2001: Event in Nike’s back yard reveals club plans

When David Duval won the British Open, most of the irons in his bag were Nike prototypes. Well, Swoosh me away.

Question: When Double D returned to this country, was he swinging a Nike driver and 3-wood as well? (At the British, he played a Titleist driver and Sonartec 3-wood).

Answer: Yes, although the Nike metalwoods were, in the words of Nike golf club designer Tom Stites, “a little bit disguised.”

Any conversation about Nike golf clubs must include a certain amount of speculation. After all, these clubs have yet to be introduced to the public and will not be showcased until the PGA Merchandise Show in January.

So here I go, speculating to my heart’s content: Duval will have a bag full of Nike clubs in 2002, including woods, irons, wedges and putter.

The big news, though: Tiger Woods will put Nike clubs in his bag sometime next season. Yes, I am guessing. Yes, it is likely.

Right now, Woods carries all Titleist clubs – driver, 3-wood, irons, wedges, putter. This undoubtedly will change, as Woods already has been seen testing Nike clubs.

There was much to be learned at the Fred Meyer Challenge, Peter Jacobsen’s annual wing-ding that was held Aug. 6-7 at The Reserve Vineyards and Golf Club in Aloha, Ore.:

n The 47-year-old Jacobsen, plagued in recent years by health and injury gremlins, should consider a career in politics. He has unparalleled skills at bringing people together and keeping them entertained and happy.

n Duval played the 36-hole event with a Nike driver and 3-wood.

n Nike flew in representatives from 12 of its biggest retail accounts for golf, golf watching, a private clinic by Duval and, oh yes, a preview of new Nike golf clubs. Nike has an introduction strategy, and there are at least 12 people out there who know what it is.

n This came on the heels of a visit by three dozen college basketball coaches, many of whom were clamoring for golf clubs. They were turned down.

n Contrary to some reports, Woods had no Nike clubs in his bag during the “Battle at Bighorn.”

However, the linchpin of the Nike golf club strategy clearly is Woods. When he switched to the Nike golf ball, the Swooshmen earned instant credibility. Nike is counting on the same phenomenon for its clubs, although Woods is under no obligation to switch. He does not have a club contract with Nike. He is, in fact, paid by Titleist to use the company’s golf clubs.

Woods will not change clubs, as people like to say, until he is damn well ready. Keep in mind, however, that Woods surprised everybody, including Nike officials, when he began playing the Nike ball in spring 2000. Nike thought it would take longer. Anyway, he promptly won four consecutive major championships with the ball.

Look for Woods to make another bold move and start using Nike clubs, all of them designed by Stites at Nike’s Fort Worth, Texas, technical and testing facility.

Here’s what I know about the Nike line of clubs: There are three different iron models, each of them forged. There are two different titanium driver models, one more compact than the other. There are fairway woods. There are wedges. There soon will be putters.

In other words, Nike will have a full complement of clubs. The most interesting insight so far is Nike’s commitment to forged irons. Stites is the perfect person for this assignment, because he got his start in golf at the Ben Hogan Co., famous for its forged irons.

“The Nike personality is that we make products for the best athletes in the world,” said Mike Kelly, Nike’s business director for golf clubs. “That’s the same philosophy we are following in golf. We feel the best golfers want forged irons. Does that mean we will have the game improvement, cast club to fit 90 percent of the market? Probably not, at least initially.”

One iron model is a pure blade, the kind of muscle-back iron favored by many PGA Tour players. The other two models have cavities in the back, one with a shallow cavity and the other with a deeper cavity.

Stites said that Duval, currently using the blades, is considering a mixture of blades (short and mid-irons) and shallow cavities (long irons).

Conversations with several Tour players reveal the seriousness with which Nike is treating its club introduction. These Tour players are required to travel to Nike’s design and club fitting center in Fort Worth to obtain their irons.

“The amount of excitement on Tour right now is just unbelievable,” said Kel Devlin, global sports marketing director for Nike Golf. “When we get calls, they are from the players, not their agents. All they want is to get a great set of golf clubs made.”

Stites begins with the shafts, then builds the irons from the ground up. The iron heads are not chrome-plated until all milling, grinding and bending operations are completed. Hosel offsets, leading edges, top lines – everything is customized.

This means, of course, that every set for every touring pro is unique. This is not the case with college players, many of whom already are testing the irons. These collegians are using what Kelly labeled “for lack of a better term, standard clubheads,” with the sets assembled to the specifications of the individual players.

Nike has gone to great expense to plan its golf club launch. Wooing retailers is easier than it used to be, and Devlin recalled that “three years ago some of the customers who were here for the Fred Meyer Challenge wanted nothing to do with us. They didn’t like Nike Golf. They wouldn’t even come here. One guy in particular called Bob (Wood, president of Nike Golf) and told him he would never do business with Nike again. But he was here.”

Kelly explained part of the Nike strategy: “The industry has a problem, which we are going to take a look at trying to change. The life cycle on products is terrible right now from a financial standpoint, both for retailers and manufacturers. Every 12 months, there are new products. There are price erosions, there are close-out erosions. Everybody is reporting great numbers, but hardly anybody is reporting a profit.

“We feel there are things we can do to help – in distribution, in segmenting the market, in rotating products. We are treating our retail accounts as our partners, and we intend to show them good margins. Retailers are losing big-time money out there, and we want to help fix the situation.”

All serious golfers can be sure that Nike will offer plenty of options. For example, Nike is working with 12 different shaft manufacturers. Investment cast irons surely will follow the forged models, as Nike stretches itself across the golf marketplace in clubs as it has done in footwear, apparel and golf balls.

All this contributes to a Nike image. Kelly, a former TaylorMade employee, told a story of choosing a “look” for Nike golf clubs: “There were eight people in the room. We had probably 15 different designs on the table. In one 20-minute session, we agreed on what we wanted. We were off and running. At TaylorMade, that would have taken three months.”

The Nike personality, if you will, always has contained a trace of haughtiness.

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