Only a privileged few have had the chance to sit down with Tiger Woods, to talk one-on-one and gaze into the eyes that have instilled so much fear and intimidation down the years. Thankfully, the situation in which we are looking at them is not on a golf course during the back nine of a Major championship. It’s on the terrace of the clubhouse at Liberty National Golf Club, New York, during the launch of Nike’s new Vapor iron range.
Despite his endless timetable of media commitments, Woods is in a jovial mood. Why? Because the Vapor Pro model, the blade within the new trio, is a product he has helped shape through over four years of testing – and he’s excited to see it revealed to the world. “Helping the average golfer – it’s how Nike started as a company,” he tells me. “Athletes give their input to create a product that will allow them to win, dominate, be the best and distribute it to the masses – that’s what Nike does. Golf is no different. Working with the club team to bring the concept of the Vapor Pro to life was a great experience.”
Woods signed with Nike when he turned pro in 1996. As a company, it boasts sport’s finest athletes on its roster, so gaining Woods’ signature made perfect sense. At the time Nike were still some six years from bringing out their first golf clubs, but they’ve caught up fast and have become a force in the equipment business. A big part of this is down to Mike Taylor, Nike Golf’s master craftsman, who possesses the enviable title of being the only club engineer that has shaped clubs for Ben Hogan, Jack Nicklaus, Rory McIlroy and Woods. His knowledge and experience has been a huge factor in Woods’ achievements and the 14-time Major champion is quick to recognise this.
“Mike knows what I like to see in the playing position. I describe what I like to feel through the turf, the sensations and ball flight, how the club feels through the swing, and he listens and goes off and does his thing. I can tell when something’s off, even if it’s a gram of weight. We can feel that as players. Whether the toe is too long or too high, or it’s getting out of the dirt too fast, these are feelings we can now measure and incorporate into new technology.”
The story behind Nike’s new Vapor Pro iron is one that reflects the lengthy, in-depth discourse between Taylor and Woods, to create a product that has achieved the ultimate seal of approval.
“We’ve had an existing iron model we tested with Tiger for the last four years,” Taylor tells TG. “In that time we learnt a lot about the speed and power of his hands, how the balance is important, and how to bring the club into a square position. Tiger told us the clubface was closing too quickly. We built some extra models that were toe-weighted with tungsten and the test sessions were the most awesome I’ve witnessed in my career. Every gram of mass in these new irons is where it belongs, because of the technology and the feedback we get from Tiger.”
Woods is equally enthused about the new irons, which have already been used on Tour by his stablemates and look set to go in his bag when he returns to action in December.
“With the new irons, the hit feels heavier. When you go to the range and listen to guys hit balls, there’s a sound difference from someone who’s really flushing it that day.
“When I hit these, they had that same flushness to it. The thing that shocked me about it was yes I had the sound, yes I had the feel, but the ball was holding its line better in a crosswind. That was really surprising – the ball was getting through the wind better, and travelling the same distance.
“For me, irons are not all about distance. I’ve played the same lofts since I was 14. The length, grip size has stayed the same. The only thing that’s changed is my lie angle over the years with the different swings. I’ve played blades my whole life.
“We all grew up in the same era when the lofts were weaker, and I haven’t changed from that. Mike knows what that looks like because that’s what he 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.
“We experimented with different types of musclebacks, getting the centre of gravity behind the centre of the face with a rounded shape, but that wasn’t quite right because if I hit it in the heel or toe, I wasn’t getting the distance I would from a straight muscleback.
“My wear marks over the years have always been slightly towards the heel, which is where the meat of the club has been. If you look at Ben Hogan’s 1-iron he hit at Merion (in the 1950 US Open) the wear mark is nearly on the hosel. We were trying to get it in the middle of the face and now we’ve got it with the tungsten weight out there in the toe.”
Why he doesn’t change clubs
Famously, Woods – by his own admission – isn’t much of a tinkerer with his equipment (he still plays the ONE Tour D ball launched in 2009), which is why the process of testing new clubs and making any switch is longer and more in-depth than with most players.
“For me it starts from Mike and the engineers almost with a clay model. I enjoy the testing process because I have had to learn to understand the little, minuscule differences of things... like how five micros can make a difference in ball flight because of the dimple pattern. All these different things that we monkey around with just change the whole dynamics. They know I like certain shapes, pear-shaped drivers for example. A lot of my success has been with a pear-shaped driver. The years I’ve gone away from that are the years I’ve struggled. I’ve never been one that enjoys a 460cc driver. I can feel the drag. I like it smaller.”
Woods’ love for smaller-headed drivers stems from his childhood, when he learned to play the game using persimmon clubs with his father overseeing his progress.
“I grew up on persimmon,” he tells us. “So the ball always moved, and you always had to curve it one way or the other. The gear effect was 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.
“Playing with persimmon hones your senses, it hones your feel. You have to be so precise because if you miss by a tiny amount, it does a lot, especially with the older balls. 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.
“In 2000, I played at St Andrews and was playing the 9th hole. It was driveable 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 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 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.
“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 would start down the left rough and cut back into the fairway every time. That doesn’t happen now. If you try to play the same shot, it goes straight into the trees and doesn’t come back.”
Not all new club designs have got Woods’ approval. Fads in shapes have come and gone many times in his career and it’s no surprise the one that was furthest removed from traditional sticks in Woods’ mind.
“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.”
When you consider the genuine rise in performance Woods needs to see before making a change, it’s not surprising success often comes almost immediately after. One of the most significant changes was back in 2000. Woods had been using a wound ball and switched to a solid construction in the Tour Accuracy TW early that season. “I tested it and felt great about how it performed around the greens and especially in the wind. I put it in play for the first time at the Deutsche Bank event in Hamburg. Then I came back to the US and played Memorial and won, and then I had a good showing at the US Open at Pebble (he won by 15 shots) and then won the British Open (by eight shots) and the US PGA (in a play-off over Bob May). It was a nice little run... I basically won four straight Majors with that new ball. All of a sudden the wound ball was history.
“I’ve been excited to be part of this evolutionary process with Nike, grown together, they’ve helped me win and I’ve inspired them to keep pushing.”