Nike's Covert move forward

“We’re being Nike when it comes to golf.” — Cindy Davis, president, Nike Golf

I spent the past couple of days in Florida with Nike as it unveiled its 2013 golf lineup, from clubs to apparel. It is always interesting to see what a company is bringing out — especially a company as inventive as Nike when it comes to apparel and shoes — but I also find it intriguing to get a sense of what they are thinking in terms of marketing and support.

So the big reveal was the Covert driver — a red-headed big dog with a cavity back, which seems pretty unique for a driver, though I suspect someone has tried it previously. We didn’t hit the driver — so I can’t tell you how it performed — but the technology is such that Nike thinks it has the stability of the square drivers, with the trampolining that should mean greater distances across the face. Aesthetically it looked sharp, though there was plenty of people online who seemed concerned about the Swoosh on the the crown. I didn’t find it detracting — and in fact have been surprised that Nike hasn’t been more overt with its branding — after all, its symbol is all over everything else giving it great brand recognition.

The Covert irons were almost an afterthought, making it clear that the focus is on the driver and fairway woods.

The new 20xi golf ball is apparently an improvement on last year’s version. I spoke with Johnny Vegas about it (he was kicking around, talking up clothes which he is clearly passionate about) and he said the previous ball struggled in the wind, and the new version, which doesn’t come out until next year but which Nike staff players have been using since March, is a vast improvement. The focus is still on the resin core — a move away from rubber — and the resulting performance improvements Nike says comes from it. I hit it at Streamsong on Thursday (more on Streamsong next week) and found it didn’t have any of the issues of the previous ball, which could feel a bit firm.

Tiger Woods’ shirt for Sunday at the Masters.

Nike staff also unveiled the clothing line for 2013 — but I find it really hard to say much about clothes. They looked good, but it depends on your own personal perspective. Of course there’s a lot of technology behind the clothes, and perhaps the most interesting element was that Tiger Woods came to Nike and asked to be “teched out” when it came to clothes. That meant really tailoring the clothes for how it fits him — he wants it to feel a certain way on his back, for instance, so he knows his posture is correct. They also walked us through his outfits in the majors in 2013 (yep, they are planned well in advance to connect with retail sales opportunities). The key? His Sunday red can’t be too orange or too pink. The red in the middle, apparently, is just right.

Of course the elephant in the room was Rory McIlroy. No one at Nike will even mention him — they jokingly ask if you’re wondering whether they signed Roy McAvoy, Kevin Costner’s character in Tin Cup — because of the fallout from Acushnet’s lawsuit with Camilo Villegas.  But I raised the issue with Cindy Davis, Nike Golf’s president. After all, without mentioning names I wondered what Nike’s tour strategy would become. They’ve had Tiger Woods as the face of the brand for 15 years and it has certainly served them well when it comes to clothing sales and even shoes. But Davis admitted the company’s marketshare isn’t where it should be when it comes the clubs. “Low single digits,” is how she put it. That’s not very good when you think about the exposure and money they’ve put into the club market over the past decade.

Davis defended the strategy, saying Nike would continue to engage — and pay millions — for the so-called pyramid of influence that will see tour pros play its gear.

“We’re part of a company that likes to tell great stories around great events,” she said. “The reason we got into golf is because of Tiger Woods, one of the greatest athletes. Our philosophy is to always be involved with the best athletes.”

Nike Golf president Cindy Davis talks up Nike Covert.

Does that mean Rory is signing on the dotted line? I didn’t bother to ask — I knew the answer wouldn’t address the question. So I posed it a different way — what’s Nike’s tour strategy going forward?

“We want to be showing up when the world is watching, at the biggest events,” Davis says. “That frames a lot of our thinking.”

That would suggest top players, already in the World Top 50, that are ranked highly enough to show up at the WGC events and more importantly, the Majors.

But time is what Davis emphasizes most. A decade for a golf company isn’t very long — and she says now there are kids who grew up and only know Nike as a golf company, and aren’t aware of a time when it wasn’t involved with the game.

“We are now seeing kids who don’t know anything other than Nike in golf,” she said. “And that’s very significant.”

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Jeff Lancaster

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