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Nike Golf – Innovation Within Craftmanship

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Welcome To The Oven / Photo: Scott MacLeod (Flagstick)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.

This editorial provided to GolfWRX.com by Flagstick Golf Magazine (www.flagstick.com)

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Andrew “Beef” Johnston WITB 2017

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Equipment is accurate as of the 2017 RSM Classic (11/14/17).

Driver: Titleist 917D2 (9.5 Degrees)
Shaft: Mitsubishi Tensei Orange 70TX

3 Wood: Titleist 917F3 (15 Degrees)
Shaft: Mitsubishi Tensei Orange 80TX

Hybrids: Titleist 816 H2 (19 Degrees)
Shafts: Mitsubishi Kuro Kage 90HY TX

Driving Irons: Titleist 718 T-MB 2 & 3 Iron (17 & 20 Degrees)
Shaft: True Temper Dynamic Gold X100 Tour Issue

Irons: Titleist 718 MB (3-9)
Shaft: True Temper Dynamic Gold X100 Tour Issue

Wedges: Titleist Vokey SM7 (46-10F, 50-08F, 54-10S)
Shaft: True Temper Dynamic Gold S400 Tour Issue

Putter: Scotty Cameron Circle T Super Rat I GSS Inlay
Grip: Scotty Cameron Standard Pistol

Putter: Scotty Cameron Circle T Newport 2
Grip: Scotty Cameron Standard Cord Pistol

Putter: Scotty Cameron Circle T Super Rat II GSS Inlay
Grip: Scotty Cameron Standard Cord Pistol

WITB Notes: Beef was testing a variety of putters ahead of The RSM Classic. We will update this post when his choice is confirmed. 

Related:

Discussion: See what GolfWRX members are saying about Beef’s clubs. 

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The hottest blade irons in golf right now

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As we’ve written before, the decision to put a new driver in the bag is usually obvious. Better numbers at testing, perceptibly longer distance, and as long as your bank account allows, you have your new gamer.

The iron switch, however, is a trickier beast. Comfort with the variety of shots one needs to hit is key. Confidence from one’s long irons through the higher lofts is critical. Thus, even the greatest enthusiasm for a new iron release isn’t always followed by a mass exodus to gaming said irons. This is doubly true at the professional level, where the tools are critical to a player’s livelihood.

That said, the combination of forum chatter, GolfWRX member enthusiasm, and what we’re spotting in our WITB photos from tour stops are a reliable indicator of the hottest irons in the game.

And judging by the response to our recent Instagram post, we’re confident that these four models are the hottest blade irons in golf right now.

Callaway Apex MB

Buzz built steadily for the Apex MB iron when we first spotted them in Tour players’ bags at the beginning of 2017. The irons are the product of direct feedback from the company’s Tour staffers, according to Luke Williams, Director of Product and Brand Management at Callaway. Forged from 1025 Carbon Steel, these irons have the shortest blade lengths, the thinnest soles and the smallest overall heads in the vast line of Callaway irons. They’re designed for maximum workability, and for tour-desired turf interaction.

Related: Callaway (finally) launches new Apex MB and X Forged irons

Mizuno MP-18

The pioneers of Grain-Flow Forging, Mizuno went back to its roots with the MP-18 iron model. A throwback to the great muscle backs in the company’s history, Mizuno was shooting for the look of an iron that could have been forged a century ago. Shorter blade length, cambered top line, sharp, compact wedges, all combined with the most minimal badging make the MP-18 an instant classic that set the GolfWRX forums afire.

Related: Mizuno brings the MP family closer together

TaylorMade P730

TaylorMade’s P730, particularly in its prototype incarnations, made quite a splash on the PGA Tour. Building on the heritage of the TP-MB irons, P730 was developed in collaboration with the very best players in the world. The 1025 carbon steel irons irons feature a smaller profile and crisper lines than the MB series irons. The combination of the clean look and a deep rear groove have players drooling. Discussing working with Dustin Johnson and Justin Rose to design the P730, TM’s Senior Director of Irons, Tomo Bystedt said, “What these players need is a very low-inertia club that they can [manipulate] easily, almost like a surgeon’s scalpel.” Behold the scalpel.

Related: Taylormade expands forged offerings with P730 and P790

Titleist 718 MB

“For the purist there is no substitute for a one-piece, muscle back iron. The 718 MB is the modern choice for those desiring a traditional forged look and feel,” says Titleist in the 718 MB marketing materials.

It’s hard to argue with that statement from the “appearance of a classic forged iron” standpoint. Purists appreciate that the 718 MB maintains Titleist’s traditional lofts (the 6-iron is 31 degrees, the pitching-wedge is 47 degrees), thin top-line, minimal offset, and limited badging. In short, if it ain’t broke…

Related: Titleist’s 718 irons offer endless possibilities.

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Whats in the Bag

Austin Cook’s Winning WITB: The 2017 RSM Classic

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Driver: Ping G400 LST (8.5 Degrees)
Shaft: Fujikura Speeder 661 Evolution TX-Flex

3 Wood: Ping G400 Stretch (13 Degrees)
Shaft: Fujifuke Motore Speeder VC 7.2 TX-Flex

Hybrid: Ping G400 3 Hybrid (19 Degrees)
Shaft: Matrix Ozik Altus Tour H8 91X

Hybrid: Ping G400 4 Hybrid (22 Degrees)
Shaft: Matrix Ozik Altus Tour H8 91 X

Irons: Ping S55 Orange Dot (5-PW)
Shafts: KBS Tour S-Flex

Wedges: Ping Glide 2.0 SS (50-12, 56-12), Ping Glide 2.0 WS (60)
Shaft: True Temper Dynamic Gold S400 Tour Issue

Putter: Ping Sigma G Tyne 
Grip: SuperStroke Mid-Slim 2.0

Golf Ball: Titleist Pro V1

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