2000: Ely: Arnie can’t be bought
Ely Callaway, the feisty patriarch of Callaway Golf, does not know Robert Erb. “I’ve never heard of this guy,” Callaway snorted as he sat in his office.
Less than a mile away, Erb has his own office. In addition to Joe DiMaggio memorabilia, it contains a dart board. Squarely in the middle of that dart board is a picture of Ely Callaway, taken from a magazine cover.
Erb, though, is throwing more than darts. The aggressive vice president of global marketing for Taylor Made Golf is tossing verbal hand grenades at Callaway Golf over its sale of the nonconforming ERC II driver in the United States.
In a press release, Erb’s sarcasm spilled over: “We look forward to seeing the ERC II line extensions such as fairway tees, putting funnels, smaller-than-regulation balls, as well as Callaway-branded mulligan and 9-foot gimme certificates.”
Ely Callaway’s reaction: “This man must be crazy. We have told everybody that the only thing we are interested in is more distance off the tee for recreational golfers. Taylor Made appears to be a very desperate company.”
With Callaway and Taylor Made making like the Israelis and Palestinians, golfers in the United States are likely to choose sides. It will be the traditionalists against deconstructionists. It will be a mess. The future of golf – and the rules that govern it – will be determined by this little war over equipment conformity.
The big questions: Regarding handicaps, will golf clubs allow golfers to post scores for handicap purposes if they use a nonconforming driver? Regarding local tournaments, will clubs attempt to waive the nonconforming driver rule? Regarding everyday money games, will golfers approve of their buddies using these drivers?
After I wrote a column for Golfweek.com that was critical of Arnold Palmer’s endorsement of the ERC II, Ely Callaway called me, requesting that I stop at his office. He wanted to explain Palmer’s decision: “He really, truly got excited about this, knowing that recreational golfers could get more enjoyment . . . There is not enough money in the world to buy Arnold Palmer . . . Of course we pay him, but I assure you that money had absolutely nothing to do with this.”
After listening to Callaway, I visited Erb, a former seminarian who took his first vows before abandoning a quest for the priesthood.
“Shame on them for putting Arnold Palmer in that position,” he scolded, “and shame on him for allowing them to do it. This is an attempt to alter the course of golf, and I resent it. Golf is a beautiful sport, and part of that beauty is that everybody plays under the same rules.”
Taking a swipe at the name of the Callaway golf ball, called Rule 35, Erb said, “If rule 35 is to enjoy the game, rule 36 is there are no rules. What kind of enjoyment is that? Callaway is bringing to golf what the player piano brought to music.”
Erb seemed to be picturing Ely Callaway in front of him: “You finally did it – you put yourself above the ruling body of the game.”
He also threw down the gauntlet.
“I defy them to take their club and our club and beat us,” he challenged, referring to the nonconforming ERC II and Taylor Made’s conforming American version of its new 300 series of drivers.
Generally unknown until this conversation was the existence of international versions of the 300 series. “Sure, the COR (coefficient of restitution) is too high for USGA specs,” Erb said, “but a driver is a combination of many factors and a high COR alone is not the way to judge a golf club.”
Taylor Made has no plans to sell nonconforming drivers in the United States, Erb said. “We respect the game,” he said. “We want to leave the sport better than when we came. A company such as Titleist surely feels the same way, and I applaud them for resisting any pressure to introduce a noncompliant ball.”
Under laboratory conditions, I tested both new Callaway drivers, the conforming VFT and the nonconforming ERC II. Using 9-degree drivers with similar shafts, there was no question that I could achieve more ball speed – as much as 8 mph – with the ERC II. However, moving to the course, I hit the VFT much more solidly. As a result, my VFT drives went just as far as my ERC drives. Perhaps the VFT felt more comfortable because it was a half-inch shorter (45 inches vs. 45.5). I definitely liked the more traditional shape of the VFT.
The VFT is a fabulous driver. Paul Azinger, who uses it, told me he gets more distance and never hits up-shooters, even into the wind.
Do we, the average golfers of the world, need a nonconforming driver such as the ERC II? This we must decide, largely on a course-by-course basis, knowing that our judgment will help determine the future of golf.