sold very well as it’s been a long time since I saw a full set, especially when compared with the 845s which I find on a regular basis everywhere from Ebay to thrift stores.

  18. Ron

    Apr 12, 2016 at 12:22 pm

    Barney and others….
    I tried the single length experiment a few years ago by taking a set of heads with an undercut
    sole and adding weight in the cavity for the 5 and 6 irons, and played with the 8,9,W a little too
    heavy. I have a loft and lie machine, so adjusting the lie angles to match was no problem. The
    set played OK, but I didn’t like the wedge being so long, so I didn’t give it a good enough chance before going back to my trusty Ping i5’s.

    When I bought my next new set (Callaway Xr’s last spring), I adjusted the length of them to
    have only a 1/4 inch differential from one club to another. This means that the difference between
    the 6 iron and the wedge is only 1 inch. This way, I feel I have the best of both worlds with the set
    being “almost single length”, yet maintaining weight increments. It works for me, and I guess in the final analysis, I guess that’s all that matters!

  19. MRC

    Apr 9, 2016 at 10:06 pm

    Enjoyed your article Mr.Adams.
    Appreciate the nuggets and most of all, the fact that you’ve been there and done that!!
    Keep up the great writing.

  20. oldredtop

    Apr 9, 2016 at 8:09 am

    To those who would like some technical background on single length clubs, may I suggest a trip to GolfWRX contributor Tom Wishon’s website. http://wishongolf.com/designs/sets/sterling-irons-single-length-set/

    His company has just released a single length iron set and and there is a great deal of technical information there along with the philosophy behind his approach to single length. Are they for everyone? Certainly not. But for me, if Tom is willing to put his name on a set of single length irons, the concept is solid and worth a little study.

    • oldredtop

      Apr 9, 2016 at 9:39 am

      disclaimer: I am not financially affiliated with Wishon Golf Technology in any form or fashion. Just a happy customer. 🙂 (771CSI irons)

  21. Barney Adams

    Apr 8, 2016 at 11:32 pm

    Re Moe’s clubs. I made a set of irons he played with for several years. They were not single length. They were however very head heavy offset somewhat by oversize and heavier grips.

    • Bif

      Apr 10, 2016 at 2:04 am

      It’s what happens when you have small hands like yours Smizzle and can’t handle man-sized grips

  22. Ike16

    Apr 8, 2016 at 5:32 pm

    Have played twice with my SL irons. All heads weighed 270 grams, shafts are Steel Fibre i70 tipped light R and all weighted the same at 37 inches, FLO tested, and finished with Winn W-5 grips. Every club is within 17 MOI points. Each has exactly the same lie. The feel of the swing with each is identical. Have to sometimes look twice at the number on the toe to make sure which one is used. The biggest challenge to date is getting used to wedges that are on the ground farther from my toes. That’s look, not feel. Next is forcing myself to play each in a coordinated (same) position. No more forward or back due to loft or length. These are cast heads and I have played forged for ages, but as a builder the challenge was too great to ignore. So far the playing distances are building trust and the plan is to keep these in the bag for the foreseeable future.

    • toad37

      Nov 7, 2016 at 2:15 pm

      Would love an update… how are they working for you?

  23. Joshuaplaysgolf

    Apr 8, 2016 at 4:10 pm

    My buddy is playing with single-length irons. Actually just finally got his pinhawk heads in today. It’s been really interesting talking with him about the challenges he is running into and the process of getting things dialed in, as he made his old irons all single-length just to see if he liked it. What I’ve noticed more than anything, is he hits his mid-short irons MILES into the air. We live in Denver, so t’s relatively windy, and when even a slight (5-10mph) breeze picks up, he has to pay extra attention to conditions. This will probably get ironed out when he gets the new lofts dialed in, just my observation so far…but interesting concept. Especially for those of us with nagging backs.

    • Loser

      May 18, 2016 at 11:05 pm

      You cant just chop down a regular set and make them the same length.

  24. kn

    Apr 8, 2016 at 2:47 pm

    Hi Barney,
    I enjoy reading your articles. I think DeChambeau has a hard row to hoe, especially if he wants to make golf his profession. He’ll have to win in a way nobody else has done it, and in today’s environment of cutting-edge golf equipment. He’ll always be playing with the wind in his face, so to speak. Until he wins, and it’s probably going to have to be a lot, he’ll just be considered a quirky egghead on the peripheral. That may be a tad brutal, but it’s also reality. If we all played with single-length clubs, maybe the story would be different.

