As part of a media tour, Tiger Woods sat down at a Nike-sponsored media event Tuesday in Manhattan to talk about the tools of his trade, and it offered a rare opportunity to go into depth with one of the greatest players of all time. He was flanked by Rick Nichols, Nike’s field operations director, and Mike Taylor, Nike’s master model-maker.
• • •
So Tiger, we’re just talking about the early days. Take us back.
Woods: How far do you want to go?
• • •
How about when you first came on board with Nike and how that felt?
Woods: When I first came on, we didn’t have anything on the hard-goods side. It was apparel and shoes and that’s about it. I was with another company on the hard-goods side. I think the biggest transition I ever made was back in 2000. It was the wound-ball technology at that time, and we came out with a solid-construction ball. I tested it and felt great about it and what it did for me, how it performed around the greens and especially in the wind. I believe it was, in Germany at the Deutsche Bank event in Hamburg, where I put it in play for the first time. Then I came back and played Memorial and won, and then I had a good showing at the U.S. Open at Pebble (Woods won by 15 shots over Ernie Els and Miguel Angel Jimenez) and then won the British (by eight over Els and Thomas Bjorn) and the PGA (in a playoff over Bob May). It was a nice little run, and I basically won four straight majors with that ball.
The rest is history because the wound-ball technology is gone. Everyone switched. Being a part of that innovative wave was pretty exciting for me. And then (David) Duval switched as well, and we were both No. 1 and No. 2 in the world, so you couldn’t have had a more opportunistic and dynamic showing of evolution happening, and it was fantastic. Then he won the British Open a year later.
• • •
So you switched to that ball when it was better for you. Can you talk about what better means in irons and what process you go through?
Woods: I have monkeyed around quite a bit with my wedges, with bounce, and where to shave or not to shave. A lot of us depend on technique because of the different grasses, different bunkers . . . you need an all-around wedge. But when it comes to my irons, I really have not done too much to them.
We did have a muscleback that was rounded that I did not really like that much, because when I hit it slightly off-center the distance disparity was too great. I did not like that, so I went to a straight-back version and all of a sudden I started winning golf tournaments again. That was a big move.
This (Nike’s Vapor Pro iron release) has been the biggest shift as far as blade technology, moving the weight out towards the toe, and getting basically the CG (center of gravity) right in the middle the face. That’s a game-changer.
• • •
Tiger, I’ve heard you say that it feels heavier and it stays on the face longer.
Woods: Well, it’s a heavier hit. You hear guys hitting on the range and you hear some hollow sounds, some thin sounds. And then you hear some guy who hits it flush every time, and it’s a different sound. It’s a heavier sound. That’s what I thought with these irons immediately, it was a heavier sound.
But on top of that, what shocked me was not only the feel through the dirt, it was the ball flight. It didn’t get touched as much in a crosswind.
I dropped out of college, so physics is not my specialty, but I know when I hit a certain shot and it should do something. In a crosswind I’m expecting it to drift, but it’s not drifting, it’s penetrating through the wind. That surprised me. I’ve experienced that only with ball dimples when we have changed dimple patterns over the years. I have noticed the balls don’t drift as much as they used to. But I have never had that with an iron before.
• • •
We talk about your eyes, and your ears, being hyper-perceptive. There was a driver that we tested with you last year and you gave it back and said the toe was just not right. It’s just not there yet. So we went into the CAD file (Computer Aided Design) and sure enough, it was off by half a millimeter. Rick, can you just talk a little bit about what you see.
Nichols: I’ve got a number of those stories. In Atlanta, we were measuring a 5-wood from the front of the face to the back, and it was 3/1000 of an inch off and he called it out.
You know, there’s a science to building great golf clubs, and there’s an art. With the robots and TrackMan, we can zero in on science pretty well. But when it comes to the art, that’s where he comes in. Things like shape, feel. The robot can’t break par, but he can. So if he needs to hit a low stinger into the wind or a high draw into a back left pin, he can tell us little nuances about the club that we can’t derive from the machines and the technologies that we have out there.
Tiger has driven the shape of our irons from day one . . . we have never had any of our athletes come and look at them and dislike them. So, I think we have the best master model-maker in the business here with us and the best iron player that has ever played. We ought to be able to come up with a pretty good product.
Taylor: You know, I’d like to speak just for a minute. When I first got into this business, I used to work on a test team. Then I did that for Tom Stites as well, spending hundreds of hours in front of a robot pushing those buttons and gathering that data. I learned more in the first hour with him than I ever learned in all the time I spent doing that other stuff, because the athlete is so much more connected.
