For better or worse, McIlroy looks to be following Woods' lead

By Jason SobelOctober 30, 2012, 2:58 pm

Stop me if this story sounds familiar: The world’s top-ranked golfer – a 20something wunderkind with a luminously bright future – is going to bubble-wrap his two major championship trophies and take ‘em to Nike headquarters, chasing the almighty dollar while taking the massive risk that it won’t negatively impact his performance.

It should sound familiar. That sentence could have been written 13 years ago, when a 23-year-old Tiger Woods made the radical decision to leave Titleist, gradually switching his equipment to swoosh-branded products over the next few seasons.

Say what you will about the daily state of Woods’ game, but his results chart since then speaks for itself. He’s won a dozen major championships and become a worldwide icon while sporting that ubiquitous Nike logo – all of which should serve as ample evidence for another No. 1-ranked 23-year-old who may be about to declare very similar intentions to Woods all those years ago.

One thing is certain: If Rory McIlroy needs advice on his impending decision to switch equipment manufacturers after playing the best golf of his career, he won’t need to look very far.

With news on Tuesday that the Acushnet Co. will not extend its Titleist and FootJoy relationship with McIlroy past the end of this year, the door is now completely open for the two-time major champion to slide in next to Woods in Nike’s ever-dwindling stable.

Yes, that Nike – the one which produces what Phil Mickelson once famously referred to as “inferior equipment.” The one which has accounted for just eight worldwide victories this year – LPGA and tours included – and just four on the PGA Tour. The one which outfits Paul Casey and Anthony Kim, recent posterboys for the precipitous decline that a notable player can endure when things aren’t going according to plan.

It’s also the very same company which has ushered Woods into the era of 460 cc driver heads and soft-cover golf balls with unrelenting success, transforming that massive risk into mammoth reward.

While some may argue that Nike doesn’t own the technological advancements or the research and design strategies of other golf-specific manufacturers, there’s an inarguable fact that isn’t applicable for 99.9 percent of other golfers who make similar decisions.

The company understands how to treat superstars. From Michael Jordan to LeBron James, it comprehends how to cultivate their optimal performance and – more than anything – how to brand them as icons. That’s what a potential deal would be about, not selling more clubs or balls than the next company, but something much larger.

It's about branding a global superstar with the swoosh logo.

Expect the recent Duel at Jinsha Lake exhibition against Woods to only be the tip of the iceberg, with a glacier of two-man hit-and-giggle fests for guaranteed seven-figure paydays to evolve into regular sightings. Don’t be surprised if the two of them form this generation’s version of Magic Johnson and Larry Bird performing their “nothing but net” act through every commercial break on network television.

That said, it’s not as if Nike is going to hand its newest contractor one of those square Sasquatch drivers and a set of 10-year-old Slingshots and expect him to find the secret in the dirt at the driving range. As it has done for Woods, the company would build equipment for McIlroy – very likely to the same specs as his current tools – and necessitate a smooth transition throughout the process.

“You know, I did it in 2000, I switched from the Titleist ball to a Nike ball,” Woods said last week. “For me it was a huge switch … but at that time that was a big change, to go from that technology. Guys make switches over their careers. Some of the top players like Ernie [Els] – he's played some serious great golf over the years, but it's been with four or five different big companies.”

Woods may not be an exception to any rule, but there are plenty of cautionary tales from other players about switching equipment manufacturers in the prime of their careers.

That earlier comment about McIlroy not needing to look far for advice in his current situation? It not only applies toward seeking out Woods, but his good friend Graeme McDowell, as well.

Two years ago, McDowell played a full arsenal of Callaway products and enjoyed the most successful campaign of his career, capturing the U.S. Open and three other worldwide titles. At the end of that season, he left Callaway to sign with Srixon/Cleveland and hasn’t been found in a winner’s circle since.

While McDowell is steadfast in his claim that it’s the archer not the arrow, you’ve got to wonder whether behind closed doors he wouldn’t offer his buddy a few words of discretion. Securing a bloated payday will never provide counterbalance to failing to win trophies. Ask the richest free agents in other sports whether taking more money to play for a losing team was worth it and you’ll hear a resounding response toward the negative.

There is already some thought toward McIlroy’s scenario being analogous to that exact situation, in effect leaving the Super Bowl champion for an unknown variable.