    • Mike

      Apr 8, 2016 at 7:26 pm

      I couldn’t disagree with this more.

      • Grim

        Apr 8, 2016 at 8:47 pm

        Even if he won a couple, it still wouldn’t be enough, he would have win 40 or 50 events

    • Buddy

      Apr 8, 2016 at 10:57 pm

      Until he wins? U.S. Am doesn’t count?

      • Buddy's an eejit

        Apr 9, 2016 at 12:48 am

        Have you looked at who’ve won the US Am in the past? Tells you everything about your question

        • Guy

          Apr 9, 2016 at 9:30 pm

          Sure there’s some past winners who didn’t do much on tour. But the stat meant was “until he wins” which he has. As someone who can’t even win a club championship, I feel some respect should be payed to winning the U.S. Am.

        • Scott

          Apr 29, 2016 at 4:37 pm

          Yeah like that Tiger guy and that Jack guy and that Arnold guy. Those guys did nothing.

        • 300 Yard Pro

          May 20, 2016 at 12:34 pm

          He won the top two Am events the same year. Only people to do that were some losers called Jack and Tiger. I wonder what happened to those losers?

    • Loser

      May 18, 2016 at 11:07 pm

      He contended at the Masters, pounding tons of the best in the world and backed it up with a T4 at Harbor.

  25. Alex

    Apr 8, 2016 at 1:05 pm

    Great read Barney. My question is, while I have been fitted for clubs before I feel that at 5’6″ (on a good day) I should try to have my irons cut down more than the standard 0.5″ for us little guys. So, if I were to go closer to 1-1.5″ off would I need to add weight to the club heads? Would this really be beneficial? Because, I love my putter at 32″ and I’m fairly upright putter.
    Thanks

    • Barney Adams

      Apr 8, 2016 at 8:08 pm

      Best I could suggest is have one club shortened and bring out the lead tape. let your shots answer.

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Opinion & Analysis

The numbers behind “full scholarships” in NCAA men’s college golf

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If you are in the world of junior golf, you’ve probably heard about a young man you know who’s getting that coveted full ride to college, maybe even to a Power-5 school. With all the talk in junior golf about full scholarships, and a lot of rumors about how many are available, we decided to poll coaches and gather some real data about “full scholarships.”

So, what did we find out? In total, we got responses to a voluntary online survey from 61 men’s D1 coaches, 19 men’s D2 coaches and 3 NAIA coaches (83 total). On average, the coaches in the survey had 11.8 years of coaching experience. Of the coaches that responded, 58 of the 83 coaches reported having zero players on full ride. Another 15 coaches surveyed reported having one player on full ride. This means that 69 percent of the coaches surveyed reported zero players on full scholarship and 18 percent reported one player on full scholarship, while another four coaches reported that 20 percent of their team was on full ride and six coaches reported between 2-3 players on full ride.

We then asked coaches, “what percent of golfers in Division 1 do you think have full scholarships based on your best guess?” Here’s what the responses looked like: 25 coaches said 5 percent and 36 coaches said 10 percent. This means that 73 percent of respondents suggested that, in their opinion, in men’s Division 1, Division 2 and NAIA, there are less than 10 percent of players on full ride.

Next, we asked coaches, “what was a fair scholarship percentage to offer a player likely to play in your top 5?” The average of the 83 responses was 62.5 percent scholarship with 38 coaches (46 percent) suggesting they would give 30-50 percent and 43 coaches (52 percent) suggesting 50-75 percent. Only two coaches mentioned full scholarship.

The last question we asked coaches, was “what would you need to do to earn a full scholarship?”

  • Top-100 in NJGS/Top-250 in WAGR – 41 coaches (49 percent)
  • 250-700 in WAGR – 19 coaches (23 percent)
  • Most interesting, 17 coaches (20 percent) noted that they either did not give full rides or did not have the funding to give full rides.

The findings demonstrate that full rides among players at the men’s Division 1, Division 2 and NAIA levels are rare, likely making up less than 10 percent of total players. It also suggests that if you are a junior player looking for a full ride, you need to be exceptional; among the very best in your class.

