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Tiger Woods switches to Nike irons

Tiger Woods will begin using Nike Inc.'s new irons tomorrow at the American Express Championship in Ireland, another step in his switch from clubs made by Acushnet Co.'s Titleist brand.

``We won't be satisfied until we can convince him that we've made a better product for every club in his bag,'' Nike Golf General Manager Chris Zimmerman said in an interview.

The world's No. 1 golfer has been using Nike's new titanium driver since January, but all his other clubs were made by Titleist. Now, the only non-Nike clubs in his bag will be his putter, fairway woods and wedges.

The switch has been in the works ever since Nike, the world's No. 1 athletic shoemaker, began making golf clubs two years ago. It comes as golf companies prepare to introduce new products to retailers before the holiday shopping season and one week before Woods plays in the highly publicized Ryder Cup matches in England.

``It helps, but I don't think it means the world to Nike clubs,'' said Brett Hendrickson, an analyst with Los Angeles-based B. Riley & Co. ``A lot of people aren't even aware that he hasn't been playing with Nike irons.''

Woods, who signed his first endorsement contract with Nike in 1996, signed a new five-year, $100 million agreement with the company last year. In addition to appearing in television and print advertisements, he uses a signature model Nike golf ball and has his own line of shoes, gloves, hats and shirts emblazoned with the company's trademark ``swoosh'' and Woods's personal ``TW'' logo.

``This comes as no shock to anyone in the industry,'' said Hendrickson. ``It was a foregone conclusion that he was going to transition away from all of his Titleist clubs.''

Woods, who has won eight major titles, had been using irons, fairway woods and a driver made by Titleist since 1997. While he switched to Nike's driver, he had been reluctant to change irons in the middle of a successful season that has featured victories at the Masters and U.S. Open and a U.S. PGA Tour-leading $5.5 million in prize money.

``Obviously there's always an element of risk any time you change clubs,'' Woods said after a practice round on Wednesday. ``I'm still working on it and hopefully they'll perform.''

The toughest switch for Woods could be his putter.

``It just has a lot of emotional value to him,'' said Zimmerman. ``That will be the most challenging, but we're really confident that progress will be made.''

After tying for 12th at the AT&T Pebble Beach National Pro-Am in January, his first tournament using a Nike driver, Woods has had seven top-3 finishes in 13 tournaments.

While his bid to win all four majors in one season ended with a 28th-place finish at the British Open in July, he came back to finish second behind Rich Beem at last month's PGA Championship. The $5 million American Express Championship will be his first tournament since finishing fourth at the NEC Invitational a month ago.

Nike introduced a set of blade-style irons designed for highly skilled players and professionals at the PGA Merchandise Show in January. The company has since developed irons for mid- level players.

David Duval was the first player to carry Nike irons in competition, using a set of prototype blades when he won the 2001 British Open. Woods will use a similar set of blade irons. Initial sales of Nike drivers, priced between $399 and $499, lagged due to a struggling economy that led competitors such as Callaway Golf Co. and Adidas-Salomon AG's Taylor Made to lower their prices on comparable drivers to $299.

``They introduced a driver at probably the worst time in the history of our industry,'' said John Watts, Internet and mail- order sales director at Edwin Watts Golf, the sport's largest closely held retailer. ``The customer feedback was very good, but a lot of people weren't trying it because of the price.''

After Nike dropped its prices to match its competitors in August, the company's drivers started selling ``very well,'' said Watts, who declined to give sales figures for his stores.

While Watts won't receive a shipment of the new mid-level Nike irons until November, he said his company has pre-sold about 100 sets. At $899 for eight clubs, Watts said the Nike irons are considered a premium-priced product.

Nike reports its golf sales as part of its sports equipment division, which grew an average of 18.7 percent over the past two years. The company's sports equipment sales increased to $1.25 billion this year, up from $1.1 billion in 2001.

Shares of Nike, based in Beaverton, Oregon, rose $1.35, or 3.2 percent, to $43.05 at 4:03 p.m. in New York Stock Exchange composite trading. Shares have dropped 23 percent this year.

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