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Thursday, September 19, 2002 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Golf

Tiger changes irons from Titleist to Nike

THOMASTOWN, Ireland — Tiger Woods will begin using Nike Inc.'s new irons today 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," said Chris Zimmerman, Nike Golf general manager.

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' 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 yesterday. "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.

LPGA players to Augusta: "Let the women in"

EDINA, Minn. — Even though they'll almost surely never play a professional round there, a handful of LPGA Tour players believe it's time for Augusta National to open its membership to women.

"I can't believe we're still fighting this stuff — racism, gender equality or whatever," U.S. Open champion Juli Inkster said yesterday from the Solheim Cup. "But that's life, I guess. It's not going to change overnight, but hopefully, in the coming years, it will change."

The National Council of Women's Organizations has been pressuring Augusta National, the private club that runs the Masters, to admit a woman into its membership.

Augusta National chairman Hootie Johnson said he will not be pressured, and last month dropped the tournament's three corporate sponsors so they would not be subject to pressure from the women's group. The Masters will be televised without commercials in 2003.

NCWO chairwoman Martha Burk's next target is CBS, which has said it will televise the 2003 tournament. Last month, the PGA Tour said it would continue to treat the Masters as one of its official tournaments.

Several players at this week's Solheim Cup said they have played as guests at Augusta National — "I was 10 over after six holes, do we need to go on?" Patty Sheehan quipped — and been treated well. Still, they think the club needs to go a step further and admit a woman member.

"I played earlier this year, I had a great time," Kelly Robbins said. "Obviously, things have progressed quite a bit since then, as far as what's taking place. I think it's a shame. I do."

Meg Mallon says she has no problems with private clubs, like the famous Pine Valley Golf Club in New Jersey, excluding women from membership. But she thinks Augusta National is different because it plays host to such a high-profile event.

"Augusta made itself a public facility," Mallon said. "They are no longer a private facility, although they like to use that as their cover. My question is: Why is it OK for a black man to bully his way into Augusta and it's not OK for a black woman to bully her way into Augusta? That's just the way I feel about it."

Augusta National admitted its first black member in 1990, around the time the PGA Tour was coming under scrutiny for holding events at clubs that didn't allow blacks.

Sheehan, the U.S. Solheim Cup captain, also said she thought it was about time Augusta National admitted women.

"I think their standards need to be a little higher than they are," she said.

Of course, not all players at the Solheim Cup agreed with that take on Augusta National, and not all think the issue is as serious as it has been made out to be.

Helen Alfredsson said she thought it was "a ridiculous issue, period."

"I think men should have had the right to do it, and the women should have the right to have their private club, too," Alfredsson said. "And we are probably going to start one where we are all going to wear bikinis, and no men allowed. So that's going to be a great club, I think."

Laura Davies, meanwhile, said she's sticking by what she has said for a while, now.

"All I have ever said is that if they're looking for their first woman member, I would love to join," she said.

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