The creation myth of Carlsbad, Calif., as the center of the golf universe has always gone something like this: With the defense and aerospace industries clustered in Southern California during the Reagan years, the burgeoning golf equipment companies were drawn by the engineering talent and manufacturing infrastructure needed to produce increasingly high-tech clubs. Carlsbad made sense as a home base because of its relatively cheap land, its glorious year-round golf weather and the annual Tournament of Champions, which was held at the La Costa resort.
"Total bull----," says Mark King, the CEO of TaylorMade, who has been making the scene in Carlsbad since 1981. "It's all folklore. The truth is, the whole thing was coincidental. Basically, Ely Callaway lived here because his vineyard was nearby [in Temecula]. After he sold the vineyard in 1981, he was bored, so he bought into a little company in Carlsbad that made hickory-shafted golf clubs. Gary Biszantz was the big car dealer in the area, and he cofounded Cobra Golf with Tom Crow, so in the beginning they used a little tiny office of Gary's to run the company. Gary Adams founded TaylorMade in Chicago, but his West Coast guy, Gordie Severson, lived here. He could have been in Santa Monica, or Santa Barbara, or anywhere, but he happened to be here, so the company moved out here too. It was all a big accident."
There's truth in each narrative. Adams was indeed living in the Midwest when he designed the first metal wood, in 1979, but manufacturing the club required an investment-casting process that was used extensively in defense and aerospace; he relocated to Southern California to be near the foundries and toolmaking companies that specialized in it. Crow was a native of Australia who cared more about Carlsbad's sun, sand and surf. "I could have chosen any place in the world to put my company, and I chose here," he once told SI. "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 presence of this big three—Callaway, Cobra and TaylorMade—created a kind of golf Manifest Destiny, luring numerous component companies such as Aldila, the leading shaft manufacturer, which would settle a bit to the south, in Poway. (Founder Jim Flood took the same material used in the wing construction of the F-11 fighter and molded it into the first graphite shaft, in 1972.) Even the quintessential East Coast institution, Titleist, lit out for this brave new world; the company's executive offices remain in Fairhaven, Mass., but in 1993, Titleist moved all of its R&D to Oceanside, which shares a border with Carlsbad. "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," Wally Uihlein, chairman and CEO of Acushnet, the parent company of Titleist, FootJoy and Scotty Cameron Putters, told SI in early 1995. "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."
Carlsbad (pop. 109,318), 35 miles up I-5 from San Diego, remains the typical company town. Callaway, Cobra-Puma Golf and TaylorMade account for roughly a thousand employees across half a million square feet of office space; in 2013 the three companies racked up an estimated $3 billion in combined sales. La Costa continues to host an important tournament, though now it's the LPGA's Kia Classic, played in March. If a city can be defined by how it spends its money, it's worth noting that Carlsbad plowed $70 million into its first muni, The Crossings, which opened in '07, complete with a massive stone clubhouse. (The attached restaurant, with a walk-in fireplace and an exposed beam ceiling, is a popular industry lunch spot.) With so much of the golf business being conducted in such a small town, things can get complicated. In L.A., restaurant goers are always scanning for famous faces. In Carlsbad, the first place your eyes go is to the logoed polo shirt, to see who is flying which flag.
"You have to be very careful about talking shop outside the building," says Chip Brewer, Callaway's CEO. "Restaurants with private rooms do pretty well around here." Some eateries are even unofficially off-limits to the competition. Just as Vesuvio was the domain of Tony Soprano, King has colonized Vigilucci's Seafood & Steak, which offers a $68 porterhouse and endless ocean views. "If I see guys from another company in there, I get in their ear," says King.
Keeping with the no-nonsense vibe Brewer wants to project, top Callaway execs have begun a tradition of meeting every few weeks for lunch at ... wait for it ... In-N-Out Burger. "It's not glamorous," says Harry Arnett, Callaway's senior vice president of marketing, "but we've gotten some good stuff accomplished there." Meanwhile, the younger-skewing employees at Cobra-Puma are more likely to be doing a pub crawl in Encinitas, the lively beach town a few miles south of Carlsbad.
The golf scene also tends to break down along party lines. The small core of Titleist staffers gravitates toward The Farms, a swank private club. Callaway staffers make liberal use of corporate memberships at La Costa, which has recently renovated both of its courses. (Brewer is alone in playing out of The Bridges in Rancho Santa Fe, the ultra-exclusive community that his key endorser, Phil Mickelson, calls home.) Shadow Ridge, a middle-class private club in Vista, is TaylorMade turf, mostly because it has long been where King rides herd. The company prides itself on having a number of strong players among its staffers, and in December, TaylorMade took the Industry Cup, a multiday, multiformat team competition that is treated with Ryder Cup--like seriousness within the Carlsbad city limits.
The differing corporate cultures are evident in their respective headquarters, all of which look the same from the outside: big and blocky, with mirrored glass that is as impenetrable as the tinted windows of a limousine. It is inside that the personalities are revealed. Cobra-Puma has the sleek, airy look of a lounge that serves $14 cocktails, with lots of frosted glass and white leather furniture. If you're going to encounter a Carlsbad worker bee in flip-flops, it's here. Virtually every nook and cranny of the office building is adorned with posters, magazine covers and cardboard cutouts of Rickie Fowler, who with his bright, stylish look is the patron saint of the brand. One employee refers to the headquarters as Rickie World—not to be confused with Legoland, which is also in Carlsbad—though last week's back-to-the-future signing of Greg Norman is seen as an attempt to diversify the company's identity. (In the 1990s, Norman was a Cobra guy, when it was the second-biggest company in golf.) On the women's side Lexi Thompson, 18, is the key endorser, and the company pushes the image of golf celebrity with the fetching duo of Golf Channel personality Holly Sonders and Blair O'Neal, the model and professional player who has been featured on Big Break.
