There’s barbed wire on the fences that surround “The Oven,” the research and development center for Nike Golf – one of hardest-to-visit places in the golf industry. But that’s just to keep the cows off the driving range, because they’re everywhere in Fort Worth, Texas.
As exclusive as The Oven is – other than Nike Staff, only a select amount of professional golfers, top amateurs and teaching professionals are allowed to visit – it couldn’t be located in a more average location.
The Oven was built beside a public driving range where average golfers who dream of hitting just one shot as well as Rory and Tiger dig their swings out of the dirt. If those golfers didn’t look carefully, they’d likely miss the nondescript signage and the perfectly maintained grass. They’d have no idea that both Tiger and Rory could actually be hitting balls less than a lob wedge away from them.
During the week of the PGA Tour’s 2013 Crowne Plaza Invitational, which is held just a few miles away from The Oven at Colonial Country Club, five lucky GolfWRX Members visited The Oven for a once-in-a-lifetime golf trip. They were told to bring their full set of golf clubs, but not so they could play a round of golf. Those clubs were to be analyzed in The Oven’s lab and on the range. At the end of the trip, all five members would be sent a full set of Nike Golf clubs that were hopefully better than their gamers.
It’s important to note that these were five GolfWRX members. If golf IQ was calculated by rounds logged, time spent reading about golf equipment and dollars spent tinkering with new clubs, these guys were full-fledged golf Einsteins. But unlike a lot of serious golfers, they weren’t closed off to the idea that clubs from Nike, a relative newcomer to the golf equipment industry, could beat the more established names in their bags.
After all five members (and three GolfWRX Staff members, including myself) landed in Fort Worth and checked into the Sheraton, we went to a more traditional Nike sports event – a Texas Rangers baseball game at the Ballpark at Arlington.
If Nike Golf’s PR Specialist Gretchen Wilhelm wanted us to watch the game, she made a mistake by inviting Nike Golf’s entire staff to come with us. The fittings and tour were supposed to take place on Tuesday morning, but started a day early – at least in spirit. We made our way around Nike’s two-room suite in left field and began asking the Nike team every question we could think of about Nike Golf clubs and the company.
“Where is Tiger on the Covert driver?”
“What was it like to sign Rory?”
“What do you guys think of (insert club) in (insert shaft) if I (insert trajectory problem)?”
Several drinks and barbeque-stained paper plates later, the game was over, and the anticipation of the next day’s fittings larger. In only a few short hours, the members would be testing their clubs against the Swoosh, and they couldn’t wait.
The worst part about the trip to The Oven was the weeks spent waiting for it. That eagerness had to be at its worst when we first arrived on site and were told that our first stop would be a presentation. We were teased by a trophy cased filled with memorabilia from Tiger Woods’ most memorable wins on the way to an auditorium without a golf club in site.
Was it interesting to hear firsthand about Nike’s process for attracting the best athletes, creating products to enhance their greatness and delivering them to consumers in a delicious marketing sandwich? Absolutely. But the range was so close, and the R&D labs were right around the corner!
I’d always snickered at Nike’s habit of calling its golfers “athletes.” Was there something I didn’t know, like that Seung Yul Noh could reverse dunk or that Suzann Petterson was a former Olympic gymnast? Aren’t we talking about a game where it’s not too far-fetched to birdie a six-pack and six holes at the same time?
If you take a look through the roster of Nike Golf athletes, it’s obvious that Nike takes the term “athlete” to heart with its signings. With the exception of a few, the Nike Golf Staff could alternate photo shoots at Golf Digest and Men’s Fitness. But according to Nike Golf Global Director of Communications, Beth Gast, the reason for the term goes deeper than that.
Gast says that Nike calls its golfers athletes because of the support the company gives them. Like Nike’s athletes in most other sports, Nike’s golfers are part of a team. That team — the engineers in R&D, the fitters and club builders at The Oven and the Nike staff that travels the on the PGA Tour — creates clubs, balls, shoes and clothes with the sole purpose of making its team of athletes better.
What the GolfWRX members probably didn’t expect was that for a day, they would become part of that team. They were about to go through an extensive fitting that went above and beyond what they’d ever done anywhere else: four stations (woods, irons, wedges and putters) that would tune each club to their habits and preferences.
I won’t bore you with the details of each members fitting, but here are the highlights:
Tai (member name Pure745), a plus-handicap from California who is legendary for his custom-club habit, spent thousands of dollars on top driver heads and shafts for a launch monitor shootout, but he didn’t include Nike drivers in his testing. Nike’s VR_S Covert Tour driver beat his gamer in ball speed. Click here to read more about the fitting results from each player in the forums.