Please note that the survey has limitations because it does not differentiate between athletic and academic money. The fact is several institutions have a distinct advantage of being able to “stack” academic and athletic aid to create the best financial packages. My intuition suggests that the coaches who responded suggesting they have several players on “full rides” are likely at places where they are easily able to package money. For example, a private institution like Mercer might give a student $12,000 for a certain GPA and SAT. This might amount to approximately 25 percent, but under the NCAA rules it does not count toward the coach’s 4.5 scholarships. Now for 75 percent athletic, the coach can give a player a full ride.

Maybe the most interesting finding of the data collection is the idea that many programs are not funded enough to offer full rides. The NCAA allows fully funded men’s Division 1 programs to have 4.5 scholarships, while Division 2 programs are allowed 3.6. My best guess suggests that a little more than 60 percent of men’s Division 1 programs have this full allotment of scholarship. In Division 2, my guess is that this number is a lot closer to 30 percent.

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Oh, To Be An (Oregon) Duck

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A few weeks ago I flew into Eugene, Oregon on a mission. I’d come to work with one my students who is a member of the Duck’s varsity golf team. I had never been further south than Seattle or further north than Monterey, so this part of the world was new to me.

What I did know was that the Bandon Dunes area had become a destination for some of the greatest golf in the world, rivaling other famed resorts around the country. The resort is just outside the quaint town of Bandon, which is a good two-hour drive from Eugene. The resort’s four courses — Bandon Dunes, Bandon Trails, Pacific Dunes, and Old McDonald — each have their own personality, but at the same time they have one thing in common: the four architects that designed them took full advantage of the natural topography, deftly weaving holes in and out along the Oregon coastline.

I was looking forward to playing two of the courses before leaving: Pacific Dunes and Old McDonald. You may find this hard to believe, but those two rounds would be my first and second of the year after a busy summer season on the lesson tee. And for that very reason, I had no expectations other than to make a few pars and enjoy the scenery.

After retrieving my luggage from the turnstile, I made my way toward the exit with luggage in tow. My rental car was just across the street in an open-air lot and as I pushed through the airport doors, I was greeted by a gust of wind and a spray of rain. “Welcome to Eugene,” I thought to myself.

The sudden burst reminded me of playing in Scotland, where the rain gives way to sun only on occasion. I surmised that the weather in the Eugene would be similar. “Don’t forget your rain suit,” a fellow professional reminded me when I told him about my trip. As it turned out, that was good advice. He had been there before around the same time of year. “You’ll be lucky if you get one good day out of three,” he said.

As I drove through the area to my hotel, what struck me the most were the large hills that commanded the landscape and the thick white clouds that seemed to cling to them like giant cotton balls.  I found a comfortable hotel just outside Eugene in the small but quaint town of Cottage Grove. In charitable terms, you could characterize my hotel as “a tribute to the past.”

I woke up at 6 a.m. the next morning, dressed and made my way downstairs to the lobby. The rain had continued through the night and as I prepared to leave the hotel,  it started to come down even harder. I stood in the lobby, waiting, while listening to the rain drops pounding on the roof,  a steady beat at first, then rising and falling like a conga drum.

I’d agreed to meet my student at 10 a.m. for a practice session and then he was slated to play nine holes with the team later in the afternoon. Based on the weather, I was concerned that the day might be a total rain-out. What I didn’t know at the time was that the school has a portable canopy that allowed the team, rain or shine, to practice on natural grass. I ran to my car ducking rain drops. The forecast called for a chance of sun in the afternoon. And this time the weather man was  right.

That afternoon I was invited to watch my student and the rest of Casey Martin’s boys play a quick nine holes at Eugene Country Club, the team’s home course. The layout is one of the most unusual that I’ve ever seen with giant trees bordering every fairway. The tips seemed to stretch up and up into the sky, piecing the low-hanging clouds above, as if they were marshmallows on a stick.

The Ducks have fielded a strong team the past two years, winning the NCAA Division 1 Championship in 2016 and then finishing second this year. A good deal of credit for that accomplishment goes to Casey Martin, who has coached the Ducks since 2006. For those who are too young to remember, Casey Martian was a teammate of Tiger Woods at Stanford University. He later competed on the Nike Tour. Casey earned his PGA Tour card in 1999 by finishing 14th on the Nike Tour, but his earnings through the 2000 season were not enough for him to retain his card, relegating him to once again to playing on the development tour. He played sporadically up through 2006. The following year, Casey assumed the job of Head Coach, which brought him back to his native Eugene.

