Nike Golf cooking up plenty of ideas in The Oven

By Mike BaileyJune 3, 2010, 5:01 pm

The Oven outside signage

FORT WORTH, Texas – Nike Golf has been making golf clubs for less than a decade, yet there's enough golf history for the company to fill three walls of fame, which are located in The Oven, Nike Golf's Texas-based research-and-development center for golf clubs.

Just past the entrance of this 50,000-square-foot facility is a museum of sorts celebrating the company's short-but-successful run in the golf business. One lighted display chronicles everything from Nike's early entry into the golf business with Seve Ballesteros (apparel), to its current roster of players, which includes major champions Tiger Woods, Stewart Cink and Lucas Glover. Another wall shows the development of clubs since 2002. And another is its wall of champions, continuously updated with the company's worldwide tour staff wins, which stands at 49 and counting.

Tom Stites
Ken Stites, Head of Reseach and Development for The Oven
The eight-year-old facility, which in addition to R&D, serves Nike Golf's stable of tour players, is closed to the public. The company, however, recently played host to a group of journalists and gave them a guided tour of The Oven. Headed up by respected industry veteran Tom Stites, The Oven is Nike Golf's answer to the parent company's Innovation Kitchen, located at Nike headquarters in Beaverton, Ore.

'I guess you could say this is where we cook up our ideas,' said Stites, who once designed golf clubs for the Ben Hogan Co.

Nike Golf's Texas connection

When Spalding purchase Hogan in 1997, the company eventually moved the Hogan operations from Ft. Worth to Massachusetts. Stites and his team were offered transfers but said, 'No thanks.' They weren't interested in uprooting their families, he said.

So the core of Stites' design team remained and, in 1993, became the club design company Impact Technologies. They created custom clubs for tour players as well as major manufacturers. And when Nike came calling almost a decade ago, Stites had the same answer; he and his team weren't interested in moving.

Stites' stand actually proved beneficial to Nike Golf. Dallas-Ft. Worth, with its central location, is home to many PGA Tour players, and the DFW Airport is one of most accessible hubs in the world. And while Fort Worth isn't exactly balmy in the winter, the area does have a good golf climate for most of year.

Today the original five from Impact Technologies still work at The Oven. Combined with hires from other companies, Nike's team of engineers, machinists and clubmakers has 'more than 230 years of experience,' Stites said.

Inside the Oven: what's cooking

The Oven has the usual departments of any golf club R&D department and then some. There's the testing lab, where Nike Golf not only puts its own clubs through their paces – testing qualities such as COR and durability – but tests the competition as well, spending hundreds of thousands of dollars on other companies' new golf clubs.

There's the CAD room (computer-aided design), where ideas are put on paper and transferred to the CNC shop to build prototypes. The machine shop is where clubheads are finished, and then they're sent to the assembly room, where Nike engineers build clubs.

This room also has a patented device called the 'Green Machine.' Unlike some equipment used by other companies, the Green Machine measures golf clubs according to the lie angle of the club, producing more consistent results, company officials said.

But the one room that sets Nike Golf apart, officials say, is the grind shop, a lost art with most clubmakers these days. The grind shop is where Nike Golf basically creates works of art, painstakingly carving raw forgings into clubheads that match the needs of specific tour players. Those creations not only inspire, but are also replicated to some degree for the consumer market.

In the last few years, The Oven has expanded by more than 17,000 square feet with new offices and an auditorium as well as an extensive outdoor short-game area, complete with a stone bridge over a creek and real and synthetic greens.

As Nike Golf's recent TV ad campaign might suggest, The Oven is also a place where tour players such as Cink, Glover, Leonard, Woods, K.J. Choi and Anthony Kim like to spend time. The hitting bays, the putting lab and the outdoor short-game area see a lot of traffic from Nike Golf's playing pros, who give plenty of input into product development.

Perhaps one of the more significant product developments at The Oven as of late has been the Method putter. During the tour, club designer David Franklin, who has been with Stites for 19 years, gave a putting lab demonstration on how the Method gets the ball rolling faster than other putters. It was in the bags of both Glover and Cink when they won the U.S. Open and British Open respectively in 2009.

Other Nike Golf staffers such as Leonard and Choi have made the switch from their longtime putters as well. (Tiger Woods, of course, is still playing with the same Scotty Cameron model that's been in his bag since 1999.)

Franklin related the story of how Nike Golf, early on, built Woods an exact replica of his current putter and placed the company Swoosh on it. According to Franklin, Woods said it was just as good, but 'not better,' so he didn't see any reason to switch.

