Luxist Takes a Tour of the Nike Golf Oven
Nike advertising has a way - one of the biggest, best ways, actually - of seizing your attention. That is only in small part due to the ubiquity of the company's ads. It is more substantially due to: Nike ads don't sell products; Nike ads sell you on the idea of being everything you can be, perhaps better than you ever thought you could be. Take the World Cup: Nike didn't sponsor the tournament; Adidas did. But which company do you remember? Can you even remember an Adidas commercial? Or does your bell toll for "Write Your Future"?
The company was founded on a single idea, and it has continued to let its ideas grab the attention, with the products playing... accessory, as it were, to the achievement of those ideas. When Luxist was invited to the Nike Golf Oven in Ft. Worth, Texas, we met the men behind Nike's idea of golf, and to see how those ideas were made material. You wouldn't guess this would be the place for a Skunkworks devoted to fairways and greens, but then again, there are a lot of things we'd have never guessed about Nike. This is just another one.
Gallery: The Nike Golf Oven
To say the Nike Golf Oven (NGO) is where Nike designs golf clubs would be like saying the Jet Propulsion Labatory (JPL) is NASA designs satellites. JPL is not only where some of the new breed of cosmic vehicles are designed and built, it's where scientists, engineers and physicists are designing the way we will encounter and interact with space. They are not just penning concepts, they are dressing philosophies in titanium and steel and copper. Likewise, while golf clubs come out of the Nike Golf Oven is naturally about clubs, those clubs are the result of how a veteran group of golf philosophers - yes, we just called them philosophers of golf - conceive the game being played.
Nike Golf is a relatively new entrant to the links game, considering that Titleist has been around since 1932 and Ben Hogan started his company in 1953. Although the golf division has been an official entity since 1984, it stepped lightly up to the tee, beginning with just a set of golf shoes, a few pieces of dri-fit apparel and headwear, and its series 4 wound golf ball. Quite the opposite of taking the golf world by storm, it took it by condensation. Told that Nike's philosophy is to "Go out and sign best, then listen to athletes about how can we make the best product for a competitive advantage," they signed up pros like Curtis Strange and Seve Ballesteros.
Then in 1996, along came a Tiger.
Nike signed Tiger Woods to an endorsement deal and he added his contributions to the sluice of feedback being poured into the NGO. Saying that a day on the greens meant walking six miles and he wanted more athletically minded shoes, Nike developed more comfortable and supportive footwear that also has a sole designed to keep the golfer's foot on the ground a fraction of a second longer. Every little bit of additional stability counts.
Nevertheless, this was still early days - Nike Golf was still a $120-million-dollar company.
Then in 1999 the company's "golfball guru," Rock Ishi said there's a better way to make a golf ball, and Nike planned to spend 18 months developing it. Tiger was signed to a deal with Titleist for $4 million annually. After three months, Nike gave Tiger a development version of their ball to try out, and after three months with it Tiger called and asked, "When's my next golf ball ready?" Nine months later he said he planned to use it in a tournament, and after finishing third and then winning the Memorial with his Nike ball, he switched over. These wasn't anything like the wound ball from the initial years of Nike Golf - the Tour Accuracy ball had a non-wound, four-layer interior that included innovations such as a progressive-density core and injection molding instead of compression molding for a seamless outer cover that doesn't create hot and dead spots. The 18-month development time took just ten months and Nike Golf now had the world's number one golfer using its ball.
At the same time that was going on, Tom Stites, a self-described Oklahoma cowboy and pilot, was leading a group of four other golfing product engineers at Impact Technologies in Ft. Worth, Texas. The company had started out as the Ben Hogan Company, but when it closed, instead of packing he and a few of his colleagues started Impact and became contract engineers. They worked on more than 120 commercial products for 21 different club companies, and their creations earned 49 global wins. In 2000, Nike had a growing golfing industry footprint and a huge opportunity to work with the sport's latest legendary athlete. Looking for a way to make the most of it and get into the club business, the company's acquisitive eye settled on Impact and its excellent reputation for product design. In 2001, Nike bought Impact. Tom and his men, with roughly 230 years of engineering experience between them, stayed on, and they're the force behind the NGO today.
When internally developed Nike Golf clubs began leaving Ft. Worth in August, 2003, the now Nike Golf Oven facilities comprised 18 employees in a 25,000-square-foot building. Today, there are 46,000 square feet, indoor testing labs, putting labs to measure skid and roll, CAD research, static and moment-of-intertia testing, canons that fire golf balls day and night, 3-D printing machines to produce prototypes, swing dynamics and fitting stations, a tour shop and a machine shop. Outside there's a 3.5-acre short-game area with each green having up to 13 holes to practice all manner of situations. That outdoor element has been crucial: according to Stites, staying in Ft. Worth and it's year round mostly benevolent weather, instead of relocating to Nike HQ in Oregon, "was central to getting people in to test, to be remote from corporate to keep our identity and do our own thing, and to play golf longer in the year."
