Golf: Sticks for Woods

When Nike designed its first line of golf clubs—drivers, irons, and wedges—it did so with Tiger Woods in mind. The company reasoned that if it could convince Woods to use its new clubs on the PGA Tour, Nike might be able to claim a significant share of the $2 billion worldwide golf equipment market. It should be no surprise, then, that the new clubs, which were introduced earlier this year, were designed for what Nike calls “the better player.” There are no self-correcting gear effects, no high-trajectory bottom weighting, no compensatory heel-toe features for off-center hits. If you want these clubs, it’s assumed you can deliver the sweet spot into the ball all by yourself. However, Nike doesn’t rule out adding so-called “game improvement” clubs for higher handicap players at a later date.

Nike outsourced the design of its clubs to Impact Golf Technologies’ Tom Stites, a former designer for the Ben Hogan Co. who has custom-designed clubs for nearly 80 touring pros over the years. Stites experimented with several different prototypes—all forged blades—before settling on a muscleback design for Nike’s initial foray into irons. Similar designs by Titleist and Mizuno are already popular with tour players, and like them, the new Nike irons offer a very traditional profile with a conservative back cavity and power-bar weighting behind the sweet spot. Nike claims its “precision forging” process preserves the grain of the metal, adding strength and durability to the club, while a new combination of both V- and U-shaped grooves contributes spin and control. Also, the club head weight differential from the two-iron to the wedge is less than two grams, which is important if you’re seeking a consistent feel throughout the bag.

The two driver models that Nike unveiled, with heads sized at 275cc and 350cc, look remarkably similar to the popular Titleist 975 series, one of which has long resided in Woods’ bag. (He also plays with a prototype design of Titleist-made irons and a Scotty Cameron putter.) The Nike drivers are made with proprietary beta titanium, and the faces of both models are also precision forged to create a lighter, thinner, yet stronger surface. They meet USGA specifications, “but just barely,” according to Nike.

Nike also introduced a set of four scoring wedges, with lofts from 53 to 60 degrees. Each has a thin top line and limited offset. Again, that’s what better players prefer.

One better player who knows is David Duval. He played with the prototype irons for most of the 2001 campaign, including his first major win at the British Open at Royal Lytham. He tried the Nike driver for the first time at the PGA Championship in Atlanta and led the field in driving distance.

The question remains whether Nike can convince Woods, who recently signed a $100 million extension to his endorsement deal with Nike, to switch to its clubs. He has already won 29 times—including six majors—and pocketed more than $26.1 million in prize money playing with Titleist clubs. Of course, Woods could probably use a broomstick and a round rock and beat any of us better players.

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