Nike - Wants To Be #1 In Golf Industry

(Written By: Tony Covey aka: GolfSpy_T) Rumors of Nike Golf's demise have been greatly exaggerated. I would know. I started a few of them.

Not long ago I told some friends that I wouldn't be the least bit surprised if Nike left the golf business as soon as the current crop of endorsement deals expired. Tiger can keep his Sunday red, but the swoosh is getting the hell out of Dodge, and it's not looking back. Nike isn't serious about golf.

The evidence is there. TaylorMade isn't simply ahead right now. With a strong tour presence and aggressive marketing campaigns ripe with harvests of hyperbole, they are dominating. The competition...Callaway, Cleveland, Nike, they're docile, passive. Good dog. They're practically hibernating.

All but the most loyal Nike fanboys would certainly agree that Nike Golf has been especially quiet this season. The spring's "Speed Trial" thing never really caught fire, and apart from a couple of putters, Tiger shoes, and the launch of the fitness-centric NG360 initiative, Nike basically slept through the summer...and fall. They didn't look the least bit interested in being the #1 Golf Company in the World.

What I saw this season was a company that failed to stir emotions, a company completely unable to generate even the smallest amount of lasting buzz.  2012 belonged to somebody else...anybody else really. It was a year of RocketBallz, and velocity slots; orange drivers, all-black drivers, purple and blue ones too. Mizuno hit with the 59's. Cobra and Callaway made color legit. PING proved it could finally compete on aesthetics, and when TaylorMade wasn't busy buying Adams, they ruled the golf world like kings. Nike, the largest sporting goods company in the world; they were barely a footnote. But that's golf, and more to the point; that's Nike Golf.

Nike doesn't care about being the #1 Golf Company in the World.

I Hate Nike Golf

This guy hates Nike Golf. That's what you're thinking, right? This is how my job goes. I say something nice about a company...I'm in their pocket. Something negative, we'll it must be personal. I've got it in for 'em.

Wrong...and wronger. And as long as I'm clearing up misconceptions, let's be clear about one more thing; this is not a review. I attended an event. I talked to some people. I had fun. I sent some tweets. There were presentations. Nike put lots of stuff on the table (literally and figuratively). This article is a reflection of that experience, but once again... THIS IS NOT A REVIEW.

Moving on...

Search the Internets, you probably won't find anybody doing objective data-driven reviews who has been more complimentary to Nike over the last couple of years. I am most definitely not a guy who hates Nike Golf. Whether its wedges, irons, or woods, on performance alone, Nike has consistently been near the top.

Scoff if you'd like at what I'm about to tell you, but here's the deal. While they've no doubt shot themselves in the foot with their unwavering dedication to one questionable made for shaft after another, and a near total lack of emphasis on custom fitting; all other things being equal, Nike is producing among the very best drivers in golf - top 3, year after year.  #believeit

If Nike Golf has 99 problems, the gear ain't one.

What Nike has is a huge perception problem. Stop me if you've heard any of these before...better yet, stop me if you haven't:

  • Nike is a shoe company that makes golf clubs
  • ...and those clubs are garbage
  • Nike hasn't earned anything in golf...they bought their way in
  • Without Tiger Woods, Nike would be nothing
  • Nike's RZN golf balls feel like rocks
  • Nike doesn't really care about selling golf clubs

Sometimes perceptions reflect reality, but even when they don't the ugly truth is that perceptions usually prove to be more important than what's real.

That said, there is some truth in some of those, so let's put it all on the table right now.

Absolutely Nike bought their way into the golf business. The days of club inventors making their bones selling clubs out of their trunks are over, and they have been for quite some time. In a game dominated by TaylorMade, Callaway, Titleist, and others, you don't spend simply to win, you spend for the privilege of competing. Those who can't pony up the buy-in money play their game at the kiddie table. That's just how it is.

And yeah...Nike's seat was paid for largely with Tiger Woods. He put Nike Golf on the map, and to this day (perhaps in dwindling numbers) guys have full bags of Nike clubs because of the Tiger effect. It remains true that as Tiger goes, so does Nike golf. When he's not winning majors, Nike isn't selling clubs...at least not like they did when Tiger was the undisputed #1.