Franklin believes the Method putter is superior to Woods' putter, but readily admits that a putter's emotional bond with a player is difficult to break, especially considering Woods' immense success.

Perhaps, Woods' disdain for Poa annua greens, which he will see at this month's U.S. Open at Pebble Beach Golf Links, might spur the world's top player to try out the Method in competition. Perhaps not, but Franklin can certainly hope.

'That's our ultimate goal,' he said with a laugh.

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Tiger's checklist: How he can contend at Augusta

By Ryan LavnerFebruary 21, 2018, 8:31 pm

PALM BEACH GARDENS, Fla. – Augusta is already on the minds of most players here at the Honda Classic, and that includes the only one in the field with four green jackets.

Yes, Tiger Woods has been talking about the Masters ever since he started this latest comeback at Torrey Pines. These three months are all about trying to build momentum for the year’s first major.

Woods hasn’t revealed his schedule past this week, but his options are limited. He’s a good bet to play at the Arnold Palmer Invitational, where he has won eight times, but adding another start would be a departure from the norm. He’s not eligible for the two World Golf Championship events, in Mexico and Austin, and he has never played the Valspar Championship or the Houston Open.

So there’s a greater sense of urgency this week at PGA National, which is realistically one of his final tune-ups.

How will Woods know if he’s ready to contend at Augusta? Here’s his pre-Masters checklist:

1. Stay healthy

So far, so good, as Woods tries to resume a normal playing schedule following four back surgeries since 2014. Though he vowed to learn from his past mistakes and not push himself, it was a promising sign that Woods felt strong enough to sign up for the Honda, the second of back-to-back starts on separate coasts.

Another reason for optimism on the health front: The soreness that Woods felt after his season opener at Torrey Pines wasn’t related to his surgically repaired back. No, what ached most were his feet – he wasn’t used to walking 72 holes on hilly terrain.

Woods is stiffer than normal, but that’s to be expected. His back is fused.

2. Figure out his driver

Augusta National is more forgiving off the tee than most major courses, putting more of a premium on approach shots and recoveries.

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That’s good news for Woods, who has yet to find a reliable tee shot. Clearly, he is most comfortable playing a fade and wants to take the left side of the course out of play, but in competition he’s been plagued by a two-way miss.

In two starts this year, Woods has hit only 36 percent of the fairways, no matter if he was using driver, fairway wood or long iron.

Unfortunately, Woods is unlikely to gain any significant insight into his driver play this week. PGA National’s Champion Course isn’t overly long, but there is water on 15 of the 18 holes. As a result, he said he likely will hit driver only four times a round, maybe five, and otherwise rely on his 3-wood and 2-iron. 

Said Rory McIlroy: “Being conservative off the tee is something that you have to do here to play well.”

That won’t be the case at Augusta.

3. Clean up his iron play

As wayward as Woods has been off the tee, his iron play hasn’t impressed, either.

At Riviera, he hit only 16 greens in regulation – his fewest in a Tour event as a professional. Of course, Woods’ chances of hitting the green are reduced when he’s playing from the thick rough, sand and trees, but he also misfired on six of the eight par 3s.

Even when Woods does find the green, he’s not close enough to the hole. Had he played enough rounds to qualify, his proximity to the hole (39 feet, 7 inches) would rank 161st on Tour.

That won’t be good enough at Augusta, where distance control and precision are paramount.

Perhaps that’s why Justin Thomas said last week what many of us were thinking: “I would say he’s a pretty good ways away.”

4. Get into contention somewhere

As much as he would have liked to pick off a win on the West Coast, Woods said that it’s not a prerequisite to have a chance at the Masters. He cited 2010, when he tied for fourth despite taking four months off after the fallout from his scandal.

In reality, though, there hasn’t been an out-of-nowhere Masters champion since Charl Schwartzel in 2011. Since then, every player who eventually donned the green jacket either already had a win that year or at least a top-3 finish worldwide.

“I would like to play well,” Woods said. “I would like to win golf tournaments leading into it. The years I’ve won there, I’ve played really well early.”

Indeed, he had at least one win in all of the years he went on to win the Masters (1997, 2000, ’01, ’05). Throw in the fact that Woods is nearly five years removed from his last Tour title, and it’s reasonable to believe that he at least needs to get himself into contention before he can seriously entertain winning another major.

And so that’s why he’s here at the Honda, trying to find his game with seven weeks to go. 

“It’s tournament reps,” he said, “and I need tournament reps.”

Add that to the rest of his pre-Masters checklist.

