For Nathan Fry, like a lot of other tall people, golf was a form of torture. Standard-sized clubs packed the 6-foot-4-inch Fry into a crouch more suitable for chopping wood in a very short phone booth or ringing the bells of Notre Dame than uncoiling through the perfect circle that generates a towering drive.
Commercially available extended versions of clubs weren’t much better. Those clubs, typically 1 to 1.5 inches longer with the hosel bent closer to 90 degrees, placed the ball uncomfortably close to Fry’s feet and required an unnaturally steep swing plane.
“The whole industry is based on whatever size you are. … You start out with a standard club and you try and learn how to swing it. And then they take that (flawed) swing and they say, ‘Well, we can make a club a little bit better to suit your swing,’ ” Fry said. “My premise is different. My premise is I want my swing to look like Rory McIlroy’s, but he’s 5-foot-8 and he plays with standard-loft, standard-lie, standard-length clubs.”
Fry is 8 inches taller than the pro golfer, a difference of roughly 12 percent. He figured that if he took a picture of McIlroy and stretched it by 8 inches, the clubs also would need to stretch to remain proportional. A standard 6 iron is 37.5 inches long. That meant Fry would need one around 42 inches.
The idea for Tall Man Golf came to Fry around 2000. Born and raised in Baton Rouge, Fry had been hired away from a job at Lamar Advertising to work as a sales manager for Print Systems, an Arizona company that made the vinyl wrappers for Lamar. The job was OK, but when Print Systems began struggling, Fry began working a second job as a waiter. One day, his co-workers convinced Fry to play golf with them at a local course. Fry hated golf, and he was a terrible player. He went anyway. He was unprepared for the Arizona course. It was nothing like Webb Park or City Park. Instead, Fry found himself in a “gorgeous oasis garden.” Long afterward, Fry was still in awe. His co-workers laughed at him and called the muni course a dump. If Fry wanted to see a real golf course, he should check out Grayhawk Golf Club, Phil Mickelson’s home course in Scottsdale, Arizona.
Fry did. He drove past cross-cut fairways and bent-grass greens before parking in front of a $5 million clubhouse. He went inside and asked if he could putt on the practice green. Two or three hours later, Fry emerged from his putting reverie, rushed back into the clubhouse and begged for a job in the restaurant. The HR people told Fry he could have one. But if he wanted to play golf, it would be better to take a job in outside services, meeting people at the bag drop, loading their golf carts and waiting on them at the range. The hours were long, but he could also play unlimited golf.
So that’s what Fry did. He hit thousands of balls every day. He got into the golf professional training program, passing the playing ability test on his fourth try. Eventually, he returned to Baton Rouge. He had the idea for Tall Man Golf and for proportional fitting but not the money to start a business. A friend was in law school, studying to become a patent attorney. Fry thought being in law could fund his company.
All he had to do was prove his idea could work.
Fry began the lengthy process of prototyping the clubs while still in LSU law school. He already knew that attaching a standard weight clubhead to an overlength shaft resulted in a club that felt about as nimble as a sledgehammer. Fry needed to make the heads lighter. He began experimenting. In his spare time, Fry attacked the problem with hand grinders and drills and anything he could find to shave the weight. In 2008, he graduated from law school and not long afterward to his own milling machine. It took four years of prototyping before Fry knew his concept would work.
Back in Arizona, Fry played all the time and hit thousands of balls a day but rarely broke 80. Fry still plays frequently, with a handicap of 6 to 8, but the new clubs make him much more consistent.
“The truth is that golf is all about putting and chipping, so if you’re a great chipper and putter, this is irrelevant,” Fry said. “What the clubs allow me and other fellow tall man golfers to pull off are the hero shots … the big, towering drive, the soaring iron shot that you’ve never hit before.”
The clubs do have a couple of drawbacks. Players have to abandon the swing they concocted using standard-length clubs and swing like an average-sized person. Also, once someone uses the clubs their body rejects the bellringer’s position.
