Titleist back in Tiger's bag, but not Phil's Titleist

When Tiger Woods put his old Titleist driver in the bag Monday night -- with Phil Mickelson in his presence, no less -- you could hear the snickers all the way from California.

Wasn't this confirmation that Woods was, indeed, playing with inferior equipment, as Mickelson had suggested earlier this year?

Not necessarily. But in a golf world that dissects in detail every move the game's best player makes, it sure made for an interesting discussion.

Woods, who early in the 2002 season began using a Nike driver, put it aside Monday night during the nationally televised "Battle at the Bridges'' and switched to a Titleist 975D driver that he started using in 1997. The club will almost definitely still be in his bag this week at the Buick Open and in two weeks at the PGA Championship.

"I wanted to go back to something I've played well with in the past,'' Woods said after he and Ernie Els lost to Mickelson and Sergio Garcia.

The move has the golf world buzzing. Woods has struggled with his driver this year, and ditching a club made by the company that pays him millions to endorse its products appears to be a huge acknowledgement that something is amiss.

But don't automatically assume that Woods is making the move because the Nike driver he has been using is "inferior.''

In fact, if anything, the Titleist driver is "inferior'' to the Nike driver he's been using.

Actually, "inferior'' is a bad word.

The Titleist club simply is not as advanced, in terms of technology, as clubs on the market today. According to the Associated Press, the Titleist 975D is not sold anymore. It has been replaced by fancier models that have bigger clubheads and thinner faces.

Those attributes, while craved by the average golfer, are not necessary for Woods, who could probably still lead the money list with a persimmon driver.

But with the high-tech stuff Nike has put in his hands, Woods is just 128th in driving accuracy on the PGA Tour this year, hitting the fairway just more than 64 percent of the time. His driving distance has slipped, too. Woods is just 24th, averaging 293.4 yards. Last year, a similar driving distance ranked sixth.

In other words, other players have been flying past him with equipment that helps them hit the ball farther.

The stats, of course, are misleading. Woods could hit the ball farther if he tried. He has elected to scale back in recent years, knowing that distance is not everything.

But it is interesting that, for the first time, Woods has gone back to something old after switching to Nike.

"Tiger Woods can play any piece of equipment he chooses,'' said a statement released by the Nike public relations department. "He's unhappy with the way he's been driving the ball and has chosen to make a change to something he's more familiar with ... his old driver.

"Prior to this, Nike Golf has presented Tiger with options that take advantage of the latest in technology, but Tiger prefers a smaller, slower set-up to the larger, faster heads that 99 percent, or more than 40 of Nike Golf's Tour staff players, prefer -- the same new forged titanium technology from Nike Golf that thousands of amateurs are using to achieve greater distance and more forgiveness.

"This shift does not affect our relationship in any way; in fact, we will begin testing new designs with Tiger at the earliest convenient date.''

Call it spin control, but you can bet there is a good deal of truth to the Nike spiel. The company will do its best to put something together that works for Woods. It made sure to point out that Woods is still using Nike irons and a Nike ball.

And, don't forget, Woods won nine times using the Nike driver, including the 2002 Masters and U.S. Open.

In the meantime, he's going back to "inferior' technology.


The Question

How will Ben Curtis fare in his first tournament after winning the British Open?
Curtis jumped from 396th to 35th in the World Ranking after winning the British, then skipped out on last week's Greater Hartford Open to enjoy his moment in the sun. It's back to work this week at the Buick.

Five Things To Watch This Week
1. Woods has made a habit of defending his titles, and he won the Buick Open last year.

2. Annika Sorenstam will attempt to complete a career Grand Slam with a victory at the Women's British Open, played at Royal Lytham and St. Anne's, England. Sorenstam has captured the U.S. Women's Open, Kraft Nabisco Championship and earlier this year, the LPGA Championship.

3. Will the year of the veteran continue? Six of the past 12 PGA Tour winners have been 40 or older, including the last two -- Craig Stadler and Peter Jacobsen -- the fifth-and seventh-oldest players ever to win on tour.

4. Curtis gets to experience life as a major champion beginning this week, as he plays in his first event since winning the British Open.

5. After a dizzying number of majors, the Champions Tour returns to a regular event with the FleetBoston Classic, where Bob Gilder is the defending champion.


Bob Harig covers golf for the St. Petersburg Times and is a frequent contributor to ESPN.com. He can be reached at harig@sptimes.com.