Barney Adams has big legs. Their width was conspicuous as he slung his left one over the arm of a cloth recliner, the musculature belying his 82 years. They were not legs that should belong to someone who spent the vast majority of his life as a golf-club designer, an engineer of the niche.
But there were no veils here in the comfort of his home, a wonderfully ramshackle relic on the grounds of Pine Valley Golf Club. Here, he was just Barney—or Barnyard, if you knew him from his years growing up outside Syracuse, New York, or his hockey-loving days at Clarkson University, or his decades working the hot Texas driving ranges by himself while building Adams Golf out of the dirt. He remains a tall man of substantial girth, his bald head standing a tick over 6-foot even after eight decades of gravity pulling him back to earth, shoulders first.
Barney is disarming in the best way possible, charming in his crassness and endearing with flippancy. He told waiters in the clubhouse to “take a hike,” and every one of them laughed. He refused any sort of vegetables with his dinner and any sort of side with his lunch. “Unless someone else wants it,” he would say. He didn’t order dessert, but he ate some when offered. The first time we played golf, he crushed his driver over every treacherous carry and missed only one fairway. He also complained incessantly about the state of his game. He is the smartest and most engaging cranky uncle anyone could ever ask for.
None of that made it easier when he looked up and said, “OK, it’s about time. I ask this question of all the houseguests I’ve ever had, and it normally sparks some good conversation.”
I was on the couch to his left; on his other side was Paul Wood, the head of engineering at Ping. Barney is known to invite people to this house specifically for conversations like this—even if, and sometimes especially because, they don’t know each other. We were his latest guests, along with author and lawyer Evan Mandery, who had already slunk off to sleep after a long day in golfing nirvana. It was my first trip to Pine Valley and we would end up playing two rounds on the big course, sandwiched around an afternoon on the 10-hole short course. The skies had been crystal clear and the air unseasonably warm and sweet for mid-October. We couldn’t have gotten luckier.
We’d already had a few of these parlor-room palavers, and this was to be the last one before we left. It was also going to be the last one Barney ever conducted in this space, having just sold one of the handful of private homes on the property, the Decoy House, after 14 years of ownership. And after 40 years at the club, Barney was even considering giving up his membership, with an upcoming MRI back home in California that could result in another spinal surgery or a new hip. Within the first hour of being there, I had gone down to the unfinished basement to help him fetch a bottle of wine. (“Guests always bring wine,” he said. “Some of them are $1,200 or something. I wouldn’t know.”) On the way back, with a pinot noir from the Russian River Valley in his hand (not $1,200), I worried that he might not be able to shuffle his way up the stairs. With no railing, I worried if I would have to catch him—and if I could.
“Damn hip,” he said, slowly lifting one leg after the other. “Or my back. Who the hell knows.”
But now that we knew each other a little bit, after hours on the golf course and in the clubhouse, and after a few of those pinot bottles had gone into the recycle bin, he asked the big question: “If you could spend some time with any three people throughout history, sit and have dinner and a conversation with them, who would it be?”
I’ve always found this question to be so cliché that I’ve never given it any real thought. But in this setting, it was clear I would have to. I didn’t have much time as Barney waited for an answer, so I mumbled something about a missed opportunity to chat with famed reporter and author Gay Talese, wanting to pick Stephen King’s weird brain, and Jesus. Of course I’d like a revision, but life is a lot like the first tee at Pine Valley: no mulligans.
Paul was born in a small town in the west of England, near the Welsh border. His accent is subtle and refined, surely molded from his time collecting a doctorate in mathematics from St. Andrews University. He began with Issac Newton, then Alexander the Great (or someone who was around him every day and kept copious notes), then Stephen Hawking or a contemporary scientist. No mulligan needed.
I was always better at asking questions than answering them. So I pushed Barney for his three, which he was holding until we were done. He finally looped that big leg of his back over the arm of the chair and sat up a little.
“Aristotle,” he said as he began to recklessly wave his arm in the air. “He was supposed to be the smartest of all those guys.”
