Nike Drafts a Heavy Hitter in Golf Club Design

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OK, so Nike is serious.
 
Not that I ever doubted it. When the world's largest sporting goods company says it's going to do something, it usually follows through. But those of us who cover the golf industry have been waiting for the first substantial step, the first foray beyond tossing some ideas back and forth with designers and making a few prototypes. We were waiting for Nike to commit to the golf club business.
 
Friday, it happened.
 
On Feb. 9, Nike concluded a deal to acquire Impact Golf Technologies, the Fort Worth, Texas club design shop run by Tom Stites. Ask anyone in the industry who the top designers are, and Stites is likely to be on everyone's list. The man honed his chops under Ben Hogan, who raised perfectionism to a fine art in his golf club business.
 
The choice speaks well of Nike, which has weathered criticism in and out of its golf operation for allegedly glomming onto other peoples' good ideas like a virus. In hockey, Nike got into the business by buying Bauer/CanStar. In golf, it is generally accepted as a fact in the industry (even though the parties refuse to talk about it) that Bridgestone manufactures Nike's golf balls. Critics of Nike say an original idea is hard to find around the Beaverton, Ore. campus.
 
I once raised this in an interview with Nike chieftain Phil Knight, without the benefit of pads or headgear. As expected, he bristled, and defended his company's role in the development of any product, even if manufacturing ends up being outsourced.
 
Nike Golf president Bob Wood echoes that philosophy.
 
'We admire, among other things, the fact that Tom is not narrow-minded. Quite the opposite,' Wood said after the deal closed. 'He has a lot of good ideas, but he's willing to consider good concepts from any source. We're the same way here, which is why he's such a good fit for us.'
 
If knowledge fits, Stites is a one-size-fits-all kind of guy. His industry reputation for golf club knowledge is impeccable. And by taking him on as part of Nike Golf (Stites' company will cease to exist as a separate entity), Nike will deflect some of the criticism of those who believe Nike buys its product creation process. Stites is on the team. And whatever A-Rod does next year, he does as a Texas Ranger. That's the argument.
 
More important, though, we now have proof that Nike wants to do more than make a golf club that fits nicely under a swoosh. If Stites designs it, it will be the real deal. That won't guarantee success or sales - the product will have to distinguish itself from the multitude of premium club choices available to golfers now - but the Stites cachet assures credibility.
 
Stites has five employees, and even if he staffs up, his job will still be product creation, not manufacturing. Surely Stites' manufacturing knowledge will inform whatever choice Nike makes in that arena. But Stites' Fort Worth shop doesn't have the capacity to make the number of sticks Nike would need to fill demand.
 
So the puzzle is far from complete. But at least we can get an idea what it will look like when finished.