Callaway leaves legacy of friendship, innovation, marketing genius

Posted: Friday, July 06, 2001

Annika Sorenstam cried when she was told Thursday morning that Ely Callaway had died of cancer. Stephen Ames stared wide-eyed in disbelief when he heard the news. Others simply marveled at the legacy the golf club pioneer left behind.

''He raised the bar and educated all of us,'' said Barney Adams of Dallas-based Adams Golf, a business competitor who admired Callaway for his marketing acumen. ''The Callaway Era will be long remembered.''

Callaway died 10 weeks after a tumor was found on his pancreas during surgery to remove his gall bladder. He had taken a turn for the worse about a week ago, and Sorenstam was aware that he would not live much longer.

That didn't make the news any easier to take.

The Swede has been with Callaway throughout her career, and she often spent time with him at the Carlsbad, Calif., headquarters -- trying new products, working at Callaway Golf's testing center, or simply soaking in the charisma of the 82-year-old founder.

''I felt like he was my grandfather. That's the kind of relationship we had,'' Sorenstam said before teeing off in the Jamie Farr Kroger Classic in Ohio. ''I've been to his house several times and we've had dinner and he's shared his experiences. Even though he was a great businessman, we had a really friendly relationship. It was deep.''

Jack Nicklaus remembers meeting Callaway for the first time in 1982, shortly after he sold his wine label and purchased a niche company that made specialty clubs with a steel rod inserted into a hickory shaft.

Callaway turned it into a giant, with annual sales over $800 million and countless players -- pros and weekend hackers alike -- who have tried one of his Big Bertha drivers.

''What he did more than anyone else in this industry is combine technology, business and marketing to build a truly great company in a short period of time,'' Nicklaus said. ''The game of golf, and those who play it, will greatly miss him.''

Callaway will always be linked to Big Bertha, the name of a popular World War I cannon that he used for his first oversized driver that revolutionized the industry.

The clubs had a bigger sweet spot, making it easier to get the ball in the air. Callaway never promised the ball would go farther or that scores would be lower. His creed was simply to make the game more enjoyable.

''It's a tremendous loss to the golf world, and not just the pros, but the amateurs who played his clubs,'' Jim Colbert said.

Even his competitors appreciated the way Callaway went about his business.

''Golf has so much tradition that you would think its business is traditional,'' Nike Golf president Bob Wood said. ''He proved that's not necessarily true. You can be iconoclastic. You can be an innovator. You can think of things differently and be successful.

''That's his legacy. And it's huge.''

While Callaway's goal was to appease the masses, his drivers and fairway metals remain among the most widely used on professional tours.

''Everybody who worked for him loved the man,'' Olin Browne said from the Western Open. ''He was a wonderful man, a lot of fun to be around. He had enthusiasm for whatever he was doing, not just golf.''

Added Jim Dent, ''If I had a lot of friends like him, I wouldn't have any worries the rest of my life. I'll always have his clubs, but all the people who knew him will miss a great man, a good friend.''

Callaway was president of Burlington Industries until 1973, then successful during a brief foray into the wine business. He brought charisma and vision to golf, and marketing skills that had been lacking in the industry.

Big Bertha gave way to the Great Big Bertha, and when it couldn't get any bigger, along came the Biggest Big Bertha. He had a bore-through shaft technology, added a line of putters, caused an uproar with his thin-faced ERC drivers and built his own golf ball plant last year. He named the ball ''Rule 35,'' and defined the extra rule as having fun.

His spokesmen ranged from former pros (Johnny Miller), down-on-their-luck players (John Daly), businessmen (Bill Gates) and entertainers (Alice Cooper and Celine Dion).

''Ely's genius ... have clearly helped propel golf to new heights over the past 20 years,'' PGA Tour commissioner Tim Finchem said. ''The growth of interest in golf among new players has undoubtedly been heightened by Ely Callaway's many outstanding contributions.''

Arnold Palmer tried Callaway's new golf ball at the start of the 2000 season and loved it. Within months, Palmer signed a 12-year contract that was supposed to be for the ball, but turned into a full-line endorsement -- even the controversial ERC driver.

''He has been a great motivator of golf,'' Palmer said. ''His marketing expertise and his spirit of taking control was fantastic. I found him most interesting, and a good friend.''

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