Tales of Tiger’s equipment
Time to solve the mysteries surrounding the clubs and balls Tiger Woods has used in his extraordinary career
April 08, 2019
By Andrew Tursky, PGATOUR.COM
Time to solve the mysteries surrounding the clubs and balls Tiger Woods has used in his extraordinary career
Why do people care what equipment Tiger Woods uses when their golf swings look nothing like Tiger’s swing? Answer: It just matters. Golf fans look at Woods’ equipment much like fans of Michael Jordan looked at his sneakers.
Unlike with Jordan, whose shoes sell to the masses at retail, the exact golf clubs that Woods uses have been shrouded in mystery because they’re often prototypes made specifically for him.
Also unlike Jordan, who reportedly wore a different pair of sneakers for every game, Woods does not like to change equipment. Rather, Woods sticks with what’s familiar. That’s why his irons throughout the years haven’t changed specs, aside from one club in particular (we’ll get to that later). That’s why Woods keeps going back to a Mitsubishi Diamana driver shaft no matter how many times he switches to something else. That’s why his iron shafts haven’t changed. That’s why his grips haven’t changed. That’s why his golf ball manufacturer hasn’t changed. That’s why despite putter drama in 2018, he switched back into his trusty Scotty Cameron Newport 2 GSS prototype to win the 2018 TOUR Championship.
Rick Nichols, Woods’ longtime equipment concierge, if you will, calls Woods’ unwillingness to switch “conservative,” and that he’s a “creature of habit.” Larry Bobka, Woods’ clubmaker while at Titleist, calls it “smart.” Woods had quick success with certain golf clubs in his early days on the PGA TOUR, and he’s built a tremendous amount of confidence with those equipment specifications.
“If you know that feel, why would you deviate from that recipe too much?” Nichols says. “Right?”
But what equipment was Tiger even using? Golfers have always had their own theories. Given so much intrigue around Woods’ golf clubs, often with few answers due to the tight-lipped nature of Team Tiger, golf fans and people with “inside information from a guy I know” were allowed the opportunity to fill in their own gaps. Look no further than the classic conspiracy theory that Woods’ irons throughout the years are simply Miura irons stamped with Titleist or Nike logos.
All rumors and speculation can now be put to rest, however.
Recently, PGATOUR.COM spoke in-depth with Nichols and Larry Bobka, two men who worked closely with Tiger and know the most about his equipment through his prime years (from 1997 until Nike exited the hard goods business). Nichols was a Tour Rep for True Temper starting in 1994 until joining Nike as the Director of Field Operations and Global Sports Marketing. He worked with Woods closely on equipment from 1996 until 2016, when Nike exited the hard goods industry. Bobka was responsible for helping design Woods’ Titleist irons, and he worked with Woods on his fairway woods and driver from 1997 through 2002.
Together, Nichols and Bobka are armed with all of the knowledge and stories about Woods’ equipment from 1997-2016. For additional insight, PGATOUR.COM also recently spoke with Woods himself for the full Q&A, click here.
In 1997, Tiger used a Titleist 975D with 7.5 degrees loft. Bobka kept about six driver heads in his office, either 6.5 or 7.5 degrees loft, and occasionally Tiger would mess around with the 6.5. The swing weights were D4, which Tiger preferred on every club from driver through pitching wedge, with his other wedges a little heavier, around D6.
Tiger used a 43.5-inch steel-shafted driver during his time at Titleist. He tried various graphite shafts to see if he could pick up yardage, but then the question became: Could he control it? “He just never felt like at that time that he could find something that was consistent,” Bobka said. “Now, you’re talking about graphite shafts from late-‘90s compared to how well graphite shafts are made now, in the year 2019 it’s a totally different story.
“He never played graphite in a Titleist driver. When he went to Nike that’s when he started showing up with graphite shafts.”
The driver head size was no larger than 300cc – small compared to modern-day driver heads with legal limits at 460cc. Bobka estimated Tiger’s ballspeed to be 178-180 mph at the time.
