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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 3)

Callaway was accused of bribing the committee by giving the wine away or using his influence with former President Richard Nixon. He denies it, with exploding verbiage. "The committee wanted me to give it away, but I said I wouldn't do that," says Callaway. "I said I'd pay a corkage fee to the Waldorf Astoria since it wasn't on the hotel's wine list. And I didn't have any influence at all with Richard Nixon. It didn't taste like any other wine that Dr. Kirk and his committee had tasted. The wine appealed to a key person, and that was why it was selected."  

The story got even better after a high-ranking English official told Callaway at the luncheon that the queen had very much enjoyed the wine, had asked for a second glass, and had asked to meet Callaway. At the introduction, Kirk happened to be there, along with several members of the press. It was a public relations bonanza. In 1981, Callaway sold his vineyard to Hiram Walker & Sons for a $9 million profit.  

The sale of the vineyard left Callaway free to do something, or nothing at all. He was a well-to-do man, comfortable in the Southern California lifestyle, a frequent visitor to Palm Springs. It was at the Vintage Club in Indian Wells, where he is a member, that his next career began. In the pro shop he happened to catch a glimpse of what at first appeared to be vintage golf clubs. Rather they were newly manufactured clubs, a putter and a wedge with hickory veneer over their steel shafts. They were new relics. He played them, found them different, and two weeks later bought the struggling company, Hickory Sticks USA.  

That story, and how Hickory Sticks grew into Callaway Golf, has been told a thousand times. The key element to Callaway's success was the recruitment of an eclectic group of researchers and marketers who eventually designed and sold the Big Bertha driver to a golf community hungry for superior performance even if it came at a superior price. One of the recruited (or was it converted?) was Dick Helmstetter.

Helmstetter's chief occupation was designing and building cue sticks in Japan, though he also had experience designing wooden golf clubs for the high-end Japanese market. Through a mutual acquaintance, Callaway and Helmstetter played a round of golf together at the Vintage Club. Callaway talked with him about the use of wood in golf clubs, followed that up with phone calls to Japan, and eventually went to Japan to see Helmstetter's cue stick operation. In 1985 Callaway talked Helmstetter into not only going to work for him, but even writing Callaway a check for $52,000 for stock in the new company. "It ticked off my wife," says Helmstetter, "but I had attached myself to Ely's rocketship because his track record in business was so awesome. Ely had left a trail of gold dust wherever he went."  

By 1990 the Big Bertha was conceived, then the Great Big Bertha and the Biggest Big Bertha and Big Bertha Irons and Callaway X-12s irons and Steelhead woods and Hawkeye woods, the biggest trail of gold dust ever laid down in the history of the golf industry. "Demonstrably superior and pleasingly different."

Catching some of the Callaway gold dust was Senior PGA Tour player Bob Murphy. As Murphy prepared to enter the Senior Tour in 1992, he was negotiating club endorsement contracts. He and wife, Gail, visited Callaway in Carlsbad, looking over the operation as Callaway looked over Murphy. Another manufacturer offered more, but Murphy's wife was convinced about Callaway. "Right after we left the office, she said, 'This is where you want to be,'" says Murphy. "I won a couple of tournaments my first year and Ely tripled my contract. He didn't have to do it. He said, 'I told you I'd take care of you, and that's what I'm doing.' That's the way Ely works. You perform for him, he performs for you."  

An accumulation of gold dust gathers a man a measure of respect in a gold standard world. Public service adds a fuller dimension to that respect, and Callaway has been devoted to good works throughout his career. For more than 40 years he has been a major supporter of the United Negro College Fund, an affinity that grew from a childhood in the South. In 1970, just prior to a speech he was to give as chairman of the fund's corporate campaign at a fund-raiser in Atlanta, he was hospitalized. He tape-recorded the speech, which was delivered to an audience that was so hushed by the humility and moved by the charity of Callaway's actions that they made record donations.  

Bob Murphy recalls a day when he toured the plant with Callaway and was introduced to people in all phases of manufacturing and design. "He knew every one of them by name," says Murphy. "Then he apologized because he didn't know the last name of some of them. To think that he calls everybody who works for him by name says a lot about him."  

One employee of Callaway's whom most of us know by name is John Daly. The embattled pro golfer became a cause for Callaway in 1997. Long John, he of the gargantuan swings and monster drives, had found his career threatened by alcoholism, gambling and compulsive behavior. Convinced that Daly was dry, and certain that he was one of the best stories in golf, Callaway signed him to an endorsement contract and helped him pay off millions of dollars of gambling debts.  

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