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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

(continued from page 1)

That's the motto, the mantra, of Callaway Golf Co. There is nary a soul who works for Callaway--and Callaway knows every soul who works for him--who doesn't know that motto. It's imbedded in the Callaway culture, a living, breathing (some might say haunting) reminder of what makes Callaway Golf so successful. It also serves as the perfect description of Callaway the man. 

At 80 years of age, Callaway has deep lines that etch the entire Mississippi River basin in his face. His dress is conservative--a blue blazer, a repp tie and gray slacks. His office impresses not with elegant appointments, but with artifacts: a picture of Callaway with President Clinton; a photograph from Madonna (whose book, Sex, was printed by one of Callaway's subsidiaries) inscribed "Keep it long and straight"; a placard from the University of California-Riverside awarding Callaway a chair in social responsibility "in recognition of the values and vision he has demonstrated in his life and work"; a picture of Bobby Jones, the immortal amateur who is a distant relative of Callaway; and a photo of a huge war cannon, a frightening part of Germany's arsenal in the First World War that the Allies referred to as Big Bertha.  

Big Bertha, the cannon, did not swing the balance of power to Germany. Big Bertha, the driver, swung the balance of power in the golf industry to Ely Callaway. In overseeing the development of the Big Bertha in the late 1980s, Callaway, an uncommon man, became the champion of the common golfer in America, and around the world, for that matter. Sure, professional players loved it, played it, and got paid to use it. But it was the everyday player, from single-to double-digit handicappers, who embraced the club, who found for themselves it was demonstrably superior and pleasingly different. They could hit it, and that was the key.

Perhaps that's the reason that so many of Callaway's celebrity endorsers are not professional golfers, but duffers who happen to be well known. The unlikely crew comprises the likes of Bill Gates, Alice Cooper, Sugar Ray Leonard, Tommy Smothers, Graham Nash, Kenny G, Smokey Robinson, Mac Davis and Celine Dion.  

With a voice that's a little tinny, a little raspy, Callaway extols the virtues of his golf clubs. His delivery, with nouns and verbs occasionally exploding like firecrackers, is somewhere between speech and preach. It's pleasingly different, even it takes a minute or two to adapt to the sudden onrush of information and emotion wrapped up in sentences that end a decibel or two above where they start.  

"Up until 1991, what was wrong with drivers is that everybody hated them," says Callaway, noting the year that the Big Bertha was introduced. "The driver was the least favored club in the bag, or the most feared. They bought them but they didn't like them. They had no confidence they were going to enjoy them. I'm talking about the attitudes of most golfers. That's what I knew. Big Bertha changed the attitude of the masses from one of fear about the driver to one of affection. Today, I think it's a fact that the driver is the most favored club in the bag. They love to drive now because they get more satisfaction and less fear. That's what we did. You can't do that with an ordinary driver. The public is smart."  

Callaway had always been a good player, starting at the age of 15 in his hometown of LaGrange, Georgia. He won the club championship at the Highland Country Club from 1936 to 1939 when his parents were members. He remains an above-average player--don't give him any strokes in a $2 Nassau today. And don't try to take him on in business. Callaway has shown he is not afraid to go to court--even in Korea--to protect the integrity of his clubs.  

The Callaway style was shaped during his five decades in American corporate life. He graduated from Emory University in Atlanta in 1940 with a degree in history, then jumped right into the Second World War.

His family had been in the textile business (Callaway Mills), and he didn't intend to follow the familial path. But the Army decided to capitalize on his family business history, sending him to the central procurement office for all textiles and apparel. By the time he was 24 he had been promoted to major in the Quartermaster Corps. He was selecting garments and authorizing the spending of as much as $700 million a year, as well as convincing large companies that it was their patriotic duty to allow the Army to take over their mills to make uniforms. He learned the textile business, and the textile business learned about him.  

After the Army he took a job in Atlanta as a salesman for Deering, Milliken & Co., a large textile firm. In 1949, he was sent to New York to run the company's woolen and worsted division. It was in New York that Callaway began to brand his name on the hide of corporate America. Under his watch, Deering, Milliken took a recently developed fabric from Dupont called Dacron polyester and blended it with light worsted wool. The resulting fabric, called Viracle, was touted as an improvement in men's summer dress clothing. It was lighter, wrinkle resistant and repelled the rain drops of summer showers, a performance characteristic that Callaway, an inveterate showman, demonstrated one day at a Connecticut country club.  

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