Nike Golf Couldn’t Overcome Its Inferiority Complex


Picture this.

You’re one of the game’s hottest young players and you show up on site at the Travelers Championship in Cromwell, Connecticut this week fresh off a 4th place finish at the PGA Championship (your highest career finish at a major). You’re going through your normal weekly routine like you would at any PGA Tour stop. You know…signing autographs, playing in the pro-am, taking selfies with fans and making the customary trip to your equipment sponsor’s van to tinker with your clubs the day before your first round tee time on Thursday. But this time you get there and your pals in the rig (the vehicle filled with everything a player at that level needs to maintain his edge) tells you that you can’t come back because the equipment division of your main sponsor, and one of the world’s most powerful sports brands, has completely shut down operations.

That’s what just happened to the likes of Brooks Koepka and Paul Casey.

Nike announced Wednesday that it was disbanding its golf clubs and balls in a shocking announcement to the golfing public.  It is a major shakeup to their big-name athletes with sponsorship deals like Koepka, Rory McIlroy, Michelle Wie, Casey and, of course, Tiger Woods (should he ever play again).

"“I don’t think the players had any idea,” says Rob Sauerhaft, Managing Editor of GOLF Magazine and founder of ClubTest, a section dedicated to analyzing golf’s equipment industry. “The way that a lot of pros are reacting it certainly appears like it was a surprise to them for sure.”"

Crazy, indeed.  Anyone who pays even a little attention to golf has noticed that McIlroy has been more than a bit ornery lately  in the midst of another disappointing year, and – judging from his performance on this shot at last month’s Open Championship – he may not have been all that trilled with the Nike tools in his bag lately anyway.

So what happened? Perhaps Phil Mickelson was right in a way back in 2003. For years, there was the thought around the PGA Tour that Woods won DESPITE his Nike equipment. It’s an idea that Mickelson, a Callaway loyalist since 2004, was never shy about needling Woods about when given the chance.

"“In my mind, Tiger and I don’t have issues between us,” Mickelson told GOLF Magazine back in 2003. “Well, maybe one. He hates that I can fly it past him now [off the tee].“He has a faster swing speed than I do, but he has inferior equipment. Tiger is the only player who is good enough to overcome the equipment he’s stuck with.”"

Mickelson bet on Callaway’s ability to innovate and more than a decade later the decision continues to pay off. While Nike always bent over backwards for Woods, Callaway was always ahead of the curve, and that benefitted its stars like Mickelson,  Jim “Mr. 58” Furyk and, most recently, Danny Willett, Henrik Stenson and Patrick Reed.  Fast forward a decade later, and Mickelson is arguably playing the best golf of his career from tee-to- green and his belief in his equipment, even during times of trouble, has never wavered. Mickelson, 46, is still challenging at majors, while Tiger, 40, is trying to get his body and mind back into competitive golf.

The news this week certainly won’t help matters, but was Nike actually an inferior product like Mickelson claimed? It would appear that, true or not, this perception doomed Nike from the start – despite the fact that Nike did ultimately become a viable product.  Woods’ dominance at Augusta gave Nike all the attention in the world on the course and, more importantly, in the big moment like when the swoosh logo hung on the lip for all to see on the 16th hole on Sunday in 2005.

After Charl Schwartzel’s 2011 Masters win, Nike had claimed 10 of the last 25 majors played up until that point – and that was before signing McIlroy to a 10-year, $200 million dollar deal in 2013. McIlroy would go on to dominate 2014 with wins at The Open Championship at Royal Liverpool and the PGA Championship at Valhalla, his 3rd and 4th career majors at the age of 25.

"“Golf equipment has been a brand loyal purchase for a lot of people,” Sauerhaft said. “And, there was this mindset that the clubs were inferior in the beginning. Plus, Nike never had the one big product that took off.”"

As hard as Nike tried to brand itself as a golf company, it just never took. It also didn’t help that Woods won his first 8 majors, along with his three consecutive U.S. Amateur Championships, mainly using Titleist equipment before beginning the switch to Nike in 2002. Compounding that was in 2000 when Titleist launched the Pro V-1 golf ball, which took the lion share of the golf ball market and never gave it back. Taylor Made revolutionized the game when it rolled out their “Rescue” club model, which was their version of Thomas Golf’s “hybrid.” It was an instant success and became a big part of what they did in the fairway wood and driver category.

So where does Nike go from here? According to Sauerhaft they will focus on their apparel and shoes, and hope to make a stronger push in those categories in the years to come. There is the matter of key decisions current players under contract, like Koepka, have to make on what to use moving forward.  This is a very complicated situation, as players who finally break through on the PGA Tour tend to lean towards the equipment sponsors who pay them the most. This is the reward for finally “making it through” to the big show.

This is not to say the swoosh has died.  Players will still be wearing the logo and the company will be handing out and sticking to lucrative apparel and shoe deals. Golf is a finicky game and even the slightest alterations can cause a player to lose their collective edge. Once a dominant force in industry, Nike’s exit has left a mark of uncertainty on its players that will take time to play itself out.

Unfortunately, in the end, this is a case of Nike being doomed from the start, and the ripple effect could impact the momentum of some really talented young players who’ve worked hard to earn very lucrative deals.