Rory McIlroy: Will His Rumored Switch to Nike Be a Foolhardy Gamble?

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Rory McIlroy: Will His Rumored Switch to Nike Be a Foolhardy Gamble?
Stuart Franklin/Getty Images
Rory McIlroy is poised to make a big change in equipment at year's end.

As soon as an athlete says, “It’s not about the money,” you know it’s all about the money.

And if the numbers that were thrown around recently are anywhere near being accurate, the rumored deal soon to be signed with a Swoosh between Rory McIlroy and Nike is all about the money.

This much we know for sure: McIlroy’s deal with his current equipment company, Titleist, expires at the end of December. The 23-year-old Northern Irishman has refused to get into any specific conversation about what might happen after that, although speculation has him signing a 10-year deal with Nike for as much as $250 million.

Regardless of the exact numbers, that’s a lot of money. And McIlroy, who by all accounts is a great young man, was just trying to be humble when he said it never has been and isn’t now about the money.

Perhaps the biggest question concerning McIlroy leaving Titleist is: Why now? Yes, the contract he has with Titleist expires at the end of 2012, but if he is pleased with his equipment, a new contract could have been crafted. That’s why it seems that this is much more of a straight business decision than McIlroy would would like us to believe.

Financially, it’s a great deal for McIlroy. It’s a bonanza for Nike, which suddenly found itself with Tiger Woods as its lead athlete. When Woods switched to Nike back in 2001, that was a great idea. He was in the process of reworking the game in his own image and Nike was the beneficiary.

That’s not the case now. There’s no doubt McIlroy is golf’s new real deal and to have him as your front man, well, cha-ching Nike. And don’t forget that Woods will come into the 2013 season as the No. 2 player in the world and, as long as he remains healthy, will make a really nice Madison Avenue sidekick to McIlroy.

And all that is fine, but what about when McIlroy tees it up with the new sticks? Obviously, players take a chance when the name of the manufacturer changes on his bag. It worked out well for Woods when he left Titleist for Nike to start the 2002 season and for Phil Mickelson when he left Titleist for Callaway after winning his first Masters in 2004.

But words of caution have been sounded by one of the best to have ever played the game, Nick Faldo. When asked if he thought the possible switch could prove detrimental for McIlroy, Faldo, in an interview with Sky Sports, said it could be “dangerous.”

"I believe it is. We get a split-second with the ball on the club and you get used to how a golf ball feels and sounds,” he said. “When you change (clubs), the weight can be different, the woods could be different. It's a massive contract and it can be very tempting but you have to be careful when you go and make changes."

Taking up the other side of the debate is Colin Montgomerie, the veteran Ryder Cupper from Scotland, who thinks the young man with the curly locks will do just fine.

“It is dangerous, it is risky, but I don’t think for him,” Montgomerie said to ESPNStar. “He’s very natural and he can use whatever. The shaft that he’s using will be the same, which is very key these days. He’ll adapt fairly well, as long as the shaft remains the same. I think he’ll be as successful as he is with the new equipment as he was with the old.”

The late Payne Stewart left Wilson for Spaulding in 1994 and fell from sixth on the PGA Tour moneylist to 123rd the next year. Jim Furyk won three times and captured the FedEx Cup trophy two years ago. Just over a year later, he began tinkering with and changing equipment and nearly fell out of the top 50.

Golfers are always chasing something: distance, spin, workability, to name a few. Some of them find it, others don’t and never give up that chase, regardless of the cost.

If Faldo’s right and the worst-case scenario happens and McIlroy struggles with his new clubs, the golf world might not get to see him play his best as his rivalry with Woods grows. If Montgomerie’s right and McIlroy adjusts quickly and continues his assault on golf’s record book, everybody’s a winner: the fans, McIlroy and Nike.

If it were me, I would hesitate to make a major change like this. McIlroy comes out of 2012 in the driver’s seat in golf. With his game operating at such a high level, he’s poised to win multiple times for multiple years. So why mess with that success and the possibilities ahead?

Obviously, although he said it wasn’t about money, it really is.

But then, who am I to criticize or say what I’d do? Nobody has offered me a 10-year, $250 million contract yet.

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