In earlier years, Martin’s play career as a professional was hindered by the fact that he could not play 18 holes without a golf cart due to a birth defect in his right leg. The PGA Tour Board ruled against his use of a cart, maintaining that the physical act of walking was considered an integral part of the competition. Believing that he was in the right, Casey filed a suit under the Americans with Disabilities Act. His case made its way to the Supreme Court where he won. As for his competitive record, by his own admonition, he is disappointed that he didn’t play better as a professional. A primary focus of his coaching then, as he conceded, is to teach his players not to make the same mistakes he did in his own career. What struck me as unique was the passion and intensity with which he coached. I would venture that it’s the same level of intensity that he brought to the golf course when he competed.

A few years ago, I had the opportunity to watch a closed-door, defensive-team practice at Duke University with Head Coach Mike Krzyzewski (Coach K) on the floor. He had divided the team into two groups with one at either end of the court competing against each other. His legs straddled the center line as if he were Colossus with his head swiveling back and forth as if on a stick. The impression was that he saw everything and be never missed anything. And then when he saw a player make a mistake, he would blow his whistle sharply. The players would immediately stop moving as if they were frozen in place. And then, in peg-leg style, he would hobble across the floor favoring one leg over the other. He was clearly in need of a hip replacement at the time.

I’ve had both of my hips replaced, so I could easily imagine the pain that he was experiencing as he peg-legged it from the center of the court to either end. I suspected that he had decided that surgery would have to wait. The season was just a few weeks away, and given that his team was largely composed of freshman, he could not afford to miss a day. Casey Martin doesn’t blow a whistle, nor does he run a defense practice, but as he climbs out of his cart, deftly working his way to a vantage point where he can see his players from every angle, I’m reminded of the halting walk of Coach K.

There is something else that these two man share in common — an intense desire to win. They settle for nothing less than great. And when you look into their eyes, you can see that there is an intensity that burns from within that is vastly different from the man on the street.

As you might remember, I was scheduled to play a round on Pacific Dunes and another on Old McDonald. The two courses are both spectacular layouts with ocean views. And the weather… I drew two perfect days, defying the odds my friend had laid down. It was sunny and 65 degrees with just a hint of wind. How did I play? Let’s just say that I made a few pars. What I found was that striking the ball well is no guarantee that you will score low on these courses. The green complexes are diabolical. The best advice I can give you is to throw you scorecard away. You’ll enjoy yourself more.

The next morning, I was on an early morning flight back to Minneapolis only to discover that we were experiencing Indian Summer with temperatures 20 degrees warmer than usual. But as Minnesotans, we all know what is waiting for us just around the corner.

I’ll leave you with this thought. After watching Casey Martin and the players on his team play and practice, I’m sure of one thing. And that’s when next year’s NCAA Championship comes around, Casey Martin will have all of his Ducks in a row.

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Opinion & Analysis

The Kids Are Alright: Spike in Junior Golf Participation a Good Sign for Game’s Future

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This week, eight 10-player All-Star teams representing regions from across the country will converge upon Grayhawk Golf Club in Scottsdale, Ariz., to compete in the 6th PGA Junior League Championship.

The teams – New Hampshire (Northeast), California (West), Georgia (Southeast), Ohio (Mideast), Illinois (Midwest), New Jersey (Mid-Atlantic), Arkansas (Mississippi Valley), and Texas (Southwest) – will be divided into two divisions where they will face off in round-robin, 9-hole matches using a two-person, scramble format of play. Teams are captained by PGA/LPGA Professionals.

Since the PGA of America launched PGA Junior League in 2012, participation has skyrocketed from about 1,800 players the first year to a record-setting 42,000 boys and girls age 13 and under participating on 3,400 teams across the country this year.

“Junior golf is a key priority of the PGA of America and we recognize that increasing youth participation in the game is essential to the future of our industry and sport,” said Suzy Whaley, PGA of America Vice President and PGA Director of Instruction at Suzy Whaley Golf in Connecticut.

“PGA Jr. League is a fun and welcoming opportunity for boys and girls of all backgrounds and skill levels to learn, play, and love golf under the expert instruction and guidance of PGA and LPGA Professionals. It’s team-oriented and kids wear numbered jerseys. It’s transforming traditional junior golf and the numbers prove it.”

Whaley believes the team concept and scramble format are major factors in PGA Jr. League’s rapid growth over the last five years. In fact, she says, the program is re-shaping the golf industry’s view of the way junior golf is typically learned and played.

