Why Tiger Has His Long Ball Back

Thanks to a Rock Ishii--created ball he has secretly played all year, Tiger Woods says he has regained the distance advantage he once used to dominate the Tour
March 28, 2005

Tiger woods has a secret, and he's hiding it in plain sight. Every towering drive and 300-yard three-wood provides a clue, but the truth has been obscured by tiny black-and-silver lettering. What Woods hasn't made public--until now--is that since January he has been playing a hot new ball, the final, missing piece in the evolution of his equipment. In May this new ball will be brought to market by Nike as the One Platinum, yet at last week's Bay Hill Invitational each of Woods's rocks was stamped ONE GOLD, the name of the model he stopped using at the end of last year.

"We want to be invisible to the Darrell Survey," says Stan Grissinger, the director of Nike Golf's ball division. "We're not quite ready to introduce this ball to the public, and we haven't wanted anyone to know about it."

The commercial stakes are enormous whenever Woods changes equipment, and this new four-piece, solid-core ball is no exception. The Platinum prototype he's now playing has a softer center than that of his old Gold, while the outer core becomes progressively harder. The skin of the ball is composed of thinner, softer layers than Woods's old ball. This construction produces a higher launch angle and lower spin rate off Woods's driver, which overnight has given him 10 to 12 more yards. Yet with his wedges Woods can generate more spin with his new ball, giving him greater control and room for creativity around the greens. Combined with the graphite-shafted, 460cc driver Woods put in play near the end of last year, this new ball completes a radical change in his gear.

When Woods burst onto the Tour in 1996, he was so long it was as if he were playing a different, easier course than everyone else. Inch by inch that advantage had been eroded. While his competitors reaped tremendous gains in distance by marrying juiced balls to massive drivers with extra-long composite shafts, Woods clung to a less lively ball and a small-headed driver with a stubby steel shaft, opting for precision over raw power. Now, at long last, he has embraced the same cutting-edge technology as everyone else, and armed with equal equipment, Woods has restored the advantage of his superior talent.

Eight years after his epochal 12-shot victory at the Masters, and five years after producing the greatest season ever, Woods is back to hitting shots that no one else can. The recent Ford Championship provided a stunning example of his new smashmouth ethos. Woods devoured Doral's Blue Monster and dominated Phil Mickelson, blowing it miles by Lefty off the tee and hitting one of the most mind-bending shots in Tour history. After Mickelson laid up on the 603-yard par-5 12th hole during the tense final round, Woods ripped a three-wood that carried 290 yards to the front of the green and then rolled to the back, setting up an eagle that keyed his victory.

As satisfying as it was to overwhelm Mickelson--who in early 2003 famously labeled Woods's equipment "inferior" and crowed, "He hates that I can fly it past him now"--Woods professes to be more excited about having carried the bunker that was guarding the green at Doral's 12th. "I didn't make the [equipment] changes because the field was catching up to me," Woods said last week at the Bay Hill Invitational. "I did it because they kept making the courses longer. Bunkers I had always been able to fly I suddenly couldn't carry anymore. I couldn't cut some doglegs. So I

made the changes to restore that advantage."

While Woods's new ball is now no longer a secret weapon, the man who created it remains one of the game's great mysteries. Hideyuki (Rock) Ishii's official title is product development director of golf balls for Nike. What that means is that he is Woods's mad scientist, forever slaving away in the lab to invent a better product for his exacting boss.

The spotlight on Woods is so blinding that those close to him are inevitably bathed in the glow. His father is a best-selling author, his wife's bikinied form adorns innumerable websites, and his caddie was once named the sportsman of the year in his native New Zealand. Ishii has been a member of Woods's inner circle since 2000, yet his contributions are known to only a precious few. Woods's opinion is the only one that really matters, and he says, "Rock is incredible. He can take what I'm feeling and translate it into numbers, and those numbers become new technology. When he hands me something, I have total confidence that it's going to work."

last week at Bay Hill, Ishii followed Woods during the Tuesday pro-am, scampering to the back of tee boxes to get a better view of the trajectory of his drives. After craning his neck to follow yet another rocket, Ishii was asked how much longer Woods is now compared with when they began working together in January 2000. Back then Woods used a low-trajectory wound ball and 265cc driver with a 431/2-inch-long steel shaft. (The shaft on his present driver is an inch longer.) "I have all the data," Ishii said, lowering his voice even though no one else was nearby. "It's 28 to 30 yards, but don't tell that to the USGA."

