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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, to 279.
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.