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Players winner to get 3-year exemption into PGA

By Rex HoggardFebruary 21, 2018, 8:01 pm

Although The Players isn’t golf’s fifth major, it received a boost in that direction this week.

The PGA of America has adjusted its criteria for eligibility into the PGA Championship, extending an exemption for the winner of The Players to three years.

According to an official with the PGA of America, the association felt the winner of The Players deserved more than a single-year exemption, which had been the case, and the move is consistent with how the PGA Tour’s annual flagship event is treated by the other majors.

Winners of The Players were already exempt for three years into the Masters, U.S. Open and The Open Championship.

The change will begin with this year’s PGA Championship.

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Thomas: Playing in front of Tiger even more chaotic

By Randall MellFebruary 21, 2018, 7:52 pm

PALM BEACH GARDENS, Fla. – Justin Thomas may be going from the frying pan to the fire of Tiger Woods’ pairings.

Translation: He’s going from being grouped with Woods last week in the first two rounds at the Genesis Open to being grouped directly in front of Woods this week at the Honda Classic.

“Which might be even worse than playing with him,” Thomas said Wednesday.

Typically, the pairing in front of Woods deals with a lot of gallery movement, with fans racing ahead to get in position to see Woods’ next shot.

Thomas was quoted after two rounds with Tiger at Riviera saying fans “got a little out of hand,” and saying it’s disappointing some golf fans today think it’s “so amusing to yell and all that stuff while we’re trying to hit shots.”

With 200,000 fans expected this week at the Honda Classic, and with the Goslings Bear Trap pavilion setting a party mood at the 16th green and 17th tee, that portion of the course figures to be quite lively at PGA National.

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Thomas was asked about that.

“I touched on this a little bit last week,” Thomas said. “I think it got blown out of proportion, was just taken out of context, and worded differently than how I said it or meant it.

“I love the fans. The fans are what I hope to have a lot of, what all of us hope to have a lot of. We want them cheering us on. But it's those certain fans that are choosing to yell at the wrong times, or just saying stuff that's completely inappropriate.”

Thomas said it’s more than ill-timed shouts. It’s the nature of some things being said.

“It's one thing if it's just you and I talking, but when you're around kids, when you're around women, when you're around families, or just around people in general, some of the stuff they are saying to us is just extremely inappropriate,” he said. “There’s really no place for it anywhere, especially on a golf course.

“I feel like golf is pretty well known as a classy sport, not that other sports aren't, but it has that reputation.”

Thomas said the nature of the 17th hole at PGA National’s Champion Course makes it a more difficult tee shot than the raucous 16th at the Waste Management Phoenix Open. Typically, players like to hear fans get into the action before or after they hit shots. Ill-timed bluster, however, makes a shot like the one at Honda’s 17th even tougher.

“That hole is hard enough,” Thomas said. “I don't need someone yelling in my ear on my backswing that I'm going to hit it in the water, to make it any harder. I hope it gets better, just for the sake of the game. That's not helping anything. That's not helping grow the game.”

Those who follow golf know an ill-timed shout in a player’s backswing is different than anything a fan says at a football, basketball or baseball game. An ill-timed comment in a backswing has a greater effect on the outcome of a competition.

“Just in terms of how much money we're playing for, how many points we're playing for ... this is our jobs out here, and you hate to somehow see something that a fan does, or something that they yell, influence something that affects [a player’s] job,” Thomas said.

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Rory: Phil said RC task force just copied Europe

By Randall MellFebruary 21, 2018, 7:21 pm

PALM BEACH GARDENS, Fla. – Playing the AT&T Pebble Beach Pro-Am two weeks ago, Rory McIlroy quizzed Phil Mickelson about what the Americans got out of the U.S. Ryder Cup task force’s overhaul.

McIlroy and Mickelson were paired together at Pebble Beach.

“Basically, all they are doing is copying what the Europeans have done,” McIlroy said.  “That's what he said.”

The Europeans claimed their sixth of seven Ryder Cups with their victory at Gleneagles in 2014. That brought about a sea change in the way the United States approached the Ryder Cup. Mickelson called out the tactics in Gleneagles of captain Tom Watson, who was outmaneuvered by European captain Paul McGinley.

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The Americans defeated Europe at Hazeltine two years ago with that new European model.

“He said the first thing they did in that task force was Phil played a video, a 12-minute video of Paul McGinley to all of them,” McIlroy said. “So, they are copying what we do, and it's working for them. It's more cohesive, and the team and the core of that team are more in control of what they are doing, instead of the PGA of America recruiting and someone telling them what to do.”