It was the summer of 2016, specifically the Wednesday evening of Travelers Championship week. Brooks Koepka – who at that point had one PGA TOUR win but had not yet started collecting major hardware -- was settling in for a sponsor function with fellow Nike Golf equipment staffers Paul Casey and Kevin Chappell when the phone rang. His agent was calling with news that not only would alter the clubs in Koepka’s bag but send shockwaves through the golf world.
Nike was exiting the hard-goods industry.
"I don't think anyone saw it coming," Koepka recalled. "At that point, I had been with Nike less than a year when I took that call."
When Nike officially made the decision to pull the plug on creating golf clubs and balls, it was unclear how drastically the news would alter the equipment landscape on the PGA TOUR. With the Swoosh narrowing its focus to apparel and shuttering an equipment arm that was established in 1998 — when the company released its first golf ball line — players were forced to come to terms with the idea of playing without a club contract.
At the outset of 2016, Nike had inked 14 new players to equipment contracts, including Koepka and fellow bomber Tony Finau. Of course, it also had existing contracts for several other pros, including two of golf’s biggest names: Tiger Woods and Rory McIlroy. After its abrupt equipment departure, Nike wanted to minimize any negative impact on player performance, so the company allowed its staff pros with equipment and apparel deals to play out the rest of their agreements with gear from other manufacturers.
When the calendar flipped to 2017, most Nike staffers were still considered equipment free agents, save for Patrick Rodgers, Russell Henley and J.J. Spaun, who came to terms on staff deals with Callaway, Titleist and Srixon, respectively.
In the coming months, others would soon follow by signing equipment deals. Woods was the first significant domino to fall when he announced at the Farmers Insurance Open that he inked a 13-club deal with TaylorMade, in addition to his ball agreement with Bridgestone.
Woods initially considered remaining a free agent, but during extensive testing sessions, he found a fit in TaylorMade.
“I was going the free agent route," Woods told PGATOUR.COM in December. "I did, and then looked at my house — it was a warehouse. A lot of manufacturers were sending me stuff. Tell me how this looks, tell me how that looks. Let me narrow it down here. And then I didn't have to go anywhere, I could just test right here on my simulator, so I tested on my simulator, tried to see what it would feel like. Ooh, that felt not so good. That felt pretty good. TaylorMade's were feeling consistently good across the board. So I thought, I've got to take this stuff outside and see what it does. And I did it, and I was just blown away how stable the club was and how far I was able to hit it.”
Rory McIlroy joined Woods at TaylorMade four months later with a multi-year, 14-club and ball deal that surprised many in the equipment world, given that the four-time major winner employed a Callaway-heavy setup for a portion of his free agency.
Aside from Tony Finau's 11-club staff deal with PING in January of 2018, the rest of Nike's now-defunct equipment staff has refrained from signing elsewhere. Now those free agents – as well as others who have decided to play without equipment deals – have been thriving inside the ropes.
Consider the four major winners in 2018 – Patrick Reed at the Masters, Francesco Molinari at the Open Championship, and Koepka at the U.S. Open and PGA Championship. None are under contract. Also consider that five of the current top 15 players in the Official World Golf Ranking don't carry an equipment staff deal.
Last year, three players won on TOUR without equipment staff deals. This season, that number is 10. It's a trend that has some believing free agency could be a viable route in the future.
Kevin Chappell was one of those 2017 free-agent winners. After 180 starts on the PGA TOUR, he broke through at the Valero Texas Open, and eventually landed a spot on the winning U.S. Presidents Cup team.
"For me personally, I'm still playing under what was my original Nike contract," Chappell said. "There was no financial reason to go sign an equipment deal. I can test what I want when I want, and play what I want when I want. I still play my Nike irons, but only because I haven't found anything that's better than that."
Earlier this season, Jason Dufner and Kevin Na parted ways with Titleist — both still hold ball, shoe and glove deals with the equipment manufacturer — and wound up adding new gear to the bag, including a bespoke set of National Custom Works irons for Dufner, the 2013 PGA Championship winner.
Na inserted a Callaway GBB Epic driver at THE PLAYERS Championship and won A Military Tribute at The Greenbrier a few months later. It was his second career win – and first in seven years.
Of course, Koepka’s rise speaks for itself. He entered last week’s FedExCup Playoffs ranked third in points. His fellow free-agent major winners were also ranked inside the top 10.
"You can play what you want and that's the beauty of it," Koepka said. "You don't have ties to one particular company, so if something isn't working, you can look elsewhere. You just play what works for you. With the success some guys have had this season, I think maybe you'll see more guys [go the free agent route] in the future."
GETTING CREATIVETommy Fleetwood's prized Nike VR Pro Blade irons. (Jonathan Wall/PGA TOUR)
Whether more players go the route of free agency in the future remains to be seen, but for those who've made the leap, many have found success by keeping the process as simple as possible and not making wholesale club changes when things go sideways.
During the midst of his newfound equipment freedom, McIlroy lamented having to sift through equipment from nearly every manufacturer on the planet that was sent to not only his home address but also his parents' house. The phrase "paralysis by analysis" comes to mind when envisioning McIlroy testing an avalanche of gear.
