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Nike Golf cooking up plenty of ideas in The Oven

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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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