Most importantly for the Oven, it now has three lines of successful clubs. From 1984 to 2001, Nike Golf credited itself with 46 global wins. After buying Impact in 2001, Nike now has 401 - that's 355 wins in just nine years - along with the winning irons, drivers and balls. No small part of the reason that Nike Golf is now a $600-million-dollar company. With a mantra of "win more with fewer players," it has 41 sponsored golfers, called "Nike athletes," around the world. Seven of them are men in the PGA's top 50, two are women in the LPGA's top ten.
To that idea of creating to a philosophy, said Stites, "A golf club changes when it's moving - it's rocket science just before it hits the golf ball." But all of the data and design tools in Texas won't help if you don't know how to put it together to better someone's game. Nike Golf has three lines: Victory Red or VR, Sasquatch or SQ, and Slingshot. The first is aimed at professionals and the second for consumers. Since professionals need equipment so finely honed that they know what they'll get from it at Augusta or at St. Andrews, and once they know it and like it they stick with it, the ethos of the VR line is tradition, that you should know what the next VR club will look like. Club golfers, on the other hand, want to impress - themselves and others - and obvious innovation stokes the retail fires, so the ethos of the SQ line is technology, that you should have no idea what the next SQ club will look like. Another tidbit we learned about pros vs club players: pros like their clubs on the quiet side when they hit the ball; club players like the world to know they smacked it good.
The third line, Slingshot, is for people just getting into the game. It wasn't a retail project in the beginning; it came about from Stites trying to make a club to help his then five-year-old son get the ball up faster. Over six years, as he achieved the performance he was after and his son played better, the look, shape and feel of the Slingshots were refined, and voila - now you can buy them. They might not do for your game what the did for the younger Stites', but the intent is special: you know a man has done his best when he's built something trying to help his son do better.
The SQ line started off small, but then bulked up in an effort to make them hotter when making contact with the ball. They wore increasingly large faces with thin walls, then pushed the limits of size and moment-of-impact regulations. Then they began working with the shapes and masses, moving weight to the edges to make the clubs more stable and give them a wider 'wheelbase.' The SQ lines offerings are intriguing to behold, but for proof that they work look no further than Nike Athlete Stewart Cink, who won The Open Championship last year with his square-shaped driver.
Or there was our favorite discovery, the Method putter. "Drivers and putters are what people buy most often," said Stites, and "drivers make the most money," but "a putter is emotional and personal." For example, Tiger Woods has been using the same putter for a decade. Not the same brand of putter, but the exact same putter. Nike would welcome the chance to get one of its putters into his professional game, and even when they gave him a putter that performed as well as his own he told them he had no reason to switch because it was no better than the one he was using. Putters are personal.
The Method came about not only as a way to impress Tiger, though, but to give Nike a putter with a certifiable performance advantage at reducing skid - that is, getting the golf ball to roll sooner after leaving the face. Club science is so technical that even groove patterns on the faces of clubs can be patented. To create something Nike Golf could patent as its own, R&D engineer David Franklin - another one of the original five from Impact - laid out a groove pattern that was then filled in with a polymer, and the polymer was then lined with its own grooves just thirty-two-thousandths of an inch wide, leaving polymer on one side and metal on the other. The polymer softened the impact of the blow while the exposed metal still meant good traction from the face, the result being 3-to-4 degrees of loft and cutting down by 75% on the ball skidding across the green.
Add a tungsten heel and toe for balance, as well as five head shapes, and you've got a putter that players like Bo Jackson and Charles Barkley prefer. Oh, and if you want someone a little more veteran to vouch for it, look again at Stewart Cink: that Open Championship win last year? Yes, with a Method, done just four months after switching from his belly putter. Last year's U.S. Open winner, Lucas Glover, also took the trophy using a Nike Method putter.
And in the next great coup for Franklin, Tiger finally put the Method into play during first three rounds of this year's Open Championship (he reverted to his Ol' Faithful for the last round). His best round of the entire weekend: day one, using The Method. His quote: "the ball rolls off the face faster and better."
The Nike Golf Oven is about clubs, and clubs alone – it doesn't work on any other products. Although we're sure Stites and his team aren't against taking something else and making it better, their reason for being is to take the greatest thing they can imagine and make it real. Sure, whatever those things are can only get made if they satisfy a business case, but as far as we – and Nike athletes – can tell, that doesn't blunt the vision. test to see whether Nike marketing can could tell Said Stites, "I just love making things that help people play better," and to do that he's put the same tools Tiger uses at your disposal.
As a test to the question of whether Nike Golf stands up to Nike marketing, the Golf Oven gets full marks.