Tobie Hatfield remembers getting the message from Phil Knight.
“You need to give Tiger a call. He wants your help.”
When your boss happens to be the co-founder and chairman of Nike and he asks you to lend a hand to one of the Swoosh’s mega-stars, you hop to it.
Hatfield, however, wasn’t fazed by the summoning to duty. As one of Nike’s foremost shoe creators and director of the “Kitchen,” the company’s top-secret innovation lab, he’d been tapped before.
He created Michael Johnson’s infamous “gold” spikes that propelled the sprinter to double gold in the 200- and 400-meters at the 1996 Atlanta Games. Though the bedazzling look earned the shoes notoriety, Hatfield is prouder of the fact that they were the first track spikes engineered to weigh less than 4 ounces. He’s helped numerous other Olympians go faster, higher, stronger, too.
Creating a golf shoe would be a first for Hatfield, but he relished the assignment. He’s never really done anything the easy way. In fact, he’s achieved his success without being academically trained for his profession. Hatfield is not schooled as an industrial engineer, and he’s no biomechanist. But as a former coach and track-and-field standout, the 51-year-old Hatfield has an innate ability to understand athletes.
As he did with Woods in creating the unconventional TW ’13 golf shoe, Hatfield will spend hours in one-on-one sessions with athletes, studying how they do their jobs, and listening to their desire to excel – and what they’ll need to achieve it.
“That’s my source of inspiration,” he says.
Hatfield may not have envisioned a career as a shoe engineer, but it’s not a stretch to say he was destined for it. In 1979, when still a senior and an accomplished pole vaulter at Oregon’s South Eugene High, Hatfield had a life-shaping encounter with the man who would become one of his role models: Bill Bowerman, legendary University of Oregon track coach and Nike’s original shoe inventor.
One day, Bowerman arrived at the high school, looking for human guinea pigs. The coach instructed Hatfield to get X-rays of his feet, a puzzling request considering the teen-ager wasn’t injured. Hatfield, however, wasn’t about to question and did as he was told. Not long thereafter, Bowerman returned with track shoes designed specifically for Hatfield – with the spikes’ placement complementing his bone structure.
“He wanted to reposition them so they worked best,” Hatfield recalls. “It was my introduction to innovation, and I thought, ‘That’s pretty amazing.’ “
After his competitive days were over at Abilene Christian University, where he graduated as an Academic All-American, Hatfield did a brief coaching stint at Wichita State. He eventually joined Nike, where he was asked to use his athletic knowledge to help craft shoes for elite athletes. Invaluable on-the-job-training came while he worked at Nike’s Asian Research & Development Center in Taiwan.
In 1997, Hatfield moved to to the company’s world headquarters in Beaverton, Ore., and now his primary office is the “Kitchen,” essentially a mad scientist’s lab and art studio rolled into one. In its expansive, loft-like working area, there’s plenty of artifacts to inspire Nike inventors: one wall of a meeting room is actually the shell of an RV, a replica of the vehicle Knight would drive around to track meets and use as a hospitality tent to introduce athletes to his then-fledgling brand. A giant mosaic of Bowerman – within easy view of Hatfield’s desk, which is flanked by racks of shoes and prototypes – reminds all of the man who defined Nike’s mission. In terms of functionality, the Kitchen is stocked with an array of materials and equipped with machines to create prototypes on demand.
This is the environment that allows Hatfield to pursue whatever innovation he deems fit. And none, perhaps, was as profound as the Free project, which not only led to a top-selling running shoe, but a new paradigm for Nike.
In 2001, Hatfield’s team was given little more than a broad mandate to develop a new training shoe for running. That led to a field trip to perennial track power Stanford and a meeting with its coach Vin Lananna. When Hatfield asked him why his athletes were so successful, he got an unexpected answer.
” ‘Well, we’re taking your shoes off’ … That’s what he told me,” Hatfield says. The coach explained that he thought Nike was “overbuilding” its shoes and preferred his athletes, at times, to train barefoot – to let their feet and leg muscles get stronger.
Hatfield made a transcript of Lananna comments, studied them and began re-thinking Nike’s approach. What commenced was a three-year process involving internal research, collaboration with university biomechanists and a series of prototypes. The end result: the Nike Free, a so-called “natural-motion” shoe designed to let the foot move as it was intended, exercising and strengthening it along the way.
The Free has had a major influence in popularizing natural-motion shoes in running, and its design philosophy has crossed over into golf footwear. Several companies have introduced natural-motion golf shoes, including Ecco, True Linkswear and Adidas. This year, Nike entered the category with the launch of the TW ’13.
What led to its invention was the inquiry from Woods. He had been training in a pair of Frees and wanted a golf shoe that mirrored its performance and comfort. Hatfield went to work, spending sessions with Woods and creating iterations of shoes that eventually evolved into the TW ’13.
Hatfield makes it clear the golf shoe was inspired by the Free, but hardly identical to the training shoe. Though natural-motion advocates are growing in golf, he cautions that its purest form isn’t always ideal for golf. The fact that natural motion is intended to strengthen the foot also means it’ll fatigue it.
“I don’t want Tiger’s feet to be ‘working out’ when he’s trying to win a tournament,” says Hatfield, adding that the TW ’13 was modified to meet golf’s specific motion demands.
Asked if he’ll invent another golf shoe or return to the Kitchen to concoct something else, Hatfield remains discreet.
“There aren’t any prototypes (for new golf footwear),” he says, “but we’ve had some discussions.”