Nike (NKE) Vapor Irons Take Dead Aim at Next-Gen Golfers: Is Rory McIlroy Tiger 2.0 to Boost Sport's Flagging Popularity?

NEW YORK (MainStreet) — Nike (NKE) revealed the additions to its Vapor Iron club series last night at the Liberty National Golf Course in Jersey City, N.J. with Tiger Woods, Rory McIlroy and Late Night host Jimmy Fallon enlisted in the promotional effort to inject new blood into a sport that's seeing its popularity fade. The unveiled Vapor Pro Irons, Vapor Pro Combo Irons and Vapor Speed Irons were created at Nike's Fort Worth, Texas research and development center dubbed "the Oven," with input from Woods, McIlroy and other Nike Golf athletes to emphasize the equipment's technological advancements and reinvigorate interest in the game.

Fountain of Youth Amid Hazards

McIlroy, along with a new crop of Gen Y golfers, may be the secret swing Nike and golf in general have been searching for to rejuvenate the sport since the ailing Tiger Woods's recent slump. More than 4 million players quit the game and more than 150 courses shut down last year, according to the National Golf Foundation.

Read More: Nike Takes a Swing at Cahnging Golfers' Game With New Vapor Irons

The sport has suffered lower participation – and lower television ratings – since not long after Tiger hit the top of his game in 2005. With this month's victory in the PGA championship, McIlroy has placed himself even more squarely in the conversation as being among golf's next generation of greats. It was McIlroy's third-straight Tour victory and his fourth major – at age 25. That puts him in the clubhouse with Jack Nicklaus and Tiger Woods as one of the youngest golfers to win four major championships. His attachment to a line of clubs dovetails with efforts to generate increased attention and hipness to the sport.

"We're very fortunate that we've got, first, a broad stable of athletes and then, two, the most compelling athletes," said Cindy Davis, president of Nike Golf. The objective, she says, is how to tap that energy the athletes bring to the sport and "and how we can amplify that and bring that out in the market place."

Welding the youthful personalities of the sport to the innovative gear is all part of the business strategy.

"The magic of [the Vapor Iron club series] is this modern muscle...we worked quite a while on getting the weighting right, and that weighting allowed more power, more precision and more purity of strength." said Davis.

Rickie Fowler is another one of the PGA pros putting a new face on the game. At the age of 25, he's already ranked among the top 20 golfers in the world (13th), and stroked earnings of nearly $4 million so far this year with seven top-ten tournament finishes.

"With playing 18 holes and the amount of time a round of golf takes, I feel it scares them [potential players] off a bit, without giving it a chance," Fowler said in an interview with TheStreetTV.

"I'm not far removed from being a kid growing up on the driving range, and I have a great following of young fans," said Fowler. "It's pretty cool to walk inside the ropes and look down the sides of the fairway and see a bunch of 6- 7- and 8-year olds running around with my hats on."

As younger pro players garner more attention, Fowler believes the game's appeal will continue to grow. He is also part of a "Play 9" initiative with the United States Golf Association (USGA) in an attempt to make the game more accessible to players who can't spend four hours on the course for a full 18-hole round.

In fact, more than one-quarter of America's golf courses are nine-hole tracks – and most 18-hole clubs allow nine-hole rounds. Carding nine may fit more easily into the recreational schedule of potential players.

Driving Through the Rough

In addition to generational changes in leisure activities, the USGA says golf may have gone into the rough along with the rest of America during the Great Recession.

"Like many industries and businesses, the best thing for golf would be a resurgence in the economy -- our game grows when our nation is financially stable," Mike Davis, executive director of the USGA, told MainStreet. "With our industry partners, we're focused on exploring the best methods to ensure the game is affordable, and that the time it takes to play is compatible with today's lifestyles. We also have to continue to introduce juniors and other beginners to the game in a welcoming environment that encourages them to continue to play."

There are discussions among industry insiders about ways to make the game even more inviting to newcomers by producing equipment that is more affordable and "forgiving." The Vapor Iron club series, for example, has club cavities that make it easier to loft the ball in the air. There has even been talk about making the hole bigger.

Of course, some purists are not thrilled by that prospect.

"We're bringing the game down with these 15-inch holes and 'let's play soccer golf,'" entrepreneur and golf course developer Donald Trump told Golf.com. "Golf should be an aspirational game. We should keep it a high level and not bring it down because a group of people want to sell some more golf clubs or some more golf balls."

Even if the sport has slumped a bit, it's still an industry with a $69 billion impact in the U.S., according to the PGA – accounting for 2 million jobs. And despite of the obstacles, there is a growing youth movement in golf. Lydia Ko, a 17-year old on the LPGA tour, finished in the top five at the LPGA Championship and has already won two titles in her rookie season – earning $1.2 million this year.

On the PGA tour, McIlroy and Fowler are joined by the likes of Patrick Reed, Victor Dubuisson, Matteo Manassero, Hideki Matsuyama and others -- all barely older than a good bottle of scotch.

That phalanx of young players bodes well for Nike's Vapor Iron club series -- branding golf as an exciting sport with youthful momentum and and dynamic equipment.

Perhaps the "play more golf by playing less golf" 9-hole round strategy – as well as this fresh crop of rising pro players – can tee up a new popularity for the sport born in the Middle Ages and looking to lose a little of the gray.

--Written by Hal M. Bundrick for MainStreet

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