Jack Nicholson isn't talking. So the rumor lingers that he used a Callaway 3-iron to pound his point and the windshield of a motorist's Mercedes during a recent traffic hassle.
"The club is probably still intact," says a laughing Jack Lemmon, who also swings Callaway clubs--but in more conventional fashion.
"God help the car."
President Clinton doesn't mind talking. He loves his Callaways. He even videotaped a 75th-birthday message for their creator, Ely Callaway, an unerring thinker with a lifelong gift for dreaming the unconceived--and seeing his brainchildren uproot stuffy and disparate industries.
First textiles. Then wine. Now golf.
In the '60s, while in his 40s and ascending at Burlington Industries, Callaway broke the worsted barrier. He helped introduce quality clothiers to blended fabrics that looked good, cost less and lasted longer. And he added personality and names. Like Viracle.
In a much more daring move for the times, Callaway hired a woman for an executive position.
Letitia Baldrige, etiquette author, columnist, and former social secretary and chief of staff for Jacqueline Kennedy, was that woman--the company's first director of consumer affairs.
"Ely charmed the socks off the grande dames of American society who were on the board of the Burlington House Interior Design Awards," she recalls. "When you consider the ladies included Nancy Reagan, Mary Lasker, Lady Bird Johnson and Dina Merrill, that was some group to impress."
In 1973, after being passed over for chief executive, Callaway quit the prestigious presidency of Burlington.
He moved from South Carolina to California and for a time looked like a member of the white-collar exodus from aerospace and computer industries headed for the supposed idyll of making wine. Or growing avocados.
This whispering Georgian, however, set his 150-acre vineyard facing a coastal saddle at Temecula in Southern California. Experts said fine grapes would never flourish there. That's the point, replied Callaway the contrarian. So when they do grow, the wine will be different and a guaranteed attention-getter. Within four years, Callaway wines--marketed by another radical means, an all-woman sales force--were receiving favorable reviews. They were sipped at the Four Seasons and Ma Maison and in 1976 were chosen for Queen Elizabeth's bicentennial luncheon at the Waldorf-Astoria.
Point proved and a large profit beckoning, Callaway sold his little vineyard in 1981 to Hiram Walker & Sons. For $14 million.
Callaway--a club championship golfer in earlier years and a distant nephew of legend Bobby Jones--retired to country clubs and weekend tournaments around the region. The slow times didn't last. He stumbled upon a four-man company fumbling to stay alive making steel-core, hickory-shaft clubs.
"Frankly, it was one of the loveliest clubs I'd ever seen," he recalls. "Meant to look old, but performed like the best of modern clubs."
Callaway was fascinated. So he bought the company.
Hence Ely Reeves Callaway Jr.'s third and latest disruption of the way things used to be.
"I wish," begged Clinton on the birthday tape, "that you'd find a way to make my golf game as good as my golf clubs."
Truth is, Callaway already has. It's in the bulbous, fat-faced Big Bertha metal woods this courtly, hard of hearing, Southern-canny CEO crafts at Callaway Golf in Carlsbad.
Lemmon, a 15-handicap hacker, says Big Bertha adds 20 yards to his tee shots and permits par fours that he failed in the past. When flagging tour veteran Johnny Miller won the AT&T; Pebble Beach National Pro-Am in January, he kissed his Callaways, then the check.
"Now, these clubs don't make the game of golf one bit easier," Callaway says. As always, he is dressed in an alpaca pullover and cotton turtleneck. Almost as always, he is at work. "But these clubs are easier to play with, make the game more fun, and I call them the friendliest clubs on Earth.
"Now, take a look at this."
He lifts a letter from the mid-morning mail. It carries a silver crest. It praises Callaway's clubs, expresses regret over a military schedule that interrupts golf, but also happily reports that "my handicap is now dropping to single figures."
The letter is signed "Andrew."
As in Andrew, Duke of York.
Even Callaway--a wry rogue who travels by Concorde and Bentley Continental, an epicurean who prefers to rest wherever there is a Ritz, a friend of Bill's who attended the white-tie state banquet for Japanese Emperor Akihito and Empress Michiko--is impressed.
Prince Andrew, of course, didn't send a manservant to Harrod's to purchase clubs. Clinton didn't buy his latest set. Nor did Sean Connery. All were freebies from Callaway, part of his endless pursuit for promotion through celebrity usage.
And for the record, the golf bag that went to Chicago before being impounded as potential evidence in the O.J. Simpson case was stuffed with Callaways.
"But it said Hertz on the bag," Callaway says. "That was part of the deal."