We looked for too-perfect conditions when we do testing back in the early days. “Oh the winds gettin’ up, we can go home!” Tiger doesn’t quit or go home when the wind comes up. He adjusts. He adjusted how he used these (clubs), and that’s where the learning and the connection to great athletes is so important.
• • •
Tiger, do you find yourself verbalizing to Mike or to Rick in different ways now that you have been with Nike for so long? Are you more technical?
Woods: Yeah, I understand things like CG and the difference bounce can make in a 9-iron, 7-iron, 5-iron and those things. One thing that has been consistent throughout, and Rick and Mike T can say this too, is that I have basically played the same lofts, the same grips, basically since I was 14 or 15 years old. I’m not part of this wave where the pitching wedge is 45 degrees. That’s my 9-iron!
All of my lofts are very weak in this day and age, so when these guys build products and put them in front of me, it’s going to look very different to me than it’s going to look like to a guy like Rory (McIlroy). Different generations, different lofts, different eyes.
I’ve been lucky enough to have Mikey here, and Rick, and we all grew up in the same era when the lofts were weaker, and I haven’t changed from that. They know what that looks like because that’s what they grew up playing. In this day, when guys are hitting a wedge 150, 155 because it’s 45 degrees, that’s a totally different look. I picked up Rory’s wedge last night and was like, “Holy cow! That’s about my 9-iron,” and it is.
These guys are old school enough . . . I mean Rick’s dad (Bobby Nichols) won the PGA Championship and played on the tour for a very long time. Mike here worked with Hogan. You can’t get much better than that.
But I also started to learn about how clubs are made and what I need to feel. Like when we put a dowel in my irons, these are all feel things. I can tell you now what it feels like through the dirt, what it feels like through the entire motion of the club swing. What the ball should be doing. Then I have to articulate my feels, and they put numbers to it. Mike then goes off and grinds away, and then he’ll come back and I’ll hit it and go, “Ooh, we’re on to something.’ Then he goes and makes five different 7-irons and grinds them all differently.
That to me is fun, testing product. Especially when I’m playing well. I think that is the best time to test. Sometimes we’ll have a testing session coming up and I’ll say that I’m not playing well enough, let’s hold off, give me a couple of weeks or a month to get my game back where I need to be and then let’s test. You always want to test when you are playing great, because obviously you can see the differences.
• • •
Did you work on the Pro Combos, and did you help develop those as well?
Woods: Yeah, the look and shape are very similar. It’s obviously going to be a little bit bigger and more forgiving, but the overall shape is virtually the same (as the Vapor Pro).
The only thing that I don’t like about any of the game-improvement stuff that we’ve come out with is the offset, because I’ve never played with offset. That’s one of the things that we’ve tweaked in my 2-iron, we made it with less offset than the original. The one that Rory won with at the British Open, he doesn’t have any offset in that one as well. It’s the same one that I have, it’s the look that we like. But for the higher-handicappers, it’s what they like and it gets your hands a little more ahead and gets the ball up in the air.
Nichols: It takes me back to when we introduced the square driver. He’d hit it, and it would go straight and he couldn’t shape it like he wanted to. If he had a dogleg right, he’d blow it through the dogleg. The technology we were striving for, it worked, it just went too straight. The way that he wanted to play a hole, it didn’t work for him.
Woods: I’m part of the older generation that grew up playing with balata balls, and part of the last generation that played persimmon. I remember that when I won my first PGA Tour event (1996 Las Vegas Invitational), I beat Davis Love in a playoff and he had a persimmon driver. I think he was one of the last ones, along with Bob Estes and Justin Leonard. Those were the last three to play persimmon, but I grew up on persimmon. So the ball always moved, and you always had to curve it one way or the other.
Then we came out with metal heads and the ball didn’t move as much. Now with solid-construction balls, the ball really doesn’t move. When they came out with the square driver, I kept missing that thing dead straight. When the wind was coming off the right and I wanted to cut it and hold it against the wind, it just went straight and I couldn’t handle that.
I don’t ever hit a normal, standard shot on the range. I’m always moving something or doing something with it. My hands, my feels, I think the game is fluid that way. You see a lot of kids nowadays just tee it up and hit it as hard as they can, but that’s a different generation. They didn’t grow up with smaller heads and balata balls, when you had to hit the ball in the middle or it was going to dance all over the place with the gear effect.
• • •
Taylor: I’ve had the privilege to see Tiger hit persimmon woods. You aren’t going to find any other modern athletes who have invested the time to having one fit for themselves. What happens when you hit that persimmon that may actually help your game?
