Monday, February 19, 2007

Who is the key person at Nike Golf? The man responsible for the most anticipated golf club unveiling since Callaway's Big Bertha in 1991? \n

If you guessed Tiger Woods, you guessed wrong. \n

No, that person is neither young, trim, nor movie-star handsome, except to his wife [no offense]. He can't bounce a Nike ball off the face of an 8-iron more than twice. He rarely visits the company's sprawling, 750-acre campus in Beaverton, Oregon, instead holding forth in a low-slung building buried under the lip of a side street among some scrub oaks and asphalt in Fort Worth, Texas. In fact, the sign out front doesn't even say Nike. \n

Photographer: Sam Greenwood
Tiger Woods and Nike Golf Sam Greenwood

Photographer: Charles Ford
Industry veteran Tom Stites is Nike Golf's designer. Charles Ford

Photographer: Robbie McLaren/Corbis Saba
Bob Wood, president of Nike Golf since 1998. Robbie McLaren/Corbis Saba

"We haven't accomplished our goal of being a great golf brand," he says. "We had to take an outsider's view looking [in]. When Nike is successful, we always have a position of being inside. You want to know what's going on at the World Cup? We know. You want to know what's going on in baseball? We know. You want to know who the next 10 best college football players are? We know who they are. \n

Photographer: Robbie McLaren/Corbis Saba
Mike Kelley heads up Nike Golf's club business. Robbie McLaren/Corbis Saba

"When I came into this thing again, we were going nowhere," Wood says. "We had Tiger, but we weren't doing a good job. I basically told our people that if we were to disappear tomorrow, rounds don't go down, sales don't go down. If we go out of business tomorrow, nobody cares. That's not like the other categories [at Nike]. We're 60 or 70 percent of some categories, and in those, if we don't ship, they're dead." \n

Photographer: Robbie McLaren/Corbis Saba
Kel Devlin is Nike Golf's man on the PGA Tour. Robbie McLaren/Corbis Saba

Wood borrowed a premise that had served him well in other sports: Make products that the best players in the world will use, and the public will soon follow. "One of the ways Nike galvanizes itself is to become associated with the best," Wood says. "When we were getting into football, one of the first things we did was to sign [college coaches] Bear Bryant, John McKay, Joe Paterno, Bo Schembechler, Woody Hayes, and Lou Holtz. We didn't even have any shoes. Are you going to take lousy shoes and sit down in front of Bear Bryant? I don't think so. \n

"If you sign someone as visible as Tiger Woods, what you do had better work. How would it be for us to have what we do not work, to be disrespected in the golf business? It's embarrassing, a black eye. The products we were making [prior to 1998] were not good products, they were not good for the market, and we weren't selling them to the right people." \n

"People have been puzzled by our marketing approach," Stites says. "Why a blade iron first? We worked with David Duval and others to find something they would win with on Tour. Well, he won the [2001] British Open with what we had developed. If we can build clubs for great players to win major championships, that part of the equation is met. Then comes the challenge of making something the average player can have fun with and play better. The single biggest category in that regard is the driver, so we developed a product that could cover every profile." \n

Wood refuses to believe that Nike is taking a chance entering the market this way. "I think it's a good strategy," he says. "Yes, with the [forged] irons, that's a really finite part of the market. But the woods are much more accessible. Those woods go from 275 [cubic centimeters] to 350 cc to 400 cc -- that anyone can play. We aren't taking a chance with the driver; with the rest of it, we can afford to be patient. \n

"What people don't see are all the ideas we have and our innovation stream that goes out for years. We have three or four incredibly great ideas that we're cooking on. Clearly, on the iron front, it's going to be a while before we have the game-improvement [club] done. We have to start with the best. It's the way we work." \n

Photographer: Robbie McLaren/Corbis Saba
Tiger Woods Center at Nike Golf's Headquarters. Robbie McLaren/Corbis Saba

"Can we have a great golf club business without Tiger?" asks Mike Kelly, Nike's director of golf equipment. "Yes, we can; we've already won a major. We have a lot of plans. But if Tiger switches [to the irons], that will be the greatest feat in our history. He's a complicated player and a tough consumer." \n

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