Born and raised in Tokyo, Ishii, 40, didn't set foot in the U.S. until he was 27. As a kid his technical curiosity led to the dismemberment of numerous model trains. (His father and grandfather worked for an electric company and encouraged this kind of hands-on experimentation.) In 1989 Ishii graduated with a master's degree in mechanical engineering from Nagaoka University. Having played competitive tennis for much of his life, he seriously considered taking a job as an instructor at a tennis academy. "But a tennis pro with a master's--that's crazy," Ishii says.

Instead he joined Bridgestone as a research engineer in the sports-science department, doing biomechanical studies of the golf swing and using that data to help build some of the earliest launch monitors. Based in Tokyo, Ishii made occasional forays to the U.S., which is how he obtained his unlikely nickname--Ishii means stone water well in Japanese, inspiring a colleague to start calling him Rock. "My poor parents," says Ishii, "but it is good professionally. No one ever forgets a Japanese guy named Rock."

By 1993 he was concentrating on golf ball development with the Bridgestone brand Precept, and that year the company moved him and his wife, Harumi, to Covington, Ga., to oversee the development of a research and testing facility. Almost immediately he began collaborating with Nick Price, one of the game's preeminent technicians. Price was desperate to find an alternative to the high-spin wound balls that were endemic on the Tour at the time. Ishii and his team cooked up a two-piece Precept for Price that was a precursor to today's high-performance solid-core balls. Price began using this new Precept in late 1993, and in '94 he had a season for the ages, winning the British Open and PGA Championship and ascending to No. 1 in the World Ranking.

Ishii's reputation as one of the best ball guys in the business led to a consulting gig with Nike as it prepared to launch its first line of balls in the late '90s. He did his first tests with Woods in January 2000. "I was very, very nervous," says Ishii. "Tiger is always b.s.'ing, but for me it is not relaxed, ever. I remember feeling a lot of pressure to produce something new for him, something better. He is the best at what he does, and he expects the best."

At the time of that first encounter Woods, like most Tour pros, was still playing a wound ball, even though the high spin rate often meant that his drives would balloon and lose precious distance. Ishii presented Woods with 15 different stones to test, some wound, others prototypes of a solid-core ball. Woods was intrigued with the new balls but noncommittal.

A couple of months later Ishii was vacationing in Hawaii with Harumi and their sons, Yota and Taiki. (A daughter, Yu, would be born that June.) Woods's people called, and Ishii had the same thought that he does every time he sees TIGER on his caller ID: Oh, God, I hope nothing's wrong. Woods wanted to do some further experimentation with the solid-core prototypes. Immediately. Ishii dutifully left his family in Hawaii and flew to Orlando to meet Woods.

By May 2000 Woods was comfortable enough to put the new Tour Accuracy TW into play in what Grissinger calls "a watershed moment for our company." A month later, at Pebble Beach, Woods's 15-stroke victory in the U.S. Open ushered in a new era in golf, and not only for the obvious reasons. Within four months Titleist had rushed to the Tour its own solid-core ball, the Pro V1, and almost overnight the wound ball was obsolete, marking one of the most significant technological shifts since hickory shafts gave way to steel.

Woods's Open victory should've been the sweetest moment of Ishii's career, but the self-described workaholic says, "I didn't really enjoy it. The whole time I was afraid the ball would split in half, just come apart. This had never happened in any test. I know it was irrational, but that's all I could think about."

The only thing Woods blew apart was the competition, winning five of the next eight majors. During this stretch he was understandably loath to tinker with his tools. "He basically would say, 'I don't have time,'" says Ishii. "As a result, his equipment became a little old-fashioned."

Beginning with that first Tour Accuracy TW, Woods had always instructed Ishii to formulate his balls to produce a low launch angle with a high spin rate, which Tiger felt allowed him to shape his shots more effectively. Most other pros opted for high launch with low spin to maximize distance. The game was changing around him, but Woods refused to keep up in the distance wars, much to Ishii's exasperation. "When Jay Haas is hitting it close to Tiger, you know something is wrong," he says. "Nothing against Jay Haas."

