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The Toink! Heard 'Round the World

How an Ogre-Headed, California-Born Golf Club Changed--and Didn't Change--the Frustrating 500-Year-Old Game.

March 28, 2004|Martin J. Smith and Patrick J. Kiger | Martin J. Smith is senior editor of the magazine and Patrick J. Kiger is a frequent contributor. "POPLORICA" is being published this week by HarperResource.

When the Master's Tournament competition begins on April 8, the world's greatest golfers will be using a tool whose introduction 13 years ago transformed the ancient game in sometimes startling ways. Not a single PGA Tour player today uses the time-tested wooden driver, with which greats such as Ben Hogan and Bobby Jones wrote their names across the sport's record books. If those legends could walk among the pros who will gather next week at Augusta National, surely they'd be dumbfounded by the high-tech, ogre-headed titanium drivers that now dominate the game.

Oversized metal drivers have affected everything from tee-shot distance to player satisfaction to golf demographics to equipment marketing, though not actual scores. But the distinctly Southern California story behind that transformation--a story of a bold inventor and a larger-than-life entrepreneur; of creative risk and technological innovation; of status, wealth and an appetite for size and power--is described in "POPLORICA: A Popular History of the Fads, Mavericks, Inventions, and Lore That Shaped Modern America," by Martin J. Smith and Patrick J. Kiger.

The excerpt that follows, adapted from the chapter "The Toink! Heard 'Round the World," describes one of 20 profoundly significant but little appreciated events in the American pop cultural evolution, including such culturally transformative moments as Betty Ford's intervention and Alfred Kinsey's honeymoon, as well as such inventions as the solid-body electric guitar, the super-absorbent disposable diaper, pantyhose and the slam dunk.

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Golf has the remarkable ability to reduce even the most accomplished and mature people--OK, usually men--to profane, gibbering club throwers. And those players are never more vulnerable than when they step into a golf course tee box. Their playing partners gather around and fall into hushed silence. The golfer stands alone to be judged, required to demonstrate in a controlled burst of motion a lifetime of accumulated skill and power, or lack of it. Failures can be spectacular. Duffed drives have sent even genial Tiger Woods into volcanic televised tantrums. After an errant drive in the 1992 Los Angeles Open, pro Mark Calcavecchia slammed his driver so hard on a cart path that the head broke off and nearly struck a spectator. The term "golf rage" has crept into the sport's lexicon because, in their solitary moment of truth, even the world's best golfers sometimes crash and burn.

For most of the game's 500-year history, hitting a long, straight drive was especially difficult for the average golfer to do. To strike a golf ball well--to hear the satisfying "tick!" off the sweet spot of a traditional persimmon driver and see the tiny ball soaring toward the horizon--requires a ridiculous series of improbable events. These events must take place in a sequence so precise that, for the 450-millionths of a second when the speeding club head finally meets the stationary ball, every joint in the human body is correctly aligned and every imaginable physical law is harnessed to a single purpose.

Golfers sometimes employ liquor to that end, but it usually doesn't help.

But in 1991, in the tiny San Diego County town of Carlsbad, an obscure golf-equipment maker, Callaway, began producing a big-headed metal thing called the Big Bertha driver--"A ham on a stick," observed one convert. Its generous "sweet spot" usually rewarded even an imperfect swing with a reasonably long, reasonably straight tee shot. During the decade that followed, the Big Bertha and its more evolved cousins--including the Great Big Bertha Titanium Driver, the Biggest Bertha Titanium Driver and the Great Big Bertha II 415 Driver--turned Callaway into one of the most astounding success stories of the century-ending boom years. The Big Bertha came along just as aging baby boomers were turning to a pastime second only to bowling in fostering the delusion that overweight, aerobically challenged middle-agers can be elite athletes. They helped Callaway Golf grow from $5 million in annual sales in 1988 to $842.9 million in 1997. In the process, they transformed the quasi-masochistic sport from a predictable exercise in futility into a game that even dilettantes could enjoy.

By the time Tiger Woods became the sport's Pied Piper in the late 1990s, the United States had 26.4 million golfers--almost 2 million more than it had in 1991, according to the National Golf Foundation. By June 2002, the country also had 4,812 more golf courses than the 13,004 it had when the Big Bertha was introduced 11 years earlier. Golf magazine senior editor Mike Purkey calls the Big Bertha "the defining product for this generation of golfers."

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