The lab's goal: One new prototype or design tweak per day.
"This represents the epicenter of everything golf balls," says Cindy Davis, president of Nike Golf. "This literally is where all the great innovations are created, hatched, tested and ultimately brought to market."
Hence the name Oven West. Nike's apparel and footwear R&D lab is called The Kitchen. So when Nike Golf decided to build out a separate R&D lab for golf clubs, just outside of Fort Worth, Texas, the term "oven" seemed appropriate – both in terms of "cooking up" innovations and thanks to the summer heat, says Davis. So when the company decided to double down on golf balls and build a second stand-alone facility in Beaverton a few years ago, the natural choice was Oven West.
Right now the facility is focused on its new RZN line of golf balls. With four different RZN designs just hitting store shelves, the facility is busy testing the products and seeing how the technology can be evolved for future versions.
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What makes the RZN model special is its core. As the name suggests, it's comprised of resin, a material that's lighter than the more traditional rubber core, that's been molded in a so-called speedlock shape that could best be described as a pattern resembling a waffle iron. Chemical maker DuPont is providing the resin base, and Nike's engineers say that despite the fact that the raw material costs more than rubber, it's easier and faster to use, cutting down on labor. The textured surface, they say, allows the outer layers of the ball to better grip the core, minimizing air within the ball to create more energy at impact. That's supposed to help average golfers, particularly those with an off-center swing.
Pro golfer and Nike spokesperson Rory McIlroy already uses the RZN line in tournaments, and the sport's biggest celebrity and fellow Nike endorser Tiger Woods is supposed to begin using the new balls publicly this year. (Though, given the fact that he's now sitting out the Masters, just when is up in the air.)
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But for all of the gadgets and expert manpower at Oven West, Nike still has a long way to go when it comes to golf ball dominance. The $1.2 billion industry is crowded with competition, including companies like Spalding, Maxfli, Callaway and market leader Titlelist. More than 1,300 golf ball designs were tested in 2013, according to the United States Golf Association, hailing from 73 different companies; less than 2 percent failed to make the regulatory cut.