And oh absolutely, Nike's 1st generation RZN golf balls do feel like rocks. Put your hand up if you'd like to see Nike scrap RZN and bring back the One Tour. Ok...put your hands down...it's not going to happen. RZN really is, and it's not going away.

The rest of the list; it's less cut and dry. It's where perception and reality diverge.

Nike clubs aren't garbage...at least not anymore. Once upon a time maybe Tiger won with inferior equipment. Those were the early days of Nike Golf, but they've gotten much, much better, and over the years; it hasn't been just Tiger winning with Nike. Trevor Immelman, Lucas Glover, Stewart Cink, and Charl Schwartzel have all won majors as Nike staffers. Other Major winners (Louis Oosthuizen) have won with some Nike in the bag too. Whether they bought it or earned it; whatever flawed perceptions exist, Nike is a legitimate golf company. #believeit

On a larger scale, Nike isn't a shoe company; they're a sporting goods company. More to the point they're the #1 sporting goods company in the world. They're a major player in every sport they're involved with. Whether it's soccer (or metric football as some like to call it), basketball, or even skateboarding, if Nike competes, Nike almost always wins.

Which brings me to the last item on my list.

Nike doesn't really care about selling golf clubs.

That one is mine.

What I've learned as a golf equipment writer is that every company has a unique personality. Its own vibe. Some are straight-faced and tightly wound. Some are thinned-skin and delicate. Some are more fun than others, and others are more fun that you might think. And then there's Nike Golf.

In many respects Nike's vibe reflects the Pacific Northwest (Portland) culture. Nike Golf as a company is laid back, friendly, and welcoming. You couldn't ask for nicer people to work with, but I swear to Mount St. Helens, there has never been anything in any interaction with the team at Nike that truly led me to believe they give a damn about being one of the industry's major players. At times, I've wondered if they'd care if they never sold another golf club. While TaylorMade is kicking ass and taking names, Nike is rolling over begging for a belly rub.

Sure...having Tiger on staff, that's cool. Winning majors...that's cool too. But hey man, this golf thing is fun, so let's relax, and have a good time, right?

If Nike's not winning at golf (and they're not), the reason is simple. Nike Golf isn't really competing. They're just having some fun. They're not trying to win. Or so I thought.

The Same Ol' Nike...or Maybe Not

You'll have to forgive me for expecting more of the same out of Nike's recent "Non-Stop Innovation" 2013 Launch Event. Actually, I probably should be forgiven for being surprised there was a launch event. As I said at the onset, I believed Nike's quiet 2012 was a sign that Nike Golf was all but done.

As is the trend these days (one that's not going away, I might add) the presentation from Nike Golf President, Cindy Davis, was streamed live over the Internet.  There was loud music, a speed-painted rendering of the new VRS Covert Driver, and the assertion that THIS is "The most exciting club introduction in the history of Nike Golf".

The reality of the equipment game is that you can substitute "Nike Golf" with the name of any other golf company, and in one form or another that same statement will be made multiple times year in and year out. This year is always better. It's a declaration that has come to mean nothing in the golf industry. And yet, despite falling back on an industry cliché, something was different this time. Something very un-Nike was happening.

Covert Doesn't Begin to Cover It

Nike did an insane job keeping the Covert driver under-wraps. It wasn't spotted on the range at any PGA events. We weren't sitting on a pile of "Spy Pics". Few knew it was red before Nike started leaking images, and fewer still knew anything about the Covert being the world's first cavity back driver. Nike's new approach to adjustability...barely a whisper until MyGolfSpy thought to play around with a couple of the teaser images in Photoshop.

This isn't how Nike operates. Stuff usually leaks, and they smile about it. Not this time. This was perfectly executed TaylorMade-type stuff, and that's no insignificant detail.

