Clark: Give Nike Golf credit where credit is due

Image by: Golf Wrx

Remember all the criticism hurled at Rory McIlroy when he decided to switch to Nike Golf equipment? It’s quieter now, isn’t it?

The meteoric rise of Nike Golf has been nothing short of amazing considering that not very long ago, Nike Golf was the new kid on the block in the golf club business; a young company in a very old, well-developed industry. The success of Tiger Woods — and more recently McIlroy and Michelle Wie — has certainly been a huge part of the company’s growth, but success in the golf equipment industry has always come down to one thing: Do the clubs perform or not?

I’ve been on staff with Nike Golf now for some 10 years, so I’ve had a front row seat to watch it develop from an apparel company that also sold golf clubs to a full-fledged golf equipment powerhouse. It’s true that Nike is my company of choice as a golf professional, but If you’ve read any of my other GolfWRX stories you know that I let history, science and little else affect my opinions.

Here’s a story that nicely sums up Nike’s progress in the golf equipment world. I was giving a lesson about eight years ago and when we finished the student told me that he was interested in trying a new driver. I gave him mine to hit, a Nike Sasquatch, which at the time was one of the most forgiving drivers on the market and was pretty hot, too. But it had a problem and if you’ve ever hit one you know exactly what it was. People say it sounded like an aluminum baseball bat at impact and frankly I have to agree. While it was a great performer, it was one of the loudest drivers I’ve ever heard on the range.

Fast forward to today and you’ll find that Nike makes some of the best-looking, best-sounding and sweetest-feeling golf clubs in the industry. They offer a wide-ranging line of drivers, fairway woods, hybrids, irons, wedges, putters and golf balls that have impressed everyone from the mini-tour players I teach to golfers who are just learning the game.

I’ve also been impressed with Nike’s ascendance on the PGA Tour. The company has teamed up with some the Tour’s finest young players: Kevin Chappell, Kyle Stanley, Scott Brown, Seung Yul Noh, Russell Henley, Jhonny Vegas and the world’s former No. 1-ranked amateur Patrick Rodgers. Ten years ago, it might have been hard for Nike to attract so many good young players to its golf brand. Now, Nike has its pick of the litter. That says a lot about how the perception of Nike Golf has changed among good players.

I also have great respect for the performance-first approach the GolfWRX Staff took with its 2014 Gear Trials: Best Clubs list, and you’ll see that Nike lead the way in several categories with its Covert 2.0 and 2.0 Tour drivers, and posted even more impressive results in the Best Players Irons and Best Game-Improvement irons with its Covert Forged and Covert 2.0 irons, respectively.

It is not hard to see why. As a teaching professional, I rely on feedback from my students and ball flight observations of my own. My FlightScope radar gives me raw data, but no technology can capture feel, that elusive feedback we get from impact and ball flight. The overwhelming positive responses I get from the current Nike offerings sanction my recommendations time after time.

It has been my experience that brand loyalty is not as high on a golfer’s priority list as one might think; my students will hit brand “XYZ” if I can show them the results, and Nike’s clubs and golf balls absolutely perform. For better players, Nike is truly at the forefront in the players irons and wedge categories, producing clubs that are not only innovative but meet incredibly high standards in looks, feel and performance.

The company’s master model maker, Mike Taylor, is the only living club maker who has made custom clubs for Ben Hogan, Jack Nicklaus and Tiger Woods, and he was the force behind Nike’s new VR X3X Toe Sweep wedges, which have their heels designed in a way that allows golfers to hit shots around the green from deep rough without the heel-snagging problem that can affect more traditional wedges. For such a different-looking wedge, the reception with tour players has been phenomenal.

The radical-looking Nike VR X3X Toe Sweep wedge that Rory McIlroy used to win the BMW PGA Championship. Michelle Wie also won the 2014 U.S. Open with two Toe Sweep wedges in her bag (56 and 60 degrees). 

McIlroy used a 59-degree Toe Sweep to win the BMW PGA Championship, Europe’s most prestigious event outside The Open Championship. Michelle Wie used a combination of Nike’s VR X3X Dual Sole and Toe Sweep wedges to win her first major, the 2014 U.S. Women’s Open at Pinehurst. The list goes on and on.

Nike Golf has never lost sight of its original goal when it entered the golf equipment space: To be the best. Neither the company’s affiliation with Nike Inc., nor its star-studded lineup of athletes who play its equipment could truly move Nike Golf toward that goal without a dedication to create the industry’s best products for its best players. The Nike Golf team also knew that it had to capture the great mass of average golfers around the world by crafting golf clubs that work for them, too, and the company has done just that.

How has Nike Golf come so far, so fast? It’s a simple formula: Hire the best people, listen to the industry’s feedback and make products of the highest quality. And as Nike so quickly learned, they should look, sound and feel amazing, too. At this rate of progress, the sky is truly the limit for them.