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Facing Reality
Why do they do it? Why do great players at the very peak of their game sell their souls into purgatory by making Faustian pacts with club manufacturers?

Why do they throw aside the tools of their trade, tools with which they have achieved great things and made great fortunes, to take up tools with which they are unfamiliar and clearly ill at ease?

Of course this is an ambiguous question because we all know why they do it - they do it for money - what else?

You don't have to be a grey beard to recall Faldo's fall from grace but you may have to be a bit on the hoary side to remember Ian Baker-Finch. You may well ask Ian Baker-Who? He came and went after winning an Open Championship in about the same time that it took to learn to pronounce Diawa. This was the club manufacturer that seduced him with money to play with clubs that fitted him about as comfortably as a steel-wire suit. The lad was never heard of again and when I last saw him, opening the Dukes Course at St Andrews, he looked like a 10-hadicapper having an off day. It was really very, very sad.

Like Faldo and Baker-Finch, Colin Montgomerie was induced to switch club allegiance for a substantial mass of pottage and in the process progressed from the sublime to the ridiculous. Of course it is hard to understand why anyone who has made the sort of money that Monty has out of the game should take such a risk in switching clubs. How much money does a pro-golfer need? I suppose that 'more' is the short answer.

What is even harder to understand is why any manufacturer should be prepared to pay someone to play with their clubs. The average punter knows that he is never going to hit the ball like Monty, no matter what club he has in his hand. If the club manufacturer thinks that the average punter will feel that he looks and plays Montyish then he is making a big mistake for surely no one wants to feel or look remotely Montyish.

Faldo and Baker-Finch had the looks and the style to complement their golf so the manufacturers knew what they were doing. Every balding, overweight, middle-aged man would have been delighted to have been described as Faldoish or Baker- Finchy. But such a compliment is only pertinent while the star is in ascent or at least maintaining his place in the firmament. A waning star, far less one plagued with petulance, is just about the worst thing to have on the end of your clubs. In manufacturing terms nothing is more costly than a loser.

In manufacturing terms Nike is as near as you can get to the bee's knees. What they have done in the selling of Tiger Woods is monumental for, not only has he given them an inroad to the clothing and accoutrement end of the golfing market place, he has also opened the equipment door.

If Tiger Woods plays with Nike clubs they are certainly good enough for me and if I can be at all be Tigerish with such gear, as well as clearly cool, I'll settle for Nike.

But how do you maintain the profile of the Tiger when he obviously has a thorn in his paw? How do you do it when his limp has nothing to do with knee surgery or a mildly irritating back pain? All that has yet to come when the years start to take their toll.

For now, the thorn that is nagging Woods is palpably less patent. Were it otherwise, the resourceful Woods and the resources behind Nike would have removed it long since.

Tiger Woods' eclipse is not like that of Faldo, Baker-Finch or Montgomerie. Woods' passing from the pinnacle is not due to club change. A close examination of his Major record proves that.

The Tiger's first major win was the PGA in1999. He started the 2000 season winning the Masters and, although he failed to win the US Open, he did win the Open Championship and the PGA that year. By winning the Masters in 2001, he held all four Majors at the same time, but that was to prove his only major triumph that year.

2001 ended momentously for the Tiger when he signed up for Nike with a $100m contract. It was a contract that ended his formal association with Titleist and not a few shook their heads in disbelief.

But contrary to expectations and armed with his new clubs - clubs that he had helped design - he won the 2002 Masters and followed that with the US Open. He faltered in his grand slam attempt on the storm-tossed Saturday of the Open at Muirfield before posting the best score of the week in the last round when all was already lost.

Since then Woods has not secured another Major title but he has challenged, in some more notably than others, for every Major since.

Although it is ridiculous to look back at Woods' short playing career and refer to slumps in his performance, it is clear that he has not performed to expectations since the 2002 Open. After winning two Majors playing with Nike gear, he has in relative terms slumped. It should, however, be noted that he won only one Major in 2001 playing with Titleist equipment, after which, again in relative terms, he experienced a slump from which he recovered using Nike clubs in 2002 with two Major wins.

Woods has not driven the ball as far or as straight as he and everyone else expects of him since 2002. But he was not driving the ball well in 2001 when he started slipping in the statistics in both the distance and accuracy categories. From being the longest and straightest driver in the world he now stands in lowly 24th place in distance at an average length of only 293 yards. In driving accuracy he rests in 128th place, hitting only 64% of fairways. Are his stats plummeting due to his club change? I doubt it.

Every golfer, irrespective of his talent or proficiency in the game always finds an excuse for a poor performance. Most of us do not have the luxury of blaming the club and all of us have resorted to trying to purchase our way to a better performance. We have all searched the garage to find the putter that was particularly hot some years ago and many have resurrected a driver to find that, after a couple of good tee-shots, they remember why they jettisoned it in the first place.

It is all in our heads. We know that but can't face it. Nike executives know that but how can they suggest that to the Tiger and expect to keep their teeth? Woods knows that too, but to face it would be to recognise fallibility, the pro's poison. Turning the clock back to a resurrected driver is one alternative - but where do you go from there?

The hellish irony of Woods' driver is that if he was putting perfectly he could beat the field with only a bunker rake in his bag.






©    4 - AUGUST 2003



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