GOLF equipment pioneer Ely Callaway, creator of 'Big Bertha' club, dies of cancer at 82

Thursday, July 5th 2001, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

Ely Callaway, who turned Callaway Golf Co. into the biggest clubmaker in the world with his ``Big Bertha'' drivers, died Thursday of pancreatic cancer. He was 82.

Callaway died at 2:30 a.m. PDT at his home in Rancho Santa Fe, Calif., spokesman Larry Dorman said.

``He went peacefully, with his family around him,'' Dorman said. ``There will be a huge void felt in the world of golf.''

Callaway resigned as president and chief executive officer May 15, shortly after doctors discovered a tumor on his pancreas.

After successful careers in textiles and wine making, Callaway paid $400,000 in 1984 for a small golf company called Hickory Stick, which made specialty clubs with hickory wrapped around steel shafts.

Callaway turned it into so much more.

From the oversized Big Bertha to the controversial ERC driver, he was at the forefront of some of the biggest advancements in golf equipment over the past decade. Sales totaled just $5 million in 1988 and soared to $800 million 10 years later.

``You can't fool the public,'' Callaway said in a 1998 interview with The Associated Press. ``If they are going to buy your product, it has to be better. It has to be right. It has to be truly more satisfying than the existing product.''

The Big Bertha, named after a World War I cannon, paved the way for drivers that had a bigger sweet spot and were easier to hit. The ERC, which violated U.S. Golf Association standards for how quickly a ball could spring from the face of the club, led to a debate whether recreational players should fall under the same standards as pros.

Callaway never boasted that his clubs caused the ball to go farther or straighter, only that they were more forgiving and made the game more enjoyable for the average player.

``We've sold $5 billion in golf clubs since Callaway started from nothing, which is far more than anybody in the world has ever done,'' he said in January. ``And we want to keep on making clubs that are going to make people happier.''

Callaway introduced the ERC driver _ the initials stand for Ely Reeves Callaway _ in 1999, at first selling it only in Asia and Europe. While the UGSA found it violated its standards, the Royal & Ancient Golf Club, which governs the game everywhere but the United States and Mexico, found nothing wrong with it.

A year later, Callaway thumbed his nose at the USGA by introducing the ERC II and selling it in America. He argued that there was nothing wrong with recreational golfers using equipment that pros could not. He further shocked the establishment by introducing Arnold Palmer as his primary pitchman.

``The fact is, 90 percent of all golfers are struggling to play the game,'' Palmer said from his office in Latrobe, Pa. ``His whole idea was to give them an opportunity to enjoy the game a little more.''

Because of the rift, players can use the ERC driver in the British Open or the Ryder Cup, but not at any tournament played in the United States.

A native of Georgia, Callaway joined the textile industry after serving as a top Army procurement officer during World War II, eventually becoming president of Burlington.

He left Burlington in 1973 after a dispute over who should be chairman, and turned his attention to a small vineyard he had planted in southern California.

Again, he was successful. Callaway developed his own label and sold it in 1981 for $14 million, then turned his attention to golf clubs.

``There was no grand vision of three careers and big fortunes,'' he told the Los Angeles Times in 1995. ``I just started out one little step at a time and hoped it worked. Luck was a big piece of it _ not so much good luck, but the absence of bad luck.''