Nike Golf contacted me to see if I’d be interested in traveling to Fort Worth to check out their recently expanded R&D facility The Oven. Those of you who read this blog on a regular basis will not be surprised that I jumped at the chance. The Oven is not open to the public, so I was very excited to have the opportunity to take a look behind the scenes of Nike Golf’s club design operations, and I hope this post gives you a sense of what The Oven is like.
Last week, the same week as the Crowne Plaza Invitational at Colonial, I hopped on a plane and headed to Fort Worth. I arrived on Wednesday afternoon, and that evening met up with the other bloggers on the trip for drinks and dinner hosted by Nike Golf. It was a really fun group consisting of a few other golf bloggers, but the majority of the group were bloggers outside of the golf realm. Nike Golf also hosted us the next day the golf tournament, and we had a fun morning of following some of the Nike Golf athletes around Colonial. After heading back to the hotel to freshen up, we hopped on the shuttle and headed to The Oven.
When we pulled up to The Oven I was struck by how unassuming the building is. Located across the street from a residential neighborhood, it has minimal signage out front and is bordered on the west by a public driving range. The new short game practice area is in plain view of the parking lot by the main entrance. We got off the shuttle and headed into the lobby, where to the right of the front desk you are greeted by a display case showing the evolution of one of Nike Golf’s early breakthrough club designs, the Slingshot iron. After drinks and some tasty hors d’oeuvres we started our tour.
We continued on to the auditorium where Tom gave a presentation about The Oven’s staff. Here it became clear that the club designers at The Oven are anything but newcomers to the club design business. Tom and his staff have a combined 230+ years of club design experience — Tom worked for the Ben Hogan company (in Fort Worth it’s “Mr. Hogan”), and his previous company Impact Golf Technologies was a hired gun for several major equipment manufacturers. When they began their forays into the golf equipment business, Nike Golf acquired Impact, keeping all five of Impact’s staff and the club design operations in Fort Worth (hear Tom talk about this in this video of his presentation). Nike Golf designs and creates clubs at The Oven, but they do not manufacture retail/consumer clubs or balls there. They do create custom club sets for their athletes, and Rock Ishii and his golf ball technicians visit every 3-4 weeks to test balls at the facility. At the end of the presentation the amount of experience the Oven staff has was clear — as Tom said, “this is not their first rodeo.”
From here we headed to the Engineering Lab, which contains several machines that test clubs and balls. Tom and Matt talked us through what the various pieces of equipment are and how they are used to test Nike Golf’s designs. We then entered the assembly shop, where we were joined by Rob Burbick (also known as Nike Rob). Rob and Matt explained how the shop is used to work on the athletes clubs, and they also demonstrated Nike Golf’s famous “Green Machine”, showing how it is used to precisely adjust the athlete’s equipment. Rob works in Nike Golf’s tour van, which is actually a mobile version of the machine shop — the van contains the same equipment and can precisely adjust, repair and create clubs for the athletes on the road, the same way The Oven does.
After this we headed to the grind shop, where Matt, Rob and Charlie Knight took us through the function of the shop and how it creates and customizes clubs for Nike’s athletes. They explained how their considerable experience and expertise enables them to create sets of clubs for the athletes that are exactly identical to each other, so no break-in or adjustment period is needed for a new set. This is impressive considering each athlete has their own special preferences and specifications for the grinds used to create their clubs.
It was interesting to hear how when they create a set of clubs for an athlete they actually create three sets — one set goes into the athlete’s bag, a replacement set goes to the tour van and a second replacement set is kept at The Oven. When a new set is needed, the set from the tour van is put into play, the set at The Oven is sent to the van and The Oven then creates a new backup set. They also explained the grinding technique that is employed in the new VR V-Rev wedges, which feature a specific tour-inspired grind on the heel and toe of the club — a direct example of how Oven expertise and innovation translates to a stock club for the consumer. One look at the raw club heads in the trays of the grind shop and it’s apparent the club designs are not only technical marvels, but sculptural masterpieces as well.
In the opposite corner of the putting lab is a fitting center and hitting bay where club fitting takes place and golf balls are tested. Along the walls of the fitting center are clubs in varying lofts, lies and shaft lengths for testing, and nearby is a selection of Nike’s most recent clubs, including their new V-Rev wedges. Adjacent to the hitting bay is a mechanical golfer and a refrigerator containing golf balls for testing. On the wall behind the hitting bay is a panel with signatures of athletes and players who have come to the fitting center to test equipment, and next to that is a sitting area near the door. After we finished seeing the putting lab and fitting center, our tour came to an end, we said our goodbyes to the Oven staff and got back on the shuttle and headed back to the hotel.
I was already a big fan of Nike Golf before the tour, but I left The Oven with a renewed respect and appreciation for the passion the Oven staff has for the creation of innovative, tour-quality golf clubs. The dedication they have to creating the best golf equipment in the industry is apparent in another offhand comment Tom Stites made at the end of the tour: “We won’t rest easy until every golfer in the world has 14 Nike Golf clubs in their bag.”
The Oven tour left me with these three key takeaways:
1. The Oven staff was very friendly, approachable and down-to-earth — this is true of everyone I have met from Nike Golf so far.
2. The experience and expertise of the Oven staff makes it clear that Nike Golf is a serious contender in the golf equipment business.
3. Nike Golf is positioning itself to become the number one golf equipment company in the industry, and the innovation and dedication to being the best exhibited at The Oven can make this possible.
Thanks to the folks at Nike Golf for their hospitality and for inviting me to take a look behind the scenes at their R&D facility, it was truly a special and enjoyable experience.
Here are links to posts by my fellow bloggers about their experience on our tour of The Oven:
Editor’s note: Travel expenses and sample products for review were provided by Nike Golf to the reviewer/author. The reviewer/author was not paid for this review, and the opinions expressed in the review are strictly those of the reviewer/author.