The first greeting at Barney’s house came from a life-size statue. When I got out of my car in the driveway, I couldn’t tell if it was Barney himself standing there in the small enclosed porch. The figure stood motionless, only adding to my overwhelming sense of detached wonderment. It all felt surreal: driving past the dollar stores on the way from the turnpike, seeing the curling plastic tubes of waterslides and the rickety roller coaster of the Clementon amusement park rising from the weeds and broken asphalt at the corner of White Horse Avenue and Berlin Road, then passing over the train tracks—the same tracks that George Crump rode to Atlantic City when he spotted this piece of land more than a century ago. Even more astounding was going through the guard gate and up the hill to Barney’s house, the road splitting the first two fairways. I slowed to a crawl as I looked left up the second fairway to see one of the great approach shots in golf. The hill rose 50 feet in the air, littered from end to end with horrifying sand pits, gnarly fescue and scrub bushes. I could barely see the sun kissing the fluttering flag, and what lay over that crest seemed as foreign and distant as the summit of Everest. I had seen many pictures of this exact spot, but I had never laid eyes on it.
Evan emerged to greet me. None of us had met before, so he quietly said, “It’s a little uncomfortable in there.” Before walking in, I paused to look at the statue. He wore traditional plus-fours and was leaning on a golf club with his legs crossed at the ankles, a Pine Valley sweater over his club tie. He had a curled white mustache and a slight smirk, matching bushy eyebrows and a floppy tam-o’-shanter hanging over huge ears. His eyes were squinted; he looked like a malevolent Shivas Irons. Barney said he inherited it with the house. Almost every time I walked past it, especially at night, I jumped.
As we got to the door, Evan whispered, “He’s in there on the left.”
Barney sat in his recliner, stretched out like Thanksgiving had just ended. He wore long khaki shorts and an old, untucked Pine Valley golf shirt, with socks and no shoes. The air was dense and smelled like a mixture of wood varnish and old carpet. “I’d get up,” he said as I walked in, “but I’m too damn lazy.”
The walls were wood paneled, and there was a large bay window looking out onto pine straw. Leaned against the walls were about 100 putters from every era of golf, propped up and scattered as if they were picked up quite often. There was an “S. Maiden” gooseneck from Scotland with a hickory shaft, and one that looked like a twisted shillelagh. There was an original Ping Anser with the slot in the bottom, and one that was made as an anniversary gift for Karsten Solheim, with a Bible verse etched into its face. There were Zebras and Bulls Eyes and Rossies. There were John Jacobses and Bobby Graces and even a few that Barney had designed.
I wanted to inspect them all right away, but didn’t want to be rude. So we sat there in a living room furnished exactly as the previous owner had left it, aside from the home’s only television, which Barney had removed. “People would stare at that thing like zombies,” he said. Even the few things that hung on the walls had been left over. Most of them were photos or paintings of the world’s great golf courses. There were quite a few of Pine Valley, but also a painting of Trevino teeing off on No. 16 at Cypress Point, and an old routing of Augusta National hung in a bathroom. The former owner was Jim Marshall, who, among other things, was a political advisor to Robert Kennedy during his 1964 run for the U.S. Senate. Marshall had invited Barney here in 2000 as part of a larger group, and as they sat around the same living room, it came up that none of them had ever attended an Olympic Games. Marshall picked up the phone and called the head of the Australian Olympic Committee. He counted his guests—“Six, seven, eight—yeah, about eight guys”—and said they wanted to see all the events. The tickets were waiting for them when they arrived in Sydney later that year.
The wine we had fetched from the basement was dry and fruit-forward, and it took a bit of self-restraint to make that first glass last. Paul and Barney spoke about the golf-club industry, how success is as much about marketing as it is club design. We spoke about TrackMan, the 46-inch driver rule and the golf ball. “I don’t know, maybe we should just go back to the balata,” Barney said. It was a little uncomfortable, as Evan had said. My shirt kept sticking to the back of the inherited faux-leather couch, and every time I sat up it made an awful ripping sound.