For some industry watchers, the intoxicating triumph of Callaway Golf belongs to a superb huckster whose marketing shtick may be more effective than his sticks.
"I'm not in love with the guy," says Robert Sauerhaft, equipment editor of Golf magazine. "Because Callaway's whole marketing and promotion . . . does get a little tiresome."
But Sauerhaft is among a majority of players, golf writers and equipment retailers who recognize Callaway clubs as the game's greatest innovation since balls stopped being stuffed with feathers.
To Callaway, there's nothing really amazing about his concept.
"I'm a merchant, someone who recognizes a need for an improved product, then creates it," he explains. "But it must be a consumer product that is demonstrably superior to the competition and pleasingly different.
"Then you market the hell out of it."
He drummed textiles. He pitched his own wines.
At 75, still showing a perfect corporate swing, the wry, much-married, sometimes impatient Callaway is now marketing the hell out of his original and expensive Big Bertha golf clubs, the second-generation War Birds and the newly released Big Bertha irons.
Big Bertha--named after a World War I German cannon that tossed a shell 76 miles--is to golf what the oversize racquets of Head and Prince were to tennis.
Yonex, a Japanese manufacturer, was first with the idea of the jumbo driver. But Callaway found it mushy, with room for development.
He replaced its graphite with stainless steel, specially forged to permit a hollow, stronger head with greater perimeter weighting. The result: Big Bertha with a head 25% larger than a conventional driver, and with a sweet spot the size of Pebble Beach.
A ball gets airborne quicker. Any duffer can become a Long John Daly. Off-center smacks usually are forgiven.
In the three years since its birth, Bertha has become the world's best-selling club, with more than 3 million shipped. On the pro tours, 40% of the drivers are by Callaway. Since tee-off in 1983, Callaway Golf sales have gone from $364,000 to $255 million last year.
And the operation has grown from five guys behind in the rent of one small plant to a 350,000-square-foot complex in a pristine industrial park--with 1,600 employees and hiring.
Among all these corporate holes in one, says Callaway, the most exhilarating occurred Feb. 27, 1992.
On that day Callaway Golf first traded as ELY--at $20 a share--on the New York Stock Exchange. Callaway sweated the opening minutes. No changes were posted.
"But 27 minutes after the market opened, the stock went up to $37," he says. "That thrill has been pretty damned hard to match."
Since its opening drive, Callaway stock has split once and hovers around $39. The company's market evaluation is $1.4 billion. And Ely Callaway is again a multimillionaire.
"The funny thing is . . . there was no grand vision of three careers and big fortunes. I just started out one little step at a time and hoped it worked. Luck has a big piece of it. Not so much good luck, but the absence of bad luck."
Or the massaged luck that has brought Callaway the profit of personal celebrity.
At a Pediatric AIDS Foundation picnic last month--Callaway is a new but major donor to the charity--Goldie Hawn and Jimmy Connors sought out the clubmeister . Jay Leno stopped by. So did O.J. Simpson. It became clear why Callaway eschews publicists.
"Hi, I'm Ely Callaway," says the man. "Do you play golf?"
Hawn plays; Connors says he is a beginner. Leno reports that he has yet to graduate from miniature golf. The actress and the tennis player should receive their clubs any day.
Ely Callaway's office, all floor-to-ceiling windows and the right dabs of chrome and executive paneling, is still pretty much a family room.
The desk is an oaken business relic from the '50s. The captain's chair is from Emory University, where Callaway majored in American history because, he says, it was the easiest study.
Wherever there is a corner, there are golf clubs leaning into it.
Wherever there is a wall, there are framed covers and spreads from Forbes and Advertising Age.
Wherever there is a shelf, there are color photos of Cindy, Callaway's fourth wife, and sepia prints of the clan Callaway of LaGrange, Ga., a two-hour drive southwest from Atlanta.
Callaway's favorite relative is Uncle Fuller Earle Callaway.
The 14th child of a twice-married, slave-owning Baptist minister, Fuller Callaway tasted business at age 10. He walked barefoot to town and bought six spools of thread for a nickel. He traipsed back into the country and resold the thread to farmers' wives. For a nickel a spool.
At 13, he was farming and selling cotton.
At 18, he opened Callaway's Mammoth Five and Ten Cent Store.
He died in 1928 after founding 23 cotton mills, banks, insurance agencies, department stores and development companies.
From such a gene pool came Ely Callaway.
"What Fuller did was great . . . and he did it in spades because in 1890 trade was not easy," Callaway says. "He also came from nowhere, so his is a typical, great, Horatio Alger story."
Fuller was a man of homely wisdoms.
"The man who succeeds almost always spends less than he makes. . . .
