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Nike to produce non conforming clubs

For nine years, Tom Stites had grappled with such esoteric concepts as the "moment of inertia" and the "coefficient of resistance" in twisting the latest technology and design into Nike's new Slingshot golf clubs.

But the notion that really stumped Stites, who heads Nike Golf's research and development lab in Texas, was the phrase "plain in shape."

The phrase, taken from a rule by the United States Golf Association, requires that clubheads be "plain in shape" to be accepted for pro or amateur tournament play under USGA guidelines. But in 2002, the golf association rejected Stites' Slingshots, citing two gaps on the back of the clubhead.

Beaverton-based Nike and Stites ultimately won approval on a revised design that filled in one of the gaps, but the ruling nevertheless put Nike at the heart of a long-running debate about the role technology should play in a game of centuries-old tradition. For years, manufacturers, including Nike, have butted heads with the USGA in their drive to inject innovations -- and create new demand for clubs -- without sacrificing the organization's seal of approval that many golfers look for.

But Nike also is eyeing new markets beyond today's boundaries. Although it intends to always make USGA-conforming clubs for professionals and competitive golfers, the company plans to introduce golf clubs -- possibly in as soon as two years -- that don't conform to USGA rules. Researchers in Stites' lab are already working on nonstandard technologies and innovations designed to help recreational golfers find their inner Tiger Woods -- or at least get the ball off the tee.

The strategy reflects an ambitious goal -- and a big gamble -- for Nike.

A relative newcomer to golf, Nike is trying to build its credibility with the sport's establishment while laying claim to the ranks of players who view golf more as a social pastime than a tradition-steeped sport. At the same time, Nike must avoid offending traditionalists who worry that changes to the equipment of golf constitute changes to the game.

"We're bringing a little bit of a different attitude to golf, even though we're respecting the game," said Mike Kelly, business director for Nike Golf. "We're not a traditional company, and we're going to try to stretch boundaries as much as possible for our consumers and our players."

Those consumers include millions of recreational golfers who don't have USGA handicaps, who golf for fun, not competition, and who want the pleasure of a solid golf shot, Kelly said. The drive to satisfy their desires has heightened tensions between technological advances and USGA rules, he said.

"We are going to have to break the rules from a business side," said Kelly, referring to Nike's future plans to offer noncompliant clubs. "We already are breaking the rules from the research side."

Nike is closely associated with Tiger Woods, arguably the world's most famous golfer, but it is still a relative upstart in the game of golf.

Nike entered the industry in 1985 with the Air Linkster, a golf shoe. According to Golf World Business, the company now brings in $400 million a year in golf-related revenue, about 3.7 percent of Nike's $10.7 billion in sales.

But it was the signing of Woods in 1996 to endorse Nike's golf footwear and apparel that helped propel the swoosh to the fore. Woods, who began using Nike golf balls in 2000 and won the next four major tournaments, also helped Nike grab its current double-digit market share in a ball industry dominated by veterans.

The golf club business holds out the biggest prize. Players buy about $1.4 billion worth of clubs a year from golf retailers and specialty stores, according to Tom Stine at market research firm Golf Datatech in Kissimmee, Fla.

Buying its way into that segment, Nike acquired Stites' company, Impact Golf Technologies, in 2001. Nike gained Stites, a well-known golf club developer, and his team, and Stites gained a chance to bring his pet-project golf club to market -- what would become the Slingshot irons.

Stites' idea for the Slingshot irons was based on clubs he developed for his son Jake, then 10, in 1993.

"I wanted him to fall in love with the game, and he did," Stites said.

Stites focused on how moving the center of gravity from the club face to the back of the clubhead can help less experienced golfers with their swings. The irons he designed offer a twist on "cavity-back" clubs, which have hollowed-out backs. Stites added a metal bar, which Nike named a "Slingback," across the cavity to shift even more weight to the rear.

The iron is more forgiving, Stites said. It helps golfers launch balls into the air more easily and hit straighter -- correcting for novice golfers' tendencies to hit the ball to the right, he said.

Nike, too, was excited about the prospects.

But the real test would be how it fared under the scrutiny of a higher golf power.

Before golf companies market new products, they typically first seek the blessing of the USGA, the foremost golf authority in the United States -- charged with nothing less than preserving golf's tradition and culture.

Formed in 1894, the nonprofit USGA -- in concert with the Royal & Ancient Golf Club of St. Andrews, Scotland -- administers the rules of golf. The USGA runs national golf championships, sets rules for amateur competition and provides a handicap measurement system.

It also evaluates whether golf clubs conform to its rules. The organization reviewed about 2,000 new clubs last year alone, the vast majority eventually winning approval, said Dick Rugge, the USGA's senior technical director.

Golfers don't have to use USGA-approved clubs, unless they are playing in a tournament or match governed by USGA rules, or want to measure and maintain a USGA handicap. An estimated 5 million golfers have USGA-determined handicaps -- ratings that help golfers of varying abilities compete on more even footing. That's about 20 percent of the estimated 26.2 million golfers in the United States, according to the National Golf Foundation.

But the desire to play with USGA-conforming clubs is as much ingrained in the culture as it is a condition of competition. Even many who never play tournaments prefer USGA-compliant clubs, Rugge said, because they want to adhere strictly to the rules and not be accused of cheating.

"Equipment changes the result that you get when you're playing the game," Rugge said. "You have to define the limits."

