The 100th Western open was played last week, and Tiger Woods supplied the nostalgia. He shot a tournament-record-tying 21 under and at one point on Sunday's back nine led by 10 strokes, evoking an earlier era—say, three years and a left-knee operation ago—when he routinely overpowered golf courses and blew away the competition. Now 27 and an eight-year PGA Tour veteran, Woods had limped into the Western ranked 30th on the Tour in average driving distance (292.2 yards) and dogged by the dreaded s word (rhymes with chump) after cracking the top 10 in only one of his previous five starts and failing to contend in the Masters and the U.S. Open. By taking the Western, he became the first player to win four or more events in a year for five straight years. But as thrilling as it was to get a glimpse of the old Woods, his triumph at Cog Hill Golf & Country Club in Lemont, Ill., was all but overshadowed by a controversy of his own making.
Last week, in response to questions during interviews, Woods loosed the most inflammatory comments yet in his crusade against what he alleges is the rampant use of illegal drivers on Tour. The ensuing flap pitted player against player, sent commissioner Tim Finchem scrambling for cover and left golf's foremost ambassador, Woods, in the awkward position of having labeled some of his colleagues cheaters. In the end the stink may have revealed more about the marketing forces compelling Woods to rationalize his shrinking drives than the murky issue of hot clubs.
Woods's accusations come against a backdrop of increasingly ferocious competition among rival equipment manufacturers to sign Tour players, who exert a strong influence on which clubs the weekend golfer purchases. Business became personal in February, when Phil Mickelson, who earns more than $6 million a year to endorse Titleist, called Woods's Nike equipment "inferior" in a Golf Magazine Q and A and woofed, "He hates that I can fly it past him now."
The charges stung Nike, which has struggled to establish its bona fides since launching a golf division in 1998. ( Nike Golf says that it has grown 20% in the 16 months since it added clubs to its clothing and equipment line, and that Nike clubs command about 7% of the market.) The beswooshed drivers have received a lukewarm reception on Tour since their introduction—though David Duval was among the first to endorse them—and it hasn't helped that Woods's driving has been uneven since he replaced his Titleist driver with a Nike model in February 2002.
In the wake of Mickelson's remarks Nike's p.r. people reached out to the golf press in an attempt to reframe the debate, telling reporters that rival companies supplied their Tour players with drivers that have excessive springlike effect. The USGA's science-nerd term is coefficient of restitution (COR), which in testing measures how fast a ball bounces off a stationary club face, and any number higher than .830 is deemed nonconforming. While prototypes of every driver are tested in laboratories by the USGA, there is no mandatory spot-checking of the clubs that manufacturers' reps pass out like business cards at Tour driving ranges. Also, equipment companies have varying levels of vigilance in their in-house testing, creating the possibility that a player, knowingly or not, may use illegal equipment during a tournament.
How much extra distance a hot driver produces has caused a heated debate, but Tour pro David Toms spoke for many last week when he estimated it was "three or four yards—maybe." So why all the fuss? Selling more distance has been the golf industry's primary marketing ploy since Big Bertha debuted in 1991; with every other angle exhausted, the great COR debate can be seen as just another sales gimmick. It's no longer just about hitting the ball a long way—now you have to do it honestly.
With his $100 million contract from Nike, Woods is the game's preeminent pitchman, so it was inevitable that he would eventually weigh in. His interest in the issue was aroused during the final round of May's Deutsche Bank-SAP Open in Germany, when he put a TaylorMade driver in his bag. At first blush this change was construed by Tiger watchers as a wake-up call for Nike, but last week Woods said, "I was hitting it on the range. It was hot, and I found out why." Woods says he shipped the driver to Nike's R&D facility in Fort Worth, where, according to Nike spokesman Dean Stoyer, tests showed a COR in excess of .830. TaylorMade spokesman John Steinbach says, "That's possible. We tested the batch but didn't test every head. But I'd love to know what kind of test Nike used." (The company says it used one similar to the USGA's.)
Woods cautiously addressed the driver issue at the U.S. Open, but a week later, in a June 24 videoconference from his home in Orlando, he told reporters, "There are some guys who you can hit your three-wood past their three-wood, and all of a sudden you get outdriven by 10, 20, 30 yards with their driver. Well, there's something wrong with that picture.... All of the players know who is doing it."
Not coincidentally, illegal drivers were at the top of the agenda at a PGA Tour policy board meeting six days later at the Western Open, after which Finchem announced that beginning in 2004 players would have access to voluntary testing of their drivers at every tournament. The Tour will use the recently developed pendulum test, in which the face of the driver is struck at low-impact speeds by a metal weight suspended on a pendulum. The test takes only a few seconds and measures the time of contact on the club face, which, according to the USGA, is directly related to the springlike effect of the clubhead. "There is no reason for us to believe, nor do we have any evidence to indicate, that there is any player on the PGA Tour using a driver that is nonconforming," Finchem said.
Woods, who has displayed a prickly side in previous dealings with the commissioner, halfheartedly called voluntary testing "a step in the right direction" and then immediately undercut Finchem, saying that he had confronted one player about his use of a nonconforming driver—"You see a difference in how his ball flies," Woods said—and that the widespread use of such clubs is "more than anyone realizes."