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Tiger Woods to switch to Nike irons soon

Exactly two years after changing golf balls in the middle of a record-setting season, Tiger Woods says he is ``very close'' to making another switch to the swoosh -- this time, to Nike Golf irons.

Woods has been working with several sets of the irons over the last year, but a turning point came last week during the Byron Nelson Classic, when he went to Shady Oaks Country Club in Fort Worth to work with Nike club designer Tom Stites.

He did not say when he would change from the Titleist forged irons he has used since early 1998, although Woods told The Associated Press he expects to have the new irons in his bag by the end of the year.

Could the switch come before the last three major championships are played?

``Hmmm. That's a good call,'' he said. ``I won't make a switch until it's just right, because as you've seen before, once I switch, I don't go back.''

Woods has been affiliated with Nike since the day he turned professional. In September 2000, he renewed a five-year contract worth more than $100 million, although Nike Golf president Bob Wood said the equipment he uses was not a major factor in negotiations.

Woods, who had played the Titleist Professional golf ball, tested several prototypes of a Nike Tour Accuracy ball in 2000 until deciding to use one in competition for the first time at the Deutsche Bank-SAP Open in Germany.

He used it again the next week at the Memorial, then announced a permanent switch for the U.S. Open, where he won at Pebble Beach by a record 15 strokes.

Woods won the British Open at St. Andrews a month later to complete the career Grand Slam, and finished the season with nine PGA Tour victories, three consecutive majors and more than $9 million in earnings.

He was using Mizuno forged irons when he turned pro in 1996, and while he signed a deal with Titleist, he did not change to the Titleist irons until after his 1997 season.

``You've got to remember, it took Titleist 1 1/2 years to make my irons,'' he said. ``I won't change until it's just right.''

Woods switched to the Nike forged driver at the Pebble Beach National Pro-Am in February and has never gone back to his Titleist driver. He also tested a Nike 3-wood while at Shady Oaks after his practice round last week.

Nike entered the club business last year and hired Stites, who had spent five years at the Ben Hogan Co.

British Open champion David Duval was the first player to use the Nike irons on the PGA Tour last year. Other players using them include John Cook and Bryce Molder.

Woods said the Nike irons he tested at Shady Oaks were slightly different than the ones Duval is using. The head of the club is the same, but he said Duval's clubs have a different center of gravity.

When Woods switches to the Nike irons, and eventually adds a 3-wood, the only piece of Acushnet Co. equipment remaining will be a Scotty Cameron putter.

That isn't likely to change.

``The only thing that won't get out of my bag is the putter,'' he said.

Along with testing prototype clubs from Nike while he was at Shady Oaks, Woods also tried hitting a persimmon 3-wood and an Apex 4-iron that the late Ben Hogan used. Hogan used to play out of Shady Oaks, and club officials keep two sets of his clubs.

``I like practicing with old clubs,'' Woods said. ``It's nice to go back and do that.''

The more important part of his day at Shady Oaks was looking forward.

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