Monday, February 19, 2007

How can I possibly improve Tiger Woods?" That was the daunting task for Tom Stites, Nike's director of product creation, whose job was to fulfill his company's vow to make the ideal irons for its prized spokesman. But Tiger added a condition: "Don't expect me to change if they're only as good as my current clubs."

Golf's best player didn't make it easy. In a typical session during the process, Stites brought several seemingly identical sets of prototype irons. Woods examined each club and pointed out a miniscule fault. Then he'd hit at most four shots with each and offer more feedback. For several hours Stites watched, listened, made notes, then literally went back to the drawing board. He would return several weeks later with another batch of clubs, a little closer to what Woods was seeking.

And so it went for 18 months, with the most intense sessions during the last nine. "We worked on every club in the set," Stites says, "from what they looked like, to what they felt like, then to where the ball went. For instance, we could grind a few thousandths of an inch off his clubs or change the sole bounce angle by a half-degree and he'd detect the difference of how it went through the dirt."

Artist: James YangJames Yang

Most Tour pros receive neither that much time nor that level of attention when they change equipment. While club switches can occur at any time -- Woods put the new irons in play at the late-season American Express Championship, and won -- the most common period is the off-season, especially for irons, which require the most getting used to.

The players sporting new sets for 2003 began the switching process in the fall, when the latest products began appearing on driving ranges at Tour events. The pros know each manufacturer's goal is to get as many of them as possible -- especially the big names -- playing their gear. Those who aren't already signed to a contract (usually involving irons and requiring the use of at least 10 of a company's clubs) for the coming year are more approachable, but with so many choices available, company reps have to be careful with their sales pitches. "You have to show them respect and have patience," says Sonartec Tour rep Thane Fisher. "A small mouth/big ears approach works best."

Steve Flesch, a self-proclaimed tinkerer, says each pro is different. "The reps get a feel for your preferences," he says. "They know they can approach me with a new driver -- I'm always open to looking at those. But once I like what I'm playing, I want the reps to stay away; when they start giving you stuff, it makes you doubt if what you have is the best. But if I need something, I'll go hunt the reps down."

Guys playing poorly are easy prey for proactive reps. "I look at the statistics to see who's at the bottom and start there," says Titleist's Steve Mata. "You can only improve those guys."

When pros try new clubs, they are most discerning about distance control, feel, and design -- and not necessarily in that order. "If I can't get past the looks, I won't try it," says Flesch. "If it was the ugliest driver in the world and I boomed it, I'd still get sick of looking at it."

While perhaps not as discerning as Woods, other Tour pros don't exactly walk into a shop, hit a few balls into a net, and walk out with a club. Typically, they compare new clubs on the range with their own for ball flight, distance, consistency, and feel. That can take one hit or hours. Then they'll play a practice or pro-am round because "clubs play differently there than on the range," says Mata. "Swings speed up when you're under the gun." Pros also like to test clubs in various wind conditions and from different lies.

If the club passes inspection, the rep measures the pro's specifications, then sends as many as 10 slightly differing versions. Or the pro might visit the company's factory or testing center, where he will test clubs under the objective eye of a launch monitor as a rep and a technician tweak his clubs after every set of hits.

Artist: James YangJames Yang

The off-season is ideal for this stage; a pro can receive more attention from company officials. It's also when players already on a company's staff will upgrade to that brand's new models.

The goal, of course, is to find the best performing clubs. But choosing a club can mean more than how it looks, feels, and plays; sometimes the overriding factor is money. Nike didn't even make clubs when it extended Woods's contract in 2001, but allegedly oriented the pact around Woods eventually playing its wares.

Sergio Garcia had been playing well with his Titleists, but recently left the company with two years remaining in his deal due to an endorsement conflict: He had an apparel contract with adidas, which owns TaylorMade. At adidas functions, he was contractually obligated to hit Titleist clubs. Likewise, appearing for Titleist, he had to don adidas headwear. Both companies asked him to choose between them. He's now playing TaylorMade clubs.

Money is an even bigger factor for players who can't command seven-figure contracts. In September, Callaway offered $3,000 per week to any pro playing its new Great Big Bertha II driver. This payoff, known as "tee-up" money, is a common ploy for a company looking to boost its Tour presence.

And it works. Over the next three weeks, 59 PGA Tour pros used the driver in competition, forcing TaylorMade to match the offer to play its 500 Series drivers.

"Some guys are whores," says Mata of Titleist, which offers pros $1,000 a week to play its drivers. "I know one guy who was hurt, but wanted his tee-up money so bad he played just the first hole to get registered playing a particular driver, then quit."

If this all sounds unseemly, remember that it is a business. And while both companies and players go to great lengths (and exchange a lot of money) to come to an agreement on irons and woods, players also know their fortunes can hinge on a hot putter. That's why, on average, one in four changes his putter each week. On Wednesday afternoons, the busiest place at a Tour event is the practice putting green, where up to 10 companies commonly set up bags full of putters for players to test during "Happy Hour."

That term can be applied to the entire equipment-finding process. Because it is all about jumping into a large crowd, doing a little mixing, and finding a good match.

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