2002: Business - Nike irons aim for broad appeal
Nike Golf executives are confident that they have accomplished two feats which, they say, few others can pull off.
First, they’ve created an unconventional mix of irons that collectively deliver the playability of cavity backs and the aesthetics of blades. Second, and perhaps, more important, they’ve demonstrated that their brand can s-t-r-e-t-c-h.
“We’re going to represent everyone from Tiger Woods and David Duval to kids who are picking up clubs for the very first time,” said Mike Kelly, director of Nike’s golf club business.
Though many brands are limited from broadening their core consumer base for fear of diluting or tarnishing their identity, the Swoosh already has demonstrated its ability to cross gender, racial and demographic lines.
Following the model that made its parent a $10-billion-per-year operation, Nike Golf has embarked on a steady and deliberate course of action to “widen its access point” – using the vernacular of Scott Bedbury, a former Nike marketing strategist and author of “A New Brand World.” In the not too distant future, major equipment initiatives will be directed like prongs to introduce Nike Golf to specific target audiences such as women and youths.
“All of the other manufacturers keep chasing the same 6 million avid golfers, and it’s not doing any of them any good,” Kelly said. “We’re going to grow the market.”
Nike’s first step was to debut its forged blade irons, which were never intended to become a huge commercial success. Their purpose was to validate Nike’s ability to craft clubs for the limited audience that plays this common game with uncommon skill.
But with this month’s unveiling of the forged Pro Combo irons, Nike Golf has introduced what is, in essence, the first of many bridges to a broader audience.
The set – targeted for golfers ranging from scratch to 20 handicappers – includes full cavity long irons (2, 3 and 4); muscle cavity mid-irons (5, 6 and 7) and blade short irons (8, 9 and pitching wedge).
The project began with the intent of designing clubs that have a “blade look” at address and crafting each iron to perform particular shots as opposed to simply providing different distances, said Tom Stites, Nike Golf’s chief club designer.
He said he expects golfers to embrace such a medley of irons, especially since it has become commonplace for players – including those on professional tours – to play with a “broken set,” for example, that includes utility clubs or driving irons in lieu of 2 irons.
The new irons feature three “subsets”:
• 2-, 3-, 4-iron: In addition to their full cavity backs, these clubs concentrate more weight in the sole, heel and toe, which officials say creates a lower center of gravity and produces less clubhead twisting, helping reduce slices that are common in long-iron play.
• 5-, 6-, 7-iron: These clubs are partially filled with weight pads that officials say balance forgiveness and accuracy – critical for effective approach shots.
• 8-, 9-iron, PW: The short irons are blades, which officials say are the proper construction to deliver control, touch and feel. The blades feature a higher center of gravity to help prevent shots from ballooning, enabling golfers to develop a more precise and consistent short game.
The notion of making long irons more forgiving and short irons more accurate is certainly nothing new. Indeed, manufacturers have offered mixed sets for years, if not decades. Retailers cited, for example, the popularity in the mid-1980s of Ram Tour Grinds, which could be custom-ordered to produce a set of cavity-back long irons and short iron blades.
But Nike officials insisted they have taken the concept to a new level in terms of product performance and commercial potential.
“There have been a lot of good ideas introduced in golf, but they don’t get executed to the ninth degree,” Stites said. The Pro Combo set will be available at retailers following Thanksgiving and are expected to sell for $899 (steel shafts) and $999 (graphite shafts), Kelly said. Left-handed models are slated for a March 1 debut.
Many retailers, who were given a “preview” of the irons during a special event at Nike headquarters Aug. 6, gave the set high marks.
Though the clubs’ “story” may not be original, several retailers said they had confidence Nike could tell it in a compelling fashion.
“I don’t know what you can call an original anymore,” said Leigh Bader, co-owner of Joe & Leigh’s Discount Golf Pro Shop in South Easton, Mass. “This concept isn’t necessarily new, but it looks very well done. It looks like a blade, feels like a blade, smells like a blade, but the critical difference is, it’ll give people the confidence to say, ‘Maybe I can hit this.’
“Clubmaking is an art, but I think a lot of people in the industry have forgotten that. We’ve moved away and become fixated on ‘pure technology plays.’ But the Pro Combo irons seem to blend art with technology. It’s an interesting mix.”