Making a Statement

What you guys weren't able to see...what wasn't streamed live on the Internet...was a series of product presentations from Nike Golf. For the US media in attendance, Nike cut right to the chase with an 8:00AM presentation on the new club line up. If you're looking for the 10 second highlight reel, it goes about like this:

Here's the new driver. It has a cavity. It's red. It's got a completely redesigned adjustable hosel. And oh by the way...

We got in this business to be the #1 golf company in the world!

And that was barely the beginning.

"The difference between the competitor's adjustability system and Nike's is the difference between a donkey and a racehorse"

Before the presentation would end the formerly affable Tom Stites, Nike's Director of Product Innovation, and his team would systematically illustrate why Nike believes its new FlexLoft system is superior to Cobra's MyFly/SmartPad combo, Titleist's SureFit, and TaylorMade's FCT/ASP setup. In a very un-Nike-like fashion he mentioned the latter two by name, and the really crazy thing; by the time Tom was done showing charts and graphs, and projecting laser beams from driver faces, he had made a believer out of me. That's right I #believeit.

[The difference between the competitor's adjustability system and Nike's] "is the difference between a donkey and a racehorse" - Tom Stites

Just in case there's any confusion, this time around, Nike isn't the donkey. And Tom Stites isn't looking for a belly rub.

Nike Has The Current Gold Standard In Adjustability

Now all the adjustability in the world won't make up for suspect performance, and truth be told, I haven't yet taken so much as a single swing with the VRS Covert, so I really don't know if the redesigned NexCor face, or the huge cavity in the sole are genuinely everything we're being told that they are. Those are topics that require more investigation, but as far as the adjustability aspect of it goes...

Nike's goal was to create a robust system that was as easy to use as an iPhone (no manual required). Nike's FlexLoft system is wholly unlike Titleist's SureFit System, which Stites described it as the "anti-iPhone". Nike isn't playing nice any more.

Nike's FlexLoft should prove to be easier for the average golfer to understand than offerings from TaylorMade or Titleist (the Titleist one in-particular, while robust absolutely requires the manual). Cobra's MyFly, which I love, is so simple my mother could figure it out (almost), but doesn't allow for independent face angle adjustment. TaylorMade's FCT/ASP combo - a gearhead's dream - falls somewhere in between.

SmartPad, like ASP, is a ground-based visual-only technology. Nike's FlexLoft actually decouples loft and face angle. It's one of only two systems I've seen where both face angle and loft changes are real, and can be measured even when the sole isn't grounded (FYI...Harrison has the other).

The Most Complete Hosel-Adjustable System In Golf

The benefit, Nike claims, is an adjustable hosel that produces significantly increased vertical dispersion (launch angle), and significantly wider lateral dispersion (left to right) over any competitor's system. The simple version; Nike's FlexLoft system works better and does more.

FlexLoft is, for now anyway, the most complete hosel-adjustable system in golf. #believeit

From what I've seen thus far, I think it's safe to say that the VRS Covert will be the single most compelling driver released during the first half of 2013. As with any club that doesn't conform to outdated ideas off tradition, I'm certain there will be detractors...the "no serious golfer would ever play a red driver" crowd. For the life of me I can't fathom who would qualify as a more serious golfer than Tiger Woods, or Rory McIlroy, but I guess they must exist, and they must be so serious in fact that they're more concerned with color than performance.

In actuality, serious, in this particular case, is little more than a euphemism for tight-assed. The cavity, and the red thing won't work to Nike's detriment, and neither will the swoosh on the crown. If it's good enough for Johnny Vegas (he told me he loves it...and I think he means it), it's good enough for me...and you too. Get over yourself already.

