PART of the fascination with Tiger Woods, 14-time Major champion and 106-time winner on tour, is that I know next to nothing about him. I have sat through multiple press conferences, watched endless winning interviews and read more about him than any other player but there is still the feeling that every word is too carefully chosen and nothing ever given away. It is what it is – rarely entertaining.
Yet the niggling suspicion, for me at least, is that Tiger is as entertaining away from the course as he is on it. At the launch of Nike’s new range of Vapor irons on Liberty Island in Manhattan, alongside recently crowned PGA champion Rory McIlroy and the Tonight Show host Jimmy Fallon, the star of the show is Woods.
His friendship with McIlroy appears as natural and comfortable as the adverts would have us believe and he’s funny. Not a forced, putting-on-a-show-for-the-crowds-type-funny but genuinely funny. While McIlroy entertains with the quality of his shots a sidelined Woods provides the laughs.
The following morning we are back in Manhattan for a series of product presentations. Holding court is Nike’s master model maker Mike Taylor, a man who has built clubs for Ben Hogan, Jack Nicklaus, Tiger and now Rory.
Then, a few minutes into the sit-down, from the back of the room enters the star of the previous evening before announcing himself casually.
For the next half hour Tiger talks and six of us listen. At the end of it all, we line up to shake his hand and say a simple but very sincere thank you.
The early days with Nike
We weren’t in the hardware side when I first came on board and quite frankly our shirts weren’t very good, they didn’t stretch and were heavy. This was back in the days when it was cool to have your shirt sleeves down to your mid forearm, that was kind of the look.
I thought apparel was meant to help the performance, be a non-hindrance. You would look at the swimmers and cyclists who were doing all these testings for fabrics and think why are we not doing this in golf? Why are we wearing these hard leather-soled shoes that absorb water when we are walking five or six miles and even doing 36 holes? Your feet hurt and there was always this break-in period.
Michael Jordan played in a brand new pair of shoes every game. So we changed our designs and went to stretchy fabrics and went to No 1.
The solid-construction ball
We’ve gone from the wound ball to solid construction while I’ve been on tour. I think the biggest transition I ever made was back in 2000 when 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 US Open at Pebble (Woods won by 15 shots) and then won the British (by eight at St Andrews) and the PGA (in a play-off 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 was 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 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.
Inside Tiger’s garage
I’ve got a few old persimmons which I love hitting. God, they sound good, there is something about it, but I have cracked two of them too as our golf balls are so hard now. I have a whole closet and you go back in time and everything is labelled. You can see the evolutionary change of equipment and also the swing changes I’ve made.
The lie angles are different, the lofts and lengths are all the same, the grip and clubface wear patterns are all a bit different, it is neat to go back.
I have basically played the same lofts since I was 14 or 15 years old. I’m not part of this wave where the pitching wedge is 45˚. That’s my 9 iron.
I was joking with Rory that his irons are so upright to me. He is like four foot tall, how does he stand up to those things?! Finding the right driver
I like a pear-shaped driver, I grew up in a generation that played persimmon, that’s what I like to see. A lot of my successes I had a pear-shaped driver, when I have gone away from that I have struggled. So I am trying to go back towards that, other guys might want something different.
I have never been one who has enjoyed the big 460s. I feel wind drag on the way down. That’s why my head is a little bit smaller, I don’t have a problem finding the face, I just don’t want that drag.
Look at how Nike started: they talk to the athlete and create the product that is going to help them dominate and be the best in the world and distribute to the masses. That’s what we do, golf is no different.
We all want different things but we all want something that looks good in the playing position first. If it doesn’t look good we’re not going to hit it. Then does it feel good and perform the way we want it to?
I was joking with Rory that his irons are so upright to me. He is like four foot tall, how does he stand up to those things?!
What I’m trying to say is that we’re all different but we’re all trying to be better, from the pros to the weekend warrior.
Working with Mike Taylor
Mike (Taylor) knows what I like to see in the playing position and I describe to him what I like to feel through the dirt.
It is a pretty symbiotic relationship that way; the physics and the craftsmanship I leave up to him, I can tell him where something is off and doesn’t feel right as well as the feels and sensations and the ball flight and the way it feels in my hands throughout the swing.
As I’ve got more experienced in our dialogue I can describe what I want, how it feels, goes through the dirt, how it’s flying, where the weight is – it’s all communication and it’s free flowing.
Mikey will build me some wedges and I will try one and think I want more of this one.
All of a sudden I have got a wedge that I can use in different sand conditions and is more versatile.
I was struggling for a year out of the bunker, I put this in at Memorial and ended up winning the tournament. It makes a difference.
I have ideas, I will call them up. Remember the groove idea? That was a good one wasn’t it, I can’t share it but it was a good idea!
Learning from Jack nicklaus
I remember talking to Jack about testing when he was playing really well in his heyday and he would have 20 irons in each number – he would go through each club and hit every one and find one that worked and match his set.
There were no numbers, no Iron Byron at the time, and you couldn’t tell if it was perfect or not. One gramme here or one gramme there, we feel that as a player. We can feel when it’s off or if the toe is a little too high or long or if it stays in the dirt too long or gets out too fast. These are feels that we can now measure and incorporate into new technologies like the Vapor.
Jack will 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 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 minuscule amount, it does a lot, especially with the older balls.
The 5 wood switch
I was always very reluctant to go to a 5 wood. I figured I started my teens with a 1 iron, my 20s a 2 iron.. you get it.
By the time I get to my 80s it will be an 11 wood.
We tested it at the Tour Championship at East Lake and I was hitting this 2 iron up the hill and roasting this thing; high draw, high cut, anything. They gave me the 5 wood and I started hitting it higher, then I started messing about with lies and throwing it in the divot and hitting it out there and hitting different shot shapes out of the divots. I thought to myself – this is interesting.
In the practice round I threw it in the Bermuda rough. Vijay (Singh) had this 7 wood that he bent down to a 5 wood and he could hit the top of the face and get it launching out the rough and he was damned good at it.
I tried it out the rough and got it on the green. With the 2 iron I would roll it out there 60 yards. So I thought, maybe I should put this in play.
Then I won the tournament.
The testing process
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 and then let’s test. You always want to test when you are playing great, because obviously you can see the differences.
With the Vapor irons, the look and shape of the Pro and Pro Combo are very similar. It’s obviously going to be a little bit bigger in the Combo and more forgiving, but the overall shape is virtually the same as the Pro.
I have tweaked 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.
I tore my Achilles in 2008 and continued playing so I went to a different shaft which was a little whippier at the bottom as I couldn’t generate the same speed. Since then I have got healthy and gone back to shaft I was using. That might change but we’ve had a bit of an argument here in going lighter in shafts. I get to the point where I can’t feel the club any more. I come down and I don’t know where the club itself is, it’s too light.
My shafts in my fairway woods are 103g which are heavier than even some iron shafts. I went from 73g to 93g driver shaft and started driving it further and better and everything was in sync and felt better. I tried it a little lighter and monkeyed around a bit and I might hit it further but I lose the feel of the club. Now it is in sync.
Because I have my steel shafts in irons I have fairways a bit lighter and don‘t want my driver to feel like a total difference to them. Maybe down the road when I’m not as explosive I might get some lighter shafts in my irons and make the transition that way but I don’t foresee that happening in the near future.