“I call it dangerous,” six-time major winner Nick Faldo said Tuesday on “Morning Drive.” “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. It’s priceless.

“It’s really important. It’s the feel and confidence of knowing that your equipment will perform how you want it to perform on Sunday afternoon. You can’t mess with that at such a young age.”

Well, most players can’t. Tiger Woods did at the exact same point in his career as Rory McIlroy stands right now and it’s obviously served him well. Only time will tell whether McIlroy can replicate his success, performing like Woods to transform this massive risk into mammoth reward.

Move over Lydia, a new Ko is coming to LPGA

By Randall MellNovember 22, 2017, 5:11 pm

Another gifted young South Korean will be joining the LPGA ranks next year.

Jin Young Ko, the Korean LPGA Tour star, informed the American-based LPGA on Sunday night that she will be taking up membership next year. Ko earned the right by winning the LPGA’s KEB Hana Bank Championship as a nonmember in South Korea in October.

Ko, 22, no relation to Lydia Ko, first burst on to the international spotlight with her run into contention at the Ricoh Women’s British Open at Turnberry two years ago. She led there through 54 holes, with Inbee Park overtaking her in the final round to win.

With 10 KLPGA Tour titles, three in each of the last two seasons, Ko has risen to No. 19 in the Rolex Women’s World Rankings.

Ko told Sunday afternoon that she was struggling over the decision, with a Monday deadline looming.

“It’s a difficult decision to leave home,” Ko said after the final round of the CME Group Tour Championship in Naples, when she was still undecided. “The travelling far away, on my own, the loneliness, that’s what is difficult.”

Ko will be the favorite to win the LPGA’s Louise Suggs Rolex Rookie of the Year Award next year. South Koreans have won that award the last three years. Sung Hyun Park won it this year, In Gee Chun last year and Sei Young Kim in 2015. South Korean-born players have won the last four, with New Zealand’s Lydia Ko winning it in 2014. Ko was born in South Korea and moved to New Zealand when she was 6.

Piller pregnant, no timetable for LPGA return

By Randall MellNovember 22, 2017, 4:22 pm

Gerina Piller, the American Olympian golfer and three-time Solheim Cup veteran, is pregnant and will not be rejoining the LPGA when the 2018 season opens, the New York Times reported following the season-ending CME Group Tour Championship.

Piller, 32, who is married to PGA Tour pro Martin Piller, is due with the couple’s first child in May, Golf Channel’s Jerry Foltz reported.

Piller declined an interview request when sought comment going into the CME Group Tour Championship.

Piller told the New York Times she has no timetable for her return but that she isn’t done with competitive golf.

“I’m not just giving everything up,” Piller said.

As parity reigns, LPGA searching for a superstar

By Randall MellNovember 22, 2017, 4:00 pm

Apologies to the LPGA’s golden eras, but women’s golf has never been deeper.

With the game going global, with the unrelenting wave of Asian talent continuing to slam the tour’s shores, with Thailand and China promising to add to what South Korea is delivering, it’s more difficult than ever to win.

That’s a beautiful and perplexing thing for the women’s game.

That’s because it is more difficult than ever to dominate.

And that’s a magic word in golf.

There is no more powerful elixir in the sport.

Domination gets you on the cover of Sports Illustrated, on ESPN SportsCenter, maybe even on NBC Nightly News if the “D” in domination is dynamic enough.

The women’s best chance of moving their sport to another stratosphere is riding the back of a superstar.

Or maybe a pair of superstar rivals.

Photos: 2017 LPGA winners gallery

A constellation of stars may be great for the devoted regular supporters of the women’s game, but it will take a charismatic superstar to make casual fans care.

The LPGA needs a Serena Williams.

Or the reincarnation of Babe Zaharias.

For those of us who regularly follow the LPGA, this constellation of stars makes for compelling stories, a variety of scripting to feature.

The reality, however, is that it takes one colossal story told over and over again to burst out of a sports niche.

The late, great CBS sports director Frank Chirkinian knew what he had sitting in a TV production truck the first time he saw one of his cameras bring a certain young star into focus at the Masters.

