The Man Who Birthed Big Bertha

Steve Murray
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Wednesday - February 14, 2007
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With the traditional spring release of new golf equipment, one tends to wonder what we’ll need for the upcoming season and who the hell is responsible for the yearly glut of high tech toys that all seem to guarantee they’ll Tigerfy your game.

While manufacturers for centuries had done their best to tweak the exisitng technology, things just crept along until a former clothing manufacturer and winemaker decided to get into the act. It’s been 25 years since Ely Callaway walked into a Palm Springs-area golf shop and saw his future in the past of his youth.

Callaway made his money as president of textile giant Burlington and later opened a self-named winery that local sources say produced some fine vintages. But by the age of 62 he was retired, having just sold the winery, and was enjoying the extra time on the golf course.

That is until he spotted some hickory shaft putters and wedges, much like the ones he used as a kid. However, these pieces of gear were different from the tools of his youth. Inside the hollow shafts were steel rods that increased accuracy and stability.

An idea was born.

Callaway bought the company, Hickory Stick USA, renaming it Callaway Hickory Stick - later to be known simply as Callaway.

No one knew it at the time, but that purchase would soon change the entire industry.

Using his marketing background and a strong belief in the product, the new business that began with an initial $400,000 investment was producing $5 million in annual sales by 1988. A decade later that number would explode to $800 million after the introduction of possibly the most-talked -about club in the history of the sport.

Callaway designer Richard Helmstetter and his R&D staff discovered a way to create a stainless steel driver that had a larger, more forgiving head. Confident in the design, Callaway ordered 300,000 heads from the cast shop - an unheard of amount for a yet untested product. But Callaway knew he was on to something.

In 1991 the Big Bertha - named for a World War I German rail mounted cannon with incredible range - burst upon the scene. At 195cc it was bigger than any “medal wood” currently on the market, and while Callaway never promised 300-yard drives he didn’t do anything to stifle any rumors.

The Bertha provided many examples of Callaway’s marketing genius. First, he surprised attendees at the all-important PGA Merchandise Show with a huge display that simply overwhelmed the other vendors. A week later he made sure the buzz continued by seeing to it that every celebrity at the AT&T Pro-Am at Pebble Beach had one his new drivers in their bag. No doubt learning from his years making wine, he continued the idea of apparent quality by pricing - selling his new clubs for $300, nearly twice the price of other metal drivers.

If the idea of an outsider bursting his way into the oldest of old boy business networks wasn’t upsetting enough, his next tee splitter - the Ely Reeves Callaway, or ERC driver - made them irate. While it didn’t conform to USGA rules, it was a big seller throughout Asian and Europe. Rumors of the new super driver had people dishing out $1,000 for the club.

The second cousin to Bobby Jones bent noses even further the next year when he began selling his new ERC II driver in American shops. Critics exploded with anger feeling this upstart was doing nothing more than sabotaging the game. Insiders were shocked even further when the company hired one of the most respected names in golf, Arnold Palmer, as a spokesman. The King was able to bring respectability to the product line by supporting its sale to foreign visitors in the United States and to the non-tournament playing golfer.

Of course, things just got larger and more expensive. Callaway’s belief in bigger is better continued in 1994 with the release of oversize irons. A year later the titanium Great Big Bertha was unleashed on the public and in 2006 the company invested $170 million in a golf ball plant.

New for this season, it’s the red, silver and black, square headed, unevened sole of the $600 FT-i driver .

Though Ely Callaway passed away in 2001, his impact is unquestionable.

Just thought you’d like to know who’s to blame.

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