TaylorMade's offices have a hypermasculine look, all dark wood and black leather. This feels right for a company that has risen to prominence marketing the big stick. TaylorMade's aesthetic can be seen in subtle touches like the old-fashioned bank vault door leading to its industrial design division, to say nothing of the tour van in the parking lot that for years was done up to look like a World War II armored vehicle.
The lobbies at Cobra-Puma and TaylorMade are veritable pro shops, stuffed with the eye candy of their latest and greatest products. In the spartan foyer of Callaway's headquarters, visitors are welcomed only by a large photo of the company's late patriarch, Ely Callaway. His mystique remains powerful, for Callaway pretty much invented the modern equipment industry, with its blending of art and commerce to go along with all that science. (He also fostered the enduring laid-back corporate vibe by bringing to the office his keeshond, Casey.) Callaway's fanatical devotion to research and development led to the creation of the first oversized metal wood, in 1991.
With his unparalleled marketing instincts, Callaway dipped into his knowledge of military history and named the club after the 420-mm cannon the Germans used during World War I: Big Bertha. Thus was born the best-selling club in history. Callaway Golf rode Bertha to a dominant place in the market throughout the 1990s, but the company lost its way in the years after Callaway's death in 2001.
"We didn't have an identity," Brewer says, and that can still be seen in the bland, sterile look of the company headquarters. But Brewer has reenergized Callaway since coming aboard in March 2012, turning over half of senior management and renewing the obsession with R&D. Brewer has a deep respect for the game's traditions, having grown up in a golfing household; his father, Gordon, was a longtime president of Pine Valley and a member of the USGA executive committee.
Brewer did not take lightly the decision to reclaim an iconic Callaway name with the new Big Bertha Alpha driver. "We're respectful of the heritage because we know there's such great emotional energy and attachment, especially with Big Bertha," Brewer says. "We knew if we were going to bring back the Bertha name, it needed breakthrough technology. It had to be pleasingly different and demonstrably superior, as Ely used to say."
Splashy product launches are a staple of Carlsbad's ethic of constant reinvention, but a more enduring change has been happening behind the scenes at Callaway. Led by Arnett and his self-styled Zoo Crew of merry tweeters, Callaway has become a force in social media and is pumping out a steady stream of original content for its website and other platforms, making liberal use of its own TV studio and in-house ad agency. Arnett tosses around terms like "longform" and "archival significance" in saying, "Most of our inspiration comes from media companies, not the golf world." One example of the new nimbleness: Lydia Ko signed with Callaway on a Friday in January, and by the ensuing Monday a nifty podcast with her was up on the company website.
Arnett was one of Brewer's first hires -- poached from TaylorMade -- and from the outside looking in he felt Callaway had become "stodgy." He says, "It was pretty obvious no one was talking about Callaway, so we decided we were going to talk about ourselves."
He began by engaging the lunatic fringe of dimpleheads on the message boards at GolfWRX.com and thehackersparadise.com. Along with the social media outreach, "we made it more socially acceptable to be a Callaway fan," says Arnett. "We continue to try to make ourselves younger, fresher, more current, more topical. Our Valhalla is to create the type of company that doesn't really exist—the most premium but also the most engaged and accessible to consumers."
Reinvention is also the theme up the road at Cobra-Puma. In 2010, Puma purchased Cobra from Acushnet. It was a perfect marriage of fashion-forward companies. The latest gear is the edgiest yet -- the Bio Cell+ driver comes in orange, blue, red, black or silver with a sparkly two-tone paint job that looks as if it was inspired by East L.A. low-riders. But with its own renewed emphasis on R&D to go along with Norman's still considerable star power, Cobra-Puma is trying hard to reposition itself in the Carlsbad landscape. "Cobra helped build this city," says Michael Diaz, a marketing specialist for the company. "We want once again to be known for serious equipment for serious golfers who value style as well as performance."
Even from atop the throne of 40% market share of metal woods, King has detected a new buzz in town. "It's a tough, competitive business, and every day is a battle, more so now than ever," he says. "If we're growing, they're shrinking. If they're growing, we're shrinking -- and if that happens, we're gonna get pissed off and try harder. It's healthy, for us and for the industry. As they push us and we push them, it excites the consumers and retailers, and more golf clubs will get sold. I don't want them to get too good, but just a little better is O.K."
It is this competition that defines business -- and life -- in Carlsbad. Companies rise and fall, and careers and friendships are subject to change, and all of it can feel intensely personal. King likes to grouse that in the last year Callaway and Cobra-Puma have each hired away a handful of his key decision makers, but 14 years ago he was the one who left Callaway to return to TaylorMade. Kindly old Ely Callaway promptly slapped King with a breach of contract lawsuit and asked the court to prevent him from reporting for work until the suit was settled. This inspired a handful of TaylorMade staffers to hang a bedsheet from company headquarters that had been emblazoned with FREE MARK KING. "It seemed like life or death back then," King says. "Now? It's funny as hell. That's one thing about being in the rat race here—it can be easy to lose perspective." TaylorMade headquarters may be off Salk Road, but "we're not curing cancer here," King says. "Sometimes we need to remember that all we're doing is making adult toys."
True enough, but those toys bring pleasure to some 29 million golfers in this country alone. As long as these folks crave new playthings -- and they always do -- Carlsbad will remain golf's ultimate playground.