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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."