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Original Issue

The Sweet Spot

The center of clubmaking in the U.S. is a California coastal town that has become home to the industry's brain trust

The Sun was hanging just above the Pacific Ocean like a ball on the lip of the cup, and clubmaker Dick Helmstetter was absorbed in his search for a shaft that would maximize the sweet spot on a new driver he was developing. Sternly he shifted into rapid fire as he blasted sphere after sphere into the orange sky from one of the covered outdoor tees at the new Callaway Golf Company test center in Carlsbad, Calif.

Helmstetter and his educated swing formed a lonely profile amid the eight acres that make up the most sophisticated testing facility in golf. A computer next to him spit out club-head speed and ball velocity for every shot. Before him stretched a 310-yard-long range with four greens, three of bent grass and one with artificial turf. Three different textures of sand filled the greenside bunkers. Beneath the surface of the range a series of electronic sensors measured the exact spot where each of his shots landed, while above it weather stations recorded wind velocity and direction, temperature, barometric pressure and humidity. About 30 yards behind Helmstetter stood a two-story building that houses contraptions including air cannons, robots, cameras that shoot up to five million frames a second and a mainframe, dubbed Sir Isaac, that could give Stanley Kubrick's HAL two a side.

As the daylight ran out Helmstetter looked faintly annoyed, knowing he would have to continue his testing the next morning. Driven men are prone to miss the forest for the tees. But one thing was clear to an outsider: If Helmstetter was looking for golfs sweet spot, he wouldn't have to go far, because when it comes to the golf club industry, Carlsbad is the Sweet Spot.

Indeed, surrounding the Utopian combination of playground and laboratory where Helmstetter labors is a clean, bright suburban environment that is a throwback to the unspoiled allure of the Golden State: beaches and boardwalks; wide, smooth boulevards; shiny office parks of glass and steel; hillside homes of creamy stucco and ruddy Spanish tile; clean air that carries the fresh mixture of eucalyptus and salt water; and a climate that is often called the best in the continental United States.

Helmstetter is not the only club designer working in this near perfect world. In the last decade, as the influence of aerospace technology has changed the materials used to make golf equipment, the industry's center of gravity has shifted away from its traditional strongholds in Massachusetts, Illinois, Texas, Georgia and South Carolina, and into Southern California, specifically Carlsbad, a coastal town of 67,000 people, located about 35 miles north of San Diego. Major companies like Taylor Made, Cobra, Callaway, Aldila and Founders Club—as well as smaller successful ones like Ray Cook, Odyssey, Plop and Goldwin—now call Carlsbad home.

Part of the reason is the obviously high quality of life. "I could have chosen any place in the world to put my company, and I chose here," says Tom Crow, a native of Australia who founded Cobra in San Diego in 1974 and moved it to Carlsbad in '91. Crow, the company's vice chairman, says, "It's simply a beautiful, healthy place to live. I've always felt that people are happier and more productive when the sun is shining."

The lure of the land remained Carlsbad's main hook during the '80s. But what made Carlsbad a major destination on the world golf map was the explosive success in the early '90s of Callaway and Cobra, two publicly held companies that because of revolutionary design and shrewd marketing currently hold more than 50 percent of the U.S. club market.

To clubmakers, Carlsbad is the brave new world, where ideas are fresher, energy higher and competitive desire greater. That's why two years ago Titleist, the Fairhaven, Mass., giant that is the world's leading maker of premium golf balls, moved its research and design division devoted exclusively to the development of clubs to Carlsbad.

"On the Monopoly board of golf, this is where the leading golf club brain trusts are," says Wally Uihlein, chairman and CEO of Titleist and Foot-Joy Worldwide. "We wanted a think tank where every thought is about the future, and Carlsbad is where people in our industry wake up in the morning curious about golf clubs. If we were going to give our best people something with the lure and romance of Shangri-la, a place with inspiration, this was the place."

In fact the area has a history of being on the cutting edge in golf. In the early '70s, an innovative clubmaker named Jim Flood took the same graphite material used in the wing construction of the F-l11 fighter and molded it into the first graphite shafts for golf clubs. The San Diego-based company that evolved from his work, Aldila, is still the world's largest maker of graphite shafts.

A few years later Gary Adams, a golf-equipment representative from McHenry, III., came upon the design for a new metal-headed wood and started Taylor Made. Adams found that the new metal woods could be manufactured only with the investment casting process, the same technology that Karsten Solheim had employed in the 1960s to make Ping putters. Investment casting—the so-called lost wax process—was used extensively in the defense and aerospace industries centered in Southern California, so Adams decided to move his operation near the foundries and toolmaking companies that specialized in it.

Adams opened a distribution center in nearby Vista and soon found other advantages to the neighborhood. The San Diego area is a center for golf, with plenty of good players to test equipment and a climate that permits play year round. There is an ample supply of cheap labor, bolstered by a large influx of Mexican immigrants into the area. Finally there is access to top pros at nearby La Costa, where the Tournament of Champions is held every January.

"I didn't have money for advertising, so I felt it was vital to get the best players to use my club," says Adams, who sold Taylor Made to Salamon, the ski equipment company, in 1984 and later started Founders Club. "Once we were successful, it seemed to start a chain reaction."

