As Rory McIlroy begins his 2014 season at the Abu Dhabi HSBC Golf Championship this week, he will be looking to rebound from what was, for the most part, a very difficult and disappointing 2013 campaign.
Entering his second full season as a Nike Golf athlete, McIlroy's thriving partnership and collaboration with the company that introduced him as one of their own at an elaborate event a year ago has played an integral role in the design and development of the equipment he will be using in 2014.
McIlroy doesn’t subscribe to the old adage “if it isn’t broken, don’t fix it.”
One year ago, the native of Northern Ireland was on top of his game as the No. 1 golfer in the world, coming off a five-win season that was highlighted by his second major victory at the PGA Championship—all while playing Titleist clubs and a Titleist ball.
Enter Nike Golf with an offer he couldn't refuse, but it produced a season that offered very little of the results Nike, and McIlroy himself, had to be expecting.
Naturally, the equipment switchover was met with a lot of fanfare and eventually a great deal of skepticism from assorted scribes and industry experts, but nobody could really pinpoint whether McIlroy’s funk was personal, business or equipment related—or a combination of the three.
“It was a big decision for me,” McIlroy admitted of last year's gear change at a pre-tournament presser in Abu Dhabi this week, via TheGuardian.com’s Ewan Murray. “I think it was a big thing for Nike. It was a real big step in my career. But I guess I had so many things to try and think about or focus on—am I going to use this, am I going to use that, is this driver better than that one? There was a lot of instability. There was loads of stuff going on around me and that didn't let me focus 100 percent on what I needed to do, which was to try and play the best I could."
It appears he has found the right formula for success, however.
A late-season surge last fall, highlighted by a one-shot victory over Adam Scott at the Australian Open, salvaged an otherwise mostly forgettable 2013 and gave the 24-year-old McIlroy some much-needed momentum heading into 2014.
Maybe McIlroy had a difficult time adjusting to new golf gear in 2013—maybe he didn’t. He took full responsibility for his poor play, however, saying it didn't make a difference what deal he had or what clubs he was playing—it was on him.
“That's irrelevant,” he said, referencing the equipment change in a press conference prior to the 2013 WGC-Cadillac Championship, via ASAP Sports. “It's about me on the golf course and the expectations and the pressure that I put myself under.”
McIlroy’s work ethic was a big factor in his late-season improvement in 2013—as much or more than dealing with the pressure to win his first tournament of the year or getting used to new gear. He spent several weeks last fall at his home in Northern Ireland, tirelessly practicing with swing coach Michael Bannon. Their ongoing collaboration, along with his ability to persevere during a demanding season, were key elements in a strong finish.
So was a new driver and ball.
Confidence off the tee is a vital component to success for any golfer. As far as McIlroy is concerned, his experience with a new driver—Nike’s VRS Covert 2.0 Tour model—and a new RZN Black ball, made a tremendous difference immediately. It’s a combination he describes as, “The best driver and ball combination I’ve ever had in my career.”
McIlroy’s ultimate takeaway is one of complete satisfaction.
“I’ve learned a lot about equipment and design and engineering,” he said. “I’m much more knowledgeable now than I was last year at this time. Ultimately, as a golfer, you want something that feels good in your hands and performs the way you want it to. Knowing different characteristics of different clubs and different head shapes and what loft does to ball flight and all that—it’s good to have that knowledge. But at the end of the day, I just want something in my hands that performs well, and that’s what I have.”
Here is a rundown of what McIlroy will be performing with in 2014:
- Driver: Nike VRS Covert 2.0 Tour 8.5-degree (Kuro Kage X TS 70 shaft)
- Fairway Woods: Nike VRS Covert 3-wood/15-degree and Nike VRS Covert 5-wood/19-degree
- Irons: Nike VR Pro Blade (3-9)
- Wedges: Nike VR Forged 46-degree, 54-degree and 59-degree Dual Sole
- Putter: Nike Method Milled Proto 006
- Ball: Nike RZN Black
Equipment subject to change.
McIlroy put Nike’s new RZN Black ball into action last fall. With several months of competitive play under his belt since the switchover occurred, he has developed a good feel for the advanced technology—and he’s more than pleased with the results.
“The big thing I noticed was it goes farther with my irons,” McIlroy explained. “It’s about half a club longer. So it took me a little bit of time to adjust to it, but once it was dialed in, it made a huge difference. It’s much better.”
McIlroy also discovered a noticeable advantage around the greens.
“The ball I was playing was a great ball, but I wanted something that was a bit softer around the greens,” he said. “This feels and sounds a lot softer and even from inside 50 yards, it felt like the ball was getting a little more grip, a little more spin. My iron shots were great and my wedge shots were great, too.”
The improved ball is designed to deliver more distance, better feel and a more consistent, stable ball flight. McIlroy’s improved results are proof the technology works.
“I’ve always been a huge fan of the RZN technology, but with this new ball, I’m not losing any energy transfer from the middle through to the surface,” McIlroy said. “It’s unusual to have a ball go farther and spin more, but it’s a great combination to have.”
McIlroy is admittedly in a much better place heading into 2014. He spent the past year tweaking his golf equipment—and his golf swing—and appears to be confident in and comfortable with his game entering his first event of 2014—the aforementioned Abu Dhabi HSBC Golf Championship.
In a pre-tournament presser in Abu Dhabi this week, via ASAP Sports, McIlroy said: "I'm in a really good frame of mind and I feel like I've built a lot of momentum at the back end of last year and going to try to continue that into this season."
McIlroy also took to Twitter to share his excitement:
"2014 season starts tomorrow! 7th full year on tour, can't believe it's went so quickly! Just as excited to start the 7th as I was the 1st!"
Clearly, McIlroy is content to put 2013 behind him, but it was a year he won't soon forget—if for no other reason than to learn from his experiences.
"Obviously, I've had years where I had more success as far as winning tournaments," McIlroy said. "This past year has been a learning year. I always feel whether you have success or not, you need to learn from it and move on."
It appears he has done just that. What McIlroy has learned more than anything else, however, is how to be patient.
"I got down on myself at times," McIlroy admitted. "Golf is a very fickle game. It can come and go. You can wake up one day and hit it great, then the next day it's not quite there. The big thing for me is patience and knowing that if you believe you're working on the right things and you believe you're on the right track, sooner or later it will all come together. I need to do a better job of taking a long-term view. If you view my career as an 18 hole golf course, I'm probably only on the second or third hole. I've got a long way to go. I think I've done pretty well so far."
David Kindervater is a Correspondent for Bleacher Report. Unless otherwise noted, all quotations in this article were obtained via interview or press conference at Nike Golf's Innovation Summit at Nike WHQ in Beaverton, OR and TPC Summerlin, Las Vegas, NV.