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Out of the Woods: Callaway Golf

Ely Callaway took golf into the space age. now he plans to keep it on track for the next century
Jeff Williams
From the Print Edition:
Vince McMahon, Nov/Dec 99

Ely Callaway is talking about spirit, an easy thing to do considering he has enough of it to lead a dozen marching bands. In this case he's talking about the essence of golf, something of which he is a part. "We will not run afoul of the spirit of the game," he declares. "We run afoul of the spirit of the game in the opinion of 12 members of the Executive Committee of the USGA. We may do that. But we will not run afoul of the desires of 40 million golfers around the world because they want pleasure out of their game."  

Feisty, opinionated, gentlemanly, Ely Callaway is the chairman of the Callaway Golf Co., the world's largest clubmaker. He is the man who brought you Big Bertha and its progeny. He is the man who led high tech to the forefront of the golf equipment market. And he is the man who took on the United States Golf Association last summer over the issue of the "trampoline effect." The USGA was concerned about the clubfaces of oversized drivers, such as Callaway's Biggest Big Bertha. It was concerned that these drivers imparted extra thrust to the ball. Callaway didn't think this was any of the USGA's concern and wasn't afraid to say so. Never has been, never will be.  

"We ran an advertising campaign stating to the golfers of this country that we couldn't see any good reason why the USGA should deprive them of the pleasure of using   their Big Bertha clubs or anything else like it," says Callaway in a Southern gentleman's high dudgeon. "The integrity of the game, the spirit of the game, is not threatened by the average player having more pleasure out of hitting his shots."  

The USGA has since backed off the issue, and you can bet that Callaway had much to do with it. He won't tolerate someone fiddling with the business of amateur golf, which he contends is a world apart from the professional world, anymore than he countenances counterfeiters selling fake Callaways or rivals claims in print ads that their clubs are better than his. Amateurs, after all, propelled his company from a $5 million business in 1988 to an industry leading $698 million by 1998.  

Even though he spends $20 million a year to have all manner of professionals play his clubs in competition, Callaway believes that the professional and the amateur game are distinct and shouldn't be governed by the same rules. He will also tell you he doesn't have to hire the pros, he just does. "There is no such thing as one game of golf." Callaway is rolling now.

"Competitive golf, which is primarily professional, affects 300 people in the world. Then there is golf for the rest of us, that's 40 million"--million ripples off his tongue. "If the professional community wants to put restrictions on itself, that's OK. In fact, that's probably the best idea, rather than having the average golfer penalized"--penalized explodes from his mouth--"by inhibiting design improvements that would enable him to enjoy the game more. The [average golfer] is accustomed to playing the game based on equipment advances and he's going to want to continue to do so. You can't take that away from them unless there is a good reason. There isn't one. Doesn't exist."  

You can almost hear a chorus of angels singing hallelujahs.  

There is a difference to Ely Callaway. You notice it almost immediately. In his modest office he creates a force field that makes your pants cling to your socks, the hair on your neck straighten and nerves in your stomach fray. When, in the English of his native Georgia, he says "Hi, how you all doin'?" it's as if he's turned the lights up and aimed them squarely at you.  

Dick Helmstetter has been in Ely Callaway's spotlight a thousand times. Helmstetter, a former pool cue maker, is the chief club designer for Callaway and the man who conceived the Big Bertha driver. He has been enticed by the force of Callaway's personality. "Ely has an unequaled ability to focus on you when you're talking," says Helmstetter. "That's an extremely powerful personal tool. Some guys' eyes wander. If a phone rings, some guys have to pick it up. When Ely is talking with you, he's talking to you alone. Nothing else matters except what you're telling him, or he's telling you."  

There is enough energy in Ely Callaway to run a small town for a week. His innovative and mischievous style has carried him to success in three different businesses--textiles, wine and golf. Though the specifics of the businesses may be drastically different, Callaway's operating philosophy has remained the same over five decades: "Demonstrably superior and pleasingly different."  

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