"You've got to love your work better than anything else in the world, if you want to make a big success."
Ely lives by similar one-liners.
"Good ethics is good business," he repeats.
"Don't look back because you can't do a thing about the past," is another favorite.
And: "Nepotism is a lousy way to run a business."
Callaway, however, knows precisely where he and Uncle Fuller differ.
"He built his business on principles the opposite of mine," he explains. "He bought as a retailer mass consumer items he knew somebody was going to buy.
"Then he sold them as cheaply as he could . . . so the attraction to come buy was price, as low as possible. And super good service."
Ely Callaway's paradigm was "a super, high-priced product . . . with special merit to offer the buyer."
"We sell mass-produced products to the masses in massive numbers at high price," he continues. Such as graphite-shafted Big Bertha clubs by the millions at $240 apiece. "That's the unique part."
It also helps to be shrewd, he believes, a risk-taker unafraid of losing and intolerant of excuses for not trying at business: "Costs too much . . . too risky . . . can't do it . . . don't know how."
In many ways, Callaway is no different than the next chief executive. He is impatient with contemporaries who cannot match his mental pace, and he admits an excess of self-satisfaction. He has always been married to work, which explains the many wives. He drives himself from 8:30 a.m., through a chicken noodle soup, frozen yogurt and V-8 juice lunch at his desk, to whenever he decides the day is done.
"I think Ely, better than most, has been able to assemble, at everything he has done, extremely good people," says John Marin, a founder of Sports Illustrated and senior adviser to Time Inc. "Then satisfy them, keep them, encourage them and financially reward them."
"He uses too much salt on things."
Psychiatrist Roy Menninger, head of the Menninger Clinic in Topeka, Kan., knows Callaway as a major donor to the Menninger Foundation and as "a rough-hewn man whose plain-spoken bluntness has always been appealing. . . . There's little ceremony to him and very little pretension and pomp."
"I think Ely would probably be every difficult to live with," Menninger continues. "He is . . . very much dismissive of other people or other attitudes. But it isn't contemptuous or disabling or negative. It's just a matter of: 'It's not for me and that's the end of it.' "
To friends, colleagues, even competitors, Callaway and honesty are synonymous.
This year, he declined to speak to UCLA's graduate school of business after swindler Michael Milken began lecturing there. And the university blinked.
"There is a general feeling today that if it has to do with business, you don't have to apply normal standards of doing it honestly," he complains. "I say you don't go out and run a bunch of ads saying yours is the best product if it isn't. It is inexcusable to cut corners . . . and good ethics is good business."
Walking his plant, greeting long-termers by first names, asking a manager how much the company is spending on office supplies ("A half-million dollars on pencils and pens? I'm sorry I asked"), Callaway clearly is Boss Callaway. That's the way Fuller Callaway did it in the Old South.
"He was one of the first industrialists to be concerned with the social welfare of his workers, hence the Callaway Foundation, right there with the Carnegie and Rockefeller foundations," he says. "It probably has given something like $100 million to higher education in the state of Georgia."
Ely Callaway has given away about $15 million in his careers. His $250,000 program to aid the development of golf in inner cities, his 40-year support of the United Negro College Fund, and a lump of Callaway stock now worth $8 million donated to Emory University.
But the generosity is not limitless.
Callaway denies, without exception, requests for free golf clubs for silent auctions, raffles or club prizes.
"Every single village, hamlet and town in America has charities, 80% use golf tournaments to raise funds, which means thousands do it and Callaway is the target of all of 'em," he explains. "The moment we start donating to them, we'd literally have to give away everything we make.
"And we'd go broke."
It was a splendid, six-figure, surprise 75th-birthday party.
Among those invited to the dinner at Rancho Valencia resort, near Rancho Santa Fe, were Cabinet members and actors, a former wife and professional golfers, some of America's richest businessmen--and Woodson Houze, 76, a classmate from LaGrange High School who knew Callaway as "head of everything . . . the school paper, the class, the debating society, all the activities."
And the clan Callaway, including two sons, a daughter and three grandchildren gathered from both coasts and several states. A hardcover book--the First Book of Ely, joked a family member--contained tributes from Vernon Jordan Jr., former president of the National Urban League, and portrait photographer Yousuf Karsh, whom Callaway once photographed. And Madonna penned an aria:
"Dump that Bertha, she is merely . . . a slut, a tart, an arriviste . . . give me an appellation and keep it classy . . . To wit: how 'bout 'Madonna's Mashie.' "
It was a night of warm memories. Of a 25-year-old officer who in World War II became the youngest major in the history of Army procurement. Of a golf swing so perfect Callaway didn't need to wear spikes.
