When I first laid eyes on Nike Golf research and development facility, “The Oven”, in Ft. Worth Texas in early 2007 I could only call myself a bit of a skeptic. As a one-time retail golf store owner I had been witness to Nike’s early attempts to enter the golf industry in the late 1980’s and early 90’s. It amounted to very little in terms of product and product quality. Our customers were eager to involve the familiar swoosh logo in their golf games but the golf shoes did not meet the expectations people had for gear from the corporate giant.
That experience resonated with me for quite some time, so even when Nike golf took on the game with a whole new focus after the signing of Tiger Woods in 1996, I felt they had a lot to prove. In golf the true testament to the quality of products is in their performance, and no level of marketing can ever change that. Fortunately, Nike Golf realized that very early on in their development and made the acquisition of a company called Impact Golf. The evolution of that procurement is what I found when I returned to The Oven just last week. That visit, along with my previous foray, helped me to vanquish those early Nike Golf equipment experiences and give me whole new level of respect for their golf business.
The fact alone that Nike, an Oregon-based company, has their golf brain-trust primarily centered in North Texas says a lot about the people they have working for them and Nike’s appreciation for their experience.
To get into the golf club business Nike acquired Impact Golf Technologies. The core staff of Impact Golf, a free-agent business who came up with more than 120 club designs for a number of companies, had strong ties with the Ben Hogan Company. They, of course, were known for their craftsmanship and high standards as was the vision of Mr. Hogan himself.
Nike respected that pedigree and when the acquisition of Impact was completed they had no trouble giving in to the demand that the Impact employees wanted to stay close to their roots in Ft. Worth. Thus, a nondescript facility next to a public driving range was created just off Interstate 30. And with it the true story of Nike Golf’s equipment business began.
“The Oven” as it is known, has become the basis for Nike Golf’s rise into the upper echelon of the golf industry. From there Director of Product Creation Tom Stites and his very able team have brought to life a myriad of product designs that have not only captured the public imagination, but more than a few major championship trophies along the way. 2009 alone saw Lucas Glover and Stewart Cink use their Nike equipment to win the U.S. Open and Open Championship, respectively.
Coincidentally, just three months prior to Glover’s victory Nike Golf had made the biggest capital investment in their history with the expansion of The Oven. To the original 32,000 ft.² building, driving range, and test facility, they added more than 17,000 ft.² of working space and a 3 1/2 acre short game area.
“We added a lot of additional space to help us function here,” The Oven’s host, Matt Plumb, told me while we stood in the test center adjacent to the range. “We added a lot of additional lab space, a lot of new space in the back of the grind shop and in other areas. It’s not only for the tour specific product but for developing the master moulds for products we are bringing to retail.”
The short game area is the most visible change at The Oven. In your immediate eye-line as you enter their parking lot, it is not only a place for fun but where genuine work can be done with the Nike golf athletes. Encompassing three synthetic greens, a natural grass green, three bunkers with varying style and sand content, and a large variety of tees, there are some 318 hole combinations.
“Each of the greens have somewhere between 9 and 13 holes of them so there are infinite shots you can play,” states Plumb. The three -hole complex allows their visiting pro and collegiate athletes to test clubs in a real environment where they can hit shots of up to 135 yards. “We can take a player out there and work on their wedge grind, loft combinations in terms of dialling in their distances, or specifically (the) golf ball as we start to dial that in. We have spent a lot time fitting golf balls there lately as a result of the new groove changes.”
Plumb says most of their staff athletes have been through the facility since the changes took place and they have enjoyed the updates. “Anything that can help our athletes to perform better they really appreciate.” He adds, “And for them to be able to come here and work with the guys like David Franklin (putters) and Mike Taylor (grinding – wedges, irons) – people who are passionate about golf equipment and how it performs, is just a special situation.”
Plumb makes a great point in that they have 22 engineers at Nike Golf’s facility but they also have people with hundreds of years of experience in “crafting” golf equipment – making sure that not only will the clubs work like they are supposed to, but that they also aesthetically pleasing.
Master putter maker David Franklin, the man behind the new Nike “Method” putters, might have put in best when he talked to me about the place where he creates his short game visions. “The Oven is not a factory that produces golf clubs; it’s a place where people who are passionate about golf are trying to create something better every day. We take pride in everything we do. We want to make products that help the golfer but also inspire them to play. It’s a fun place to work and we feed off each other. I think it shows in how far we have come.”
Franklin should know – he was part of the original five-man core of people that came to Nike via Impact.
And what effect does The Oven have on the professional and collegiate athletes who get to visit? Staffer Paul Casey has been known to hang out in Mike Taylor’s grind shop for hours, just to watch him work. And Tiger Woods, who has meticulous standards for his equipment, puts his faith in product created by this small group of craftspeople.
“When athletes visit here they can’t be anything but impressed,” says Nike’s College Amateur Golf Manager Marlin “Cricket” Musch as he put me through the paces on the Nike range. “It changes the way they look at Nike Golf and how we make golf equipment when they see the abilities of the people who work here and what they are capable of creating.”
To that list of athletes you can add at least one golf journalist. The sincerity in which Nike Golf is tackling the golf business has shown through in my two visits to The Oven. They’ve come a long way from leaky golf shoes and I have to give them full respect for that.
Having the resources to develop product is one thing but outside of the tools and technology, it is clear that Nike Golf’s real focus is on the people who make their golf equipment, and in the end, the people who use it.
The impact of “The Oven” is not lost on anyone familiar with it. Just ask anyone who’s made a visit, be it a professional or amateur. The average golfer will likely never get that chance but even when they buy that Nike Golf club off the rack, a little bit of the place, and the people within it, become their golfing allies.
To see a slideshow with more images and an audio interview about The Oven visit here.