Having watched Tiger Woods test equipment in 2003 and given the opportunity again this December, I was eager to find out how his approach had changed. It turns out, it hasn’t. Instead of projecting as a 42-year-old seeking a magic elixir to boost his ageing game, Woods displayed the same exacting attention he did as a 27-year-old at the peak of his powers. This was Woods’ first official clubtesting session since joining TaylorMade in January 2017, and he and the company’s research and development team spent nearly two hours on the range at Medalist Golf Club in Hobe Sound, Florida, minutely analysing his equipment specs. “That’s a lot higher,” Woods called out on his first swing with a TW prototype, muscle-back blade 6-iron, comparing it to the ball flight of his current 6-iron. For Woods, ball flight is everything. In the 2003 session, he said, “If I look up and don’t see the ball right where I expect it to be, then we have a serious problem.” But not an insurmountable one. Keith Sbarbaro, TaylorMade’s vice president of tour operations, tells Woods that it could be the centre-of-gravity location, and he and his team would measure Woods’ old set and match it.
Woods is likely to notice anything amiss, having used the same club specifications for decades, only changing the lie angle when a swing change called for it. He also said in his early years as a professional that it was necessary for him to go through eight or nine sets and pick clubs from each to get the centre of gravity just right.
Despite the trajectory issue, Woods was pleased with what he saw. The look of the club, especially at address, is very important to him. Woods prefers an iron with a longer blade length, thin sole and squared-off toe. His TaylorMade prototype was spot-on. “The look is sweet,” he said. “It feels great going through the ground; feels fantastic. Everything is right.”
Moving on to drivers, Woods hit the majority with impressive velocity. His launch conditions featured ball speeds of 180 miles per hour and spin rates from 2,200 to 2,400 revolutions per minute with a launch angle of 11 to 13 degrees – all highly respectable. His carry distance often reached 315 yards.
Woods started with the TaylorMade M2 he has been using, before trying the M4 model. The newer M4 produced similar ball speeds, but a higher ball flight. “It looks a touch open. It’s floating out there, but it has a more solid sound and feel,” Woods said.
He then tried the new M3, a club with a technology called “twist face”, because the face is twisted slightly to produce optimum performance on mis-hits. Asked if he noticed it at address, Woods said: “I don’t see it at all, but the idea makes total sense.”
Starting with a 9.5-degree model, Woods felt the club was too upright. A change was made to an 8.5-degree head, which sat flatter. After a few swings, Woods still wasn’t satisfied, saying it didn’t look right. As with his irons, the look of the driver is vital. “I know when I’m waggling it,” he said. “If I feel it matches up to me, it frees up my swing.”
Sbarbaro then suggested an M3 440 at 9 degrees – a club with a slightly smaller head. After a couple of waggles, Woods flashed his trademark smile and said, “I like it a lot.” A few swings in, Sbarbaro made a tweak, adjusting the two movable weights on the sole all the way forward. On the next swing, Woods tattooed one: 322 yards of carry, 15 degrees of launch, 2,100 rpm of spin – nearly perfect.
After about 90 minutes during which he hit close to 100 balls, Woods was closer to some new clubs, though his set makeup (driver, 3-wood, 5-wood or 2-iron, depending on course, 3-iron through pitching wedge, 54 and 60-degree wedges and putter) is likely to remain unchanged. Before any decisions, Woods insisted there was work to do, mostly on the course. “Right before the Hero, I had a 3-wood I was using last year,” he said. “On the range, I hit it fantastic. On the course, I couldn’t hit it. It had too much toe droop right before impact. When I tried to turn it, I’d hit this toe pop-up. The golf course showed that. It’s not just about making it look good [on the range].”
As with any testing session there were some lighter moments, like when Woods said he used Confidence irons as a kid until he saved enough money to buy a set of Mizunos. His keen sense of feel was on display, too. Woods cast aside the last driver he hit because of an air bubble in the grip only he could feel. To the last swing, the same ol’ Tiger.