LOS ANGELES -- Police got the alarm call at 3: 28 a.m. on a recent Monday. But by then, it was too late.
Burglars using a technique seen in golf shop thefts throughout the country had rushed into the Alta Vista Country Club in the Orange County suburb of Placentia, grabbed $11,270 worth of premium titanium clubs and made their getaway long before police arrived.
The thefts began about three years ago, coinciding with the increased popularity of clubs made from the strong, lightweight metal, which allows golfers to hit balls farther than traditional steel clubs do. Titanium, which is also used to build airplanes and surgical tools, boosts the price of top clubs to about $400 each.
ClaimCard Inc., an insurance research firm, puts the replacement value of all clubs stolen last year at $100 million to $120 million nationally. Golf stores from Georgia to Canada have been hit, with some losing more than $30,000 worth of merchandise in a single burglary.
These smash-and-grab thefts have become so commonplace that Callaway Golf Co., the Carlsbad, Calif.-based maker of the such popular clubs as the Biggest Big Bertha driver, recently wrote a letter to its 9,000 retailers offering them a lengthy packet of security tips.
Some industry sources around the country estimate as many as 1,000 of these burglaries occurred from spring 1997 through last summer alone. "You grab 25 clubs, and you get the average yield of a bank robbery," said the security manager for a major golf equipment maker.
Golf shops are being forced to take countermeasures. At the Candlewood Country Club in the Los Angeles suburb of Whittier, for example, where burglars took $20,000 in clubs last year, the pro shop has spent more than that sum for new security such as cameras, sensors and gates.
"It looks more like a fortress than a club, which is sad," said Mark Blakely, the head pro.
The problem goes beyond the store burglaries. At public golf courses and private country clubs, there are increasing reports of expensive clubs being stolen when a golfer leaves them out to go to the restroom or to get a refreshment.
Others tell of golf clubs being stolen from back seats or car trunks after thieves had watched their owner put them inside.
This thievery has not only led many golf courses to place notices warning people to watch their clubs. It also has spawned new products to combat it.
One company sells a golf bag you can lock to a stationary object, like a bicycle lock. The product also locks the clubs inside the bag so someone can't pull them out.
"People have these big golf bags that are neon signs, gaudy and flashy because the company wants the name flashed around," said Bob Jones, who runs the pro shops at Dad Miller golf course in Anaheim and Anaheim Hills Golf Course in Orange County. "It's a big sign that says, 'Steal me.' "
A set of 14 Callaway clubs costs $2,500 -- compared to as much as $800 for a more traditional set. The popular Biggest Big Bertha driver, a favorite of thieves, sells for about $400. A driver not made from titanium might cost about $200.
As the clubs became more expensive, crooks discovered that it was much easier to burglarize a golf shop than it was to rob a
bank or a jewelry store, police and golf industry experts report. There are no armed guards to look out for, no heavy glass to smash and no exploding dye markers.
Many police investigators and store owners suspect the stolen clubs are being shipped to Asia, where they can fetch more than twice the price here. Others believe the clubs are being pawned, sold to mom-and-pop golf stores or offered on the street or at swap meets.
In 1996, San Francisco Bay Area police departments suspected a gang of pulling off 30 golf shop burglaries from Monterey to Sacramento. One suspect said they would ship the clubs to Taiwan, China, Japan and the Philippines, where they would be sold for $1,000 a club, according to Detective Jerry Codde of the San Leandro Police Department.
Police and golf shop owners said burglars case the stores during the day, pretending to be customers, so they know exactly where the expensive equipment is located.
They drive to the shop at night, break the glass, run directly to their target, scoop up the clubs and leave before police arrive.
Augusta, Ga., police Lt. Jimmy Ford said a video camera caught two burglars getting in and out of a Nevada Bobs shop in just 30 seconds.
"They knew right where to go," he said. "They just scooped up all the Callaways," which were worth a total of $30,000.
Police even found three clubs the burglars had discarded on the side of the freeway because they were less valuable demonstration models, Ford said.
It's not unusual for shops to be hit more than once. Alta Vista in Placentia, for instance, has been burglarized three times in about three years, with thieves taking a total of $40,000 worth of goods, said owner Ted Debus. The most recent theft netted 20 clubs.
At the Golf Emporium in Santa Ana, thieves broke the glass in the front of the store and took clubs worth $30,000 to $40,000.
In Sacramento earlier this year, robbers crashed their utility vehicle head on into a car in which the security guard was sitting. They taped the uninjured guard into a chair and then crashed their car through the door. The robbers headed straight for the Callaways, taking clubs worth about $40,000.
While most of the clubs have been stolen in burglaries, robbers have marched into stores in Texas, Florida, Ohio and Missouri, for instance, and demanded the most expensive clubs at gunpoint.
Knowing they have become alluring targets, many shops have taken extensive security precautions, adding motion sensors, improved alarms, scissor gates and bars.
Many stores lock up their expensive clubs at night, even in something as simple as a storeroom, knowing the thieves don't have time to search for them. Other stores have stopped stocking expensive clubs.
After the Edwin Watts Golf Shops, which has 40 shops in the Southeast United States, lost $200,000 of expensive clubs to fTC burglars, the company offered a $25,000 reward for information leading to the conviction of the burglars.
Now, when the alarm goes off at one of the chain's stores, a device emits a harmless fog that quickly blankets the store, making it difficult for thieves to find the clubs. In addition, the company rotates dogs among its stores to provide another obstacle.
"There's no other way," said Ronnie Watts, president of the chain. "It's a little uncomfortable, but it's such a major problem."
Pub Date: 12/18/98