We met back in the living room at 7:30 p.m. in jacket and tie, ready to leave for dinner in the clubhouse. Barney was still sitting there in his socks when he said, “I guess I should get ready.” The clubhouse is about a 15-minute walk, but most residents take their golf carts. Barney decided we would take his rental car, a hulking SUV that he hated. It was dark when we finally left, and I quickly lost all sense of direction as Barney maneuvered our tank through the trees. When he made a right up a dirt path, barely avoiding pines on either side, I wondered if it was too late to get out and walk. “Oh shit,” he said as we rumbled up the hill. “This is the damn cart path! They’re going to kill me.”
We pulled up through a small gap between carts, and the attendants all smiled and laughed as we got out of the car. Barney was embarrassed, but no one got hurt. “This is the kind of shit that happens when you get old,” he said. “And you’ve already got a story to bring home: the time Barnyard drove his damn car up the cart path.”
The small dining room was packed and loud, all square jaws, tanned faces and pastel ties. Members wore green blazers with the Pine Valley logo. Barney’s, with a small stain on the right lapel, was worn over a short-sleeve button-down and loose club tie. Every table had a crystal decanter with the club logo, filled with sherry. Barney said you poured “about a shot” into a cup of the famous snapper soup, and “maybe a little more” into a bowl. Helping us was the maître d’, Brad, who had started as a busser when he was 17 and had not left over the ensuing 25 or so years. He was there at noon with his sleeves rolled up, getting placemats set, and he was there eight hours later, suggesting a sporty Bordeaux to go with a perfectly cooked filet.
We spoke about Barney’s good friend Tom Watson, who was the first big name to endorse Adams Golf and helped get the brand worldwide recognition. Watson had just lost his wife, and Barney had been trying to get him up to Pine Valley for a while. “Watson doesn’t seem interested,” he said. The name was always “Watson,” because these were Barney’s friends. Stories started with “One day Trevino calls me at home,” or “Byron Nelson and I are on the range.” Barney said he used to play a fair amount of golf with George W. Bush back in Texas, and so he asked the 43rd president how he should be addressed. The answer was “Mr. President” in mixed company and “George” any other time.
“So ‘Asshole’ is out?” Barney said. They got along glowingly, and still do. He said Bush is actually a much better painter than he gets credit for.
Barney’s first fantasy dinner guest, Aristotle, believed in three different types of knowledge: techne, practical knowledge used to create; episteme, scientific knowledge of the existing world; and phronesis, ethical knowledge for moral decisions. In the golf-club business, Barney needed a little bit of each. But that doesn’t quite capture the full nature of knowledge, as Aristotle went on to define theoretical wisdom as “scientific knowledge, combined with intuitive reason, of the things that are highest by nature.” To really know something, be it a person or a place, takes experience.
So hitting balls on the driving range before our first tee time was an excruciating wait. The practice area could encompass most municipal golf courses—and some municipalities—but I’m not one for much of a warmup, so I found myself chipping and watching the clock. It felt like so much time had passed on this trip and we hadn’t even hit a real golf shot yet. But when we were finally ready, it was worth it.
The walk from the clubhouse to the first tee goes behind the 18th green, and I looked down that final fairway knowing that in a short while I would be right there, and I would be holding with me an experience that would last forever. I knew Barney’s house was about a half-mile over my left shoulder, which reinforced that this was going to be a distinctly personal experience. I would know this place as only I could, just as Paul and Evan would know it only as they could, and just as Barney had known it as only he could for the past 40 years. When we all thanked him profusely, Barney would respond only by saying that “the place is here for you to enjoy.” Whether he ever verbalized it or not, he knew the gift he was giving was not static, but created uniquely for each visitor. The beauty of a place like Pine Valley does not lie in the facts, but in malleable imagination and the lasting wonder that it creates.
