High Point Confidential: The gangly golfer

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Aug. 6—HIGH POINT — The sportswriters didn't quite know what to make of Yates Adams when the High Point golfer showed up at the 1964 National Public Links Tournament in Minneapolis, Minnesota.

Standing at 6-foot-7, all skin and bones, Adams walked up to the first tee wearing brown plaid Bermuda shorts and a plain white T-shirt, looking for all the world like somebody's dad who was about to throw a few hamburger patties on the charcoal grill in the backyard.

He carried only nine clubs in his golf bag — including a ridiculous 54-inch driver — all of them so battered and rickety that they made a clinking sound when he swung. Some clubs had actual grips, others just had athletic tape. His well-worn wedge was "as smooth as a tablespoon," one sportswriter wrote.

"Adams insists he hasn't the money to know where his next hamburger is coming from, and he buys one golf ball at a time," the writer continued. "He plays with it, whether it is cut or not, until it is lost."

His self-taught, jacked-up swing didn't impress anybody, either, with most of the writers generously describing it as "unorthodox."

"Even a caveman would be able to swing a club better than Adams," one wrote. "He cocks his legs better than he does his wrists, and he lets go like a discus thrower. His follow-through brings the club twirling over his head."

On the greens, Adams would stealthily creep up behind the ball and putt without even taking a proper stance or bothering to read the green.

"If I never saw it," one incredulous opponent told the press, "I wouldn't believe it."

Make no mistake, though: Yates Adams — the ragtag, unorthodox, financially challenged, wild-swinging, Bermuda-shorts-wearing beanpole golfer and dental-supply salesman from High Point — could play. Heck, he had to win the N.C. Public Links Tournament just to qualify for the national tourney.

And then, for those few days in July 1964, Adams was the toast of the golf world, an amateur Arnold Palmer — driving the ball 280 yards, chipping with ease and sinking unsinkable putts, all while being followed around the course by "Adams' Army," an enthusiastic mob of spectators who couldn't believe what they were seeing ... yet couldn't look away.

If you're not impressed by the fact that newspapers all over the country published stories about High Point's gangly golfing upstart, then look at it this way: Have you ever been featured in Sports Illustrated?

Didn't think so.

"Until last week, no one had ever heard of Yates Adams outside of a few people who bought dental supplies around High Point, N.C.," the iconic magazine wrote. "Now he has an army just like Arnie (Palmer), Jack (Nicklaus), Tony (Lema) and Chi-Chi (Rodriguez)."

Sports Illustrated also wrote that Adams seemed immune to the pressure of the national spotlight.

"I don't worry about pressure," he said. "I worry about my clubs (falling apart)."

As unheralded as he was unorthodox, Adams made it all the way to the semifinals of the national tournament, upsetting the 1963 champion along the way.

"Well, nobody told me he was the defending champion," Adams said.

That defending champion, by the way, was Bob Lunn, who went on to play — and win six tournaments — on the PGA Tour. In those six wins, he knocked off the likes of Arnold Palmer, Lee Trevino and Gary Player.

That should give you an idea of just how good Yates Adams was.

Unfortunately for Adams — not to mention his legion of followers and a few dozen sportswriters — he lost in the semifinals to the eventual champion.

By then an almost mythical hero, Adams returned to High Point, where he continued playing local tournaments. He won some of them — and one year he even qualified for the old Greater Greensboro Open — but he never again achieved the national notoriety he won during that magical week in July 1964.

If nothing else, Adams seemed to inspire the hackers of the world with his 15 minutes of fame.

"After watching him," one spectator remarked, "there is hope for all of us."

jtomlin@hpenews.com — 336-888-3579