The last two years of Ely Callaway's life were not as much fun as the previous 80. His sharp business instincts deserted him as he led Callaway Golf into a series of cul-de-sacs. He built a $150 million ball-manufacturing plant but permitted rivals Titleist and Nike to steal his marketing thunder. He introduced a driver, the ERC II, that didn't conform to USGA rules. Most damning of all, he signed Arnold Palmer to endorse the club, making Palmer look as if he condoned cheating. You don't tarnish the King without picking up a little stain yourself.
It's important, then, to remember the Ely Callaway of the 1990s, the mischievous huckster who enchanted Wall Street and made the $500 titanium driver a symbol of boom times. He set the stage for the Tiger Woods explosion by pushing the message that golf is fun. His commercial spokesmen, from the tart Johnny Miller to the dazed Alice Cooper, always looked as if they'd just hit the five best shots of their lives, and they spoke to the cameras without a script. Callaway looked happy too, though he had a script. "See all these companies?" he would say, pawing through magazine ads for drivers that claimed to hit the ball farther than his Big Bertha. "They all compare themselves to our product. What does that tell you?"
The game Callaway really cared about was business. At age 63 he bought Hickory Stick, a three-worker outfit that made wood-shafted putters and wedges. That became Callaway Golf of Carlsbad, Calif., the No. 1 golf club maker in the world. When Callaway died last week of pancreatic cancer, some eight million golfers worldwide had at least one of his clubs in their bags.
"It would be hard to find a product that's more fun to sell," Callaway said. It would be harder to find someone who had more fun selling.