By Dusty Overby
on 6.9.10

First-hand experience has taught us that Nike Golf cranks out some top-notch golf equipment. Despite the crew here possessing a wide range of handicaps and skill levels, Nike clubs and balls have won universal acclaim amongst the Gear Patrol crew. Still, one wonders what’s behind the ascendancy of one of golf’s fastest growing brands. That’s why, when Nike Golf invited us to check out their state-of-the-art research and development facility in Ft. Worth, Texas, we jumped at the chance to peer behind the curtain.

Home to Nike’s club design gurus and tour service staff, the joint is affectionately called The Oven – the place where big ideas and design innovation are cooked up fresh. Our visit left us impressed with Nike’s commitment to advancing the science of the game, as well as with the experienced craftsmen that are behind the brand’s rise. Hit the jump to read more.

Simply put, for the techno-geek golfer (read: us), The Oven is a metal and machinery-filled wonderland. Originally established in 2002, the facility has undergone several major expansions in its eight years, the sum total of which have left Nike’s club wizards with nearly 50,000 square feet of ball-cannoning, CAD-rendering, precision-grinding, robotic-testing, PGA-pro-consulting playland workspace. Stepping outside, one finds an immaculate 129,000 square foot short game area featuring both synthetic and natural grass greens, as well as bunkers, practice holes and a scenic water feature (which doubles a practices area for shoeless, pants-rolled-up shots). Here Nike engineers and athletes can consult on a variety of short iron and ball testing issues in real-world conditions. That means that guys like Anthony Kim, Justin Leonard, and Tiger himself prowl the grounds on a regular basis.

The Nike Oven is a metal and machinery-filled wonderland…

The week that we visited The Oven, the PGA Tour was also in town for the Crowne Plaza Invitational at Colonial. Thanks to Nike, we had the chance to walk the course on the tournament’s first day, seeing many of their tour athletes in action. What’s interesting, though, is that many of those same PGA pros spent their hours away from the course at The Oven having their clubs tweaked, providing Nike with their feedback on up-and-coming designs, and just talking golf and equipment with Nike’s staff. If you don’t think that the best players in the world love to geek out on equipment, think again.

Aside from the design and prototyping labs that The Oven boasts, a separate building houses hitting bays outfitted with launch monitors to analyze shots of all types, the facility’s Iron Byron (a robotic swing machine for testing balls and clubs), as well as a putting lab.

It was there, in the putting lab, that we had the chance to get some proof on the technological superiority of Nike’s Method putter, a design that has turned some serious heads and won two Majors last year (more on that later). Essentially, Nike utilizes high-speed cameras and computing technology to analyze the skid and roll characteristics of their putters and those of their competitors in order to help golfers roll true putts and put the ball in the hole. After a demonstration that used this author’s putting stroke to show that the Method produced about 0.25″ of skid as compared with around 2.5″ with other putters, it was hard not to be impressed. See what our friends at Notcot had to say about the putting lab. And yes, that’s yours truly demonstrating the putters.

Still, what we found most impressive about our visit to The Oven wasn’t the incredible breadth of the technology that Nike has brought to bear on designing golf clubs. You’d have to expect that from a global sports juggernaut. Instead, it’s their human investment that has surely contributed to the brand’s over 400 professional victories in less than a decade as a golf equipment manufacturer. At The Oven, Nike has assembled a crack team of club engineers led by Tom Stites, an industry veteran whose passion for clubmaking grew when, as a younger man, he worked for and with the legendary Ben Hogan (hence the Ft. Worth connection). His core team worked together in the years before Nike as independent design consultants for the biggest names in the golf industry, and now they bring their collective lifetimes of experience to the task of making Nike clubs the most innovative and best performing on the market.

Many of their proprietary methods and techniques allow for Nike clubs to be produced with the highest levels of consistency imaginable, a trait this is crucial to the professionals who stake their livelihoods and careers on them, as well as for amateur golfers who simply want to get the most out of their game. All that is to say, Nike is no mere pretender paying their way into the business of golf club design and manufacturing. Quite the opposite. Their research and design teams possess experience and credibility in spades, and their legacies power every club that Nike builds. That sort of thing matters when you’ve got to carry 175 over water and you’re wondering if the club in your hand is up to the task. If you’re holding a Nike stick, the answer is going to be a yes.

In 2009, Nike athletes Lucas Glover and Stewart Cink both won their first career Majors – the US Open and the British Open, respectively. In fact, you may have seen the commercial in which they are goofing around with their trophies (it was filmed at The Oven). What’s especially impressive about those victories, from an equipment standpoint, is that each of them won with all 14 clubs in their bag, as well as their ball, made by Nike. Records suggest that no other manufacturer has even been able to claim that achievement in a Major victory, much less two in one year. That’s a pretty solid endorsement.

Back in the slick, modern lobby that greets you upon entering The Oven, several displays give you a sense of the progress Nike has made in the equipment business in the last decade. One particularly illustrative visual actually arranges the clubheads of every model of club that Nike has produced into chronological order. With the way things are going, they’re not far from needing a bigger lobby. Not content to rely on our surroundings to tell the tale, we asked Nike Golf’s Gretchen Wilhelm about the brand’s ultimate aim. She responded without hesitation, describing the company’s ambition. “To be the number one head to toe golf brand in the world.” From what we saw at The Oven, they’re most certainly cooking on that.

Read More: Nike Golf’s Oven Website | More coverage on Notcot

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