With the news that Tiger Woods is hoping to return to competitive golf in October, there remains the lingering issue of what clubs he'll play now that Nike has announced it is his exiting the equipment business.
1. Is Tiger obligated to use Nike equipment when he returns?
Not even close. In fact, he’s not obligated to use any of it. Woods, like other Nike staff players, is essentially an equipment free agent, able to play any clubs or ball he chooses (although in order to keep his Nike contract intact, Woods must wear the company’s hat, apparel and footwear). That doesn’t mean that all of a sudden his bag is going to be filled with non-swooshed products. Since Nike’s announcement that it was exiting the equipment arena, some of its players have slowly begun making the transition to other equipment—although none has made a wholesale change. Rather it’s been dipping the toes in the equipment waters with a club here and there so far. Rory McIlroy changed to a Scotty Cameron by Titleist putter as has Brooks Koepka. Russell Henley and Jamie Lovemark each changed to Titleist’s Pro V1x golf ball, with Lovemark also playing a TaylorMade M2 driver.
2. What are the odds that Tiger signs a new equipment deal by the time he returns?
You have to look at this question from multiple directions. First, his deal with Nike to wear its apparel and shoes hasn’t changed (and it's believed to be a figure higher than any other current player's deal), so financially it would be silly for Tiger to enter into a deal that would force him to walk away from the Nike contract, which is set to expire at the end of 2018. Second and conversely, equipment companies that might be pursuing a club or ball deal with Tiger Woods might find themselves a little hamstrung in that Tiger might agree to use their clubs but he’ll be doing so wearing Nike’s swoosh from head to toe, with no other logos showing. Third, he’s planning to test the competitive waters for the first time in over a year after using and testing only Nike clubs precisely tuned to his peculiar swing tendencies for the last decade-plus. A wholesale equipment change brought on by a new contract signed in the next month seems about as likely as Tiger playing the Ryder Cup as a warmup event. Plain and simple, it’s hard to see how now would be the time to make that kind of change.
3. Yeah, but if he does, who are the contenders?
The number of golf equipment companies who might be in a position to pursue Tiger’s asking price on the equipment side is likely limited to Callaway, TaylorMade, Titleist and wild card PXG. Callaway has its old horse Hall of Famer already in Phil Mickelson, TaylorMade is in the midst of a reorganization and likely sale that surely will limit its marketing spend and clearly will be focused on finding money—the kind of money Tiger Woods might be seeking—to pay the likes of Jason Day and/or Dustin Johnson and/or Justin Rose. Titleist? Titleist sued Nike after Tiger’s infamous hackey-sack commercial, when Tiger at the time had contracts with both Nike and Titleist. While those scars have healed, Titleist doesn’t have a track record of signing older players who haven’t been playing their clubs for a while. PXG? Not likely. Company founder Bob Parsons, who indicated he was interested in Rory McIlroy, told Golf Digest last month, “There’s no doubt that Tiger has been an icon in the game, that no one has done as much for golf as anyone in history and he’s highly respected for that, but I don’t know that his game is what it once was.” Which perhaps leads us to one final point: He’s ranked No. 711 in the world, hasn’t played a “full” season in three years, is coming off three back surgeries and the last equipment company he had a contract with just got out of the business. Is this really how you would want to spend some serious marketing dollars?
4. Whenever a guy changes equipment, we’re used to hearing about the adjustments that requires. Would this be another hurdle for Woods as he tries to get back to playing good golf?
One big one. He’s a tough fit for new equipment. When it comes to clubs and balls, Tiger, despite his curiosity about equipment, has been consistently blase about taking advantage of innovation and consistently demanding about what kinds of clubs he believes work best for him. His blade irons have adopted several subtle tweaks over the years, but in terms of groundbreaking technology really could have been produced when Nick Faldo was winning the Open Championship three decades ago. In fact Faldo’s Mizuno TP-19s from 1992 are similar to the irons Woods first used as a professional (a mixed set of Mizuno MP-29 and MP-14s) and only microscopically different than the Nike blades he’s most recently used (yes, yes, the center of gravity has shifted slightly toward the center of the face on the Vapor Pros, but really it’s not like they feature a cavity or a slot or a new type of carbon steel alloy). From an equipment technology standpoint and company R&D resources, the blade iron is largely an aesthetic pursuit, which ends up involving a lot of time (and a lot of back and forth with players) for very little payoff in the marketplace. On the ball front, he played the same ball, a Nike One Tour D, for, oh, about a decade, long after its expiration date. And as for drivers, he struggled to find a Nike driver that he truly embraced and probably played some of his best golf with models that weren’t adjustable, something that’s standard equipment now. And not insignificantly, Woods for the longest time has pursued launching it lower while the general trend in driver design for the last decade has been toward launching the ball higher. Not saying he’s an odd ball, but he’s not exactly Jason Day. In a lot of ways.
5. So a wholesale change is improbable. But if he were to change one club, which one is most likely?
With Tiger it’s best to look at history and it has shown a reluctance to change equipment very often. However one area he has had a tendency to tinker with is his driver. Once his most formidable weapon, as Woods struggled to find fairways through his career, he sought equipment solutions. Back in 2003 at the Buick Open he went back to his old Titleist 975D driver and also used a TaylorMade driver at an event in Germany that August before putting Nike’s Ignite driver (remember that one?) in the bag. With a number of companies making technological advances in drivers in a number of ways, Woods—who has a passion for equipment bordering that of a chat-room junkie—will likely be tempted to tinker and might just find something that catches his fancy. Another potential option would be a return to his Scotty Cameron by Titleist putter that he first put in play at the 1999 Byron Nelson event and finally benched at the 2010 Open Championship. For a player that certainly could use all the good mojo possible, Woods could do worse than using a putter that won 13 major championships.
6. It’s been so long we forget—what did he have in the bag during his last tournament?
Tiger’s last official event was the 2015 Wyndham Championship. Here’s what was in the bag.
Ball: Nike RZN Black Driver: Nike Vapor Speed, 9.5 degrees 3-wood: Nike Vapor Speed, 15 degrees Irons (2): Nike VRS Forged; (3-PW): Nike Vapor Pro Wedges: Nike VR X3X (56, 60 degrees) Putter: Nike Method prototype