By the time other companies followed. Southern California no longer had a monopoly on investment casting, and today many metal club heads are manufactured in Asia. But the influence of the defense industry, which has been severely downsized in the region, is still strong. Engineers with specialized expertise in alloys and composite materials have brought their wares to the golf industry, and in recent years titanium, hard thermoplastic materials for driver heads and putter heads, and improved composites for graphite shafts have all come out of the Carlsbad area.

Carlsbad also boasts relatively inexpensive office and manufacturing space for light industry. Like Silicon Valley to the north, Carlsbad boasts office parks filled with New Age industries where the plants have spacious lobbies, spotless production operations, gymnasiums for employees and plenty of parking. A trip through any golf club manufacturing plant in Carlsbad reveals no grease, no broken glass, no polluted rivers.

The uncluttered approach extends to the management style of the golf companies, which have forgone formality and strict corporate structure. Clubmaking's new kingpin, 75-year-old Ely Callaway, often brings his 13-year-old keeshond, Casey, to his office with him. At Odyssey Sports, a new company that has made a big splash in putters, there is a uniform, but it consists of blue denim shirts. When Taylor Made brought in Chuck Yash as its president and CEO, the assumption was that he would install policies learned from Spalding's venerable Chicopee, Mass., operation, where he had spent the previous 13 years. Everyone's fears seemed to be realized when Yash, wearing a suit and tie, called an employee meeting and announced that from now on there would be a company dress code. And with that he took a pair of scissors and snipped off his tie.

On the other hand Carlsbad's club builders get upset if they are stereotyped as laid-back. In their view, building golf clubs has become, of necessity, close to rocket science.

"Contrary to the image, its not all sushi, surfing, skateboarding out here," says John Worster, who runs Titleist's club-designing operation in Carlsbad. "In this area we are among some of the most technologically advanced industries in the world, things like aerospace, biogenetics and oceanography. State-of-the-art stuff comes out of this part of the world, and it's rubbed off on golf. In the last five or six years there have probably been more advancements in the golf business than happened in the previous 20, and most of those changes originated in this area."

Perhaps in the laboratory, but certainly in the marketplace, the biggest advancements have been made by Callaway and Cobra. Ely Callaway, a former president of Burlington Industries, sold his successful small winery in nearby Temecula, Calif., in 1981 and bought a small company that made hickory-shafted clubs that reminded him of his golf playing youth in La Grange, Ga. In 1985 he met Helmstetter, at the time the owner of the most prestigious custom pool cue business in the world and a collector and maker of classic golf clubs. Callaway, an avid reader and bon vivant, was impressed with Helmstetter's degree in comparative literature and obvious eye for aesthetics. He hired Helmstetter and turned him loose.

By 1991 Helmstetter, benefiting from advances in the investment cast process, had developed an oversized metal wood. When it came time to name it, Callaway dipped into his knowledge of military history and named the club after the 420-mm cannon the Germans used to shell Paris in World War I—Big Bertha.

The new club was introduced at a time when Taylor Made was still dominating the metal wood market, but with a product it had not significantly altered for several years. Big Bertha hit the racks in 1991 and quickly became the best-selling club ever made. There are now 2.5 million Big Berthas in play.

In the spirit of Carlsbad, Callaway succeeded with a new approach. He marketed his clubs with the catch phrase that bigger is better. Unlike everyone else in the industry, Callaway did not claim more distance from his new club as much as more pleasure. It was the friendly driver for the erratic golfer, "demonstrably better and pleasingly different," to quote Callaway's ads. In the meantime a lot of Tour players seemed to like the club as well. Most impressively, some of them—U.S. Open champion Ernie Els, for example—don't have contracts to use it.

Taking its cue from Callaway, Cobra quickly identified itself by labeling its new irons as "oversize." Cobra took advantage of bobbles by the two leading competitors in the iron field, Ping and Tommy Armour, whose new models, the Zing and the 855, respectively, failed to catch on. Cobra also got a boost when two of its players, Hale Irwin and Greg Norman, dueled down the stretch at Hilton Head last April, where Irwin won using the company's latest model.

No two golf companies have ever done as well as Cobra and Callaway did in 1994. Callaway had $425 million in wholesale receipts, Cobra $124 million. In comparison the best year by Karsten (Ping) was '89, with an estimated $103 million.

The enormous success of the two companies has created an urgency in the golf club business. More companies have entered the industry than ever before, with the current number at about 150; but with more than half the market controlled by the two giants, there is less and less for everyone else. "The whole industry owes a lot to Callaway and Cobra," says Bob Bauer, president of Ray Cook Golf Company. "When you see someone else right next to you doing so well, it's human nature to want to match them."

At age 52 Helmstetter has proven he is a hard guy to match, but he is not all hard science. When Callaway waited until the opening ceremony last October to announce the name of the new testing facility as the Richard C. Helmstetter Test Center, the clubmaker was overcome with emotion. Indeed, Helmstetter says his best ideas come after ruminating under the Japanese calligraphy in his office, and then taking a walk along the verdant expanse of the $4 million center.

"I'm very fortunate to be where I am, where a person can live a good life and do good work," says Helmstetter. And after all, if there is one thing any real club-maker knows when he finds it, it's the sweet spot.




Workers at Taylor Made (above), Odyssey (below) and Titleist (opposite) share the perfect environment to make the perfect club.



At Taylor Made, where high-tech clubs are assembled, glued and tested, workers take a low-tech break for their afternoon stretch.



Callaway (left) named his new testing facility for his chief club designer.



[See caption above.]










Art Chou heads up Titleist's new R-and-D team in Carlsbad.