Nike Covert Driver - Technical Details

  • Covert will be available in 2 models - a 460cc Performance model and a 430cc Tour model. The tour will launch lower and spin less.
  • Both models are adjustable in 1° increments from 8.5° to 12.5° degrees
  • Nominal (actual measured) loft of the heads is 10.5 degrees
  • World's first cavity back driver relocates mass to the perimeter and directly behind face. The design also dramatically reduces crown vibrations, which improves sound and feel
  • Updated NexCor face technology features a 45% larger hot zone
  • Stock shafts are the Kuro Kage Black (Performance) and Kuro Kage Silver (Pro) both have Nike graphics but are otherwise identical to the aftermarket versions
  • Nike has not yet determined if sleeves/tips will be available for retail purchase
  • Tour players will use the same sleeves

The #1 Golf Company in the World

In the interest of moving things along, and staying under 4000 words, I'm going to do everyone reading (and Nike Golf too) a disservice. I'm going to skip ahead through Nike's updated line of RZN golf balls (they fixed the sound/feel problems...and maybe the distance issues too), their 2013 footwear lineup (including the 13.4oz. Lunar Control shoe), and the apparel collection too.

It's all interesting (none of it more compelling than a shiny red driver with a giant cavity in the sole), and we'll cover all or most of it in due time when we start reviewing some of this stuff, but the real say what? moment of the two day event was that statement about being the #1 Golf Company in the World.

Let me say that one more time in case you missed it. Nike's plan is to become the #1 Golf Company in the World. And here's the thing...they're not kidding. #believeit

Now I know what some of you are thinking. There's absolutely no way Nike (not a real golf company) can overtake TaylorMade...or even Callaway (a distant #2). Once upon a time people said the same thing about TaylorMade. Guys inside Callaway laughed when Mark King said TaylorMade would be the #1 Driver in Golf. Who's laughing now? TaylorMade wasn't born #1. They took care of their business. Nike could do the same.

I'm not saying you shouldn't be skeptical. We're talking about a company that's been in the golf business for over a decade, and hasn't yet been able to make a dent in the marketplace. A ding maybe, but not a dent.

But then again, Nike's got a fairly solid track record when it comes to being #1 at stuff, and empires fall every day - even TMaG-sized empires - even in golf.

A History of Winning

Consider this: Nike has overtaken Adidas as the #1 brand in metric football. To me, that actually sounds like a much more daunting task. And before you start yammering about credibility, reputation, etc., consider that Nike decided they wanted to be the #1 brand in skateboarding (a world foreign to me), and so, despite initially being received as a bunch of posers (I think I've got the lingo down), they were able to overcome that perception, and actually reach that top spot. Nike? The #1 Skateboarding Company in the World? Yup. #believeit

Once again, making it in golf has to be easier than that.

Still not convinced of what Nike is capable of when it's determined? Should we talk about basketball? College football? Like I said, Nike's got a fairly solid track record with this stuff.

I'm not saying it will happen. Nike could fall flat on its swoosh, but there are some compelling reasons why Nike's plan could work, and it all starts with a bright red cavity-backed driver...and more cash than Nike Golf has ever had to work with before.

Nike 101

To understand why this time is different, you need a very rudimentary understanding of how money gets divvied up at Nike. Every year the different segments (golf, football, basketball, etc.) make their plans and plead their cases to the corporate decision makers. And year after year the bulk of the money goes to football (metric) and basketball and other sports where RZN isn't. This year, however; things are different. More money than ever before has been allocated to the golf division, which is going to allow Nike Golf to do things it has never been able to do before (like compete with TaylorMade dollar for dollar).

You already know where some of the money is going. While Nike is still not on the record about Rory, or Nick Watney, or Kyle Stanley, I was told that the names we know about are little more than the tip of the iceberg as far as Nike's plans to revamp its PGA Tour Staff is concerned. There very likely will be more (many more) PGA Tour guys playing Nike than we've seen in previous years, and they're all going to be playing that shiny red cavity back driver we keep talking about.

You're not going to beat TaylorMade by trying to be TaylorMade. One point of differentiation between Nike's approach and TaylorMade's; for Nike it's not about spread. They're not concerned with topping the Darrell Survey. They don't care about club counts. What Nike cares about is winning...and winning each and every week. When you see the winner's bag, they want you to see Nike. The other stuff...the #1 this, or the #1 that... it doesn't matter. This is the Al Davis model. Just win, baby!

