Tiger's new driver is another sign that the competition is
No doubt you've heard, but at last week's AT&T Pebble Beach
National Pro-Am, Tiger Woods used a Nike driver for the first
time in competition. This change of tools for golf's most famous
pitchman has wide-ranging ramifications for the equipment
industry. More interesting, however, is what the change says
about Woods's place in the go-go world of the 21st-century Tour.
"I wanted to get a little more distance to keep up with the young
pups," Woods, 26, said following his first round with the new
driver, a 70 at Poppy Hills on Thursday. This coy remark revealed
an underlying truth. With a reported $100 million Nike contract,
Woods was under subtle pressure to change clubs, but there was
also a performance imperative. Woods's juiced-up new driver can
be seen as a concession that he's no longer able to overwhelm
opponents with his length.
Woods has estimated that his swing changes of 1997 and '98--toward
a more compact, repeatable action--cost him 10 yards. The driver
that had been in his bag featured a relatively small clubhead
with a standard-length steel shaft. Meanwhile, Woods's
competitors have armed themselves with space-age weapons, and the
results have been dramatic. Since '97, Woods's first full year as
a pro, average driving distance on Tour has increased 12 yards,
Nike declined to reveal specs on the new driver, but it's roughly
the same size as Woods's old one, and it too has a steel shaft,
but there are differences. The Nike has a thinner face and
slightly more loft than Woods's old driver. The shaft is 44
inches, a half-inch increase. "Longer shaft means the ball goes
farther," Woods's coach, Butch Harmon, says. Ten yards farther?
"Something like that."
Would Woods really swap his most important club for five or 10
more yards? "The margin of error on Tour now is not that much,"
he said last week. "The guys are so much better that a shot here
and there means a lot."
Woods drove the ball well enough to win last week; it was spotty
putting that left him eight shots back of winner Matt Gogel, in
12th place. During Woods's first two rounds of the Pro-Am, amid
the twisty doglegs of Poppy and Spyglass Hill, he often eschewed
his driver. On Saturday and Sunday he bashed his way around the
more generously proportioned Pebble Beach, averaging 288.8 yards
per drive and hitting 21 of 28 fairways. "It wasn't the driver's
fault this week," he said.
Pebble marked the ninth time in his last 11 tournaments that
Woods has failed to crack the top 10, the most fallow period of
his career. Still, it's not quite time to declare that the Tiger
Era has passed. The good news for Woods is that the advantages he
enjoys will remain most pronounced at the major championships,
where precision is the most prized commodity.
The majors are also showcases for Woods's equipment. In the
spring of 2000 he switched to a Nike ball, and with three
resounding Grand Slam victories he helped the company to its
current market share of almost 10% in that category. With Woods
having already lent instant credibility to Nike's new line of
drivers, it's a matter of when, not if, Woods will replace his
irons with the spiffy forged blades Nike introduced last month.
At $10 billion in annual sales, Nike is nearly twice as big as
the rest of the golf-equipment industry, but without a line of
clubs, Nike had failed to realize the prominence it enjoys in
other sports. Nike needs Woods to carry a bag full of swooshes if
the company is going to make significant inroads. More intriguing
is that Woods has turned to Nike for help with his own rivals.
by Sal Johnson
Matt Gogel needed only 103 putts all week, second to Rod
Pampling's 102.... Of Gogel's career earnings ($2.1 million),
more than half ($1.1 million) have come from his three starts at
Pebble.... With a triple-bogey 8 on the 72nd hole, Pat Perez was
five over on the back side par-5s on Sunday.... The good news:
The $432,000 that Perez earned should be enough for a Tour card
in 2003.... Tiger Woods hit 37 fairways, a bit off the 38.11 he
has averaged in his last 99 Tour events..... John Jacobs won the
Senior tour's rain-shortened Royal Caribbean Classic in Key
Biscayne, Fla., by leading in one-putts (22).... Tom Watson, who
tied for second, has never won in Florida in 75 regular Tour and
six Senior starts.... In 20 starts since taking the U.S. Open,
Retief Goosen has five wins--more than anyone in golf.
Vijay Singh (below) may be one of the best drivers in golf, but
the same can't be said of his parking ability. Upon arriving at
Spyglass Hill for a practice round before the Pebble Beach
Pro-Am, Singh was miffed to find the players' lot full, so he
cavalierly double-parked his courtesy car, blocking in three
other cars. Singh then ambled to the driving range, where a
flummoxed Woody Austin confronted him some time later, loudly
demanding that Singh move his car. "You need to ask me politely,"
Singh said, before dispatching his caddie to play valet.
During his first round at Pebble Beach, Steve Flesch sliced his
drive on the 18th hole into Carmel Bay and then heaved the
offending club into the water too.
If Pebble's famed finishing hole looked a bit different, that's
because the towering pine that protected the right side of the
green was removed in August, a casualty of the pitch canker
fungus that has wiped out thousands of Monterey pines in Del
Monte Forest. A replacement tree has already been selected--a
disease-resistant cypress near the 2nd tee--and is slated to be
transplanted in the coming weeks.
The day before the Pro-Am's first round Phil Mickelson played
Cypress Point, but he snubbed the club's caddies in favor of his
full-time bagman, Jim MacKay, who was forced to lug around
Lefty's oversized Tour bag.
New swing? Check. New wife? Check. Must be time for a new
home course. After 23 years at Royal Oaks Country Club, Justin
Leonard has decamped to a Dallas rival, Brook Hollow Golf Club.
Leonard, who married the former Amanda Beach last Saturday in
West Palm Beach, Fla., will retain an honorary membership at
Royal Oaks but is plunking down full freight--$60,000--to join
Brook Hollow. Leonard's shifting loyalties can be traced to his
split with Royal Oaks head pro Randy Smith as well as large-scale
drainage work that will keep the club closed for most of 2002.
Last week Jack Nicklaus was in Melbourne to open his latest
signature course, the Heritage Golf and Country Club, which is
being billed as Australia's first fully private golf club. The
folks at the Heritage had trumpeted plans to make a shrine out of
the ball and club Nicklaus was to use for the ceremonial opening
drive, but the Golden Bear failed to comply: He hooked his tee
shot into a water hazard.
If the Pebble Beach Pro-Am wants to be the apotheosis of
celebrity golf, it needs more real stars. Has-beens like Glen
Campbell, Kenny G and Tommy Smothers make the event seem dated,
especially compared with the edgier Hope.
VOTE AT golfonline.com
Who is the No. 1 South African: Ernie Els, who won the Heineken
Classic, or Retief Goosen, whose win at the South Africa Pro-Am
was his second in a row?
LAST WEEK: Jack Nicklaus, 62, might skip the Masters, while
Arnold Palmer, 72, says he has probably played his last Hope.
Which aging warrior will be the first to retire?
--Based on 4,016 responses to our informal survey