Rory McIlroy's decision to pursue a lucrative equipment deal was in place long before he grabbed a Nike golf club from Tiger Woods during their exhibition match in China and took a few practice swings.
Changing equipment was inevitable. Boy Wonder is simply too big now.
The 23-year-old from Northern Ireland is no longer a U.S. Open champion with a massive upside. He fulfilled a big chunk of that potential this year with four wins, including an eight-shot win at the PGA Championship and back-to-back wins in the FedEx Cup playoffs against two of the strongest fields of the year. He is a lock for PGA Tour player of the year and the Vardon Trophy, all the awards Woods used to win.
McIlroy is a marketing dream, which made him worth too much to stay with Titleist.
Acushnet, the parent company, has a history of promoting its brand through numbers instead of a name. That's why it didn't stand in the way when Woods switched to the Swoosh, why it didn't put up a fight to keep Sergio Garcia a decade ago, and why it let Phil Mickelson out of his contract just four months after Lefty's popularity soared with his first major win at the 2004 Masters. And why it announced Tuesday that its relationship with McIlroy will end this year.
Golfers go through change all the time — agents, caddies, coaches. Switching equipment can be a tricky transition, and there is a long list of players who have struggled with it over the years. What makes McIlroy's next move so interesting is that no other player who was No. 1 in the world made such a wholesale change so early in his career.
"I call it dangerous," six-time major champion Nick Faldo said Tuesday morning on Golf Channel. "I've changed clubs and changed equipment, and every manufacturer will say, 'We can copy your clubs, we can tweak the golf ball so it fits you.' But there's feel and sound as well, and there's confidence. You can't put a real value on that."
All signs point to McIlroy signing with Nike, with one industry observer saying the deal could be worth upward of $20 million a year.
Adding to the speculation is whether Woods helped to recruit the kid. They have been extraordinarily chummy since August, and Woods raves about McIlroy. That's not unusual. McIlroy is well-mannered, respectful and doesn't take himself too seriously. He's fun to be around.
Woods and David Duval also became close toward the end of 2000, when they played together in the World Cup in Argentina and then flew together on Woods' private jet to start the year at Kapalua. It wasn't long before Duval, in a legal dispute with Titleist, signed on with Nike.
A Nike official said it would not comment on "rumors and speculation," not even when it would announce its roster for the 2013 season. Nike has money to spend, and McIlroy won't be the only player added to the Swoosh stable next year. Two people with knowledge of his plans say Nick Watney is headed from Titleist to Nike.
It might look as if McIlroy is headed down the same path as Woods, but the difference is in how they change equipment.
Woods spent five years switching out his equipment from Titleist to Nike, with an additional five years to leave his old Scotty Cameron putter.
McIlroy would have only two months.
When he turned pro in 1996, Woods had a five-year deal with Nike that was mainly about brand and apparel. He also had a five-year deal with Titleist for equipment. The long-term deal with Nike (renewals of five years and seven years, with the stakes going up each time), allowed Woods to change equipment at his own pace.
He went to the Nike golf ball at a European Tour event in Germany in 2000, and then went on to win the next four majors. He didn't go to the Nike driver until February 2002 at Pebble Beach, and then he won the first two majors that year (though he briefly went back to the Titleist driver in the summer).
Woods went to the Nike irons at a World Golf Championship in Ireland in 2002, one week before the Ryder Cup, which led to a memorable exchange. Asked why he would switch irons a week before such a big event like the Ryder Cup, Woods said to a reporter, "Off the record? Because the majors are over." When asked for a comment on the record, Woods paused and said, "Because the majors are over."
He won that WGC event and contributed 2½ points in a losing cause at The Ryder Cup.
Woods went another year before adding Nike's 56-degree wedge, and three weeks later he went to the lob wedge. The 3-wood was added at Doral in 2005 and the 5-wood came into play at the Tour Championship seven months later. The last change was the putter, first used at St. Andrews in 2010.
Before leaving Malaysia, Woods reflected on his process of change, noting the ball was the "huge switch" because he went from a wound ball to solid construction, which is the model everyone now uses. Yes, there are players whose game suffers after an equipment change. Woods was quick to point out guys like Ernie Els, who has won majors with three brands of equipment (Lynx, TaylorMade and Callaway).
Is it better to change slowly or all at once?
"Whatever is best for them," he said. "It's all dependent on what they want to accomplish and what do they feel like they can play their best in. Granted, I know sometimes the (financial) numbers may persuade it, but also some of the guys that I've known over the years have turned it down because they know that they can play better in certain equipment."
Change for McIlroy comes at a crucial time in his burgeoning career. Along with new clubs, there will be more scrutiny.
And if success doesn't come right away, Faldo said there could be doubt.
"It's the feel and confidence of knowing that your equipment will perform how you want it to perform on Sunday afternoon," Faldo said. "You can't mess with that at such a young age."
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