Next week at the Capital City Club outside Atlanta, Tiger Woods will be playing in a $6-million tournament, his first event in a month. But as it usually goes with Woods, there's a lot more at stake than the prize money.
It's all about the player-of-the-year award, plus who wins the money title, and Woods is in the hunt in both categories despite having gone 0 for 2003 in the majors.
Meanwhile, there's more high-stakes money business still on the table. Just last week in Orlando, Fla., Woods filmed a new commercial for Nike, bringing along Charles Barkley as a new partner.
It's difficult to believe that Woods could learn much from Barkley's swing, with the possible exception of how to dig a trench for a new sprinkler line.
The outtakes are supposed to be hilarious, but you can bet that the laughing stopped when Woods went on to the most serious business of the day, testing a prototype Nike driver. Those close to the Woods camp and Nike insiders say the test went well, that Tiger seemed cheered by the results, which means that the people up in Oregon at Nike headquarters might feel it's safe to exhale again.
You can understand what this is all about. When they give a guy $90 million and then launch a multimillion-dollar business called Nike Golf that's based on the best player in the world using their club, only he's not using it, well, that can cause heartburn.
So maybe the good news for all parties is that Woods didn't take a few swipes at the ball and then just hurl the thing into the swamp. It doesn't mean that he plans to put the prototype driver in his bag for next week's American Express Championship, where Woods is the defending champion, but it could be that he's closer to doing just that.
The saga of Woods and his driver has been an ongoing drama for most of the year, since Phil Mickelson torched Tiger's Nike club by marveling that Woods could win tournaments despite using "inferior" equipment.
That was February. So here we are in September and it's still an issue.
Woods, of course, has had driver issues all year. If he wasn't complaining about not hitting the ball straight, he was hinting that some players he did not want to name were using illegal drivers, then turned up the heat on the entire scenario by ditching the Nike prototype he was using and returning to his old Titleist driver.
The truth is that in the last 12 months, Woods has gone through dozens of Nike prototypes, each one tweaked just a little from the previous one, trying to find the one that's right for him. Credit Woods for knowing what he wants. And while we're at it, give Nike some credit for standing in the spotlight and pulling out all the necessary stops for the most prominent client in golf.
Although Woods has been lapped by some of his peers -- he's 11th in driving distance and 139th in fairways hit -- the perfectionist in him has never been more apparent. Sure, he has won four times this year and made $5.255 million in only 15 tournaments, but those are the normal expectations heaped on Woods, regardless of the equipment he plays.
The prototype Woods tested last week isn't along the lines of his old Titleist, which is slower and smaller, but a new design that's due out in the spring. Grace Park tested the same prototype on the range Tuesday at the LPGA's Safeway Classic in Portland, Ore.
Nike wants Woods to be playing the same driver that it will be selling to consumers. Woods has his own directive. He wants Nike to make a club that he can play and that will keep the ball on the fairway more often, and a lot farther down those fairways wouldn't be bad, either.
But hey, that's so last February. We want some real news on Tiger's driver. Just let us know what Mickelson says about it.