So when Stites and Nike Golf first took the Slingshot irons to the USGA in 2002, they hoped for approval.

They didn't get it.

The USGA rejected the club, pointing to the metal bar bridging the cavity on the back of the clubhead. Two gaps -- one above and one below the metal bar -- together formed a hole through the clubhead in violation of the "plain in shape" rule, the USGA ruled.

Stites and Nike objected. There was no "hole through the head" in their understanding of the phrase. But the USGA disagreed, insisting the U-shaped hole was a violation.

Nike decided both to appeal the decision and modify the club. The appeal failed. But the modification passed muster. The change: Stites simply filled in the smaller gap with some lightweight material.

To the eye, the revision might not seem that noticeable.

But then, rules of any game "often don't make a lot of sense," Rugge said. He noted that under one golf rule, players are assessed the same penalty whether they hit a ball 1 inch or 50 yards out of bounds.

If the USGA permits one small step away from a rule, then permits another and another, he said, pretty soon the game is 50 steps removed from where it started, and the USGA risks compromising what the rules were set up to protect.

"Our mission is to protect the game, and we can't take risky chances with the game to see what happens," he said. "A game requires a set of rules or it's no longer" a game.

"It loses its definition."

Nike is not the first company with ambitions to bring long drives to the masses or challenge golf rules.

In 2000, Callaway Golf, a leading golf company based in Carlsbad, Calif., tried its hand with a nonconforming club -- the ERC II driver. The driver imparted a springier effect on balls that helped golfers hit balls longer.

The clubs proved popular in Europe and Japan, where they were approved for official play. Callaway did not market the clubs in the United States, where the USGA ruled the clubs out of compliance.

But after seeing the clubs sold overseas come to the United States through sales on eBay, the company started offering the driver for sale domestically in October 2000, said Larry Dorman, Callaway senior vice president. Golf legend Arnold Palmer even endorsed the club's use for recreational players, and the club started to catch on nationwide.

But the U.S. rollout soon hit a snag.

In December, the USGA issued a release reminding golfers and courses that nonconforming drivers could not be used on rounds for establishing or maintaining handicaps, which "ensure that all players enjoy a fair game no matter where they play."

Rugge said the release came in response to a large number of questions coming into the organization, not as an effort to kill the driver. "We don't want to interfere with the business of golf," he said.

Callaway Golf said the USGA move "stigmatized" the club as one that cheaters use.

"That effectively chilled the market," said Dorman, adding that retailers canceled orders, and drivers were sent back to the company. "Essentially, what the USGA did was to denigrate the product in their public remarks and to send out a directive so that effectively the club could not be used, or if it were used, it was used in shame."

Callaway pulled the club from the market, although it still sells nonconforming drivers overseas and is continuing to urge the USGA to relax its design rules.

Nike, too, markets some clubs overseas that would not comply with USGA standards. The U.S. market, however, remains the largest. Noncomforming clubs are sold domestically, but not by the major golf companies.

As for Nike wanting to sell nonconforming clubs, Callaway's Dorman said, "We wish them well."

Gary Butler, 40, of Portland is the kind of golfer who makes Nike think that offering nonstandard clubs and breaking with tradition could be worth risking its credibility in the sport.

"If I was a competitive golfer, it would mean more to me (to use compliant clubs) because I would worry about who I was golfing with," Butler said.

But usually, he said, he golfs with friends strictly for fun. Butler has no problem with the idea of using nonstandard clubs, he said.

His girlfriend, Anne Giossi, who is just starting to golf, agreed. "If it gets it in the hole, that's all I care about," said Giossi, 39.

Still, Nike's move would not be without its hazards.

Not only is Nike a newcomer, but it has already sustained a couple of blows to its reputation. Last year, pro golfer Phil Mickelson referred to Woods' equipment as "inferior." Then Nike was hit with a flurry of headlines when Woods, who had been using a Nike driver, defected to a Titleist driver. He switched back to Nike two months later.

In addition, many diehard golfers might consider nonconforming clubs to be heresy.

"It's important for the integrity of the game to stay within the confines of the USGA," said Darren Tillson, 43, of Vancouver, who started golfing when he was 8.

A nonstandard club also takes away from the joy of a good shot, he added.

"I'd rather know it's me putting it in the middle of the fairway than the club," he said. "That's what makes you want to come back -- that one good shot."

While Nike needs to worry about its credibility, it also can tap an advantage that other golf businesses with deeper reputations lack -- credibility in many other sports, said Kelly, Nike Golf's business director.

People who play basketball or soccer or know Nike through other sports will likely trust the company to introduce them to golf, Kelly said.

Nike just might be the one to crack the market of players wanting noncompliant clubs, said Tom Wishon, a longtime club developer and technical adviser to the Web site for the Professional Golf Association. If so, the company could lead the way for other manufacturers eager to stake out new markets in an old business.

"I think a lot of the golf companies recognize that it's a reasonably sized market," Wishon said. "The main thing they are scared to death of is if all the core golfers upon which they rely for their core business would turn around and in a backlash go somewhere else."

It would take a significant marketing program to combat cultural bias against the clubs, Wishon said. But more than any other company, Nike "understands marketing and knows how to do it," he said.

For now, Nike is marketing only USGA-compliant clubs in the United States, Stites said.

But even in that sector, Stites said, "We're always going to be someone that the USGA is going to look at very closely because we are going to push it."

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