While many recreational golfers dream of being surrounded by endless gear, there's also a potential drawback to having the freedom to put anything in the bag.
Yes, you can play any club you want, and change clubs anytime you want. But if you start blaming the clubs too much for poor performances and switch too often … well, that’s a recipe for disaster.
Chappell calls it a “double-edged sword. I can go into an equipment truck and ask them to build me something any week I'm on TOUR. I'm no longer obligated to test a particular club. You learn quickly to trust what's in the bag and not tinker when things are going right. There's no reason to press and I think that's what a lot of guys, myself included, like about the freedom."
And then there's the issue a few former Nike staffers have faced trying to locate backups of Swoosh clubs that have been discontinued. When Nike announced it was ceasing club production, former Nike master craftsman Mike Taylor, and the rest of the team at Nike's The Oven R&D facility in Fort Worth, Texas, worked for the next six months creating multiple backup sets — irons and wedges in particular — to ensure players were in a good spot if they chose to continue playing their current setup.
"We were cranking it out trying to get everyone set up," said Taylor, who now runs Artisan Golf out of the old Oven facility and continues to grind all of Woods' irons and wedges. "It didn't feel like we stopped during that time. No one had any idea how long it would take a guy to transition into new equipment, so we made sure they had enough so they didn't feel like we were dumping them on the street."
Even with an assist from Taylor and the rest of the team in Texas, some players have started to run out of their Nike backup stock and facing the possibility of playing something different, or looking for a replacement when their clubs are no longer usable.
When Chappell's Nike Vapor Pro short irons began to wear out, he made a call to Taylor, whom he figured might have an extra set. Alas, Taylor didn't have a fresh set of blank heads laying around. So he got creative.
"We dug deep," Taylor recalled. "I said, 'Hey man, I've got some, but they have this knucklehead guy named MT stamped on them.'"
For the moment, Chappell is using one of Taylor's personal sets. "They work and that's all that matters," Chappell said.
Tommy Fleetwood found himself in a similar situation in March at the World Golf Championships-Mexico Championship when he noticed the 7- and 8-iron in his Nike VR Pro Blade set were bent at the hosel from regular use.
“I actually had 12 golf clubs for that week,” said Fleetwood, who nevertheless tied for 14th in Mexico City.
Lucky for Fleetwood, he had one final backup set waiting at a friend's house in Orlando, Florida, that he inserted at the Arnold Palmer Invitational presented by Mastercard. Without another backup set at his disposal, Fleetwood admitted he's been extra careful with the sticks, especially now that all of the work is done by a local club fitter, as Nike no longer employs a tech to work on product each week on TOUR.
"It stops me from breaking any, that's for sure," Fleetwood said. "Eventually, I'm going to have find a new set, but I've been using these for a long time and they're still going."
Finding a new backup set led Fleetwood to Paul Casey, who currently has a fresh set of VR Pro Blades sitting at home. Fleetwood initially offered to pay Casey for the irons, but the price wasn't high enough to get the fellow Englishman to bite.
"They are as rare as rocking horse poo," Casey told PGATOUR.COM. "And I will not sell them to him. Or put it this way, he hasn't offered me enough money. … He's gotta try harder."
Casey's affinity for the discontinued irons has made Fleetwood consider the idea of playing with a different brand. If anything, it would keep him from holding his breath if one of the heads was damaged and needed to be replaced during competition.
"Honestly, changing might make life easier if something went wrong with a set from another manufacturer," Fleetwood said. "I could get them fixed and it wouldn't be a struggle."
Of course, changing gear isn't a seamless process. It not only requires players to get acclimated to new clubs but working with different tour reps as well — something Molinari didn't realize was a vital part of the equation until he left Nike equipment after 12 years and began using 13 TaylorMade clubs and a Bettinardi putter.
"It made me realize as well how good of a support I was getting from Nike and from the guys building the clubs," Molinari said. "In the end, I think there's a lot of good equipment out there and it depends a lot on the relationship that you have with the guys building the clubs and how much they understand what you need. So the communications between us and the manufacturers, I think it's really, really important."
BENEFITTING THE BRANDSFrancesco Molinari's Bettinardi putter he used to win the Quicken Loans National and The Open Championship. (Jonathan Wall/PGA TOUR)
Equipment free agency has been a boon for a handful of players on TOUR as well as a group of manufacturers who've been able to capitalize on players such as Koepka, Reed and Molinari making it to the winner's circle.
While Bettinardi opted to sign Molinari to a putter deal, a few manufacturers have been receiving free advertising from some of the best players in the world. Koepka continues to play Mizuno's JPX 900 Tour irons without an agreement, but the equipment manufacturer made a serious push to ink the 28-year-old when his gear deal disappeared.
Selling Koepka on the fact that JPX 900 Tour was created with him in mind, Mizuno was able to get the irons in his bag. They've remained a staple ever since. Koepka's success, coupled with Nike's exit, turned Mizuno into a popular landing spot for many players without equipment deals. Along with Koepka, Paul Casey won the 2018 Valspar Championship with Mizuno irons in the bag.
