They may have been 1989 Irish Boys team-mates but that’s where Pádraig Harrington and Simon Parkhill’s golfing careers took very divergent pathways.
Harrington’s is well documented but Parkhill, who represented Castlerock GC, has enjoyed success too and is looking forward to the 2012 season as much as the three-time major winner following his top-10 finish at the Masters.
That is because Parkhill, 40, is just settling into his new role as Nike Golf’s European Sales Director and the timing of his appointment, moving from the company’s football division, has been impeccable, not only given the boost the Masters brings to golf equipment and clothing sales but also the resurgence in interest brought about by Tiger Woods’ Bay Hill victory earlier this year.
“It’s good to be back in the golf business,” Parkhill said. “I’ve managed to get a few sarcastic comments about the timing. Not only does it coincide with the start of the golf season but obviously with Tiger’s coming back to form and winning so impressively at Bay Hill, a lot of people have made comment on my luck.”
Despite Nike’s prominence in sports apparel and footwear, the swoosh is a relatively new logo when it comes to golf equipment and in an industry where old habits die hard, that can make it a difficult business to crack. Yet Parkhill sees the Irish and UK markets as significant barometers of Nike Golf’s success in the sector as it goes up against established giants like TaylorMade and Titleist.
“Ireland’s hugely important and the UK and Ireland combined accounts for upwards of 50% of our European business,” he said. “Ireland is a significant part of that and the participation rate in golf in Ireland is higher than any European country.
“So from an authenticity standpoint if we can do it right in Ireland, and we’ve got some work to do, without a doubt, in all our markets, but if you can connect with consumers in Ireland, you can connect with consumers anywhere.”
Which is why Parkhill is hoping Irish consumers are as receptive as other markets to Nike’s latest ranges such as its Lunar footwear, X1 ball and the VR_S irons, all of which embrace new technologies he believes the game’s consumers crave.
“I would say the UK and Irish consumer is very similar, a very discerning, mature consumer. They know their product, they’re loyal to some of the more traditional golf brands and you could say we have to pedal a little bit harder in some of those more mature markets, whereas in some of those emerging markets, perhaps a brand like Nike is more readily accepted.
“Irish consumers are as savvy as any consumer anywhere on the planet. The consumer now is digitally enabled and so in a lot of respects they know more about our products and technologies than perhaps sometimes we do, they are so far ahead of the game. And that’s why technology and innovation is so, so important and Irish consumers are absolutely at the forefront of that.”
Battling industry icons such as Titleist’s ProV1 ball, Cleveland irons, Ping putters or TaylorMade drivers is daunting but Nike has had some help along the way, not least from Tiger’s ball at the 2005 Masters as it hovered, logo up, over the 16th hole for an invaluable number of seconds.
“That was one of the most watched pieces of golf television in recent years and it was fantastic exposure for the brand,” Parkhill said.
“The equipment market, there’s no disguising that’s a tough one for us. People compare us to adidas in terms of being a sporting goods brand and they’ve done a great job in footwear and apparel also. But they own the TaylorMade brand and they’ve gone into the club business via that brand and done a great job with it. We’re trying to build our business under one brand, Nike Golf, and you would never, ever trade in the power of the Nike brand. We’re part of a $21 billion (€16bn) sporting giant and that’s absolutely fantastic but with that, it does bring some challenges. We probably found consumers might have been slower to adopt our club technologies perhaps than they have our apparel and that’s just a bit of a longer process.”
Again, Nike is having to pedal a little harder, to use Parkhill’s analogy, to get its message across.
“I would say so. That is where the consumer has a desire for more information and is probably more loyal to some of the more established golf brands than Nike — like Titleist, Ping, Callaway, TaylorMade.
“Nike Golf is still relatively new. We’ve been around for not much longer than 10 years and being brutal it took us a couple of years to eat our way into the club business. We’re still young.”
Parkhill, who says he “masquerades as a six handicap”, has been with Nike since its golf division’s infancy, having joined as a golf sales representative for Ireland in 2001 but it was his entry to the industry that cut short his competitive amateur career.
“I grew up playing Whitehead, just north of Belfast and also Castlerock up on the Causeway coast. It’s probably one of the lesser-known courses with Portrush up there but it’s a great course. I played Senior Cup for Castlerock and we got to an All-Ireland final back in the day and I managed to scrape onto an Irish boys’ team in 1989 with Pádraig Harrington on the same team but our careers have gone on different directions since.
“I’ve gone my own way in the golf industry and I was never going to be a good player. I scraped onto an Irish Boys’ team more from a competitive instinct than talent. So I made my way in the industry and it’s worked out quite well.”
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