One of Fry’s friends is 6 feet 1 inch tall, with a 2 handicap. On a recent round at Santa Maria, he and Fry were both 150 yards from the green. But Fry’s friend had brought a 5 iron and needed a 6. Fry gave him his pitching wedge and told him to choke down 2 inches. His friend was skeptical but gave it a shot. Boom, on the green. He threw down another ball and swung again. Same result.
On the next tee, Fry’s friend pulled out a 5 wood, maybe his favorite club, to tee off. He topped it.
“Two shots and his body just didn’t want to reassume the extremely uncomfortable position,” Fry said.
Fry believes there is a healthy posture for golf, and the clubs and proper fit allow tall people to enjoy it.
The heads, which weigh about 30 percent less than standard, are made in China. True Temper makes the shafts in Tennessee. Fry assembles the clubs in his garage.
Six months ago, Fry quit his day job and began working full time on Tall Man Golf. It has taken only 15 years to turn his dream into reality.
Jeanne Bayless, the former head of Innovation Catalyst, which advises fledgling tech firms, said that kind of passion and determination are key to entrepreneurial success.
“It’s not a sprint. It’s a marathon,” Bayless said. “So when you get into these things, it’s going to be years and years typically. So you need to look at it that way. You need to be patient.”
You also need to ignore the skeptics.
Fry has encountered plenty of them along the way. Some are now his customers.
“What I found is if I put a 4-inch-over club in a 6-foot-3-inch guy’s hands … they think it’s too long,” Fry said. “The PGA guys and doubters say (major club manufacturers) would have done this if it were needed.”
While Fry agrees that the major club makers all have great products, it’s also true they have been successfully selling the same things to tall guys for a hundred years.
U.S. sales of golf equipment topped $3.4 billion in 2015, according to Statista.com. TaylorMade-Adidas Golf had sales of $1.1 billion.
The major brands have no incentive to retool a manufacturing line, design clubheads that weigh 30 percent less and custom-build clubs to every customer, he said.
Fry believes his proportional fitting system and Tall Man Golf can be like other ideas that changed the sport: moving from wood shafts to steel and then to graphite, from persimmon woods to metal, and then to oversize heads. At each step along the way, there were undoubtedly people who grumbled and called the new equipment ridiculous, Fry said.
Bayless said having a unique idea is vital to success.
So are researching the market, knowing who the customer is and his pain point. Fry has found a pain point: golfers over a certain height are having to use traditional clubs.
The key is whether those customers are willing to pay a significant price to have that pain removed, Bayless said.
A full set of Tall Man Golf clubs goes for $1,799, according to the website.
The price is comparable, or less than, that of major brands. The pain point, for taller golfers, is literal.
Fry said back pain made him worry he would have to give up golf. Before the Tall Man Golf clubs, a half-hour of chipping practice left him too sore to play a round. But he recently played eight rounds in one week with no problems.
The question Fry is running into now is, what exactly is a tall golfer?
Take Tiger Woods. He’s 6 feet 1 inch tall and superhumanly gifted. He’s also 5 inches taller than McIlroy but during his career has used standard-length clubs.
“Guess what? His career is over. He’s destroyed his back. He’s destroyed his knees,” Fry said.
At one point in Woods’ career, his swing required him to drop down almost 6 inches to strike the ball, Fry said. Those stresses are unimaginable.
Fry’s stresses are less so. He worries about how well he will play when he demos the clubs for potential customers. Will he break 80? Fry worries whether Tall Man Golf will generate enough income to provide for his family. He wonders whether proportional fitting, more a philosophy than a product or a process, will be his true legacy. He hopes for all of those things.
Not that long ago, when someone asked him what he did, Fry would say he was an attorney, but he had this Tall Man Golf thing on the side.
“But I realized I wanted Tall Man Golf to be the thing …. What I need to go around saying is I have this fantastic company and that’s my identity,” Fry said.
Follow Ted Griggs on Twitter, @tedgriggsbr.