Tiger Woods puts his driver to the test in Northern Trust pro-am

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Tiger Woods shocked the golfing world when he changed his swing after winning the 1997 Masters in historic fashion. Took a ton of heat for it.

Thirteen major wins later, it’s clear that the root of his success is a lack of complacency in all facets. Great was never good enough and strong was never strong enough.

Now at age 42 and entering his first FedEx Cup Playoffs since 2013 at the Northern Trust, he can’t push himself physically as hard or put in the same hours on the range as he used to. After a long practice session Tuesday afternoon, Woods strayed from his usual one-hour warm-up routine ahead of the pro-am in a shortened stint lasting about 15 minutes.

What he can do is play around with different equipment and club shafts and putters every single week to try and find the perfect balance.

That process continues this week at Ridgewood Country Club.

Woods is experimenting with a different driver shaft this week and got plenty of use out of it during Wednesday’s pro-am. He had previously used a counterbalanced Mitsubishi Tensei CK Pro Orange 70TX shaft, and he switched to a Mitsubishi Diamana D+ Whiteboard shaft, which typically should launch the ball higher with more backspin. He also added a degree of loft to his TaylorMade M3 driver.

Woods teed off at 7 a.m. and hit driver 12 times, with just two 3 woods and no driving irons. He’s never hit that many in a tournament round this season and hasn’t come close most weeks.

The obvious question is, why now?

“Course is long and getting no roll,” caddie Joe LaCava said. “It’s soft and he’s still kind of monkeying around with it, trying to get a feel for the driver.”

The fairways were still pretty wet Wednesday morning after overnight showers, significantly lengthening this old school layout. Woods probably won’t hit that many per round even if the conditions stay like this, and we’ll definitely see fewer if the course dries out and firms up as projected throughout the week.

He’s still fighting the two-way miss, but he found the fairway more often than not. He was also better off the tee for much of the week during the PGA Championship, in which he hit an above average number of drivers.

His superior iron play has led to five top-10 finishes and two runner-ups. The ballstriking was excellent at the British Open and PGA Championship, and after putting entirely new irons in the bag earlier this season and re-learning a new swing with a fused back, there’s been consistency in that area lately.

“Most of the year I’ve been pretty dialed in,” Woods said. “You know, when I can start flighting the ball like I am and shaping it either way, I really can control my trajectories, any shot I want, then it’s pretty good.”

It was easily apparent up close in St. Louis that he’s starting to flight the ball more than he was earlier in this season. He’s progressively separated himself from the rest of the Tour in that area all season and now ranks fourth on Tour in strokes gained approach the green at .952. All of these adjustments with the fused back are taking place in real time, and Woods has been able to keep pace with himself throughout the year.

“My body has evolved and changed, so trying to keep ahead of that and make the swing adjustments, that’s been interesting,” Woods said. “I’ve become a little bit more mobile than I was at the beginning of the year. I was just fresh off a fusion and didn’t know what to do and had to protect myself a little bit. … Over the course of the year, my swing has evolved and it’s gotten more consistent and I think it will continue to get that way.”

Woods’ tinkering with the driver shows he’s now focused on getting better off the tee and will continue to adjust until he finds the right mix.

Whether or not he’ll come close to the answer in St. Louis remains to be seen, but club selection ensuing results will be even more interesting than usual this week as Woods continues to build toward his first PGA Tour win in five years.

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