During the late 1980s and early ‘90s, Mizuno was arguably the most popular iron on TOUR before TaylorMade and Callaway started increasing their staffs in an effort to become the No. 1 iron.
The recent resurgence hasn't seen Mizuno move back to the top of the pack, but it has coincided with the brand seeing a significant bump in iron usage with anywhere from 12 to 15 sets in play.
With Koepka and Casey playing the irons without compensation, some have wondered if Mizuno should open the checkbook and sign one (or both) to an iron deal.
According to Chris Voshall, Mizuno Golf's senior club engineer, the situation isn't that simple.
"We have so many conversations right now," Voshall said. "The tricky things is, if we're not paying them, we can't say their name, feature them or talk about them. Then there's the side thing of Mizuno, right or wrong, being pigeonholed as an iron company. So there's the whole discussion of if you pay somebody to play just your irons, who was going to play them anyway, what are we getting out of that?"
Along with Mizuno, TaylorMade (metalwoods), PING (metalwoods) and Titleist (golf ball and wedges) have been popular options for free agents. Titleist is typically the runaway winner each week in the ball category, but due to players using the ball without compensation or breaking their contract with another manufacturer, they managed to eclipse the 80 percent golf ball usage mark for the first time in a 156-player field, at the John Deere Classic, according to Darrell Survey records dating back to 1996.
Boutique brands have enjoyed a bump in exposure as well, especially Taylor's Artisan Golf, who currently creates custom wedges and putters. Taylor can thank Reed for the free exposure, which came courtesy of his Masters victory with two Artisan wedges in the bag.
"My phone was about to blow up," Taylor said. "And that was before (Patrick) even slipped on the Green Jacket. We've been blessed. Even with the relationships we've built with players during our time at Nike, we had no idea what that would mean when Artisan was started. We're just been grateful that guys like Patrick trusted us to not only try our wedges but put them in play."
FUTURE OF FREE AGENCYThe Artisan Golf wedge Patrick Reed used to win the Masters. (Jonathan Wall/Getty Images)
The fact remains that a majority of the current crop of equipment free agents are still under contract with Nike Golf, which allows them to treat the bag setup like a puzzle — removing and replacing clubs that don't fit for something that does, without having to worry about breaking terms of a 13-club deal or the prospect of slotting in new equipment to satisfy a manufacturer.
But what happens when those deals run out? Will Koepka, Molinari, Reed and others look to sign staff deals? It's a question worth asking as the TOUR continues to see a rise in players opting for equipment free agency.
"I'm honestly surprised [players going the free agent route] didn't happen sooner," said Nick Raffaele, who headed up Callaway's Tour operations until 2015. "What it took was Nike's exit. It's simple supply and demand. With Nike no longer in the game and TaylorMade scaling back their Tour staff after the acquisition, there's really only four major players left in the game: Callaway, Titleist, PING and TaylorMade, to some extent. There are fewer places to go."
With fewer equipment landing spots, Raffaele, who came up with player valuations and negotiated equipment contracts during his time with Callaway and Top Flite-Strata, thinks the trend could be here to stay. For some, that could mean targeting apparel or headware deals, something Dufner began doing earlier this season when he sported different logos and brands at each TOUR stop.
Raffaele also believes the ever-widening gap in earnings — especially for those in the 30th to 125th range in the FedExCup standings — makes some players realize they can make up money that otherwise would've been made via full staff equipment deals with strong play on the course, using a setup comprised of clubs that play to their strengths.
In 1998, when Raffaele first started out on TOUR, the earnings gap between 30th and 125th was nearly $736,000. That gap increased to $1.16 million in 2000 and $1.969 million in 2015. In 2015, there were 42 players on TOUR who made more than $2 million in earnings for the season.
"That gap is one of the reasons why, if I was an agent, I'd encourage corporate deals and not take an equipment deal unless it was over seven-figures," Raffaele said.
Reed, who was with Nike before departing for Callaway midway through the 2013 season, is a perfect example of the success a player can have with a mixed setup. He had six different brands represented in his bag when he won at Augusta National.
“I kind of just sat down with my wife and my team, and I was like, hey, well, even though we're not going to have any kind of security without having a manufacturer, at the same time, if I feel like I have the best 14 clubs in my golf bag for my game as well as the best golf ball, who knows how many shots I could save?” Reed explained a few months after his win. “In the long run, I'm going to earn more on the golf course than I am off the golf course from a manufacturer.”
Of course, the flip side of the equation is the financial security that comes from a staff deal. For some players, the guaranteed money is enough. For others, the chance to go it alone is worth the risk, due in large part to the potential reward that could be on the other side.
For those players who opt for free agency, Taylor has one piece of advice.
"As fast as some of these club models are changing, if you find something you like along the way, you better stockpile them," Taylor said. "Learn from the guys who are already in that position. A bunch of them are doing really well, but you need to right tools, and backups for those tools, to make it happen."