The equipment geeks are out, fussing over their calibrating machines and mulling launch angles, moments of inertia and forces of impediment. Don't listen to them. What's more, don't buy anything, not a single new golf club, based on "specs" that the pros use. Just remember that Tiger Woods could play with a broomstick and a goat's skull and beat half of the field, not to mention Phil Mickelson.
The latest mind-numbing equipment controversy in golf comes from the recent comments of corporate vanilla boy Mickelson, who says Woods plays with "inferior" clubs. Woods will be returning to the field this week in the Buick Invitational after convalescence from knee surgery, and we'll see. But I have a question: If Mickelson's equipment is so superior, how come he shot 80 at Pebble Beach last week?
"He has inferior equipment," Mickselson told Golf Magazine. "Tiger is the only player who is good enough to overcome the equipment he's stuck with."
Now, Mickelson endorses Titleist. Woods used to be with Titleist, but he switched to the Nike ball in 2000, to the Nike driver a year ago and to the Nike irons last fall. Let's see: Woods won four straight majors after changing to the ball; he became the first player in 30 years to win the Masters and U.S. Open in the same year after changing to the driver; and he won a World Golf Championship in Ireland the week he switched to the irons.
The consumer should bear a couple of things in mind about equipment companies and the players they hire as their pitchmen. First, they would love nothing better than for you to worry about swing axis, and spin rates.
Mickelson is a walking violation of truth-in-advertising, a highly paid huckster who is merely doing the bidding of Titleist in sniping at Woods, and trying to lure you into buying the most expensive club off the rack.
Equipment companies want to sell you the most sophisticated technology because they can charge you more for it, and one of the ways they sell you is by persuading you that what you hold in your eager hand is the same club a Mickelson or Woods uses. Well, it's not. The 14 clubs in their bag have been shafted, gripped, milled and tweaked beyond recognition.
The equipment that pros use is no more off the rack than the Pontiac going down the straightaway at Daytona. You can't buy Woods's or Mickelson's clubs and even if you could they wouldn't do you any good. Players use equipment so heavily adapted to their own specific and highly unusual tactile sensitivities that it's useless to anyone else.
"They ask the ball to perform in ways most golfers can't even understand much less duplicate, so the equipment becomes different," says Tom Stites, the engineer for Nike who designs Woods's clubs.
Woods is a physical genius; just as the legendary Ted Williams could see the seams on a fastball, there are already an accumulation of legends about Woods's hypersensitivities with a golf club. Stites has witnessed those hypersensitivities in person, just as he once witnessed those of Ben Hogan.
Stites used to design clubs for Hogan's golf company before he went to Nike, and once, he took a new wedge to Hogan for approval. Hogan held the club and without ever rising from his chair, said, "Its one degree too strong." Stites took the club back to the lab, and discovered he was absolutely right.
On one occasion, Woods tested a series of golf balls, each of which had covers of varying hardness. Woods bounced each of them off the face of his club -- and ranked them hardest to softest in perfect order.
On another occasion, Stites sent Woods a half dozen drivers to test.
Woods never asked for the specs, he just hit them and decided which ones he liked. Of the six drivers, one was heavier than the rest only by two grams.
Woods picked it out. "This one's heavier," he said. Two grams is roughly the weight of a dollar bill.
With a driver, Woods can tell you, simply from the sound and the sensation in his hand, exactly which part of the clubface he has hit a ball with.
Stites once tested him: he took a Sharpie from his pocket and marked different places on the clubface, and asked Woods to hit each spot. On command, Woods would hit a ball with the driver, and describe what he felt.
Stites and his staff measured the spin rate and launch angle of each ball and where it went. Then Stites would check the clubface. Each pin mark was perfectly smudged.
"I have a machine that can do that, but the machine doesn't talk back to me," Stites says. "As a designer and a club geek, it's a lot of fun to work with him."
It's useless to try to extrapolate anything about your own game from that of a great player. You might as well compare yourself, Stites laughingly says, to a "space alien." And as Mickelson has demonstrated, it's equally useless to extrapolate any other characteristics from talent -- talent bears no relation whatsoever to character, or to intellect.
Nobody has ever invented a club that could eliminate nerves, a putter that could cure a bad stroke, or a ball that can find the cup. When they do, then we can talk about inferior equipment. Meantime, buy what works for you.