Last Updated on Monday, 29 October 2007 06:48 Wednesday, 29 August 2007 04:01
Seriously, the opportunity to see the place nicknamed “The Oven” where legendary club designer Tom Stites dreams up Nike Golf’s next generation of equipment was a clear-the-calendar kind of invite. The opportunity to test out Nike's latest products on the same launch monitor that Tiger uses would just be icing on the cake.
On arrival, surprisingly, the Oven's exterior has an almost non-descript, functional look. No big signs, no big billboards of Tiger... not what one might expect from the flashiest name in sports. Still, it seems to fit into the landscape well. The entire Dallas-Fort Worth area has that sort of hot, dusty, wind-swept, raw-boned, squinty-eyed Texan feel about it. A place where hard men do real work. And when we went through the door, it quickly became apparent that this hard work mindset continues inside.
It can be argued, however, that this was not always true.
The following April, Woods wins at Augusta, is disgusted after seeing his swing on TV and decides it needs rebuilding. From that point on, Nike and Tiger essentially learned together... Tiger, how to build a better game and Nike, how to build a better golf club.
The key word here is ‘better.’ Nike is a company whose mantra is that if they can't bring something innovative, they won't make a new product. This commitment actually goes all the way back to the company's humble beginnings when Phil Knight's first innovation was a rubber compound for cushioning running shoes that was developed in one morning and then put in a waffle iron.
Possible to do in the 1960s for sneakers, not so easy for golf clubs as you approach the new millennium.
While it may be debatable just as to when Nike decided they needed to focus on product (R&D) and not just marketing, it did not take them long to decide who they wanted to lead the charge.
Tom Stites, a living legend in golf equipment design, was hired in early 2001. Stites had learned at the feet of Ben Hogan and by the 90s headed his own company -IGT (Impact Golf Technnolgy) - a hired gun that many manufacturers utilized for R&D, testing and related work. The people in his shop included, most notably, the legendary club maker Mike Taylor.
IGT's team went to work exclusively for Nike in 2002 and the Oven broke ground that October. Today the combined design experience of the design team is more than 230 years and the average manager has more than 10 years of experience.
Our visit to the Oven started with a promotional video that was clearly intended to impress. From Tiger espousing laying up as the last option to a list of their clients that has ranged from John McEnroe to Michael Jordan to Lebron James, they hammered home that Nike is a company of athletes making products for athletes and that they consider everyone an athlete.
On the golfer side, the promo profiled the 11 of the top 50 men players in the world with Nike sponsorship head to toe. "It's a pretty good stable of players,” understates Stites. “We had 16 PGA Tour wins last year. KJ Choi wins his second time out with the square driver.”
Ah... the square-shaped SasQuatch SUMO• driver. Nike’s new innovative driver that has gained more fame and notoriety in a few months than most clubs gain in a lifetime. Fame for pushing MOI to the max, notoriety for pushing COR beyond it.
Mere weeks after our visit, Nike would have to weather the storm of finding out that its first production run of the SUMO• included a small number of clubs whose COR was greater than acceptable by the USGA (Visit insidegolf.ca and search on “Nike Recall” for more on this).
The meat of the presentation followed. Made by Rick Wahlin, Nike Golf’s engineering manager, it really centered around telling the story of how Nike has made the move to being a legitimate club manufacturer and how that means a commitment to both R&D and tour player involvement in product development.
A commitment that can best be shown by the quality of the people. Our tour included meeting celebrated clubmaker Mike Taylor. His title, Product Engineering Manager could easily be Nike Golf’s Grinder Emeritus. “What I do allows me to come in to work every day, take a block of steel and make something out of it,” says Taylor. We all take pride in the product and innovation we’ve achieved, even our tour staff. But what I’m proud of is how those same players come here and talk to me about irons, about shaping, what they see from golfers in pro-ams. They’re a valuable resource and they’re as passionate about this as we are.”
This sounds like it might be just talk but the reality backs up the claim. Tour player Paul Casey comes in quite often just to hang out with Taylor. Wahlin says, “The SQ involved both Tiger and the entire staff, The pro combo irons were designed with strong input from David Duval, the platinum one ball is designed specifically for Tiger, the One Black for Stewart Cink. Start to finish the athletes play a key role in development. The confidence in the clubs is such that Rory Sabbatini plays off the rack Ignite irons, the same ones that the consumer buys.”
Interestingly, Tiger has even had minor tweaks made to the construction of his signature Platinum One ball over the years. Most recently, the cover which is made of urethane was made slightly softer changing the “Shore D” value from 50 to 47.
While you can bet that Tiger can tell the difference between a Shore D of 47 versus 50 blindfolded, the Oven still has every piece of testing equipment that you (or Tiger) could ever have heard of... and a couple that you may not have. One is their Mechanical Golfer, a computer controlled robot that measures the dynamic impact of club on ball in various positions (high face, mid face, low face, heel, centre and toe impacts). Even newer and even more unique is a state-of-the-art Putting Lab, where multiple high-speed cameras measure a putting stroke as well as evaluate the roll and skid of the ball off the putter's face.
When you come down to it though, it’s clear that it’s the genius of head chef Stites that keeps the Oven hot. Since he joined Nike in February 2001, Stites has been the chief architect of products from the CPR Ironwood to the Slingshot irons and now the SUMO drivers.
While Wahlin spoke, Stites stood off to the side just twirling a club, looking at it, feeling it... the wheels turning. When it was his turn to talk, he was still holding it, probably dreaming up Nike’s next generation of clubs.
After co-efficient of restitution, centre of gravity and now moment of inertia, one might wonder if there are any true innovations left in the physics of the golf club. When Stites was asked just that question, with a glint in his eye, he just grinned and repsonded, “We've still got a few more tricks up our sleeve.”
By Jeff Sutherland
Jeff Sutherland is the publisher of Inside Golf Magazine.http://www.insidegolf.ca