Lady Golfer meets Cindy Davis

Dan Murphy sits down with the president of Nike Golf to discuss Tiger, Michelle, Apple and the path to her current role

CINDY DAVIS has been the president of Nike Golf since 2008. When Rory McIlroy was presented to the global media in Abu Dhabi in January and announced as a Nike athlete, it was Davis who shared a stage with the World No 1.

From Maryland, the 50-year-old is arguably the most powerful woman in golf. Tall and lithe, she combines all aspects of the running of Nike Golf with a fitness regime that involves a weekly appointment with her personal trainer and daily 5am alarm calls.

Davis was good enough to play at college and consider a professional career, but instead chose to enter the corporate world. Prior to joining Nike, she served as senior vice president at the Golf Channel. Also are on her CV are roles as the CEO of the Arnold Palmer Golf Company and vice president of the LPGA.

As a guest at Nike’s global product launch in Orlando late last year, Lady Golfer had the opportunity to sit down with Davis and talk to her about the challenge of establishing Nike’s reputation in golf, the new Covert driver and 20XI ball, working with Tiger and her experiences of being a woman in male-dominated boardrooms.

LG: If you have the best players and you now have the product, what stands between Nike and more market share?

CD: Ourselves. We also did a real look at how we brought product to market. We wanted to be very clear with our messaging. The hardest thing about Covert is it’s so loaded with technology you could tell a lot of stories. We came up with the high-speed cavity back as the headline and we need to tell the story so the consumer wants to try the product.
Then it’s the moment of truth – how it performs in their hands.

LG:Which other golf companies do you admire?

Apple. I know it’s not a golf company but it’s an inspiration to use because what they did is create simplicity for the consumer. I have a belief that we in the golf industry have so over-complicated things. We’ve over-complicated how you’re fitted, how you teach the golf swing, you buy a golf club.

People want simplicity. Fitting will get simpler and the confidence of doing it for yourself will increase.

Nike is not a golf company – it’s an innovation company it’s a technology company. And Apple have been exceptional at it.

LG: Is there a sense of frustration that Nike don’t get the recognition you deserve?

CD: I’ve been in this role for about four years now, and it was three years ago that we really had a moment when we looked in the mirror and said OK, let’s really look at our innovation, let’s really determine what we do well, what we don’t do well, where we should invest, where we should divest.

And then let’s re-allocate our resources to get this right.

We said to ourselves: It’s time to be Nike in golf. If you think about RZN core technology in balls – that’s being Nike in golf. We took a path others aren’t travelling. And now we’re looking at something in metal woods with Covert, and high-speed Cavity back technology, again a path no-one has gone down. We’re finding our voice now in ball and club. It’s going to be exciting.

If you really think about what golf is and if you have a passion for growing our sport then I think to do that we’re going to have to open our minds in a lot of ways. LG: How much help has Tiger Woods been to the process?

CD: Having a guy like Tiger on our staff, because he’s got almost a sixth sense about product, he’s accelerated our team’s ability to solve with new innovation.

He’s been able to give us insights that could have taken years to get. He feels product, he senses product. He’s accelerated us being better at innovation.

LG: What achievement are you most proud of at Nike Golf?

CD: I’m most proud of the team – they inspire me every day. And the innovation we’re bringing to the market. We’ve been working on this for years and it’s like we’re pulling the covers back and saying ‘OK world’ and showing people what we’ve been doing.

Our best years are ahead of us undoubtedly. We now have an opportunity to bring the product the golfers that is going to make people step back and say wow.

LG: What’s it like being a woman who is in charge of Nike Golf?

CD: I have been in the golf business in various capacities for a number of years, probably more than I want to admit to now and I’ve always believed that, and I think my career has said that, opportunities happen because you perform.

I happen to work for a phenomenal company that happens to think that way and creates opportunities for lots of people. And it’s been fun.

I’d be lying if I didn’t say there was always an intrigue because I’m asked that question a lot, but in the end I think they want to work with someone they can do great business with, or an athlete wants to work with someone who makes great product, so the currency of what it takes to be successful supersedes all that other stuff.

LG: Have you had to work harder to earn that trust than a man would have done?

CD: I can’t say that, on a personal level. I think that in this industry though the fact that I understand golf, that I’ve played golf, that I played in college, that’s helped.

But I’ve noticed it always comes down to: can we find a way to have success together? Can you make me a better athlete on the course?

In the end, that’s what it always comes down to. That has been my experience.

LG: Have you ever encountered any hostility?

CD: No.

LG: The way people have behaved towards you?

CD: No.

LG: Really?

CD: Now, didn’t you have a woman prime minister? Come on!

LG: I didn’t say it was impossible…

I mean, that’s tough, this is nothing compared to that!

LG: Would you agree that this is a man’s industry?

CD: Here’s what I agree. I think there’s far more opportunity for diversity across the entire sport in every capacity.

If you really think about what golf is and if you have a passion for growing our sport then I think to do that we’re going to have to open our minds in a lot of ways.

And that doesn’t mean that doing that would ever compromise golf as we know it now but maybe there’s a different type of golf experience, maybe there is a different way in which people can access golf.

LG: Do you think another major golf company would have appointed you as a woman?

CD: I think a company would appoint anyone it believed could deliver results – period.

LG: You don’t think you had to be better at your job than the men?

CD: They expect me to deliver results and they remind me of that!

LG: How important is the ladies’ game to you?

CD: It’s worth about 20 per cent of the market. In this day and age I don’t think you can just walk away from 20 per cent of the market.

LG: How do you assess Michelle Wie’s progress, as a long-time Nike athlete?

CD: When I’m asked about Michelle I always say that she just became a full-time golfer. So until we see her as a grounded full-time golfer I think it’s too early to judge.

I can tell you though that when we see her on a launch monitor her natural talent is unlike anything I’ve ever seen with any woman golfer, I mean she is just so gifted. It’s going to be fun to watch as focuses on her game.

Her numbers are like some of the PGA Tour players that we have for ball speed, she’s on the lower end of their scale.

I think the best thing for Michelle – honestly – was going to college because Michelle needed to develop and to find out who Michelle is.

LG: The ladies’ game is being dominated by Asian players. Is that a threat to the game in America or an opportunity?

Golf is growing in Asia; wherever there’s a middle class, golf is growing. I’d love to see that kind of growth in the UK or US or the mature markets.

There’s a lot of energy in that part of the world, they perceive a lot of opportunities.
A 14-year-old Chinese kid (Guan Tianlang) has just qualified for the Masters – there’s a message to the future right there – and incidentally he was using a lot of our product, which is nice.

LG: And will it be the same story in the men’s game soon?

CD: I think the women are starting it but we believe the men are probably five to 10 years behind but you can just start to see it changing.

LG: What frustrates you about the golf industry?

We’re not early adopters. So we’re afraid of change. So for a company like Nike who is all about creating change, all about disrupting the market, all about pushing the envelope – I wish our industry would move faster.

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