“We really never measured [clubhead speed],” Bobka says, “but if you go off of ball speed, I think what they calculate it at is about 70-80 percent of what the ballspeed was, so you’re probably talking about in the upper 120s. He was fast.”
One day, Bobka had finished building 50-inch graphite-shafted drivers for some of the long-drive competitors, including Jason Zuback, the Canadian who won four Open Division titles in the late 1990s. A day later, Woods was in his office.
“Can I hit this?” asked Tiger.
“Sure, you can hit it,” Bobka replied.
After blocking his first drive right, Tiger said, “Oh, I’ve gotta swing a little different with this.” He then pummeled his next two shots, breaking 200 mph ballspeed.
“That’s really cool,” Tiger said, then added, “Well, I can’t play this.”
Replied Bobka: “Yeah, you’re right. Don’t even think about taking it.”
During the transition from persimmon drivers to early titanium stainless steel heads, some players felt the face of the clubhead was too slippery and, thus, negatively impacting shots. So Bobka used a 60-grip belt that “would rip metal off anything … I would scratch the face from toe to heel and then crown to sole so it had some texture to it and they felt like the ball wasn’t slipping off the face.”
Woods was among those, including Greg Norman, who had his club faces scratched. “He played some that way and some he didn’t,” Bobka says. “It kind of was all based on how he was feeling and how the driver was working.”
The USGA would eventually enact a face roughness rule. “I think I was one of the impetuses to have that change,” Bobka says.
In 1995, before Woods signed with Titleist, the company was selling a fairway wood called the Starship, but due to its high launch and forgiveness, most TOUR players weren’t interested in hitting it. With a new crop of TOUR staffers on the horizon, including Woods, Brad Faxon, Davis Love III, Bobka was scrambling for a Titleist fairway wood for them to use.
He found a model, almost mistakenly, from an old stash.
“We got all these old PTs that didn’t sell very well in the back,” a Titleist employee told Bobka. “We were probably gonna just scrap them anyway so, it gets them out of my factory. Why don’t you just take them and see what you can do with them?”
The initial launch of the Titleist PT fairway woods wasn’t a great success because it hit “low bullets,” according to Bobka.
Bobka showed the old stock of unsold PT fairway woods to Curtis Strange, who said, “‘Where have these been? This looks great.” Strange asked for 13-degree and 17-degree lofted clubs.
So when it came time for Tiger to change from a Cobra to a Titleist PT fairway wood, Titleist had a successful TOUR model. Woods used his at 15 degrees with a True Temper Dynamic Gold X100.
When Tiger started using Nike equipment, he began experimenting more seriously with bigger Nike driver heads – cracking the 400 cc size – because of greater forgiveness, and he switched to longer (between 44.5 and 45 inches) and lighter driver shafts. Tiger said Nichols was the reason for his initial change to a True Temper Lite shaft, which measured around 112 grams compared to his previous 120-plus gram X100 shaft.
“‘Oh my god, I picked up some distance and some speed,’” said Woods, who won his first two major starts after the switch.
Later, after trying one of Mark O’Meara’s Fujikura graphite driver shafts, Woods became open to giving graphite another go. Woods briefly switched into a Fujikura driver shaft, and a Grafalloy “Made for Tiger Woods” prototype, before settling into a Mitsubishi Diamana 83-gram shaft. Throughout his career, despite testing shafts from other manufacturers yearly, he mostly used Diamana shafts.
Nichols says in the early 2000s -- after switching to bigger heads, and longer and lighter shafts – Woods’ stock swings were north of 190 mph ball speed on Nike’s custom launch monitor.
Between 2016 and 2018, Woods used a Matrix TPHDe shaft and Mitsubishi Tensei Pro shafts, but he switched back into a newer Diamana 70-gram driver shaft ahead of the 2018 TOUR Championship, and old faithful helped him prevail.
