Not long after a calamitous week of driving at the Masters, eight new driver shafts arrived at Tiger Woods's home in Windermere, Fla. Each could be attached to a head built to his usual specifications 8.5 degrees of loft, 1.5 degrees open club face, swoosh on the bottom. The shafts varied by weight and maker, and although they were sent by Nike as part of Woods's annual
equipment review, the timing highlighted a nagging truth: Woods's return after left-knee reconstruction and nearly nine months off shows a golfer at a crossroads on the tee box.
"My short irons are actually pretty good," Woods said on Sunday, following his fourth-place finish at the Quail Hollow Championship, won by Sean O'Hair with an 11-under-par 277. "It's just the longer stuff is not where I want it at all."
This was in marked contrast to O'Hair, who redeemed himself after coughing up a five-shot lead to Woods at Bay Hill five weeks earlier. At Quail Hollow, O'Hair was seventh in driving distance (312.6 yards) and 19th in accuracy. His final-round 69 allowed him to prevail by a shot over Lucas Glover and Bubba Watson and gave the 26-year-old his third Tour victory, making him, Sergio Garcia and Adam Scott the only Tour players under 30 with at least three victories.
The heart of major championship season is not the ideal time to tinker, but Woods did not have a typical off-season. Forced to rehabilitate his leg during the fall and winter, Woods was relegated mostly to short-game work. "That's all I did for months," Woods said on Sunday, "chip and putt." Even his victory at Bay Hill was more about phenomenal scrambling than pure ball striking.
After receiving the shafts, Woods settled on three models to test. The lightest was a 76-gram prototype True Temper Project X graphite; the heaviest, an 89-gram Aldila Voodoo XPP8 prototype. He also liked an 85-gram Oban Tour prototype. "There were several shafts out there that Tiger had not had an opportunity to test," says Rick Nichols, Nike's field manager. "We said, 'Let's test them and confirm what you're playing, or see if there is something better for you.'"
Woods used the Aldila shaft in Wednesday's pro-am, but on Thursday he switched to the Oban and shot a bogey-free 65 that featured only a few loose tee shots to the right. After shooting a 72 in the second round (also with the Oban), for the weekend Woods went back to the 83-gram Mitsubishi Diamana White Board shaft that he has been using for several years. On Sunday, Woods pushed his opening drive deep into the trees and made bogey. On the 10th hole, also with driver, he pulled his tee shot and dropped the club behind him. "I didn't hit the ball well at all today," he said afterward.
"I've had plenty of time to come back," Woods said, squashing excuses. "It's a matter of getting out there and trusting what you've been doing."
With the tight fairways at the Players Championship this week and the U.S. Open at muscular Bethpage Black on the horizon, Woods will need trust on the tee box no matter which shaft he ends up using.