It’s this player coming up over the brow of the hill at the 15th hole to play his second shot,” Chirkinian once told me over lunch at a golf course he owned in South Florida.  “He studies his shot, then flips his cigarette, hitches up his trousers and takes this mighty swipe and knocks the shot on the green. It was my first experience with Arnold Palmer, and I remember thinking, ‘Wow, who is this guy?’

“The thing about golf, more than any other sport, it’s always looking for a star. It’s the only sport where people will root against the underdog. They don’t want the stars to lose. They’re OK with some unknown rising up to be the story on Thursday or Friday, but they always want to see the stars win.”

And they go gaga when it’s one star so radiant that he or she dominates attention.

“It didn’t matter if Arnold was leading, or where he was, you had to show him,” Chirkinian said. “You never knew when he might do something spectacular.”

The LPGA is in a healthy place again, with a big upside globally, with so much emerging talent sharing the spotlight.

Take Sunday at the CME Group Tour Championship.

The back nine started with Lexi Thompson and Michelle Wie making the turn tied for the lead. There is no more powerful pairing to sell in the women’s game today, but there would be no duel. It would have been too far off script as the final chapter to this season.

Parity was the story this year.

Sunday in Naples started with 18 players within two shots of the lead.

Entering that back nine, almost a dozen players were in the mix, including Ariya Jutanugarn.

The day ended with Jutanugarn beating Thompson with a dramatic birdie-birdie finish after Thompson stunned viewers missing a 2-foot putt for par at the last.

The day encapsulated the expanding LPGA universe.

“I’ve never seen such crazy, brilliant golf from these ladies,” said Gary Gilchrist, who coaches Jutanugarn, Lydia Ko and Rolex world No. 1 Shanshan Feng. “It was unbelievable out there. It was just like birdie after birdie after birdie, and the scoreboard went up and down. And that’s why it’s so hard to be No. 1 on this tour. There’s not one person who can peak. It’s all of them at a phenomenal level of golf.”

If Thompson had made that last 2-footer and gone on to win the CME, she would have become the sixth different world No. 1 this year. Before this year, there had never been more than three different No. 1s in a single LPGA season.

Parity was the theme from the year’s start.

There were 15 different winners to open the season, something that hadn’t happened in 26 years. There were five different major championship winners.

This year’s Rolex Player of the Year Award was presented Sunday to So Yeon Ryu and Sung Hyun Park. It’s the first time the award has been shared since its inception in 1966.

Thompson won twice this year, with six second-place finishes, with three of those playoff losses, one of them in a major championship. She was close to putting together a spectacular year. She was close to dominating and maybe becoming the tour’s one true rock star.

Ultimately, Thompson showed us how hard that is to do now.

She’s in a constellation we’re all watching, to see if maybe one star breaks out, somebody able to take the game into living rooms it has never been, to a level of popularity it’s never been.

The game won’t get there with another golden era. It will get there with a golden player.

Love's hip surgery a success; eyes Florida swing return

By Rex HoggardNovember 22, 2017, 3:31 pm

Within hours of having hip replacement surgery on Tuesday Davis Love III was back doing what he does best – keeping busy.

“I’ve been up and walking, cheated in the night and stood up by the bed, but I’m cruising around my room,” he laughed early Wednesday from Andrews Sports Medicine and Orthopedic Center in Birmingham, Ala., where he underwent surgery to replace his left hip. “[Dr. James Flanagan, who performed the surgery] wants me up. They don’t want me sitting for more than an hour.”

Love, 53, planned to begin more intensive therapy and rehabilitation on Wednesday and is scheduled to be released from the hospital later this afternoon.

According to Love’s doctors, there were no complications during the surgery and his recovery time is estimated around three to four months.

Love, who was initially hesitant to have the surgery, said he can start putting almost immediately and should be able to start hitting wedges in a few weeks.

Dr. Tom Boers – a physical therapist at the Hughston Orthopedic Clinic in Columbus, Ga., who has treated Fred Couples, Phil Mickelson, Greg Norman and Brad Faxon – will oversee Love’s recovery and ultimately decide when he’s ready to resume normal golf activity.

“He understands motion and gait and swing speeds that people really don’t understand. He’s had all of us in there studying us,” Love said. “So we’ll see him in a couple of weeks and slowly get into the swing part of it.”

Although Love said he plans to temper his expectations for this most recent recovery, his goal is to be ready to play by the Florida swing next March.