That wonder hardly dims with time, because the memories are preserved with all the senses. I love the feeling of walking over packed sand and rocks, the crunching sound signifying you’re in the right place for golf. It was a softer sound walking in the waste areas that separate tee boxes and fairways, especially going down the hill on the par-3 third where the sand is almost beach-like in color and texture. Technically, there are no bunkers at Pine Valley, only waste areas. (Or, as the saying goes, Pine Valley is all one bunker with small spots of grass.) So there are no rakes, either. By the end of the second round, I’d told Barney I had not been in a footprint the whole time. “It’s weird,” he said, “isn’t it?” The sand is hard in the right places and soft in the right places. When I asked why it was a totally different color on No. 12, where a cavernous expanse running up the left side glowed a deep shade of burnt orange, the answer was simple: That was the sand that was there when they dug. My definition of a “pure” golf course was suddenly, irrevocably changed.
Because the land is so heavily wooded, you can barely see another hole. It makes the course an incredibly quiet place, giving you space to think about the golf and the company. It’s serene. Unbothered. And when you make contact with a modern driver in such close proximity to a dense grove of pines and oaks, even an inexact strike sounds like a shotgun blast, and a thumped iron echoes like something from a dream.
More than the senses, the memories that last longest are those attached to emotion, and there isn’t an unemotional shot on the golf course. I always play better when I’m in awe of my surroundings, so I managed to get it up-and-down from the front of No. 5, the monster uphill par 3 that is just as hard as Gene Littler made it look when he made his famous 7 in the 1962 Shell’s Wonderful World of Golf episode filmed here. I carried Hell’s Half-Acre with my layup on No. 7, and avoided the Devil’s Asshole on No. 10. I made a couple of bogeys, including one at No. 15, arguably the hardest par 5 I’ve ever seen (next to No. 7). But I stuffed a wedge on No. 17 and then made a 40-footer on No. 18—thank goodness it hit the hole—to finish birdie-birdie. I’m a scratch player, but 1-over 71 was not what I was anticipating. I didn’t expect to break 80. But from the 6,557-yard middle tees, it was a lot of 2-iron tee shots to wide fairways, short irons that I was able to control and a couple of putts that dropped. I told Barney that if the first round was manageable from the middle, then I might consider going back a set for the second round. As the day went on, he kept nodding his head toward the back tees with a mischievous grin on his face. From there it was 7,181 yards, but some of those tee boxes looked to have different weather. I told him I’d do it, but I would be lying if I said I wasn’t nervous.
Knowing there was another round waiting tomorrow made for a small amount of relief walking off that 18th green, but I still left a bit unsettled. I was now someone who had played Pine Valley, and who shot 71 his first time there. Did that change who I was fundamentally, as a golfer or even as a person? Does every round change who we are, just on varying levels? I knew right away that my view on golf courses had been altered forever, even if I didn’t yet know exactly how. That would all come as the experience settled in my mind, but I knew I had taken my steps through golf history and come out with a more complete view of the game. No longer did Pine Valley have to be explained to me.
But history can be a strange thing, easily distorted in retrospect. That’s why Barney’s second dream dinner guest was so interesting. The engineer needed to know things, and not in the abstract.
“I’d choose a family member from centuries ago,” he said. “I’d want to know what life was like back then. I’d want to know their experience.”
History is palpable everywhere at Pine Valley, especially in the clubhouse. Walking in the front door from the circle, you immediately find yourself in a bar area; the club clearly has its priorities in order. Small boards read off winners of the club championship, which, of course, is stroke play. There is a small set of stairs that leads to the understated locker room, wide metal lockers painted off-white and soft carpet underfoot. On either side of the stairs are sitting rooms, where most of the walls are adorned with old photos or sketches of the nascent golf course, including a simple routing proposed by Harry Colt that sits outside the three phone booths. (No cell phones, please.) There is even a sandbox with a bucket over it that now holds current magazines (including this one). In the early days, these buckets were on every tee box, filled with water that would be tipped over to wet the sand, making it easier for caddies to make earthen tees for the gentlemen golfers.
