Nike Tosses Its Golf Clubs. (Shirts to Stay On.)

ATLANTA — So, who comes to mind when you think of golf and Nike?

Right: (I am) Tiger Woods.

And what, specifically, is Tiger Woods wearing when you think of him?

Right: a red shirt.

That association, which wanted a little for serious golf fans with Woods’s decline but remains strong for much of the casual sports world, has been very good for Nike for a very long time. But it is (or, really, was) also emblematic of Nike’s golf problem.

Two months ago, Nike — whose player roster includes Rory McIlroy, Michelle Wie and yes, still, Woods — announced that it was leaving the golf equipment business. Development and production of Nike golf clubs and Nike golf balls will be shut down, the company said, essentially admitting that it had not made enough money in this particular field about 18 years after it introduced its first ball and 14 years after it rolled out its first clubs.

The decision, which caught many in the golf community off guard (including some players and executives with ties to Nike), has made for some odd realities. For instance, at the marquee Tour Championship played here at East Lake Golf Club last year, Paul Casey introduced and praised a prototype of Nike’s new driver, the sleek blue-and-yellow Vapor Fly model.

On Thursday, in the first round of this year’s event, Casey played at East Lake alongside McIlroy; each shot 68, two shots behind the leaders Dustin Johnson, Hideki Matsuyama and Kevin Chappell. Casey and McIlroy again used their Nike gear, even though it was difficult not to look at their clubs and bags as soon-to-be collector’s items. Beginning next season, the most likely place to find them could be on eBay.

“The secret sauce in the equipment business that Nike didn’t have is that each of these companies that’s thriving comes from a core competency that they grew out of,” said Casey Alexander, a senior vice president at Compass Point Research & Trading, which has long tracked the golf industry. “Callaway still uses the Big Bertha name — that’s what people know them for. TaylorMade invented the metal-headed driver, and that’s still a huge part of what they do. Titleist has a core competency in golf balls. Ping has a history in cast-iron clubs. Nike just never broke through with something like that.”

What Nike did (and does) have, though, is the ubiquity of that red shirt and the popularity of its brethren. Nike’s golf clothes, or soft products, have long been global favorites, and Nike has said it plans to continue producing new shirts and shorts and pants and shoes and hats — all of which, not coincidentally, require far less of an investment to create than the funding needed to operate a research-and-development operation for new clubs or new balls.

Nike is not alone in bowing to that truth. Earlier this year, Adidas, which also makes a wide variety of popular golf clothing, took steps to separate itself from TaylorMade, the club-and-ball company it purchased in 1997, and Adams, another club company.

And why not? In the United States, the number of golfers has decreased to 24 million from about 30 million in 2005, forcing equipment companies, particularly those that produce more than just golf products, to be more discerning.

Nike’s decision may have felt abrupt — Bobby Kreusler, the agent for another Nike player, Jhonattan Vegas, told Golf Magazine that he found the news “shocking and extremely disappointing” — but the numbers were impossible to ignore. Sales in Nike’s golf division during the fiscal year that ended in May were terrible: Its total figure of $706 million was 8.2 percent lower than the previous year and made it Nike’s worst-performing major category. (The women’s exercise category, by comparison, had sales of $1.34 billion.)

Fallout from the move has been varied. Conjecture began instantly that Nike might consider some sort of alignment with a club company to streamline endorsements, while players who use Nike’s equipment were immediately inundated with pitches from other companies.

Many players, and their agents, have been hesitant to speak openly about the situation because negotiations, with Nike and other companies, are in progress.

Several agents speculated that one (somewhat counterintuitive) ramification of Nike’s move out of the golf equipment business is that there will actually be more, not fewer, Nike swooshes on the golf course at top events.

In the past, the thinking goes, Nike could not attract some players it wanted to work with because many players believed Nike’s clubs were inferior. Now, Nike will be free to chase any player without demanding that the player use Nike’s clubs as well as wear its clothes.

Jason Day, an Australian who is ranked No. 1 and wears Adidas clothing, has already been linked with Nike. Day ratcheted up the rumors about a possible switch when he announced this week that he would be signing a new contract with TaylorMade for clubs but did not disclose which logos he would be wearing.

The top-ranked Jason Day, who wears Adidas clothing, has been linked with Nike. He was coy about a possible switch. CreditScott Halleran/Getty Images 

Pressed on the issue, he played coy, saying: “On the apparel, shoe side, I don’t have anything to share right now. But I’m really excited about the future.”

By next season, many players figure to have different looks, and in a sport that rivals Nascar in terms of perpetually in-your-face branding, Nike’s decision is significant.

The on-course effect is less quantifiable. Many players have love-hate relationships with their clubs, depending on how they are playing. Still, the questions are obvious: What clubs will McIlroy be using next year? Or Casey or Nick Watney? How about a young star like Brooks Koepka, who joined Nike only eight months ago?

For that matter, what about Woods? He is not playing in Atlanta this week, nor will he be playing at the Ryder Cup next week in Minnesota. But he wrote on his website recently that he planned to enter three events this fall.

It will be his first tournament action since August 2015, and Woods, who is recovering from two back operations, stoked his fans’ anticipation by writing, “My rehabilitation is to the point where I’m comfortable making plans,” and adding, “It could be a fun fall” when he returns to the course.

He did not, however, specify what would be in his bag once he did.

Source: www.NYtimes.com