Painful thoughts were spoken. Of a first wife who attempted suicide, of a first daughter who lived only a few hours. Of Callaway's marriages and his sweet-talking mastery of the three-week romance.
Callaway met it all with humor and rough dignity.
"With the exception of three people, I love everyone here," Callaway told his guests. "When I'm gone, I'll leave you with a memo of the three names."
Then he asked the Ovation Orchestra to strike up "If Ever I Should Leave You" and made an announcement: "The B.S. may not be over, but the romancing is. Because I've found her."
He opened his arms to dance with Cindy Callaway, 45, his wife of 11 years.
Later, he frankly discussed the past.
Sometimes, he simply chose the wrong woman, he says. Mostly he would do it all over again. Always he blames himself because "I was married to my job and that was unfair."
In addition, he says, he was blessed--or maybe cursed--with a talent for leaving unhappy relationships before they became unhealthy. And never looking back.
And how feel the former Mrs. Callaways?
Says one relative: "The trail of ex-wives, to a woman, is a satisfied path."
Confirms second wife Jane Callaway of Darrien, Conn: "The only bad thing . . . he was so attractive to others. I have a tremendous affection for a very dear person who will always be a treasured memory."
Nothing in the party talk surprised or disturbed Cindy Callaway. She knows her love for him, his for her, and that their only source of hostility is each other's driving.
"It's just a great match. . . . We got lucky," she says.
Twelve years ago, easy-mannered Cindy was a waitress at Reuben's in Orange. Because the restaurant sold Callaway wines, the employees were invited to a tour and a tasting at Temecula.
Callaway--then separated--addressed the group. Cindy--never married--heard nothing but the humor, grace and knowledge of a very efficient mind.
"He was staring at me, and I said to myself: 'If he asks me out, no question I will go,' " she recalls. "The age difference didn't hit me at all. . . . He was just so much fun, so interesting."
Later, Callaway walked over and presented two business cards. One, he said, was for her to keep. The other was for her to return with her name and telephone number.
"I knew he was going to call me," she says. "But I was home a good hour before he did."
They are a tight couple, she believes, because neither crowds the other. Callaway remains married to work. But she is a golfer married to a nine handicap and new interests in fly-fishing and skeet shooting.
"He stands back while I do those things," she says. "I think we're close because we let each other go . . . and grow because of that."
Sometimes the Callaway name seems ubiquitous.
On wine, of course, and golf clubs. Soon, it will be the label on sporting apparel sold through Nordstrom.
There is Callaway Editions Inc. of New York.
That's second son Nicholas Callaway, 41, founder and head of an upscale company whose publications cover fine arts, photography, travel and Madonna's foil-wrapped "Sex."
Like father, like son, Callaway Editions specializes in the improved and unusual.
Despite periodic visitation after divorce ended a 17-year marriage, Nicholas Callaway has only "fond memories" of a childhood and adolescence with father.
"Spiritually, emotionally, financially . . . Father was supportive in all those ways without being coddling," he continues. "He was always there to help if you needed it, but would gladly refuse something if he felt it was not right."
Father paid for Harvard. But not for postgraduate studies at Yale Arts. Nor the cost of forming a business. "In the Callaway family," Nicholas adds, "you are expected to find your own path in life and pursue it on your own."
There is Callaway Cars of Old Lyme, Conn.
That's first son Reeves Callaway, 47, founder and head of a specialized engineering firm that modifies Chevrolet Corvettes into collectibles worth $45,000 to $175,000.
There, again, the Callaway theme: Burnish and elevate a standard product into something exclusive and desirable.
Says this son of his father: "I learned from him the ability to look at the heart of a situation and say: 'Here is the essence, here is the kernel of what needs to be done. Concentrate on this. Be simple about it. And don't get bogged down in enormous complexities.' "
And one day, there may be fine writings carrying the name Lisa Callaway, 43, of Watertown, Mass.
Lisa is an only daughter. She is challenged by multiple sclerosis. Despite her father's financial support, life among the male and high-achieving Callaways has always been a task.
She praises her father for his success, his focus and determination. Yet she remains wanting for some warmer communication with a parent she believes too often placed business before family.
"He always made the effort to be sensitive and affectionate . . . but the degree of success at that isn't always within our control," she says.
She understands but opposes the male privilege and patriarchal mentality inherent to Southern families. "Growing up as a woman in the Callaway family is not easy," she says.
Last month, the Callaway men took France.
Their name was on a transporter, above a garage, on hats, jackets, polo shirts--and on a Callaway Corvette entered in the famed 24 Hours of Le Mans, the world's longest endurance auto race.
