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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.