“Other youth sports have been utilizing the team format for years and it’s a natural fit for golf,” said Whaley, who has taken three teams to the Jr. League Championships. “The scramble format provides for a low-pressure environment. We’ve created a team atmosphere that has broad appeal. Parents and kids enjoy being a part of the community that PGA/LPGA Professional Captains create. In this team setting, older, more experienced players mentor the younger, beginner golfers. There’s no pressure on any one player, and it’s great to see kids pull for one another versus the individual focus generally associated with golf.”

“It is a program that creates a family-centered atmosphere that encourages mom, dad, brothers, sisters, and grandparents to become involved, as well. During PGA Jr. League matches, the parents are part of the match keeping score, posting photos on social media and encouraging all players. PGA Jr. League grows lifetime interest in the game across multiple generations.”

Matthew Doyle of the Connecticut team gathers for a photo with team captain, Suzy Whaley during session three for the 2016 PGA jr. League Golf Championship presented by National Rental Car held at Grayhawk Golf Club on November 20, 2016 in Scottsdale, Arizona. (Photo by Traci Edwards/PGA of America)

Fourteen-year-old Cullen Laberge from Farmington, Conn., is a student in the Suzy Whaley Golf program and has competed at the PGA Jr. League Championships for Team Connecticut. Laberge has been playing for four years and says his Jr. League experience really sparked his interest in the game and his desire to become a better player and ultimately a golf teacher one day.

“It has taught me so much about golf, while keeping it fun and interesting,” Laberge said. “The thing I enjoy the most is playing competitive golf without the stress that tournament golf can sometimes bring. No matter age or skill level, Jr. League keeps it fun and no matter how a player is playing there is another player to pick them up. That national championship was the best experience of my life. It was like I was playing on the PGA Tour. I loved the amazing competition; those players were good.”

And it’s not just golf’s executives and Jr. League participants who have taken notice of the program’s growth and the ultimate importance that growth represents for the future of the game. PGA and LPGA professionals including Rory McIlroy, Ricky Fowler, Lexi Thompson and Michelle Wie have all joined as ambassadors for the program.

“I want to do everything I can to be a positive influence on kids who are interested in the game and serving as an ambassador for PGA Jr. League is a great fit,” said Wie. “There are so many lessons that kids can learn and that adults can reinforce through the game of golf – good sportsmanship, honesty, integrity, work ethic. Golf can help you learn how to react when things don’t go your way which I think is a really important skill to have in life.”

“Golf can definitely mirror life. You can work incredibly hard and still fall short, but how do you bounce back? How do you overcome a mistake or a bad break and still succeed? It’s important for kids to grow up with a good work ethic and the right attitude to face challenges. Golf is a great game to teach those lessons.”

Copyright Picture : Mark Pain / IMG (www.markpain.com)

Wie says the more inclusive and welcoming the golf community in general can be, the better.

“Especially as a young female, I have experienced plenty of times where I did not feel welcome or felt like I had to prove myself more than the guys did,” Wie said. “Golf is a game that should be available to everyone and I think it’s important to make it accessible to kids whether they are a future tour pro or a future 20-handicapper.”

The folks over at the USGA know a thing or two about growing the game and making it more accessible and they should, they’ve been doing it since the association’s founding in 1894.

The inaugural three USGA championships – the U.S. Open, U.S. Amateur and U.S. Women’s Amateur in 1895 – did not have age limits, each simply aiming to identify the champion golfer. In 1948, the USGA held the first United States Junior Amateur solely open to players under the age of 18 and just one year later the association conducted the first United States Girls’ Junior Championship.

In addition to helping fund The First Tee, LPGA-USGA Girls Golf, and the Drive, Chip and Putt Championships, the USGA recently introduced its “For the Good of the Game” grant program to promote a more welcoming and accessible game at the local level with millions of dollars offered to local communities to build programs.

“The greatest misperception is accessibility,” says Beth Major, Director of Community Outreach at the USGA. “Two-thirds of all golf courses in America are open to the public. Kids and parents still believe it is a country club sport and we need to change that.”

Founded in 2013 as a joint initiative between the USGA, the Masters Tournament, and the PGA of America, the Drive, Chip and Putt Championship is a free nationwide junior golf competition for boys and girls ages 7-15 aimed at growing the game. Participants who advance through local, sub-regional and regional qualifying earn a place in the National Finals, which is conducted the Sunday before The Masters at Augusta National Golf Club.