“It all came together last FedExCup Playoffs when I switched to my old shaft,” Woods said. “I went back to my old Diamana shaft that I’ve had so much success with. I went back to that shaft, got me a little bit more spin on my driver and ended up hitting fairways. Ended up winning the TOUR Championship.”
Flash forward to 2019, and Woods went even lighter with the shaft ahead of the 2019 World Golf Championships-Dell Technologies Match Play. He currently uses a 60-gram Diamana D+ driver shaft in his TaylorMade M5 driver.
In his early years using Cobra and Titleist drivers, Woods’ drivers had a “bore-through” construction. That means the steel of the shaft went all the way through the heel to the sole of the driver. As Bobka explains, this club-building technique adds stability to the head.
When Woods moved to Nike and graphite shafts, he no longer used the bore-through design, but he always used glued hosels. As Nichols explains, he did use an adjustable mechanism during testing sessions for ease of use, but never in his gamer driver.
Adustable hosels with shaft sleeve adapters, seen on most current retail drivers, allow for shafts to be easily switched in and out of heads, and adjusted for loft and lie. The problem for Woods, however, was that he didn’t like the extra weight that the adjustable mechanism added to the heel of the driver. So instead of attaching the shaft using the adjustable mechanism, Woods’ Nike drivers were always glued in.
Flash forward to his days with TaylorMade post-Nike, and Woods is, in fact, using a modern adjustable hosel. As he admits, that switch wasn’t easy, and he looked to fellow TaylorMade staffers Rory McIlroy, Dustin Johnson and Jason Day for advice.
“I’ve never played anything with Nike all those years,” Woods said. “And then when I came back from all my injuries, it was tinkering around with the lofts, the weight distribution, and it just changed all my numbers and I was like ‘Wow.’
“Usually I come to a testing and there’s like 50 drivers, up on a tee, I hit each single one about three times or so, and then we sort them out that way. Then we re-test them again. That takes two days and I’m so friggin’ tired. Now it’s like ‘click, back in and hit again. Let’s go this way, let’s go that way.’ And all the sudden I have a new driver in 20 minutes. So that was a bit of an adjustment for me, trying to understand that whole side of how the hosel works.”
In his early days on TOUR, Woods used a 2-iron, versus a 5-wood or hybrid. Nichols says Woods called 5-woods “senior clubs,” and hybrids spun too little and were “a little hot.” Due to the versatility of 5-woods, Nichols stuck to his guns in trying to convince Woods to switch out of his trusty 2-iron.
“The victory was getting a 5-wood in [Tiger’s] bag,” Nichols said. “Now here’s a man that’s winning everything. He’s got this 2-iron that he can hoist into orbit and so, what’s he need a senior club for, right? ... But, we worked and worked and worked with him.”
One day, Woods gave in, and decided to test the 5-woods at home at Isleworth. He eventually realized “that the 5-wood was a little bit more versatile,” according to Nichols. To this day, Woods still uses a 5-wood, going back-and-forth between a driving iron and a 5-wood depending on the course setup and conditions.
Due to conspiracy theories about them, Woods’ Titleist irons are arguably the most controversial golf clubs in history. Now, however, we have the real story.
In 1997, Woods played a mixed set of Mizuno irons: MP-29 long irons and MP-14 short irons. During his transition to Titleist irons, Bobka says Woods called him with a request.
“Hey, I’m sending you a set of these old Hogan [Apex] irons,” Woods told Bobka. “I really like the bottoms of these. I really like the way they go through the turf.”
Bobka says the Apex irons had a bit more camber from front-to-back and from heel-to-toe than the original sets he started making for Woods. So Bobka and team used those soles as a guide for Woods’ custom Titleist 681 irons.
“[They] had a little bit higher center of gravity, had a little bit higher muscle, to try to help him with keeping the ball flight down a little bit,” Bobka explains. “And then they just had some extra bounce and a little bit more camber on the sole. The thing that made the clubs so great was the user. Not necessarily the clubs.”
