If he at times seemed overly lacon-ic on his march to six majors, Nick Faldo has been anything but in his first full season in the ABC broadcast booth. Deliberate on course, Faldo wasted no time establishing two things: One, that he'd be the captivating, colorful and surprising one in his pairing with Paul Azinger; and two, that he's armed with just as much shoot-from-the-lip ammo as the biggest bazooka, NBC's Johnny Miller. Prime example: In a preseason special, Faldo predicted he'd win the British Open. Absurd?Maybe. But it was precisely the dazzling display of chutzpah that should slip from the competitive mouth of a three-time Jug kisser. Then, in ABC's first Tour event of the year, his measure of Tiger's second shot to the par-five finale at Torrey Pines spoke volumes. When Woods's errant two-iron narrowly avoided the water fronting the green, Faldo quickly called it "a complete fanned miss" and "very close to the pipe." But it was his preshot exchange with Azinger that really stood out. "He's probably got a million things running through his mind," Azinger said of Tiger, to which Faldo promptly parried, "Maybe not." Sometimes, less is more.
HOT "IT" GIRLS
Natalie Gulbis is, like, so five minutes ago. At the ripe old age of twenty-two, she's already pulling publicity stunts (the pinup calendar, the reality show) to stay in the spotlight—and she's in the midst of easily her best year on the LPGA Tour to date. Gulbis may be young in many things, but women's golf isn't one of them.
Now there's Paula Creamer, a mere eighteen. The California native's remarkable '04 campaign culminated in a five-stroke victory at Q-school. As an LPGA rookie, the "Pink Panther" (Creamer's newly minted nickname, due to her affinity for all things pink) became an immediate presence, notching her first pro victory just days before her high school graduation. Meanwhile, in Japan, nineteen-year-old Ai Miyazato is such a sensation that she has even outdrawn Tiger in the TV ratings battles there.
Then, of course, there's Michelle Wie. Ernie Els was so impressed during their practice round at the Sony Open that he was moved to say of the Big Wiesy, "She's got more talent than anyone I've ever seen." Still a few months shy of sixteen, Wie's again out to prove she can play with the big boys, at the John Deere Classic, before winging to Royal Birkdale to tee it up in the Women's British Open. There, she'll share the stage with someone even younger—long-hitting Spanish phenom Carlota Ciganda, also fifteen, winner of the European Ladies Championship. Ciganda plans to just enjoy the experience. "I'm not going to be nervous," she insisted. And why would she be?She's not old enough to be nervous!
This one's as easy as 1-2-3-4. Tiger fires Butch. Tiger struggles. Tiger takes new teacher. Tiger wins Green Jacket. Of course, forty-nine-year-old Hank Haney, longtime teacher of Mark O'Meara and ESPN's latest guru, was a pedagogical presence before Tiger officially hooked up with him last year, and Haney will no doubt remain one after Tiger moves on. Given Woods's quest for the perfect swing, chances are he will eventually matriculate elsewhere. In the meantime, Haney's theory, which zeroes in on correcting ball flight by adjusting the swing plane and coordinating the player's body movements with the swinging of the club, has found its high-profile pupil—and an audience acutely aware of the results.
HOT GADGET: iClub
Fold up the tripod and put away the video camera. Now all you need is your laptop and the iClub, a 2.5 inch, 2.5 ounce wireless de- vice that attaches to the butt end of the grip and records the motion of the club throughout the swing. Developed by a team of MIT scientists, the iClub gives real-time feedback on such juicy details as clubhead speed, swing plane and clubface position. It's easily transferred from club to club and is sensitive enough to measure everything from the subtleties of the putting stroke to the powerful dynamics of the drive. For those who still have trouble programming a VCR, the user-friendly software comes with artificial intelligence that can be customized to highlight specific swing flaws and remind players of their goals. Best of all, it can also be used during a practice round to make sure you bring that perfect driving-range swing out onto the course. The iClub retails for $595.
This company first appeared on the radar when its flagship club, the 3DX Ironwood, ended last season as the most-used hybrid on the Nationwide Tour—and never paid anyone a dime to play its equipment. From there, the buzz about Nickent has only grown: PGA Tour converts include Tim Petrovic, Bernhard Langer and Kevin Stadler. Nickent is spurred on by game- improvement technology: The 3DX features an innovative weighting system and comes in eleven lofts to help players fine-tune distance control. "Our goal is to make you play better," says company president Michael Lee, "whether you're a Nationwide player or just looking to break ninety."
HOT RODS: Custom Shafts
It's not hard to recall a time when shafts came in two varieties—regular and stiff flex. But now that driver heads have met their legal limits, the shaft offers the best chance to reach new levels of distance and control. So many amateurs have benefited from colorful aftermarket shafts, including the Grafalloy Blue and the green Aldila NV, that club manufacturers were finally obliged to offer them as stock. Shafts can be customized to bring out the best in any swing, and not just with the driver. The latest trend is a wave of shafts designed especially for hybrids, led by the IROD from UST. And while we always hear the mantra "There is no one magic shaft. . . . Find the right shaft for your game," we still want to know what the bombers are swinging. On Tour, the Fujikura Speeder is perpetually hot, but many, including Tiger and Vijay, have switched to the Mitsubishi Rayon Diamana, a shaft with a mid-high bend point that kicks like a mule.
Cleveland's campaign for its latest big stick, the Launcher 460 Comp, stands as the most memorable golf ad since Tiger's juggling act. The "Trajectile Dysfunction" spot, a masterful mockery of Levitra's cloying coyness, "started out as a joke," admits Tim Fuhrman, a partner in the ad agency behind it. "But there's such an obvious analogy in the 'longer, straighter, harder' language. We didn't think [Cleveland] would actually say yes." But they did, investing a full third of their 2005 advertising budget in the spoof. Smart move—they knocked it stiff.
HOT IRON: Callaway X-18
What's driving hot sales of the X-18?Partly its rack appeal. "Performance is a given. It has to be there," says Nore Berggren, Callaway's iron category director. "After that, it often comes down to looks." As for performance, Extreme Notch Weighting makes the X-18 one of the most stable clubs the company has ever produced, achieving a sweet balance of forgiveness and playability. Callaway believes it's an iron for everyone, from high handicappers on down: Annika Sorenstam played three different sets this year before settling on the X-18.
Contributing writers: Craig Better, John Dunn, Thomas Dunne, Jonathan Lesser and Paul Rogers