The dining room is all the way to the left, a long, narrow room with big windows looking out mostly into trees. There are the boards for winners of the Crump Cup, and Francis Ouimet’s name adds some gravity to one of the best amateur invitationals in the country. To get to the dining room, you must walk through a large open space from another era, all stone, Persian carpets, dark leather and oil paintings beside silver trophies and painted china plates. (The plates are still the only prizes handed out for club tournaments.) In the middle is the famous head-to-toe portrait of George Crump, surrounded by smaller ones of each of the first four presidents of the club. The current president is only the fifth in club history, which dates back to 1913.
Although most of the history inside is self-referential, Paul immediately noticed one piece that was different. A huge drawing of the Old Course routing hung framed above the fireplace. He was immediately drawn to it and inspected it with a keen eye.
Paul had spent the better part of a decade in that ancient Scottish town, studying at the university and the courses. We decided to come up to the clubhouse early for the second night’s dinner, as Barney had said we needed to try the old showers with the big overhead faucets. We had played the short course that afternoon, along with Evan, where eight of the 10 holes replicate approach shots from the big course. Flipping short irons, recognizing bunkers and undulations and playing a game of 50-cent Nines is about as nice a way to unwind a day as I’ve found. But there was also a need for us to take a moment to ourselves, to think about where we were and what we were doing.
Paul and I showered and got a proper cocktail, then sat out on the small porch. We peered through the trees to see the bridge crossing the water in front of the 18th green. Pine straw was strewn about, and acorns fell from the oaks and banged the tabletops. The shadows got long and the sun hit the whiskey in a way that caused it to glow like an auburn candle.
Paul had originally wanted to study philosophy and economics, but kept getting pulled back to math. When a program arose where he could be fast-tracked through a master’s and on to a doctorate, he couldn’t pass it up. He had wanted to be a popular-science writer, but now he used numbers to create the best golf clubs he could. I told Paul how the first time I understood relativity was sitting on the couch in my first apartment with Brian Greene’s The Elegant Universe in my lap. He nodded knowingly. Time, as Einstein explained, is variable. Sitting on that porch, it seemed like time was being kind. When it slows, I find that what often fills the void is gratitude.
Barney said all he knew about his family history was that they were from central Europe. I told him I had done one of the commercial DNA tests and it had broken down my lineage all the way to the county. He seemed genuinely interested, but I think what he wanted most was the answer to how he got here. What allowed any of us to end up here in this moment? How had his family evolved? How do places like Pine Valley evolve? Are decisions things we make or just things we observe?
However it came to be, Barney had made this happen. For all his rough edges, he also had this warm smile that would surface from time to time. He knew how much this meant to us. He knew how much Pine Valley meant to every one of his guests. Despite always being practical, Barney still knew that history needed to be felt rather than read, because knowledge is far more than facts.
I went to the back tees for the second round, and Barney’s smile went from warm to sinister. The wind was whipping between 25 and 30 miles per hour and the greens were a touch faster. I hit a great drive off No. 1 and made par—and it was all downhill from there. I hit driver on No. 5, a brawny 240 yards up the hill into the wind. Missed the green left in a waste area, went from there into another in the back, from there just out into the rough, a chip and a curling 5-footer for a double-bogey 5. (I’m calling it a newspaper 5.)
The first time around, it was about the landmarks that I already knew about, but the second time, from these back tees hidden away in the trees, it was about falling in love with the shots I had newly discovered. Cresting the hill on No. 4 for that long second shot is exhilarating, much the same as it is at No. 13. (Just make sure you hit the right side of that fairway, says the guy who made a 30-footer for double.) There used to be a house to the left of the fifth green, but it’s gone, and in its place is a new back tee for No. 6 with a 270-yard carry if you want to cut the corner. (Pro tip: Don’t double-cross one left.) The green on No. 8 is the size of a mattress, with nowhere to miss (a par!), and on No. 16 it’s worth cutting off as much as you can on the left-to-right cape tee shot (because having 225 from the left side up over the trees begets a decent bogey).