As for who actually manufactured the irons, Bobka explains:
“His original long irons came from an old set of Titleist forgings that were made by Hoffmann Products that were out of Millington, Tennessee, who had forged golf clubs in the U.S. forever, for years … they actually did, before the Vokeys, the forged wedges that we brought out that I did with players. We actually got the forgings from them in Tennessee before they shut down. So [Tiger’s] long irons, his 2-, 3- and 4-irons came from that. And then the rest of the set came from basically a set that we were working on with Endo out of Japan.”
Bobka says that Woods played those irons throughout his time with Titleist, before switching into custom Nike irons.
During his practice sessions, Woods primarily opts for the 8-iron, according to Bobka. That being the case, Bobka would always make an extra 8-iron when building him a fresh set.
“Would you practice with something else?” Bobka repeatedly asked Woods.
Before the 2000 PGA Championship at Valhalla, Bobka noticed Woods had “absolutely worn his 8-iron out.”
“You going to be OK with this [8-iron] this week?” Bobka asked Woods.
Replied Woods: “Yeah. It’s the last four days of its life, it’ll be done after this week.”
That 8-iron obviously left on a high note, as Woods won that week.
In 2002, Woods switched from Titleist to Nike irons, and longtime master craftsman Mike Taylor was tasked with building them. Woods worked with Taylor at Impact Golf in Fort Worth, and later at Nike’s “The Oven.” Due to Taylor’s craftsmanship, artistry and attention to detail, the switch was seamless.
“Mike is such an artist and Tiger loved the way he made his clubs look and feel and perform,” Nichols says.
Taylor also used a secret weapon in Woods’ irons: Tungsten. Taylor began putting Tungsten plugs in Woods’ irons to get the center of gravity where he wanted them, and Woods became accustom to the feel. It’s a process that is now common practice throughout the industry, and Nike used that design in its retail Vapor Pro irons before the company left the hard goods business.
When Woods switched into custom TaylorMade Phase1 irons, and then onto his current P-7TW irons, there was speculation whether Taylor was still involved with the process. Woods recently confirmed:
“He worked on all these [TaylorMade] irons,” Woods said. “He worked on all my wedges. I talk to him probably every few weeks, giving updates on how I feel, things that I think could be better. He’ll bounce a few ideas off me, what I think, what direction we need to go down the road, how can we make them any better than what they are. And this is the same process I went through all those years when I was working with him at Nike. But now working with him at TaylorMade, it’s a lot more seamless.”
While his contemporaries use stronger lofts, and retail irons continue to be lofted stronger for greater distance, Woods remains old school.
“He plays more traditional lofted clubs, closer to the 60s and 70s, than he does from a modern set of clubs,” Bobka says. “His 7-iron would be 37 (degrees) … back when I was building his golf clubs, that was a 30-degree 5-iron. And you can buy some 5-irons now from some manufacturers that are 21, 22 degrees. Right now, for TOUR players, I would say a 27-degree 5-iron would be the closest thing to a standard loft.”
Since his Mizuno iron days, Woods hasn’t changed his iron lofts … except one.
Around 2005, Nichols noticed there was a bigger difference in lofts between his 4- and 5-iron than between his 5- and 6-iron.
“Let’s just bump your 5 iron one degree strong. I think that’s a nice progression,” Nichols suggested to Woods.
Bending an iron or wedge one-degree strong means that it subtracts one degree of bounce. Knowing this, Nichols warned Woods and suggested he speak up if the iron digs too much into the turf.
After hitting a few shots with the new 5-iron loft, Woods said to Nichols, “Oh, this is OK.”
More than OK, really. Utilizing his 5-iron into a few par-5s, Woods won in his next start.
In all, Nichols was 3-of-3 in convincing Woods to adjust his equipment (lighter driver shaft, replacing his 2-iron with 5-wood; changing his 5-iron loft). Not that Nichols is taking any credit for what transpired after that.
“I think the guy holding onto the club had most to do with it,” Nichols explains.
