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Mickelson says Nike clubs hold Tiger back

Somewhere in the Nike corporate compound in Oregon, Phil Mickelson has become, as one official put it, "locker-room bulletin-board material."

If not a photo on the company dartboard.

In an assertion that infuriated the second-year club-making giant, Mickelson said rival Tiger Woods is being held back by his "inferior" Nike equipment, and that talent is the only thing keeping Woods competitive, given that handicap.

Mickelson opined about the less-than-stellar state of Woods' tools in the March issue of Golf Magazine, which will hit newsstands Tuesday.

Mickelson was asked about the state of his relationship with Woods -- prompting Lefty to muddle things further.

"In my mind, Tiger and I don't have issues between us," Mickelson said. "Well, maybe one. He hates that I can fly it past him now [off the tee].

"He has a faster swing speed than I do, but he has inferior equipment. Tiger is the only player who is good enough to overcome the equipment he's stuck with."

That gasp you just heard emanated from Beaverton, Ore., where Nike is headquartered. The company invested millions and waded into the club-manufacturing business last year. Woods, a Nike endorser since turning pro in 1996, formally switched from Titleist clubs to a Nike driver and irons in 2002.

Woods won four major championships in a row with the Nike ball, won two majors last year after switching to the company's driver and set a scoring record in his first week with the new blade irons in the bag.

"I question his motives for saying what he did," Bob Wood, the president of Nike golf, told the Orlando Sentinel on Tuesday. "I really question the wisdom of Phil Mickelson calling Tiger Woods out.

"This is a guy who has never beaten Tiger in any significant tournament, and this is what he believes, what he says? That's a laughable assertion."

Mickelson's point isn't without merit. Nike has crafted about 200 drivers for the meticulous Woods as he searches for the right clubhead and shaft combination, though Woods said he actually has field-tested fewer than 30. The company "out-sources" its balls to three manufacturers.

Meanwhile, lesser players are making huge gains off the tee with new balls and drivers. Since his first full season on the PGA Tour in 1997, Woods never ranked lower than third in driving distance -- before he fell to sixth last year, after dropping 5 yards off his 2001 average to 293.3.

Wood said Mickelson's statement served as a slap in the face to Nike's many staff pros. Three Nike players won on the PGA Tour in 2002. This year, young South African Trevor Immelman has won twice abroad, and Nick Faldo almost won for the first time in six years last week.

"The success we've had in the first year in this business is unprecedented," Wood said. "To say this comes as a surprise to us is a tremendous understatement."


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