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Big Bertha aims to squash poor cousin

You'd think a $1,300 set of golf clubs would be easy to distinguish from a $400 bunch of knockoffs.

But Callaway Golf Co., the maker of the high-end irons, isn't taking any chances. The Carlsbad, Calif., company is dragging a local retailer into federal court to prevent it from peddling copycat clubs.

Callaway says look-alikes sold by Golf Depot in Clearwater and New Port Richey are so similar to its popular _ and pricey _ Big Bertha irons that they tread on corporate trademarks.

For Calloway, these knockoffs _ called Big Bursar irons _ represent a threat to a burgeoning business. The company's sales have doubled four times over the last five years as such star golfers as Paul Azinger, Jim Dent and Jim Colbert have endorsed its clubs.

To give Callaway a chance to prove its case, a judge in U.S. District Court in Tampa this week ordered Golf Depot to temporarily suspend its sales of the look-alikes. Another hearing is scheduled for next week.

Chances are, Callaway's going to hit long and hard when this case rolls into court. But that doesn't worry Ed Mauro, president of Golf Depot's parent company, Golf Clean International Inc., in Tarpon Springs.

He says local golfers are no more likely to confuse his clubs with Callaway's than they are to mistake a Rolex watch for a clumsy copy, or a Ralph Lauren shirt for an cheap imitation.

Sticker shock alone should prevent any mix-ups, he says. A set of eight Big Bertha irons costs $1,299, compared with $369 to $429 for a set of Big Bursars.

Besides, Golf Depot and Callaway appeal to different kinds of consumers, Mauro notes. His shop sells clubs and accessories to budget-minded golfers, typically middle-class hobbyists.

Callaway, by and large, caters to the golfing gentry, players who are willing to plunk down thousands of dollars for a set of clubs and generally do their buying at country club pro shops, he says.

Still, Mauro acknowledges that his clubs _ called Canterbury Big Bursar irons _ resemble Big Berthas. ("Bursar," by the way, means "treasurer." Go figure.) Like Big Berthas, they have a medallion on the back of the heads.

Callaway thinks the similarities are so profound that the clubs look like twins, not distant kin.

"If you hold up their club head side by side with ours, you will see that they're almost identical in appearance," says Steve McCracken, the company's general counsel. "The look of our club is our property, and it's protected by trademark and trade dress law."

And Callaway, a darling on Wall Street as well as on the pro golf tour, has developed a reputation for pit-bull aggression in the defense of its patents and trademarks.

The company sent a private detective into Golf Depot posing as a customer shopping for clubs. The private eye apparently bought a set of the look-alikes, which were used as evidence in preparing the complaint against Golf Depot's parent.

Callaway has filed a raft of lawsuits against other makers and sellers of look-alike clubs. In February, it won a $4.6-million judgment against a Taiwanese company.

"We have invested money in making a product that is unique, and we're entitled to exploit that," McCracken says. "And our shareholders are entitled to get the benefit from that."

Callaway certainly has the brawn to make good on its threats. Last year, the company racked up $449-million in sales, compared with $7-million a year for Golf Clean International.

That said, Mauro doesn't fault Callaway for protecting its products. He says he'd do the same thing if he were in that position.

But he bets that Callaway, too, would be selling look-alikes if their roles were reversed.