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Ely Callaway, Golf Club Innovator, Vintner, Dies

Obituary: His Big Bertha oversized drivers revolutionized the game for amateurs and pros.

July 06, 2001|JAMES F. PELTZ | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Ely Callaway, a feisty, daring former textiles executive and vintner who revolutionized golf for pros and duffers alike with oversized metal clubs and in the process built an $840-million company while in his 70s, died Thursday. He was 82.

Callaway, whose Big Bertha driver quickly became a staple in golfers' bags after its debut a decade ago, succumbed to pancreatic cancer at his home in Rancho Santa Fe surrounded by family.

The cancer was found when Callaway underwent gallbladder surgery April 23. A few weeks later, he retired as Callaway Golf Co.'s chief executive but had remained chairman of the board.

Golfing icon Arnold Palmer called Callaway's development of the oversized drivers "one of the most important things that ever happened in the game."

"The fact is, 90% of all golfers are struggling to play," said Palmer, who has a lengthy endorsement deal with Callaway. "His whole idea was to give them an opportunity to enjoy the game a little more."

Tim Finchman, tour commissioner of the Professional Golfers' Assn., said interest in golf among new players was heightened by Callaway's many outstanding contributions.

"Ely's genius, as demonstrated through his development of innovative golf equipment and unique marketing strategies, has clearly helped propel golf to new heights over the past 20 years," Finchman said in a statement Thursday.

Aided by his honed sales skills and a flair for promotion, Callaway was successful in all of his careers, which ranged from president of a global textile manufacturer to founder of one of the first respected wineries in Temecula Valley to head of a golf equipment maker that bears his name.

A "natural huckster," as Forbes magazine once called him, Callaway also refused to buckle under to convention--some called it just plain stubbornness--and he had a keen eye for innovative products that consumers suddenly realized they couldn't live without.

He also had a wry sense of humor. Explaining how he could tell his friends from his acquaintances, Callaway once said friends correctly called him "Ee-lee," whereas acquaintances said "Ee-lie."

Liked to Prove People Wrong

Callaway was uncompromising, pugnacious, blunt and complicated. Married four times, he was naturally charming but did not suffer fools gladly. He lashed out at golf's "elite" when its ruling bodies impeded his company's progress, but he lived in upper-crust social circles available only to the relative few with immense wealth. His Callaway Golf office, though, was unpretentious, and the company did not have an executive dining room.

And though Callaway gave away more than $15 million to various causes throughout his life, he denied requests for free golf clubs for raffles, auctions or club prizes. His reason: Once word got out that clubs were available, "we'd literally have to give away everything we make," he once said. "And we'd go broke."

Callaway also was quick to credit those around him for his companies' successes, yet he put his own name on his products. Why? "It makes you try hard because you've got more at stake," he once said.

Another time a reporter asked him how he reacted when people said, "You can't do that," when he set out on a new venture. Callaway replied: "I like people to say that, so I can prove them wrong. I'm a contrarian."

That was perhaps most evident in golf. After his stints in textiles and wine, Callaway--who had been a moderately good golfer early in adulthood--turned the sport and the $2-billion U.S. club business on their ears in 1991, when his company introduced the Big Bertha.

Named after a giant cannon in World War I, the new club sported a metal oversized head capable of launching balls much farther off the tee than traditional wood drivers. Plus, golfers seemed to find the Big Bertha more forgiving when they made poor swings at the ball.

Despite costing more than $200 apiece, the clubs were a sensation. Professionals and weekend players swore by them. Movie stars owned them; so did former Presidents Bush and Clinton. Sales skyrocketed as word of mouth spread about how much longer and straighter Callaway's clubs could hit the ball.

Professional golfers made the equipment of Callaway Golf one of the most popular clubs of choice. This was especially true for the players on the Senior PGA Tour and the LPGA Tour, in which the players are not known for their driving distance and achieving greater length off the tee takes on greater importance.

In 1992, a year after the club was introduced, Callaway Golf's initial sale of stock to the public was front-page news on Wall Street and added millions of dollars to the wealth Callaway had accumulated. (The stock's ticker symbol is ELY.)

On Thursday, the company's stock jumped 96 cents a share to $17.21 on the New York Stock Exchange amid market speculation that Callaway's death might lead to a takeover offering being made for the company.

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