After Woods was blanked in the majors in 2003, last season became a time of tremendous transition in his game. He underwent the second major swing overhaul of his career, and he finally became open to joining the arms race for more distance. During their monthly test sessions, Ishii usually tees up balls for Woods, because it speeds up the process and both are comfortable with this act of deference. For years Woods had complained that Ishii teed the ball too high, but this was by design, as he was trying to get Tiger to launch the ball higher. Woods stopped his kvetching last summer when he made the leap to a 410cc driver. Since putting the 460cc model into play at last year's Tour Championship, Woods has been teeing his ball about a quarter of an inch higher than he used to.

Thanks to Ishii, "I'll try anything," Woods says. "Of course, that doesn't mean I'm going to like it, at least at first."

at bay hill, Ishii and Woods had to have another meeting of the minds, though this time it was for a rather mundane matter--the cosmetic markings on the One Platinum that Tiger will put into play in May. Throughout the practice round Ishii clutched an unmarked black box in the manner of a Secret Service agent guarding the red phone. On the 8th tee Ishii finally sneaked under the ropes to confer with Woods.

"Rock, what's up, dude?" Tiger said.

"I want to show you a few balls."

"Don't bother--I've decided to use the Pro V1."

Ishii ignored this jab and produced three balls from the black box. Each of them was stamped ONE PLATINUM, but the individual balls had different designs framing the words: an asterisk (which will adorn the model to be sold to the public), a dash and the letters TW. Woods chose the TW design, as he always does, leading Ishii to ask, "Why don't you pick the same one as the consumer version? You would sell more balls, make more money."

"Shut up," Woods explained, laughing.

As this exchange played out, Woods and Ishii were joined by caddie Steve Williams. It is a measure of how comfortable player and caddie are in Ishii's presence that as the trio marched down the fairway, one of them uncorked an epic bit of flatulence. It wasn't Ishii, but he later declined to I.D. the culprit.

That kind of discretion is prized by Woods, who has had well-documented partings with an agent, a caddie and a swing coach, each of whom had taken on a high profile before being axed. In his five years with Woods, Ishii has almost never been quoted. "I want you to understand, my job is to make balls for Tiger, not to talk about him," he says. "Some people close to Tiger do so much talking, they begin to think they are"--he throws back his shoulders and puffs out his chest--"a big man. Me, I don't ever forget how lucky I am to work with Tiger. It is an honor to play even the smallest role."

Ishii takes nothing for granted, personally inspecting every ball sent to Woods. In another effort to keep his prized pupil happy, Ishii recently sent a batch of balls to Mrs. Woods with ELIN stamped in pink. Tiger has reciprocated. A couple of years ago Ishii's son Yota was struggling in school and Woods sent him a handwritten note saying, in part, "Do your best, my friend." The 11-year-old boy keeps the words of encouragement in his school notebook.

There is a little tension in the Ishii-Woods relationship, though. After long days on the range at Isleworth Country Club--Woods's home base in Orlando--Rock and Tiger sometimes repair to the clubhouse for some intense Ping-Pong battles. Nike tour rep Rick Nichols was on hand for a recent skirmish, in which Woods won all three games by slim margins. Says Nichols, "At the end of the day, we're driving away and Rock says to me in this really serious voice, 'You know, if I practice a little, I think I can take him.'"

Then again, that might not be necessary. If history has taught us anything, it is that the difference between winning and losing is often simply a tweak in technology. If cutting-edge prototype Ping-Pong balls begin showing up at Isleworth, we'll know who invented them.

"Rock is incredible," Woods said last week. "He can take what I'm feeling and translate it into numbers, and THOSE NUMBERS BECOME NEW TECHNOLOGY."

During his first series of tests with Woods, in January 2000, "I was very, very nervous," Ishii says. "TIGER IS ALWAYS B.S.'ING, BUT FOR ME IT IS NOT RELAXED, EVER."

TWO COLOR PHOTOSPhotographs by David Walberg FIRST LOOK The Nike One Platinum by Ishii (opposite) will not be available until May. THREE COLOR PHOTOSPhotographs by David Walberg TEST DRIVE At a Bay Hill practice round Williams, Woods and Ishii (above) check the markings on Ishii's prototype balls (right). COLOR PHOTOPhotographs by David Walberg LETTING LOOSE At Bay Hill, Woods finished a frustrating 23rd, but he has won twice this season since going to the One Platinum.

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)