PORT ST. LUCIE, FLA. - Tiger Woods looked as if he'd just walked off the set of another Gillette commercial as he spoke about Nike's new club-fitting system and Sumo 5900 and 5000 drivers at the PGA Learning Center on Monday.
Wearing all black, minus the coat and tie he sported in the ad, Woods sat for a 30-minute Q&A moderated by the Golf Channel's Kelly Tilghman. A small audience of reporters listened to him talk tech (moment of inertia, spin-rates, shaft flex) before he hit the range for a 20-minute clinic.
He said it was the most he'd played in nearly two months.
"I put [the clubs] away right after [the Presidents Cup] and basically didn't do anything until this past week," he said. "It was my longest non-forced break."
Woods, who had knee surgery in December of 2002 and missed the first five events of 2003, was due a little R&R. In 2007, he started a new tournament, the AT&T National in Washington, D.C.; did the bulk of his design work on his first signature golf course, in Dubai; became a father; and tended to his Foundation. Woods also won seven times in 2007, including his 13th major at the PGA Championship and the inaugural FedEx Cup.
But not everything went Woods's way. At the Masters, he lost the lead on Sunday, the first time in his career he had done that in a major. At the U.S. Open, he again failed to win despite playing in the final group. At the Deutsche Bank in Boston, he lost to his nemesis, Phil Mickelson, while playing with him on Sunday for the first time ever.
"My favorite stat from this year? Seven wins," Woods said.
He wore a goatee and looked slightly leaner, a result, he said, of having worked on his body and not his swing. He arrived by helicopter with his entourage, including the agent Mark Steinberg and the ex-heavyweight champion Michael Moorer, Woods's bodyguard.
Much has happened during his layoff. Mike Weir, who beat him in the Presidents Cup, broke a three-year winless streak on the PGA Tour, solidifying his return to the game's upper echelon. Mickelson won the HSBC Championship in Asia, an event that has eluded Woods. And the rank and file battled it out at Q-school in Tiger's hometown of Orlando.
Fresh and hungry again, Woods will play the Target World Challenge at Sherwood C.C., outside Los Angeles, next week. He hosts the 16-player event and is the defending champion, which is why he's started to dust off the clubs.
"The first day back I hit it like a god," he said. "The next day like a 5-handicapper, the third day like an 18, and the next week or two I try to get back to hopefully a 0-handicapper. That's kind of the progress. I don't know why it's like that. I always start off hitting it great and have this immediate fall-off, start thinking about it, and it just goes all to pieces, and I end up going back over it again, so it's kind of fun.
"I'm looking forward to getting back out there and competing," Woods continued. "This past week I really missed getting out there and trying to beat people. Anybody at Isleworth who wants a game, we get out there and play and hopefully the cash goes my way."
Woods said his 5-month-old daughter Sam Alexis has been attentively watching his practice sessions.
"She kind of shakes every time I hit a shot, like she gets excited," he said. "I'm thinking this could be a good thing. She'll never beat me, though."
Tilghman asked the media to limit questions to equipment-related topics, and so Woods prattled on about his gear.
He said he has no plans to replace his only non-Nike club, a Titleist Scotty Cameron putter he's been using since the 1999 Byron Nelson. He doesn't use the square-headed Sumo driver, which in its newest iteration sounds less obnoxious at impact, because it goes too straight, and he needs to work the ball around doglegs. (Ever the company pitchman, he said straight and long might work really well for the average amateur golfer. Duh.)
Woods said he brings to every tournament a back-up putter (it's a Nike), wedges and woods, but not his regular irons, which is why he was out of luck after breaking his 4-iron at this year's Masters. He switches out his entire set of irons every nine months or so, when the grooves get worn down and/or his 8-iron, the second club he hits in every practice session, starts to play more like a 7 1/2-iron.
A local TV reporter threw in a non-equipment question: When will Woods move from Orlando to his new beachfront home — or more accurately beachfront compound — in nearby Jupiter Island?
The remodeling is taking longer than anticipated, Woods said, eliciting laughs in by far the morning's most relatable moment. A never-ending remodeling job? Hey, we've been there.
Woods was asked if he would play the Honda Classic in nearby West Palm Beach, but he said he hadn't made his schedule. (Note to West Palm Beach media: Don't count on it.)
When the highly controlled Q&A was finished, he moved to the driving range but kept his microphone clipped to his shirt and was noticeably more relaxed. Asked if he uses metal spikes, he said yes, the standard 6-milimeter ones. Then he quipped, "There's two guys I know that play 8-mils." He was alluding to Mickelson and Vijay Singh, who nearly came to blows in the champions' locker room at the 2005 Masters when Singh accused Mickelson of spiking up the greens. "I was there," Woods said. "I saw it."
After 20 minutes of hitting low cuts, high draws, whatever the small cluster of reporters and Nike brass requested, Woods disappeared. With police blocking the club entrance, only one Tiger-tracking fan had infiltrated the grounds, a rotund older lady in white slacks and a lime-green top.
"I made his baby a blanket and wanted to make sure that he got it," she said, but she was too late. She looked crushed and left an envelope with a Nike public relations woman in hopes that it would find its way to Woods and his wife, Elin, who perhaps had forgotten to send a thank you note.
Woods needs five more major championship titles to catch the record held by Jack Nicklaus. Zach Johnson beat him at Augusta and Angel Cabrera beat him at Oakmont, but Tiger prevailed at Southern Hills and blew everybody away at the Tour Championship. We thought he was slowing down but he bounced back, and now we can't help but wonder.
Woods will hit the ripe old age of 32 later this month, and now, good heavens, he's taken an actual off-season. What's next? Throwing a hybrid or two in the bag?
He said he could still hit his is 2-iron "halfway decent" but didn't rule out the possibility.
"I can see that happening because in my teens I used a 1-iron, in my 20s a 2-iron, and as soon as I turned 30 I put a 5-wood in. So obviously 40 would be a hybrid or 7-wood. Senior tour it'll be something, 9-wood or some kind of 11-thing. Maybe my bag will start looking like Allen Doyle's."
Of course Doyle keeps winning senior majors. As Woods knows better than anyone, it doesn't matter what his bag looks like, just as long as he keeps winning.