After signing with Titleist, Woods switched from his previous Cleveland 588 RTG wedges into Bob Vokey-designed Titleist wedges. His Vokeys had a slight bit of heel relief, and he used a 58-degree wedge that was bent to 56 degrees because, as Vokey explained, Woods liked the look of it. Vokey said Woods would change wedges “about 4 or 5 times per year,” mostly before major championships.
Upon switching to Nike, Taylor began hand-grinding Woods’ forged wedges to his liking. Due to his rigorous practice sessions, Woods went through wedges (and their backups) quickly.
“When I was with Nike, we would take eight sets, or eight different wedges, and literally hand-grind them all,” Woods says. “I’d hit them, I’d test them, ‘I like this, I like that.’ Buff them off, try to get them just right, and then each one felt exactly the same. But after use, at home practicing, bunker work, the grooves started getting worn down so I would send one in, have that re-blasted. That [wedge] would move into the back of the order.
“Then I had the fresh ones, and I’d wear that one out. Then that would get re-blasted, and eventually they’d come around and I used all 8 sets twice. Then once those were done – so 16 go-arounds – now we have to start it all over again, because they can’t get any more spin on them.”
Now, Woods uses TaylorMade wedges, which are milled. The new process takes hand-grinding out of the equation, meaning every wedge is made exactly the same. That allows Woods to change out wedges more often.
Ahead of his “Tiger Slam,” Woods began using a solid core Nike prototype golf ball, called the Tour Accuracy TW. Based on Woods’ dominance with the golf ball, Titleist’s response was the first-edition Pro V1 golf ball that debuted in October of 2000.
Throughout his time using Nike golf balls, which were always designed by Nike and manufactured by Bridgestone, Woods used different models, including the Tour Accuracy TW, the ONE TW, the ONE Platinum TW (the ball that hung on the lip in the 2005 Masters), the ONE Tour TW, and a ONE Tour D.
What all of these golf balls had in common, according to Nichols, was that they were manufactured to have more spin than the retail versions. Thanks to the shallow angle of attack on his swing, Tiger didn’t need less spin to maximize distance.
“When you’re shallow through impact for a long period of time, you’re going to be very consistent and you’re going to have control of your golf ball,” Nichols said. “Majority of the time, his [prototype] golf balls spun more than what most of our athletes would want. And the reason being, Tiger had the ability … to make a spinnier golf ball spin less off of the driver than most of our athletes … he didn’t have a steep angle of descent when he would come into the golf ball, especially on the driver. He shallowed it out very early. And it was shallow through impact for a very long period of time.”
Thus, Woods was able to control a golf ball that spins more in the long game, and take advantage of the greater spin around the greens. Coupled with his imagination and skill around the greens, a “spinnier” golf ball allowed Woods to hit shots like the one on the 16th hole at the 2005 Masters that stopped on a dime, and in exactly the right spot.
Nichols tells a final story that showcases Woods’ remarkable sensitivity when it comes to equipment.
Woods was testing one ball against another in his home putting lab, hitting 15-foot putts. At one point, he turned to Nichols, who was on-site at the time, and said, “Ricky, this golf ball rolls out farther than the other golf ball, by about 4 inches.”
Nichols wasn’t 100% convinced. After all, this wasn’t a machine striking the ball with the exact same stroke with the same speed. This was a human … albeit one with extraordinary golf gifts. “Is there some validity to what he said?” Nichols recalls thinking at the time.
So he took the balls to Rock Ishii, who was in charge of ball development at the time, and told him of Tiger’s feedback. Ishii then put both balls on the pendulum test to make sure they had scientific proof. The result?
“Tiger was right. Bingo!” Nichols said.
“You think about that, how he had the awareness to realize that it was the golf ball. Because he has hit how many thousands and thousands and thousands of putts throughout his life, and he knows. His feel is just tremendous … he knows how hard to hit it. Again, you’re human. I could never think that, ‘Oh, it’s the golf ball.’ … You’ve got to factor in the human error a little bit.
“No, he was right. We did it with the pendulum test and we’re going, ‘I’ll be darned.’"