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Nike full steam into golf world

Just three years ago, the most visible sign of a swoosh on the PGA Tour was the stitching on Tiger Woods's cap and clothes and the stamp on the heel of his shoes.

Nike Golf is becoming much more than that.

It started last year when Woods switched to the Tour Accuracy golf ball in June and went on to a record-setting summer of three straight major championships and the career Grand Slam.

The next big development came at the Phoenix Open two months ago, when David Duval became the first player to use Nike Golf irons on tour.

Woods, who has a five-year, $100 million deal with Nike, might not be too far behind.

"If we can make something that he thinks is right and helps him get better, he'll switch,'' Nike Golf president Bob Wood said. "If we can't, or he likes what he's doing, he won't switch right now. It's a slow process.''

That sums up Nike's foray into golf.

Nike Golf became a separately run division just two years ago and has come a long way in a short time. Still, it is in no hurry to have Woods use its clubs, and no hurry to complete the transition from an apparel company with an interest in golf to a marketing machine with a full line of golf equipment.

What could help them is the swoosh.

"With Nike Golf, you're talking about a brand that has a breadth and strength that's in a different universe,'' Wood said. "The expectations for us are going to be higher.''

The brand familiarity is one reason Tom Stites was excited when Nike Golf acquired his Fort Worth, Texas-based company, Impact Technologies.

Stites has been designing clubs for other manufacturers the past 17 years. He spent nearly five years with the Ben Hogan Co. before branching out on his own, and he has had a hand in the design of more than 100 models of clubs -- drivers, irons, wedges and putters -- that have been used by about 60 touring pros.

"I've been preparing my whole adult career to do this job, and I'm really pumped,'' Stites said. "It was a great opportunity to start from scratch and develop a line of clubs. It's a great combination for what we think our skills are here, to align ourselves with a brand that gets people to look at it.''

For now, Stites is looking at Duval, who signed a four-year deal with Nike Golf earlier this month in the midst of a breach-of-contract lawsuit involving Titleist.

Duval is on his second set of Nike blades, working with Stites to tweak everything from the top line of the iron and the bounce in the sole to his liking.

"There's a fair amount of work going back and forth on it, trying to relay what I want,'' Duval said. "It's neat to have that much input on your equipment. I think it's going to be a great success. When the product is put in front of the public, the brand might arouse the interest, but I think the quality of the product is what's going to keep them.''

Clubs are the key for Nike Golf to be considered a legitimate equipment company. Wood, the president, said as much when the No. 1 player in the world made the switch last summer and the golf ball began to pick up a larger share of the market.

"To be a great golf brand, you have to exist in the emotional epicenter, what people care about. And that's equipment,'' Wood said. "People who enjoy golf talk about equipment -- what irons you just bought, what balls you play. You don't talk about the shoes you wear or the apparel. The emotional core is equipment.''

Nike Golf had a couple of options when it got into the club business -- get someone else to make them clubs, buy an existing club company or a combination of the two. Nike decided to acquire Impact Technologies and, through Stites, develop its own brand.

David Duval - "Mr Nike". Allsport.

While working with Hogan and his chief designer, Gene Sheeley, Stites became best known for his design of the Hogan Edge iron, its first cavity-back club made of forged steel.

Duval remains the only player to use Nike irons on tour, and Nike still has no timetable for when the clubs will be available on the market, or what those clubs will look like. Wood says the company is looking at three prototypes.

Stites also had a driver for Duval to test on the range at Doral earlier this month, although he is still using a Titleist. The driver and putters, and even the irons, are still a long way off from getting to the market.

When Nike gets everything together, it will be able to offer just about everything from head to toe -- apparel and shoes, gloves, drivers, irons, putters and the bag -- all under the same brand name.

That would be slightly different than Acushnet, the parent company of Titleist. Other brands in the Acushnet family are FootJoy shoes and Scott Cameron putters. Callaway has clubs and balls, while the putters are sold under the Odyssey brand.

"It's a tough business and a complicated business, and it's a process for us to get it,'' Wood said. "Because it's Nike Golf, a lot of people out there in the golf business think it would be a failure if we're not as big as Callaway our first year. We're not going to fall out of bed in January next year at the (PGA Merchandise) show and come out with a full line of everything in the sun.

"It's important for us to stage our way into the business.''

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