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Pioneer clubmaker Callaway dies of cancer

North: Innovative Callaway changed golf

Friday, July 6, 2001
This guy can help you drive
By Jim Murray
Special to

Editor's note: This column originally appeared in the Los Angeles Times on July 24, 1994.

Ordinarily, when a revolutionary new golf club is introduced, it's the work of a star player, usually one of the legends of the game. I mean, after all, it was Gene Sarazen who invented the sand wedge. And it was Auld Tom Morris who came up with the cleek or mashie niblick.

Ely Callaway
Ely Callaway's drivers enabled golfers to hit the ball farther and straighter than ever before.
So, when a dramatic new driving club made its way into the game a year or so ago and soon had golfers from three continents queuing up to get it, the golf community expected it to be the product of Arnold Palmer, Jack Nicklaus, maybe Ben Hogan.

It wasn't. It was the brainstorm of a guy who never teed it up in anything more portentous than a weekend member-guest at Seminole, a guy who had never had to make up his mind whether to lay up or go for it on the 15th at Augusta on Sunday and who never worried about missing the cut at a Honda Classic.

When the golf world learned that its newest sensation had been discovered, developed and manufactured by a guy who grew wine grapes for a living, it was stunned.

It needn't have been, Ely (pronounced Ee-lee) Callaway had a history of success at whatever business he chose to tackle, from the rag business in the East -- Burlington Industries -- to the wine business in California.

Callaway well knew the secret to success in business; Get a superior product and make sure the public finds about it. After all, it was Emerson who said if you build a better mousetrap, the world will beat a path to your door.

Callaway probably couldn't read a two-break putt. He was a 14 handicapper who had once won a couple of club championships at home in Georgia, but he had never expected golf to be his life's work. When he left Seventh Avenue and the textile industry, he came west to Temecula to bottle his own wine. Golf would be something he watched on television.

He eventually sold the winery to Hiram Walker for $14 million and, as luck would have it, he stopped in a golf shop in Temecula one day, a kind of ma and pa store where they had the most exquisitely crafted hickory shafted clubs, he bought the business.

Callaway never does anything casually. He delved into club manufacturing. A quick study showed him that the golf club business needed more than hickory shafts, it needed an overhaul, a consolidation. And a little mystique.

You have to know something about the American psyche. Americans, almost to a man, are convinced there is in all life's work some secret shortcut to great success. There is. It's called hard work. But Americans prefer to think there is a gimmick that lets you bypass that, and that the successful know it and the rest of us don't. It's what keeps bunco artists in cigars and penthouses.

Golfers are the worst in this regard. Good golf, like the way to Carnegie Hall, is found only in endless practice. But hackers are sure something is being kept from them. Pro shops are always thronged with golfers looking for Nirvana.

So, Callaway gave it to them. First of all, there is very little doubt his metal wood driver -- and his three- and seven-woods -- are demonstrably better than other clubs on the market.

He had his better mousetrap, or, in his case, No.1 wood.

The technology was simple, the results dramatic. Callaway hired an industrial designer, Richard Helmsetter, who had been designing, of all thins, billiard cues in Japan, and put him to work on designing the perfect driving club.

Basically, the head of the club was 25% larger than standard drivers. The club was like a football fullback -- big head, no neck. The hosel of the club was jettisoned, the shaft buried directly into the club head.

Who needed a hosel anyway? After all, it's the hosel that causes the shank.

Now, he had the product, How to get it into the locker rooms.

The product was good. But so was penicillin, which languished for a decade for lack of promotion. Fulton had trouble selling the steamboat.

He should have had Callaway.

First, he needed a catchy name. In World War I, the Germans had a gun designed by the Krupp Works that could hit Paris from 60 miles away. Krupp called it "Big Bertha" in honor of his daughter. Callaway named his driver after her, too.

Phase 2 found Callaway getting his clubs into the hands of opinion makers from the royal family in England to the movie stars in Hollywood.

The reaction was nuclear. Callaway got the best promotion it's possible to get, whether its movies or baking powder -- word of mouth. The Callaway driver took the game by storm. Hackers swore by it. So did the touring pros.

You have to understand, golf over the years has had many innovations. Fiberglass shafts had their vogue -- until they began to torque out of shape. Aluminum shafts had Palmer as a spokesman. They never won a tournament.

But the Callaway driver was a star. Suddenly, you were nobody if you didn't have one in your bag. Partners scolded you, opponents pitied you.

Callaway is having the time of his life. He occupies a place in the golf firmament somewhere between Bobby Jones -- a not-so-distant relative -- and Santa Claus. A jovial, cheerful man, this ace of clubs takes the position that he is selling dreams. And, on the links, he is. There is nothing that brings a smile to the face and a spring to the step of a golfer more than a drive that goes 20 yards further and half a latitude straighter than it used to.

Callaway doesn't have time for his own game anymore. He lunches at his desk these days, next to a phone and fax machine. His factory in Carlsbad is expanding so fast you're afraid to park your car outside.

The grass, of course, has gone steadily up. From a start of $364 gross, it has climbed to $255 million in nine years. The stock is listed on the Big Board.

The good fortune amuses Callaway.

"When I went into the wine business, I bought a tract home for $45,000," he says. "The other day, I started building a home where the door costs $45,000."

Building golf dreams is more fun than cutting cloth or bottling Chardonnay. But if it has played havoc with his own game, it has rejuvenated those of hackers from all over the world.

When you talk of the great inventions of man, you might start with the electric light, the steam engine or the motion picture but, to the golfer, they pale beside the club that can get you out of the sand in one, or off the tee so far you beat your brother-in-law two-a-side every time.

Sarazen belongs in the Golf Hall of Fame. So do Palmer, Hogan, Snead, Nicklaus. But for the high-handicapper who for once has a club in his hand he can't shank and top 22 yards off the tee, Ely Callaway belongs there too.

This column originally appeared in The Los Angeles Times. Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.

Jim Murray, the long-time sports columnist for the Los Angeles Times, won the Pultizer Prize for commentary in 1990. He died Aug. 16, 1998. Help | Advertiser Info | Contact Us | Tools | Site Map | Jobs at
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