Maybe the best view on the golf course is from behind the original ninth green; after some tree removal, the panorama shows the 18th hole in all its glory. If the famous 10th wasn’t the next hole, you might never leave. For all the seclusion on the golf course, behind that 10th green is a welcome place of social intersection, bringing together the 11th tee, the 17th green and the middle tee for No. 18. During that second round, Barney hit an Adams Tight Lies on No. 10 to 15 feet and made the birdie putt. “Easy game,” he said with a wink. Another member was walking off the 18th tee after having just taken a picture with his group. He stopped to say hello to Barney with a grin that split his face in two. It wasn’t a polite hello, but a long look of understanding. He kept looking as he walked backward. His gaze stuck with me.
When we got back to that spot and were walking off the 17th green about an hour later, I was not looking at a birdie-birdie finish. I also had to take a different route off the green to reach the back tee box for No. 18, which might have been across the tracks in Clementon. I smoked my drive, best of the day, then hit a 7-iron to 8 feet. It was as if Pine Valley smiled on me one last time. And then she reminded me that first-time 71s are not looked upon very kindly, knocking my birdie putt off line and making me sign for a humbling 86.
We retreated for one more meal, coleslaw made with horseradish hitting the table as soon as we sat down, followed soon thereafter by one more cup of snapper soup for me. Sitting down at a table near us was that same member, looking over with that same knowing gaze. He shared a table with two teenage boys and two contemporaries. He stayed seated as his guests went to look around the clubhouse and gawk, and started a conversation with us, asking if we were from Texas (like many of Barney’s guests) and how we all knew each other. Barney explained how he wove this group together, and we each gave a short bio. Then our food came, and I quietly asked Barney who he was.
“Jim Davis,” Barney said. “The president.”
As his group was leaving, Jim came over to say goodbye and shake hands. Barney didn’t get up, saying with a grimace that he’d sold the house and “this might be it” at the club. “You’ll be back and better than ever,” Jim said as he patted him on the back. Barney shrugged and kept chewing.
Jim then turned to us and said in a low voice, “Pine Valley with Barney Adams. Does it get any better?”
Ever the engineer, always wanting practical answers to his questions. He was distinctly unspiritual, saying it wasn’t until recently that he had even thought about what was going to happen when he died. The Christianity he grew up with didn’t stick, and he was too damn busy all the time to think about it. He was always thinking about the next thing, and was currently working on a new type of putter shaft. But he was getting more contemplative as he grew older. He said he had a good friend who believed that when he died it would all go blank and there was nothing. Barney’s shoulders bounced up and down. “I just can’t buy that,” he said. “Nothing? I don’t know.”
Barney’s golf game started to go when he was 77, and his body went with it. The past five years had been hard. He finally had to think about the one thing that had never occurred to him: that it would all end. Before the trip, he wrote to me, “Selling the house effective when you leave. Winding down, old, cannot play the course anymore. Inevitable.” So we sat there as the final group to do this, the final group to answer Barney’s big question and the final group to hear his answers. Still in awe of the place and maybe naïve in my 37 years, I had no idea why Barney would ever give up this club, even if he couldn’t play. He had been a member longer than I had been alive, so why not just hang on to the end? At one point, I had asked him what his favorite golf course was, and he kind of blew it off. He volunteered that if he had to play one course forever, it would be somewhere over in Ireland. “It’s just so fun over there,” he said. But when pressed for his favorite here, he got about as serious and thoughtful as he had all weekend.
“Probably this one,” he said. “But golf for me isn’t really about the course. It’s about the people you spend time with, and the memories.”
We all long to understand the world a little better, understand what has come before and what we’re going to leave for those who follow. We want to understand what makes people tick, what makes us tick and what evokes passion. We want to understand what matters, and how to make it last.
But to really know anything, you need to experience it with your eyes and ears open. Heart, too. Otherwise, you might miss it.