George (member name MNNikeGuy) loved his Nike VR Pro Limited Edition driver, but found way more distance and consistency with a Nike VR_S Covert Performance driver with a UST Mamiya Pro Force VTS Red shaft.
Ryan (member name swanry30) decided to part ways with his TaylorMade RocketBladez Tour irons for a set of Nike Pro Combo irons. The new irons and True Temper Project X iron shafts gave him more distances due to less spin, and a more penetrating ball flight that resulted in a tighter dispersion.
Scott (member name scotvw13) worked with Nike Golf’s College/Amateur Golf Manager Marlin “Cricket” Musch and has left his old wedges behind for a set of Nike new VR Forged wedges, which he was able to open up for high, soft shots around the green without fear of blading his shots.
Shane (member name shakey) found that his Nike Method Midnight 006 putter was good, but he could do better. David Franklin, Nike’s putter guru who invented the Method putter, fit Shane into a Method Core MC11W putter that was an inch shorter and 1 degree more upright than his gamer. The results were a shorter skid and more consistent direction.
Rory McIlroy’s prototype Nike wedges, which received finishing touches on the grinding wheel before being sent off for testing.
I thought the excitement level would drop off after the fittings, but I didn’t anticipate what was in store for us during the tour of The Oven’s R&D faculties.
Inside The Oven, we saw equipment that only a small percentage of golfers see (or care to see, really). We saw golf balls hurling toward club heads at speeds that are impossible for the average golfer to create (Nike calls it durability testing). We also saw how the acronyms that have come to define advances in the golf industry – COR, MOI, CG – are actually measured.
In the “Grind Shop,” we saw a set of Tiger’s game-used Nike blade irons and sand wedge. If the members weren’t sold on the performance of the Nike clubs in their fittings, they were likely swayed by the awesomeness of being able to leave fingerprints on Woods’ clubs.
Above: A photo of a Tiger Woods unfinished 60-degree wedge. Nike Master Model Maker Mike Taylor and his staff grind these raw wedge into the exact form of Tiger’s previous wedges using templets and models for comparison.
Above: Photos of a Tiger Woods 56-degree wedge that he gamed and returned to the Oven. It has a moderate amount of bounce (10 to 14 degrees) and a blunted leading edge. The added bounce and blunted leading edge allow Tiger to get agressive with his wedge shots without fear of chunking it.
Above: Photos of Woods’ 7 iron (you can click to enlarge). The team at Nike Golf asked Tiger to send back one of his favorite set of gamer irons for research. When I asked Mike Taylor what he was looking for, he said: “Everything.”
Like many great days, the night ended with a party. Kyle Stanley and Jhonattan Vegas joined us for a Q&A session, as well as some friendly competition where we tried to hit it inside Stanley’s wedge shots, and out putt Mr. Vegas.
Above: Jhonny Vegas takes on a GolfWRXer in a putting contest.
There was food and drink as well – Chef Tim Love of the Lonesome Dove Western Bistro in Fort Worth created dishes that were much better than they sounded – Rattlesnake and Rabbit Sausage, Elk Burgers and Jalapeno Cucumber Margaritas.
Exotic food is good jumping off point to say this: things are not always as they seem. To paraphrase the five members I spoke to about the trip:
“It was even better than I expected it would be.”
The funny thing is, I feel the same way.
In the days since the trip, I’ve thought about how a trip to The Oven could be better than a group of golf junkies thought it could be. Just like the five members, I had a chance to test my golf clubs against Nike gear the next day, and think a few of them could beat the ones in my bag. But that’s not what made it great.
I’ll never forget the chills that ran through my body when I set up to a pretend golf ball in The Grind Shop with Tiger Woods’ 3 iron. It also was an honor to hit wedges and putts with Stanley and Vegas. But it wasn’t any of those things that made the trip better than I expected.
The trip was awesome because I got the feeling that there was a team of people working with me to learn new things and go new places with my game. The gear I’ll receive will simply be a reminder of my trip, and will hopefully give me a little extra confidence over my shots. But if there’s one thing I’ve learned from the golf industry, it’s that new models will be released next year. And we’ll be told that we need to have those clubs to play our best.
What won’t be replaced in the retail cycle is the feeling the trip gave me. For one day, I wasn’t just a golfer. I was an athlete with a whole team behind me. In a lonely game that is so dependent on confidence, that means a lot.