Quiet But Persistent Business Buzz at Augusta National

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The latest from Augusta:
 
Under the giant oak tree behind the clubhouse at Augusta National Golf Club, manners are genteel but fashion rules are relaxed. Where else could the most powerful people in golf feel perfectly comfortable in a fine blazer, a snappy tie ' and a baseball cap?
 
Many of those caps are emblazoned with golfs most recognizable brand names: Callaway, TaylorMade, Titleist and more. And although this is not a week for high productivity, golfs leaders come to see, be seen, and drink up the fabled atmosphere at golfs cherished rite of spring.
 
Geniality reigns. You may see ideological rivals chatting, even laughing (U.S. Golf Association officers and equipment company executives, for example). Any meetings with potential for brow-furrowing occur off-site.
 
Buzz becomes louder as the competition days approach.
 
CALLAWAY TO POST STRONG FIRST QUARTER: Advance word on Callaways first quarter financial numbers have the company feeling proud. The income statement wont be released until Thursday, April 18, but inside sources say to expect gross sales of $245 million. That works out to about 41 cents per share, about what Callaway expected. Considering the sluggish economy for big-ticket and recreational goods in the wake of September 11, the results are pleasing, say Callaway higher-ups.
 
Typically, either the first or fourth quarter yields the lowest gross sales for premium golf companies. If thats true and the summer is strong, could Callaway crack a billion this year?
 
Callaway also reports that its Odyssey 2-Ball putter is moving so well at retail that sales of that model would make it the worlds third biggest putter company all by itself. Odyssey claims a 45 percent market share in on-course golf shops.
 
THE TAYLORMADE-MAXFLI HORIZON: Look for TaylorMade-adidas Golf to exercise its option to buy all of Maxfli and Slazenger some time this summer, say sources close to the situation.
 
Late last year, TMaG set up a complex transaction that gave it effective ownership of Maxfli for five years, with an option to make it permanent. TaylorMade moved its golf ball production to Maxflis Westminster, S.C. plant and gave its Pontotoc, Miss. plant to Maxfli seller Dunlop Slazenger Group. (DSG promptly shut down that plant.)
 
What will happen if TMaG indeed takes the reins for good? Well, dont expect the Maxfli Noodle golf ball, or anything like it, to hang around. TaylorMades focus has been on making the best golf equipment for the best players, and polishing its image to match. Thats how it would handle the Maxfli brand.
 
So Maxfli clubs would vanish, and golf balls would be positioned as serious, high-performance products worthy of matching up with TaylorMade clubs. But its likely TMaG wouldnt completely meld the companies; the strategy would be to maintain Maxflis brand integrity and position it under the adidas umbrella. And even though adidas, the worlds second-largest sporting goods company, would be the corporate parent, the golf brands would probably be organized under the TaylorMade master brand, to take advantage of TMs strong golf pedigree.
 
HAD TO BE THE SHOES: Cocktail parties and dinners are a big part of Masters week. Most of them are pleasant but normal-looking affairs ' but count on Nike to set itself apart. In a lovely home not far from Augusta National, Nike had a party Tuesday night that featured the now-famous Annika Sorenstam red golf shoes displayed in a glass box. Annika stopped by later in the evening; I had to resist the temptation to ask her to put on the shoes, click the heels together, and say Theres no place like Stockholm.
 
Annika is also in town this week to accept an award from the Golf Writers Association of America, whose annual dinner is Wednesday night. Ill be there to lead the standing ovation when my colleague George White steps up to collect his well-deserved writing award.