Woods: You’ve got to be precise. I asked my dad this throughout the years when he was alive. “Why did everyone say you hit it on the screws? Hitting it on the screws makes you mis-hit it because the screws are never in the middle of the face, they’re on the side. ‘Boy I really hit that one on the screws!’ It’s a mis-hit then, right?” With persimmon you always want to hit the ball between the screws.
The gear effect is amazing. If you hit the ball off the heel, it starts way left and then it cuts back. Hit the ball off the toe and it starts way right and then it comes back. But then, when you get to the golf balls that we’ve got now and you hit it with persimmon, if you start it off to the left, it doesn’t cut back. The ball doesn’t move as much. And now, with our heads not having the roll and budge that we used to, again, there’s really very little gear effect.
I’ve talked with (Jack) Nicklaus about what he did. He’ll tell you that he shaped his driver and put a little more roll on the heel because when it got tight going down the stretch on the back nine, he’d ‘neck’ it on purpose and hit a heel-cut. It went further than his 3-wood, but he always knew that he could set up on the left side of the tee and aim down the right side of the fairway and neck it. It would start down the left rough and cut back into the fairway. Every time. Just let the technology do it – well, it was technology back then. That doesn’t happen now. If you try to play the same shot, it goes straight into the trees and doesn’t come back.
I just think that playing with persimmon hones your senses, it hones your feel. You just have to be so precise. You know if you’re hitting down on it, hitting up on it, if you’re zeroed out . . . you just know by the feel of it, because if you miss by a miniscule amount, it does a lot, especially with the older balls.
This is a funny story, totally unrelated: In 2000, I played at St. Andrews and was playing the ninth hole. It was drivable at the time. I had the Tour Accuracy in my bag at the time and Peter Dawson came out, the head of the R&A. So I hit driver – it was downwind – and I drove it on the green.
He said, “Hey, why don’t you hit this one?” It was an old gutta-percha ball, so I said, “Oh, sweet.”
So I hit it, and there’s two bunkers off the tee that I had never seen before and I just barely carried them. I said, “Oh s—.”
I drove it on the green with my ball, and obviously that ball is much shorter than the ball we use now, and then I hit a driver and a 4-iron with a gutta-percha ball to the same hole. I think technology has come a long way.
• • •
You have some downtime and are not going to be playing for the next few months. Could that make it easier to potentially transition into a new set of irons like the Vapor Pro?
Woods: We were close to having a set right for me earlier this year. About this time last year, we started tinkering around with this stuff. Then, earlier this year, I was getting close to it and then my back went out and I wound up having surgery. When I came back, I was on a limited ball count, so I could not do the testing I would normally do. So I said I would just go out with my old stuff and play it that way.
Now that I have got another extended period of time that I’m going to be taking off, when I get healthy enough and explosive enough, I won’t have a limited ball count because there is nothing to repair. I’m going to sit down with Rick and do some testing, but you can hear the sound, the audio, and that is so important to a player. Hitting a certain shot, it should be in a certain window. When it’s not in that window, we have a problem. But when it’s in that window and is actually performing better than yours, then it’s a beautiful thing.
• • •
Your career has mirrored the fastest period of innovation in equipment, but you’re a self-professed old-school guy. You’ve tested and tried a lot of products that haven’t gone into play. Do you enjoy the process even if it does not go in the bag?
Woods: I enjoy testing. I’ve always enjoyed trying to find things that will make my game better. If it’s not better, it’s not going in my bag. That’s the way it’s always been. Why put something in the bag if it’s not going to help you?
I’ve been asked this many times, “What’s your favorite club?” Well, all 14. They have to be. In order to win a golf tournament, you’re going to have to use all 14 of them, and they’d better do exactly what you want. You don’t want to have any surprises out there, like hitting a long iron into a tight pin and it’s 220, but it flies 240. Then we’ve got a problem.
If you’re on the 12th hole at Augusta and you hit a knockdown shot and try to flight it and the ball spins too much and ends up in the front bunker – when I know I should be on the green – then we’ve got a problem. You don’t want to have any of these sort of surprises.
I enjoy the testing process and it has certainly helped me to work with these guys because I have had to learn to understand the little, miniscule differences of things. Like how five micros can make a difference in ball flight because of the dimple pattern. Hardening up the inner layers in the mantle and the core, softening up the core . . . all these different things that we monkey around with, it just changes the whole dynamics.
I don’t want to have any surprises out there. I want everything to be precise. When I hit a shot, I know I’ve hit a shot. You’ve seen me when I spin the club and start walkin’. Well, I know right where it’s going to be. If I spin the club and it ends up in the water, then we’ve got a problem.