- The Washington Times - Sunday, May 4, 2003

Phil Mickelson was right.Four months ago, the outspoken lefty riled the sour grapes police when he remarked that Tiger Woods “plays with inferior equipment.”Columnists and Nike alike cried foul, dismissing the comment as merely bitter caterwauling from major-less Mick. But a dozen tournaments and one very unscientific test later, this 6-handicapper has to concur with Mickelson’s claim.The new Titleist Pro VIx ball, which has broken on the Tour like a technological tsunami this season, is longer, softer and more durable than Nike’s Tiger Woods ball. If you don’t believe us, you haven’t looked at the stats or course-tested the two. Or perhaps your name is Phil Knight.If you want substantive proof, consider this season’s PGA Tour driving distance stats. Woods, once the longest-hitting pro on the planet other than John “Deere” Daly, is currently ranked 37th on Tour in driving distance.And Woods isn’t lagging behind because of a sudden case of power failure. In spite of his girlfriend’s questionable culinary skills, Woods is stronger and healthier than ever thanks to offseason knee surgery. And his current average driving distance of 290.8 yards isn’t appreciably shorter than last season’s average of 293.3 yards, which placed him sixth in the final standings.No, Tiger isn’t shorter; everybody else is longer, at least everybody packing the new Pro VIx.Consider the case of world No. 2 Ernie Els, who erupted out of the gates this season with four victories and tournament scoring records on both the PGA and European Tours. It was lost on nobody that Els’ explosion coincided with his switch from TaylorMade to Titleist equipment. In large part because of the Pro VIx, which is simply called the “X-ball” by Tour players, Els has gone from modestly long off the tee last season (284 yards) to absolutely huge this season (302 yards).”The new ball has certainly made a huge difference for me,” Els said at Bay Hill last month. “The stats don’t lie, man. The thing is a monster.”Well, the owner of this space needed a bit more proof, so he took to the course with a sleeve each of Titleist Pro VIxs, original Pro VIs and Nike Tour Accuracy TW (Tiger Woods) balls and conducted his own crude test.He played all three balls at the same time, measuring each drive and replaying any mis-hit teeballs (there were two total). He figured it would take three or four rounds of such nonsense to develop a clear and consistent picture of each ball’s performance. It actually took about three holes.Quite simply, both Titleist balls out-performed the Nike ball in every respect for this average player (see adjoining chart). When both the Pro VIx and Pro VI outdistanced the Nike ball on every hole except one, the landslide of evidence was such that there was no need to play further rounds or consult a scientific expert like Iron Byron. Both Titleist balls were more than 10 yards longer than the Nike ball on average, as well as delivering better feel and more durability.The difference between the two Titleist balls was less noticeable, though the X-ball did have a heavier feel off the clubface. Most likely, that heavy feel was the result of the tester’s moderate swing speed, which is slightly lower than that recommended for optimal results with the ball.Supposedly you have to have a swing speed comfortably over 100 mph to take advantage of the added length afforded by the Pro VIx, thus its popularity among the pros. Our swing speed with the driver, measured at 107 mph last year, was fast enough to see some rewards from the X-ball, but nothing like Els’ 25 yards per drive.”When you get up over 115 miles per hour, that’s when you start to see major benefits,” Mickelson said of the ball at the Masters. “You guys can chuckle at me all you want for being obsessed with distance or technology or whatever. But last week in Atlanta, I saw Hank Kuehne routinely carry the ball 345 yards. If he ever really learns to chip and putt, he’ll be unbeatable. That’s the time we live in. I’ve got to either try to keep up and maximize my use of technology, or I’ll be out of a job.”Frankly, that’s all Mickelson meant when he questioned Woods’ equipment. It doesn’t take any complex test to realize that given his extraordinary swing speed, Woods isn’t playing the best ball available for him.Now, nobody is saying he can’t win anyway — least of all Mickelson, who paid him a twisted compliment by saying nobody else could overcome such a technological sacrifice. And after all, Woods is one of the only players in the world who still uses a steel-shafted driver. But he does this for the sake of added control. We can’t see any advantage to the Nike ball other than endorsement potential, which makes you wonder how long Woods will be willing to choose what’s in his bank account over what’s in his bag.

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