Drive, Chip and Putt qualifying is offered in all 50 states and participation in the event has increased each year.

“We have a great partnership with our friends at the PGA of America and the Masters Tournament,” Major said. “Our leaders realized that by pooling our resources at the national level while activating at the local level, we could quickly scale the program and get more kids involved.”

“Going into our sixth year, it is amazing to see how far the program has grown and the entry point we’ve created together to keep our youth engaged. We look forward to continuing to evolve the program to welcome more youth to the sport.”

The USGA, in partnership with the LPGA, the Masters Tournament, the PGA of America, and the PGA TOUR, founded The First Tee in 1997 specifically to answer the call for diversity and inclusion. The program has welcomed millions of new players to the game in the past 20 years by focusing not only on teaching golf skills but life and social skills such as etiquette, honesty, respect, confidence and responsibility.

Founded in 1989, the LPGA-USGA Girls Golf program is aimed at girls ages 6-17 and has played a critical role in not only welcoming girls and women to the game, but perhaps equally importantly keeping them in the game.

“Statistics continually show us that the social aspects of the game drive girls and women to play golf,” Major said. “That sense of camaraderie and building friends greatly outweighs their need to compete at the entry level. LPGA-USGA Girls Golf, quite simply, has made it fun and cool for girls to play – and play together. And the results are astounding. We have traced more than 100 girls who started in an LPGA-USGA Girls Golf program that played in a USGA championship last year. They have not only introduced the game to girls and young women, they kept them in the game, and that is very exciting and inspiring.”

One company is tackling growth of the game from another angle – the equipment side.

Since its very beginning back in 1997, U.S. Kids Golf has been focused on its mission, “To help kids have fun learning the lifelong game of golf and to encourage family interaction that builds lasting memories.

To that end, the company began developing youth clubs starting out with just three sizes and one product line initially.

“Over time, through watching youth golfers, we came to realize that we were not serving them as well as we would like,” said Dan Van Horn, U.S. Kids Golf founder. “Looking at how the best players in the world – LPGA and PGA Tour – are fit for clubs, we discovered the proportion of their drive length to height was from 60-70 percent. From that we created what we term the ‘2/3 solution.’ Simply put, for every 3 inches a player grows, we offer a set that has a driver that is 2 inches longer.”

Importantly, it is not just the length of the clubs that increase as the player grows but also the overall club weight, grip size and shaft stiffness. At the same time, the loft on woods decreases providing additional distance.

“One of the key benefits of correctly fit clubs that are lightweight is the ability for players to learn a correct and powerful swing at a young age,” Van Horn said. “Clubs that are too long and/or heavy slows the golf swing itself and creates bad habits that are difficult to change later in life.”

Beyond the importance of young golfers needing properly fit equipment, Van Horn believes strongly in the need for juniors to compete in tournament play to facilitate aspirational goals and to measure progress. Going hand in hand with this is proper instruction from coaches who understand how young players learn and develop.

“After a few years of producing equipment, we realized more needed to be done to serve our market so we formed a nonprofit foundation,” Van Horn said. “Immediately we created our World Championship in 2000 so that young golfers would have an aspirational goal, much like the Little League World Series is to baseball players. We also realized that golf professionals and coaches lacked an organized incentive-based learning program to truly engage players in the game so we created one that same year.”

A longtime proponent of having players play from appropriate yardages, U.S. Kids Golf developed the Longleaf Tee System which uses a mathematical formula to “scale” any golf course for up to eight different tee locations per hole so all players have options based upon how far they carry the ball with a driver. Yardages start at 3,200 yards for 18 holes and increase up to Tour distances of 7,400 yards.

“What we need is a focus by all golf facilities and coaches to provide quality, enjoyable experiences to our youth,” Van Horn said. “This means incorporating game-based learning with a measurable, learning program so that players and their parents know how they are progressing. And, of course, shorter tees need to be available so we can get kids on a ‘field’ that fits them like other sports. There’s no question it can be done.”

The National Golf Foundation’s annual report for 2016 revealed that participation in junior golf programs remained steady at 2.9 million likely due in part to the success of the programs mentioned above and others just like them. Importantly, the number of female junior golfers has increased to a third of all participants and the number of non-Caucasion players has risen to a quarter, four times what it was a couple of decades ago.

While time will ultimately judge whether these programs and offerings serve not only to retain current players but continue to attract new ones, the state of junior golf in the country appears strong and on the right track for now. 

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