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THE SUNDAY PROFILE : At the Fore Once Again : Ely Callaway hit it big with textiles and wine. Now it's golf. But the maker of the world's best-selling club says it's time to retire and write his life story. How can he possibly slow down?

July 17, 1994|PAUL DEAN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Jack Nicholson isn't talking. So the rumor lingers that he used a Callaway 3-iron to pound his point and the windshield of a motorist's Mercedes during a recent traffic hassle.

"The club is probably still intact," says a laughing Jack Lemmon, who also swings Callaway clubs--but in more conventional fashion.

"God help the car."

President Clinton doesn't mind talking. He loves his Callaways. He even videotaped a 75th-birthday message for their creator, Ely Callaway, an unerring thinker with a lifelong gift for dreaming the unconceived--and seeing his brainchildren uproot stuffy and disparate industries.

First textiles. Then wine. Now golf.

In the '60s, while in his 40s and ascending at Burlington Industries, Callaway broke the worsted barrier. He helped introduce quality clothiers to blended fabrics that looked good, cost less and lasted longer. And he added personality and names. Like Viracle.

In a much more daring move for the times, Callaway hired a woman for an executive position.

Letitia Baldrige, etiquette author, columnist, and former social secretary and chief of staff for Jacqueline Kennedy, was that woman--the company's first director of consumer affairs.

"Ely charmed the socks off the grande dames of American society who were on the board of the Burlington House Interior Design Awards," she recalls. "When you consider the ladies included Nancy Reagan, Mary Lasker, Lady Bird Johnson and Dina Merrill, that was some group to impress."

In 1973, after being passed over for chief executive, Callaway quit the prestigious presidency of Burlington.

He moved from South Carolina to California and for a time looked like a member of the white-collar exodus from aerospace and computer industries headed for the supposed idyll of making wine. Or growing avocados.

This whispering Georgian, however, set his 150-acre vineyard facing a coastal saddle at Temecula in Southern California. Experts said fine grapes would never flourish there. That's the point, replied Callaway the contrarian. So when they do grow, the wine will be different and a guaranteed attention-getter. Within four years, Callaway wines--marketed by another radical means, an all-woman sales force--were receiving favorable reviews. They were sipped at the Four Seasons and Ma Maison and in 1976 were chosen for Queen Elizabeth's bicentennial luncheon at the Waldorf-Astoria.

Point proved and a large profit beckoning, Callaway sold his little vineyard in 1981 to Hiram Walker & Sons. For $14 million.

Callaway--a club championship golfer in earlier years and a distant nephew of legend Bobby Jones--retired to country clubs and weekend tournaments around the region. The slow times didn't last. He stumbled upon a four-man company fumbling to stay alive making steel-core, hickory-shaft clubs.

"Frankly, it was one of the loveliest clubs I'd ever seen," he recalls. "Meant to look old, but performed like the best of modern clubs."

Callaway was fascinated. So he bought the company.

Hence Ely Reeves Callaway Jr.'s third and latest disruption of the way things used to be.

"I wish," begged Clinton on the birthday tape, "that you'd find a way to make my golf game as good as my golf clubs."

Truth is, Callaway already has. It's in the bulbous, fat-faced Big Bertha metal woods this courtly, hard of hearing, Southern-canny CEO crafts at Callaway Golf in Carlsbad.

Lemmon, a 15-handicap hacker, says Big Bertha adds 20 yards to his tee shots and permits par fours that he failed in the past. When flagging tour veteran Johnny Miller won the AT&T Pebble Beach National Pro-Am in January, he kissed his Callaways, then the check.

"Now, these clubs don't make the game of golf one bit easier," Callaway says. As always, he is dressed in an alpaca pullover and cotton turtleneck. Almost as always, he is at work. "But these clubs are easier to play with, make the game more fun, and I call them the friendliest clubs on Earth.

"Now, take a look at this."

He lifts a letter from the mid-morning mail. It carries a silver crest. It praises Callaway's clubs, expresses regret over a military schedule that interrupts golf, but also happily reports that "my handicap is now dropping to single figures."

The letter is signed "Andrew."

As in Andrew, Duke of York.

Even Callaway--a wry rogue who travels by Concorde and Bentley Continental, an epicurean who prefers to rest wherever there is a Ritz, a friend of Bill's who attended the white-tie state banquet for Japanese Emperor Akihito and Empress Michiko--is impressed.

Prince Andrew, of course, didn't send a manservant to Harrod's to purchase clubs. Clinton didn't buy his latest set. Nor did Sean Connery. All were freebies from Callaway, part of his endless pursuit for promotion through celebrity usage.

And for the record, the golf bag that went to Chicago before being impounded as potential evidence in the O.J. Simpson case was stuffed with Callaways.

"But it said Hertz on the bag," Callaway says. "That was part of the deal."

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