Commentary: Ely Callaway: He Did It His Way

At 63, he started Callaway Golf and set about revolutionizing a stodgy sport

By Mark Hyman

Ely Callaway was irascible, amusing, loquacious, entirely innovative, and as smart a businessman as ever swung a seven iron. When the founder of Carlsbad (Calif.)-based Callaway Golf died last week at 82, it became clear how big a divot his departure will make in the world of golf. Testimonials flowed from archrivals in the golf-equipment biz and star players who swung Callaway's classy clubs. Many remembered him as a friend, a mentor, and--most of all--a maverick.

Here's one more label that fits Callaway: lightning rod. He seemed to attract controversy the way Tiger Woods attracts corporate sponsors. And when controversy didn't find him, he sought it out. List the major flaps in golf in the past two decades, and Callaway played a role in nearly all of them. His last battle was his biggest: seeking to overturn the ban on his ERC II driver, a club that lets a golfer wallop a ball into low orbit. But over the years, there were countless other dustups.

LAST LAUGH. Heaven help a rival manufacturer whose ads took even a veiled swipe at Callaway Golf. Two years ago, after upstart Orlimar Golf Co. cited stats that implied that more PGA Tour pros were packing its up-and-coming clubs than Callaway's, he pounced, deriding the claims as "the most misleading campaign I have ever seen in any field in my young life." Callaway had the last laugh, as he often did: After he filed suit, Orlimar revised its ads.

Callaway was 63 when he started in the golf business. He had been a textile exec at Burlington Industries Inc. and, later, ran his own winery in Southern California. In 1982, he bought an obscure golf-equipment manufacturer; nine years later, Callaway Golf introduced a metal wood with a swollen, odd-looking head. Callaway called it "Big Bertha," after a World War I cannon.

To those who would have been happy keeping golf as a rich man's game, Callaway and Big Bertha ruined the sport. That's because together, they started a revolution. Pro golfers liked the feel and distance they got from the newfangled club. And Bertha, which came along just as baby boomers were hitting their middle years, contributed to a surge of interest in golf and helped it shed its elitist image. By 1997, Callaway was the largest American manufacturer of golf clubs, with sales of $842.9 million. "Callaway is one of the strongest brands in golf, from basically nothing 10 years ago," says Nike Inc. Golf President Bob Wood.

Along with his golf clubs, Callaway sold pizzazz. LPGA star Annika Sorenstam appeared in his ads--and so did Bill Gates and Celine Dion. People had to have a Callaway club the way they had to have a red convertible. "He was a natural salesman who took advantage of everything that came his way," says Frank Thomas, former technical director of the U.S. Golf Assn., who sometimes clashed with Callaway.

What exactly are golfers buying when they lay out $500 or more for one of Callaway's magic wands? Many believe Callaway clubs slice a few shots off their scores. The company founder never made any such claim--but he never suggested that golfers were getting shortchanged. "If our clubs didn't assist the average golfer in hitting more pleasing shots, then why do we sell as many as we do?" Callaway asked in a 1998 BusinessWeek story.

Big Bertha begat another club, Great Big Bertha, and finally Biggest Big Bertha. But it wasn't until earlier this year, when he rolled out the ERC II, a driver with an even larger sweet spot, that Callaway again ruffled feathers. The USGA, the governing body for golf gear, put the thin-faced metal wood through a battery of tests and flunked it, saying the ERC II didn't conform to rules limiting a "spring-like effect." Callaway howled in protest--and kept howling right up until the day in April when he went in for the checkup that revealed pancreatic cancer.

Callaway won't be around to see that fight to the end. But his name won't be forgotten soon. There are too many Callaway clubs rattling around in too many golf bags for that to happen.

Hyman is a contributing editor for sports business.

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