When you see red drivers on TV, that's Nike building the same sort of association with red that TaylorMade has developed with white. If it's red, it's Nike. Sorry, Cobra-PUMA, Ian Poulter, and Jonas Blixt, Nike just cornered the market on red drivers. How do you feel about yellow? The blue is nice.

To help cement that association, sell some clubs, and hopefully begin to develop the type of reputation that can carry a company to #1 status (or at least put them in the conversation), Nike is going nearly all in with that shiny red cavity back driver. Over 50% of the marketing spend for the golf division will go towards promoting the Covert driver. It's a huge risk, but nobody, not even Nike, can get to #1 by playing it safe. The VRS Covert isn't simply the signature product for 2013; it is the signature product for the entire 10+ year history of Nike Golf. If they didn't before, Nike most certainly cares about selling golf clubs. They're determined to win, and they'll spend to do it.

The Red Devil's Advocate

Let's assume Nike fires on all cylinders, and the VRS Covert proves the be the hottest selling club in the comparatively brief history of Nike Golf. If we can assume it offers competitive performance (and it will) I'll go on record right now with a prediction that the Covert will be the biggest retail success in Nike Golf's History. I'll go so far as to say that if Nike proves to be half a TaylorMade where the marketing is concerned, the Nike Covert driver is going to be the "it" club of 2013. It should be this season's RocketBallz. It deserves to be. The VRS Covert has the potential to give Nike instant credibility (the kind they've never had) on a mass-market scale. I've seen the club (and the competition's clubs), and I #believeit.

The only question is whether or not Nike's marketing team can sell it? They better. It's step 1 to becoming #1.

I know...slow down cowboy, let's not get too far ahead of ourselves. If the formula was as simple as pay lots of PGA players, paint driver, do a little marketing, become #1 in golf, somebody would have done it a while ago...wait... never mind.

In fairness, TaylorMade was #1 before they painted a driver white, but the TMaG example illustrates that no single thing can take a company to #1. All the pieces have to fall into place, and there's one piece we haven't talked about yet.

TaylorMade has to screw up, just like Callaway screwed up.

In 2003, with TaylorMade already gaining ground, Callaway, then maker of the #1 Driver in golf, released the ERC Fusion. It was revolutionary for its time. Its carbon fiber crown would become the signature of modern Callaway drivers. Unfortunately, Callaway burdened the driver with a retail price over $600. Consumers hated it, and those who actually bought it suffered through above average failure rates. The club was, in nearly every respect, a colossal disaster.  One year later TaylorMade took over the #1 spot and hasn't looked back.

Callaway for its part still hasn't fully recovered, and to this day, there's a measurable chunk of the golfing demographic that still associates Callaway with the ERC Fusion (and some equally questionable follow-ups). They left the brand, and they haven't looked back either. The moral of the story is that one big mistake can completely upend a golf company. Who's to say TaylorMade is immune?

What If....

What if TaylorMade falls behind on adjustability? What if they released a driver that simply didn't perform? What if they overestimate the public's willingness to pay top dollar (and then some) for a fairway wood? TaylorMade might fail to adapt to changing market conditions. They might not recognize when it's time to rein in the hype machine.

A TaylorMade mistake could happen. It might not need to be a big one, but Nike needs a mistake, and for their part, they'll need to be perfect while they wait for it.

Today's reality is that, regardless of how you feel about TaylorMade's products, or the company itself, their foot is firmly on the accelerator, and thus far they aren't driving recklessly. TaylorMade mistakes are few and far between - almost non-existent really. Catching up to them won't be easy. Non-Stop Innovation doesn't happen overnight. Nike has no delusions.

There's not a definitive timetable anyone at Nike is talking about. There's been no declaration of a #fiveyearwar, but there is a plan, and more importantly there's a new attitude at Nike golf. There's an edge to their previously chill demeanor. They're focused. They're building buzz, and they're calling out the competition. It's a very different, more exciting Nike Golf, and if the Covert driver sets the tone the way Nike needs it to, it's going to be very interesting to see how this all plays out over the next several years.

Have Your Say

What do you think of the new VRS Covert Driver?  Does Nike have what it takes to be the #1 Golf Company in the World?