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Ely Callaway dies aged 82

Ely Callaway, the man who revolutionized golf for pros and weekend hackers alike with Big Bertha brand clubs, died on Thursday after a battle with cancer. He was 82.

Callaway, the founder and chairman of Callaway Golf Co., died at his home in Carlsbad, California, the company said. He had been diagnosed with pancreatic cancer in April.

Callaway Golf, one of America's biggest sports equipment companies, makes and sells Big Bertha brand woods and irons -- named after the huge World War 1 German cannon because they have a bigger head.

Like Prince rackets did for tennis, they employ a much larger sweet spot that makes hitting the ball easier for weekend players.

Callaway, who purchased a small company that made speciality golf equipment and turned it into the world's biggest golf club maker, founded the company in 1982 and retired as its president and chief executive in May. Ron Drapeau succeeded him in those positions.

"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," Callaway said in a January interview.

Callaway also makes Odyssey brand putters and Callaway Golf, Firmfeel and Softfeel golf balls.

But his most controversial product is the ERC II driver which has split the golf world. It is banned in U.S. competition but allowed in the rest of the world.

The ERC II, which has been endorsed for non-competition play by golf legend Arnold Palmer and is used by prominent pros like Scotland's Colin Montgomerie, is banned by the U.S. Golf Association, which oversees competition in the United States.

The USGA says its titanium head which "gives" to allow more power on impact, violates its rules.

However, the Royal and Ancient (R&A), which sets the rules in the rest of the world, allows players to use the ERC II.

For Callaway, who got into the golf equipment business after careers in textiles and wine-making, it was a question of making the game more accessible to the average golfer.

"Callaway Golf has always believed that the way to grow the game of golf is to make it more enjoyable for the average golfer," he once said in the company's mission statement.

"That is why we try to design, create, build and sell the most forgiving golf clubs in the history of the game - giving more golfers more opportunities to hit a few additional 'great' shots each round."

Callaway Golf spokesman Larry Dorman said the ERC was the number one driver on the European tour and the top seller in Japan. Developing it was merely aimed at improving the play of "the millions of average golfers around the world," he said.

Callaway Golf was actively lobbying the USGA to allow the ERC's use in the United States, where sales have been "adversely impacted" by the USGA's "aggressive campaign" against it, he said.

This campaign amounted to barring ads for the driver during TV broadcasts of USGA events and sending letters to pro shops across America warning that the ERC was not approved for scoring records used to set handicaps.

"It would be Ely's fondest wish for an agreement between the USGA and the R&A for golfers to have the benefits of modern technology," said Dorman.

Born in LaGrange, Georgia, Callaway graduated from Emory University in 1940. After working for Trust Company of Georgia for a short period, he joined the Army as a reserve officer in the Quartermaster Corps at age 21.

After five years of military service, Callaway enjoyed a successful career in the textile industry, becoming in 1968 president and director of Burlington Industries, Inc., then the world's largest textile company.

After establishing the Callaway Vineyard and Winery in Southern California, he sold the business in 1982 and bought Hickory Stick USA Inc., a small firm that manufactured and sold putters and speciality wedges. He turned it into Callaway Golf, which by 1996 had become the world's largest golf equipment company.

Callaway, who was married four times, had three children, Reeves, Nicholas, and Lisa.

 


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