How Nike’s Popular Major Championship Golf Shoes Are Built
By Adam Stanley
Rory McIlroy of N. Ireland hits his second shot from a bunker on the first hole during the first round of the 147th Open Championship at Carnoustie Golf Club on July 19, 2018 in Carnoustie, Scotland. (Photo by Francois Nel, Getty Images)
Matt Plumb will get his small-but-mighty squad together about two years out from a major championship and start putting ideas on a board. Five hundred, sometimes. Colors, themes, emotions. Shoes are art. Art is expressive.
And somehow, Nike always nails it.
“People want exclusive product, they want product that tells stories, and they want product that is relatable to them,” says Plumb, who is the Global Senior Product Manager for golf footwear at Nike.
“We set an internal goal to bring a bit of sneaker culture to the game of golf.”
Adding a local flair
Over the last six years, Nike has pulled together special drops around each of the major championships to incredible fanfare. Even internally, some of the creative executions on the golf side have made it into Nike’s lifestyle line – like the new Air Jordan II “Seersucker,” which saw creative pulled from the seersucker-inspired South Carolinian drop at the PGA Championship in 2021 at Kiawah Island’s Ocean Course.
For this year’s PGA Championship at Oak Hill Country Club in Rochester, New York, Plumb and team went with pops of lilac – Rochester is known as the ‘Flower City,’ after all – as well as some working man’s mettle. A one or two-word statement (the 2023 PGA Championship’s story is dubbed ‘New York Grit’) is the key to the success of Nike’s major-championship efforts.
“We need that initial, ‘Oh, I get the story.’ We also want (consumers) to go, ‘But why?’ and then you see the easter eggs in the drop. Then you’ll see the level of detail that the team spent two years of execution on,” Plumb says of how his team manages to hone-in on a particular theme for each of the big weeks.
“You have to get the story initially and then you see it expand when you get closer to the product.”
Plumb’s team – in a normal, non-COVID time – knows where each of the majors will be contested and will fly to the city and even visit the golf course if there is an existing relationship. The PGA Championship, along with the U.S. Open and Open Championship, are the team’s favorites since they move around every year. The last time there was a major in New York it was at Bethpage, so Nike told a ‘Five Boroughs’ story around New York City. There was still ‘New York’ fans for this year’s PGA Championship, but it was Rochester not Rockefeller.
“We wanted to make sure we celebrated that and make sure you knew what the differences were,” says Plumb. “Not talking very literal ‘New York City’ but (the product) will look a bit more like the Rust Belt and what Rochester looks and feels like.
"It’s about fashion as a whole and making those connections."
The Nike formula
The major championships provide Plumb with these “energy moments” to create a capsule wrapped in whatever seems creatively appropriate for the location. There was that seersucker project for the PGA Championship at Kiawah. A tie-dye effort (“Peace and Love”) when it was at TPC Harding Park in San Francisco. This year’s Masters collection (“Always Fresh”) was based on Georgia peaches, and for the first time it wasn’t just about the men’s major. The collection was dropped early to help bump the Augusta National Women’s Amateur and the two-week celebration of golf in Georgia.
Plumb’s squad has only about a half-dozen members to it, and they’ve got a fairly buttoned-up approach to getting the fresh gear to the athletes.
From the big-idea board, the team will produce a first-pass sample and refine from there. For this year’s Masters, there was a story developed for each of the initial five models that were built. Then they picked the best one to see how it could execute across the other models. The second sample got sharper, and the third sample is really just working on the final five or 10 percent of the project as a whole. The fourth turn is the final one.
The Nike team will check in with the athletes three times for a scripting review process, which gives Plumb peace-of-mind in knowing the athletes will actually wear the stuff, he says with a laugh. The sets are rocked by former PGA Champions Rory McIlroy and Brooks Koepka, while other stars of the game like Scottie Scheffler, Tom Kim, and Tony Finau are all Nike athletes too.
“We absolutely make sure that the athletes are not only comfortable going out there, but not thinking about (their style),” says Plumb.
Ryder Cup, Solheim Cup shoe coming
For each major, there isn’t a new shoe being developed; instead, this is purely a color and creative exercise – albeit an extremely fun one. Plumb reassures the athletes that nothing will change with their shoe of choice like the stiffness, the materials in the upper, the PSI of the signature ‘air,’ or any functional components. Color and graphics, though, are ripe for change.
The team has, however, engaged with six athletes – male and female – to work on the next iteration of the Infinity Tour shoe, a popular one with the world’s best.
The entire line of major drops is now unisex – a learning moment for Plumb and the team. Each shoe for these moment-in-time executions is available in sizes 3.5 to 16. Nike just signed 2021 KPMG Women’s PGA Championship Champion Nelly Korda to its roster to kick off 2023 for a bolster of support.
“We heard from our women’s consumers like, ‘I want those. I would rock those,’” says Plumb.
Later this year Nike will drop a co-ed pack called “Team Golf.” It will be used across both genders to consider a female golfer who could wear it at the Solheim Cup in Spain, a week prior to a male golfer wearing it at the Ryder Cup in Italy.
So, an ever-evolving process that began about a half-decade ago has quickly become one of the team at Nike’s most thrilling projects to continue to work on through the major championship season. While the best in the world rock these creative executions on their feet, golfers of all skill levels have an unparalleled opportunity to feel like they’re part of something more than just style thanks to Plumb’s team’s big ideas.
“We work on these projects for an inordinate amount of time because they’re just so much fun,” says Plumb. “It has all the stuff for our athletes to perform at the highest level, but we bring a new level of fun to it.”
We work on these projects for an inordinate amount of time because they’re just so much fun. It has all the stuff for our athletes to perform at the highest level, but we bring a new level of fun to it.”