How Brooks Koepka went from a 'golf dork' to a golf trendsetter
The idea for Nike's Air Zoom Infinity Tour golf shoe, which Brooks Koepka unveiled in 2020 at the Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship, actually dates back more than two years prior when Nike's designers met with a then-27-year-old Koepka. Koepka was coming off his first major victory, the 2017 U.S. Open, and as Nike's golf product line manager Matt Plumb describes, boasted a look that he categorized like a "golf dork," defaulting to overly-traditional golf pieces with lackluster fits and tired pairings.
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It became part of Nike's initiative to transform the budding superstar's look to that of an elite athlete.
"We wanted him to be in something a little bit bolder and a little bit more aggressive," Plumb said, "and initially, we weren’t sure how he was going to react to it. Then we showed it to him, and he was like 'I'm all in, this is exactly where I want to go with the future of me, I’m an athlete, and I have an athletic look.' "
Ever since, you've seen Koepka in edgier, less traditional outfits and shoes. Koepka, an admitted sneakerhead who turned heads at the Tour Championship when he wore a pair of off-white Nikes, loved his running shoes so much that he asked the Nike team if it could make a high performance golf shoe that looks and feels like his favorite off-course kicks. Plumb's team borrowed Koepka's sneakers and went to work on this shoe, which will hit shelves that April (2020) and retailed at $160.
"In my 13-and-a-half years at Nike working with athletes, this was really one of the most authentic insights from an athlete," Plumb said. "He didn't really know he was giving an insight, he was just talking about how he wears running shoes so much."
The designers at Nike took Koepka's running shoe and put spikes on it, then sent it back to him to try. Rather than tinker with an existing golf shoe to add running-shoe components, Nike wanted to add golf technology to a running shoe. From there, they hit the labs and pressure mapped thousands of golfers to identify the areas of the foot that support the golf swing most. Three spikes on the bottom of the shoe are positioned in those key areas to add traction and energy return.
"Everything in golf right now is around creating power and speed from the ground up," Plumb said. "So that became our task to figure out how we can give you more energy up your kinetic chain...that in the context of golf can add power and distance."
The team took a nod from Nike Basketball's KD12 shoes that focus heavily on vertical energy return. This technology is layered over air-bag-like pods at those key areas of the foot to provide a noticeable burst of power when ground pressure is applied.
"The first time I tested these shoes I jokingly told the team that if I were asked to do the NFL combine, these would be the shoes I’d wear for the vertical," Koepka said. "With a driver in my hand, the energy return I feel from the Zoom Air and REACT cushioning has given me more speed through impact."
From rigorous on-course traction tests to a nearly three-hour style brainstorm at a tiki bar with the Nike team, Kopeka was at the reins with every new piece of the shoe added.
Koepka was meticulous in the process and often surprised the team with inventive ways to test the shoe including quick sprints up to elevated tee boxes, hitting shots with one foot on a sprinkler head and even walking through a cart barn to evaluate the grip performance on wet concrete. It was also important to him that the shoe left no impact on the greens when he crouches down to read a putt or shifts weight onto one foot while grabbing the ball out of the hole, no detail was too small.
Koepka also challenged the team to make it waterproof and easy to clean, so the R&D team worked with Nike's soccer and football teams to develop weather-resistant Flyknit skin for the upper of the shoe.
Style-wise, it was important to Koepka for the shoe to look athletic, fast and not like a typical golf shoe.
"I just wanted something that looks and feels natural to who I am and what I’d want off the course," Koepka said. "I feel like I’m an athlete that plays golf and this shoe just embodies that to me."