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Carlsbad, Where Golf Is King

COLUMN ONE

An idyllic year-round climate and an abundance of land and workers have quietly transformed this coastal town into Titanium Valley, the sport's manufacturing mecca.

August 26, 1998|PATRICE APODACA | TIMES STAFF WRITER

It's another perfect day in Carlsbad, Calif. Johnny Miller tees up the ball, whacks it with a practiced ease and watches it fly into the golden sunlight. "Golf," he says, "is a lot like life. It tests your character [and] your honesty."

Of course, it doesn't hurt that the club the onetime U.S. Open winner is testing is made from advanced composite materials--similar to those used to make Stealth bombers--or that it was designed by a crack team of engineers, scientists and metallurgists employing computer modeling and customized rapid-prototyping machines.

This is Golf Central, U.S.A., and Miller is standing at its very nucleus--the testing range of Callaway Golf Co., the world's largest club maker. A few blocks away, Callaway's nearest rival, Taylor Made Golf Co., has just moved into sparkling new headquarters, complete with its own high-tech design and testing facilities.

Just down the road is No. 3, Cobra Golf Inc. Within a good 7-iron shot are other names known on fairways around the world: Titleist, Odyssey and Lynx, not to mention golf apparel maker Ashworth Inc. Many smaller golf companies dot the topaz-colored hillsides where flowers, avocados and strawberries once flourished.

In the past decade, this sleepy seaside burb about 30 miles north of San Diego has emerged as the golf manufacturing capital of the world. Computers have Silicon Valley, and now golf has Titanium Valley, so named for the composite metal now used in many club heads. More golf equipment talent is packed into a few square miles here than anywhere on earth.

But Carlsbad also is emblematic of a transformation that has occurred up and down the coast of California, from the high-tech hotbed of the Bay Area to San Diego's blossoming biotechnology community. Industries such as these, which make ample use of the technological and creative abilities imbued in the region, have risen up to replace the aerospace factories of old.

They are the foundation of California's "new economy," and they are a big reason why the state is once again envied and admired around the world.

"It tells us the infrastructure in place here--the R&D institutions, the trained work force, and the buyer and supplier chains of companies that network with each other--they all provide a fertile environment for these companies to grow," said Joe Raguso, executive director of the San Diego Regional Technology Alliance.

Carlsbad's rapid metamorphosis is all the more remarkable because it remains largely unnoticed by the outside world.

A Low-Key Presence

Southbound drivers on Interstate 5 crossing the Buena Vista Lagoon into Carlsbad see nothing announcing that they are now in the golf mecca of the world. The most visible landmarks are an Andersen's Pea Soup restaurant, the San Diego Gas & Electric power plant and the quiet beachfront.

For most of this century, Carlsbad remained primarily a farm town. There was no industry to speak of until the 1970s, and even then it remained small. Only the tony La Costa resort, opened in 1965, put the place on the map.

A confluence of events led to Carlsbad becoming the center of the golf club industry.

Taylor Made founder Gary Adams recalls that shortly after selling his 5-year-old golf club company to French ski equipment maker Solomon in 1984, he and his new bosses decided to move the company--then the leader in the club business, riding strong on the metal woods it pioneered--from Illinois to Southern California. They chose Carlsbad because of a plentiful supply of labor and cheap land.

The fact that La Costa was home to the nationally televised Tournament of Champions also made it a prestige golf address, Adams said.

About the same time, Ely Callaway was looking for a new home for his fledgling golf club company. Callaway, the former president of textile concern Burlington Industries, had sold his Temecula winery. Callaway Golf, his newest project, was then based in Cathedral City, but the desert was too hot for year-round testing of its clubs.

It didn't take Callaway long to settle on Carlsbad. There was "lots of land, lots of workers," he said. "The more I looked, the better I liked it."

Then there was the weather, which Callaway calls "magic."

Indeed, golf industry veterans wax lyrical about Carlsbad's climate, which they contend is the best in the world to play a round of 18. It's neither too hot nor too cold, gets little of La Jolla's fog, and the breezes are mild.

It wasn't until 1991, though, that Carlsbad became the legitimate king of the golf world. That's when Callaway revolutionized the business with the introduction of its Big Bertha driver.

Named after the biggest cannon in World War I, the new club sported an oversized head capable of launching balls farther than other drivers. Its immense popularity has propelled Callaway to its position as the undisputed industry leader with $843 million in sales in 1997. Callaway has nearly 3,000 employees sprawled in 15 buildings, who churn out the world's best-selling golf clubs 24 hours a day.

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