Club ban stuns makers

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Two major golf-equipment companies were sent reeling last week when the sport's governing bodies rescinded an earlier decision that would have allowed golfers in North America to use so-called "hot drivers."

Callaway Golf Co. and Taylor Made Golf, both of Carlsbad, Calif., have been forced to suspend advertising campaigns for their respective thin-faced drivers, golf clubs with a coefficient of restitution (how fast the ball springs off the clubface) greater than 0.83. Callaway developed the Big Bertha ERC, while Taylor Made markets the R500 Series.

Recreational golfers were allowed to use the clubs, and factor them into their handicap, everywhere except the U.S. and Mexico, where the United States Golf Association has jurisdiction on rules. The U.K.-based Royal & Ancient Golf Club has authority everywhere else. Ostensibly, the hot drivers are supposed to give players more length off the tee.

On May 9, the two governing bodies agreed on a proposed compromise-the hot drivers could be used by recreational players in this country starting Jan. 1, 2003, but would be illegal again in 2008. But during the two-month proposal period, the USGA decided it was too confusing and reversed its decision Aug. 6, effectively banning the hot drivers.

The move stunned Callaway and Taylor Made, which had begun marketing their respective drivers in the U.S. again based on the May 9 decision.

big plans

Callaway, handled by Dailey & Associates, Los Angeles, had started an in-store promotion just last month, along with a national print buy in USA Today to market the ERC II. In some markets, Callaway had reduced the price of the driver, which normally retails for more than $500, to $399.

Callaway President-CEO Ron Drapeau said the company, disappointed at the decision, will take back any ERC II driver purchased by consumers during the promotion and replace it with any new, conforming driver from its current product line. Consumers may also keep the free dozen golf balls that were part of the promotion.

"We supported the proposed compromise in the hopes things might have changed," Mr. Drapeau said. "We have planned our business to be prepared for this contingency."

Callaway spokesman Larry Dorman declined to say how many ERC II drivers the company has sold since May 9, but said, "we were doing a brisk business." Since the beginning of the year, the company has sold 300,000 clubs-100,000 of them the ERC II-but Callaway said the financial impact should be negligible. It shouldn't lose too much money on the trade-ins, Mr. Dorman said, and will still be able to sell the ERC II overseas.

`15 yards'

Taylor Made in June hired Encinitas, Calif.-based agency NYCA to handle the creative duties for its R500 Series. A campaign broke in early July with buys in golf trade publications, The Golf Channel and several key nationally televised PGA Tour events. The print tagline read: "The USGA gives you an inch. We give you 15 yards."

Taylor Made declined to comment until it talks to its retailers. Callaway declined to comment on what it spent on this recent promotion.

Both companies can continue to market and sell the hot drivers in Europe and Asia until 2008.

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