2006: Nike aims to put putters in play

Fort Worth, Texas, is a long way from Nike Golf’s Beaverton, Ore., headquarters. But it’s where the company’s chief club designer, Tom Stites, calls home, and it’s where he opened the Nike Golf Research and Design Facility in 2002.

Nicknamed “The Oven,” the equipment lab isn’t far from where Ben Hogan started his golf company. And tucked off Interstate 30, next to Leonard Links golf range, it’s also a short drive from Ameriquest Field in Arlington, where the Texas Rangers blast home runs.

Which is only fitting, because the R&D center is where Nike has created a home run of its own.

This is where Stites and his team finally uncovered the secrets to mass produce Nike’s top-selling driver, SasQuatch, which had stalled in the development process for years and once was dubbed derisively as “Butt Ugly.”

But lessons learned at The Oven made the club a hit. Says Stites: “Converting pros to this product was the most simple thing I’ve experienced in my 20 years.”

And Nike’s next home run may be a putter.

The company has had a presence in flatsticks for years but hasn’t directed its full attention to the category. With limited resources as a standalone division of Nike Inc., Nike Golf methodically has tackled one product group at a time, following a master growth plan. With a solid foundation in areas such as golf balls, irons and metalwoods, Nike officials say putters are next.

A major push into the category, backed by essential Tour staff usage, is scheduled for the fall. That plan follows Nike’s yearlong effort not only to physically enhance the R&D facility but to showcase the center’s resources to media, business partners and consumers.

In January the center added a multi-camera putting studio, which was sorely needed to rival competitors’ high-tech putting research facilities. Even Nike advertising, better known for its emotional charges designed to foster brand loyalty, has focused on serious messages about Nike’s R&D capabilities. Print and TV ads, for example, profile the tireless brainwork of employees such as Stites and ball engineer Rock Ishii.

“People don’t really know what’s behind the Swoosh, if you will,” says Cindy Davis, Nike Golf’s U.S. general manager. “The commercials have been a good way to communicate it to people.”

A new line of Tour-proven putters launching in November will be the first to take advantage of the putting studio and the research data gathered there.

Such resources will be needed for Nike to succeed in the category, which is dominated by Odyssey and features other powerhouse brands such as Ping and Scotty Cameron by Titleist. To make the challenge more daunting, Nike has to jostle for position against TaylorMade’s Rossa putters, which steadily have gained share, and compete against an expected revival of

Never Compromise, the putter brand owned by Cleveland Golf.

Nike officials are more than confident the putting studio will level the playing field.

“Now we have a commitment from an R&D standpoint,” Davis says. “It’s the next piece of our evolution in the whole category.”

Adds Stites: “We know we have putters that people can play with.

We have the ability to manufacture and design it. We just needed to be able to confirm it and test it and build confidence in it. That’s part of what this facility is about.”

Player testing is nothing new at Nike. The difference is the R&D center makes evaluation a science. The facility can capture data with tools such as launch monitors; Track Man, a radar-based ball-flight tracking system; and high-speed video to dissect a full swing. And with the putter studio, the center can capture data and analyze a putting stroke with the same degree of sophistication.

“We didn’t have a place to bring a good player,” says David Franklin, a Nike Golf club designer. “Now we can get Tour feedback.”

Justin Leonard is one Nike staff player who has taken advantage of the putting studio. High-speed cameras capture 3,000 frames per second to break down the putting stroke and evaluate the roll and skid off the putter’s face.

After struggling with the flatstick for the past six months (falling from 40th last year to 66th this year in putting average), Leonard discovered he has a tendency to hit putts off the toe and leave the putter face open slightly.

“It picks up stuff you can’t see with the naked eye,” Leonard explains.

“It actually traces your stroke. When I got the ball in the right position (and hit five putts) there was one line. To leave here knowing exactly where I need to be, there’s no substitute.”

None of Nike’s staff players are obligated to use the company’s putters. The putter is the last club in Tiger Woods’ bag without a Swoosh. He has been using a Scotty Cameron by Titleist Studio Newport 2 model. But Stites says that could change someday.

“You don’t have to be a rocket scientist to figure out that’s the way we’re going,” he says.



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