Why New Clubs and Balls Make 2013 a Big Question Mark for Rory McIlroy

Ben Alberstadt@benalberstadtFeatured ColumnistJanuary 7, 2013

DUBAI, UNITED ARAB EMIRATES - NOVEMBER 24:  Rory McIlroy of Northern Ireland smiles on the 14th hole during the third round of the DP World Tour Championship on the Earth Course at Jumeirah Golf Estates on November 24, 2012 in Dubai, United Arab Emirates.  (Photo by Andrew Redington/Getty Images)
Andrew Redington/Getty Images

Rory McIlroy, 23, easily golf’s most promising young talent, has played Titleist clubs and balls for the entirety of his five years as a professional golfer.

Although it hasn’t been officially announced by the marketing mavens at Nike, McIlroy has reportedly signed a $200 million-plus endorsement deal with the company, and Titleist confirmed months ago that McIlroy would no longer be a Titleist staffer at the end of 2012.

Coming off a year in which he won a major championship and recorded four victories, the only question about Rory McIlroy’s 2013 season should have been, “How many tournaments is he going to win?" 

Instead, McIlroy has been seduced by dollars—and undoubtedly the appeal of the Nike superbrand—and has raised questions about the effect of new equipment on his performance and the sensibility of the decision to switch now.

If it Ain’t Broke...

Doug Ferguson points out that no other World No. 1 has ever made all-encompassing equipment changes so early in his career. Not only is there no precedent for what McIlroy is doing, there’s absolutely no need for the change. Both these facts should give the golfer pause.

I doubt many in the golf industry would make the case that Nike is producing objectively better equipment than Titleist. Given this, there is no material benefit to switching to Nike beyond money in McIlroy’s pocket.

However, if McIlroy is more concerned about money than winning, he should consider that the best way to continue making piles of endorsement money is to continue winning, which is most easily accomplished while sticking to his proven equipment, rather than making a radical change.

The constituent parts of his approach to tournament golf at present are all working. Upsetting the current order will not help him win golf tournaments and will be a hurdle—either major or minor—and there’s no logical reason to make the process of winning on the PGA Tour more difficult.

Further, such a wholesale equipment switch is not only unnecessary, it’s risky. As Nick Faldo said, ''I call it dangerous...there's feel and sound as well [to a golfer’s winning equipment], and there's confidence. You can't put a real value on that.”

A Lot on His Plate

In addition to dealing with his new-found celebrity status, his highly-public relationship to Caroline Wozniacki and public intrigue regarding whom he will play for in the 2016 Olympics, McIlroy is facing legal action from one of his former sponsors, Oakley, who is suing the golfer for breach of contract.

It goes without saying that this is an unnecessary distraction brought on entirely by McIlroy’s decision to jump ship. The issue may prove to be a mere bagatelle for Rory. However, given the strange alchemy of being at the top of one’s game, there’s no reason to invite discord and distraction into the mix.

McIlory is already a high-profile athlete. Indeed, it’s been predicted that Rory could rival Tiger Woods’ $1 billion in career endorsements. However, his commercial obligations (both literally and figuratively) are about to increase significantly with the move to Nike. Again, this may prove something that Rory can handle easily, but it is another question mark brought on by his decision.

Different Tools

Zak Kozuchowski of GolfWRX, who knows infinitely more about equipment than I do, says McIlroy has five issues to deal with in making the switch to Nike.

1. Switching from the ProV1X
2. Switching to an insert putter
3. Switching wedges
4. Finding workable fairway woods
5. Finding a driver/shaft combination

These five issues would seem to be problems McIlroy must solve before he tees it up in two weeks in AbuDhabi. For the golfer, however, they're no big deal...which is both unprecedented and deeply troubling.

McIlroy is dismissive of the idea golf equipment produced by major manufacturers is markedly variable: “I mean,” the golfer says, “a lot of the manufacturers get their clubs made at the same factories as each other.”

Such a notion is potentially damaging and quite naive. It’s something one might expect to hear from an ill-informed 20-handicap, not a professional golfer.

Maybe McIlroy is right, though.

He may have fully adjusted to his new equipment and new role as the co-face of Nike and not miss a beat. Perhaps he’ll raise his Nike putter in victory, throw his Nike golf ball to the crowd and tip his Nike hat at the HSBC Championship in Dubai.

But if he doesn’t win?

He’ll surely be asked if the new equipment had anything to do with his failure to achieve victory.

And that line of questioning will only gather momentum until he is performing better than he was during the second half of 2012; speculation will abound, and 2013 will continue to be a big question mark for Rory McIlroy. 


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