The name was also all over European television and French newspapers eager to see what this rookie American team--Reeves Callaway, three drivers and their silver, blue-striped 450-horsepower race car--could do as the first Corvette entry in 16 years.
Ely Callaway, taking a rare break from his own business, was there to share his son's noisy, deadly business.
"I'm really impressed about his being here," Reeves says. "Just the fact he said 'I'm coming' is important. He doesn't need to see us win. He doesn't need to see us lose. He does need to see us."
What Ely Callaway saw was a small automotive miracle.
His son's car--built in 12 weeks and on a shoestring, given less odds than the San Diego Padres of reaching the World Series, certain to be overshadowed by Ferrari and Porsche--won the pole in its Grand Tourisme class.
Sometime between final practice and the start of the race, Ely Callaway began to understand the mystique of auto racing and its importance in elevating the prestige of a specialty-car builder.
With Reeves as his guide--and in an arena where the son, not the father has eminence--Ely met recent winners and old champions of Le Mans. He learned of $5-million budgets to field a factory team, of $20,000 to rent a box for the race, of French drivers, who believe it is bad luck to wish each other good luck.
When the race erupted, Ely Callaway toured the course by van to see cars become hot banshees through corners and thrash down the Mulsanne straight at 220 m.p.h. It hurt his ears. It stirred the blood of this old risk-taker.
"The amazing thing is that there is only a hairline between victory and your total destruction," he says. A Porsche hit oil in Indianapolis corner, spun, rammed dirt and its race was over. "You can be dead in a second. This is as exciting as hell."
The Callaway Corvette did not win. But it led its class for almost 12 hours and there was jubilation among the team. Then, a single miscalculation--and the car ran out of fuel on a dark course.
Those 12 hours, however, were victory enough for a father.
"I knew the excellence Reeves creates in his cars, and the fame he has in this category," Ely Callaway says. "But it's nice to see it firsthand."
He also knew he encouraged his son to this. He knew he hammered home tenets of perseverance, honesty and self-focus. But he takes no credit for Le Mans.
"It's great to see Reeves has affection for his team, and earn some rewards for playing everything straight," Callaway says. "He's worked hard and was willing to take the risk. But, God, what a risk. Much more risk than I've ever taken.
"And I'm damned proud that he's my son."
Now, believes Ely Callaway, is the time to wind down.
After Le Mans, he and Cindy flew to the French Riveria hideaway of Beaulieu-sur-Mer for their first vacation since their honeymoon.
Callaway wants to write his autobiography while health and faculties are full. A Rancho Valencia home, a 7,000-square-foot Italian-Mediterranean villa by Thomas Jakway, is almost finished: all fireplaces and marble and with a practice green for her, a vegetable garden and orchid house for him.
Callaway is resuming photography--a passionate hobby that many years ago placed Karsh and John F. Kennedy in front of his Hasselblad.
He says he has built an "able, resourceful, intelligent" executive team that will continue, even better his work at Callaway Golf.
In retirement, in retrospect, has his contribution been demonstrably superior and pleasingly different?
"Well, I can demonstrate it to me," he says with a grin. "Although I may not have been pleasingly different, I guarantee you I've been different."
Native: No. Born in LaGrange, Ga. Lived in New York before moving to Temecula, Rancho Santa Fe and Palm Springs. Building homes at Vail and Rancho Valencia.
Family: Married his fourth wife, Cindy Villa, in 1983. Two sons and one daughter from his first marriage. Three grandchildren.
Politics: Votes for the candidate, not the party. Supports legal abortion, equal-opportunity employment and physician-assisted suicide. Has been labeled a protectionist, but he prefers to call it "economic nationalism."
How he tells friends from acquaintances: Friends call him "Eee-lee"; acquaintances say "Ee-lie."
People admired: Winston Churchill for his wit, Sam Walton for rising from nothing, Bobby Jones for his Grand Slam golf swing and President Clinton for being in favor of "freedom instead of slavery, prosperity instead of poverty, peace instead of war . . . and his personal transgressions are in the past."
People disliked: Richard Nixon ("fundamentally a bad man . . . mean, petty"), Lee Iacocca ("vulgar and crude") and Ross Perot ("a fake, but sharp").
On putting personal names on products: "It makes you try hard because you've got more at stake. In the case of Callaway wines, it was a plus because most names on wine were French or Italian."
On corporate public relations: "I don't need anybody. If you take the time and effort to make the product better than the competition, it's a publicity factory."
On learning at his father's knee: "What is good in life is good in business: Treat everybody right and tell the truth. No matter what you do, do your best and don't give up. Just try, try, try. Then try again."