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 Web.com 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.

Getty Images

Hadwin returns to site of last year's 59

By Will GrayJanuary 17, 2018, 11:04 pm

Adam Hadwin had a career season last year, one that included shooting a 59 and winning a PGA Tour event. But those two achievements didn't occur in the same week.

While Hadwin's breakthrough victory came at the Valspar Championship in March, it was at the CareerBuilder Challenge in January when he first made headlines with a third-round 59 at La Quinta Country Club. Hadwin took a lead into the final round as a result, but he ultimately couldn't keep pace with Hudson Swafford.

He went on to earn a spot at the Tour Championship, and Hadwin made his first career Presidents Cup appearance in October. Now the Canadian returns to Palm Springs, eager to improve on last year's result and hoping to earn a spot in the final group for a third straight year after a T-6 finish in 2016.

"A lot of good memories here in the desert," Hadwin told reporters. "I feel very comfortable here, very at home. Lots of Canadians, so it's always fun to play well in front of those crowds and hopefully looking forward to another good week."

Hadwin's 59 last year was somewhat overshadowed, both by the fact that he didn't win the event and that it came just one week after Justin Thomas shot a 59 en route to victory at the Sony Open. But he's still among an exclusive club of just eight players to have broken 60 in competition on Tour and he's eager to get another crack at La Quinta on Saturday.

"If I'm in the same position on 18, I'm gunning for 58 this year," Hadwin said, "not playing safe for 59."

Getty Images

Rahm: If I thought like Phil, I could not hit a shot

By Will GrayJanuary 17, 2018, 10:39 pm

When it comes to Jon Rahm and Phil Mickelson, there are plenty of common bonds. Both starred at Arizona State, both are now repped by the same agency and Rahm's former college coach and agent, Tim Mickelson, now serves full-time as his brother's caddie.

Those commonalities mean the two men have played plenty of practice rounds together, but the roads quickly diverge when it comes to on-course behavior. Rahm is quick, fiery and decisive; Mickelson is one of the most analytical players on Tour. And as Rahm told reporters Wednesday at the CareerBuilder Challenge, those differences won't end anytime soon.

"I don't need much. 'OK, it's like 120 (yards), this shot, right," Rahm said. "And then you have Phil, it's like, 'Oh, this shot, the moisture, this going on, this is like one mile an hour wind sideways, it's going to affect it one yard. This green is soft, this trajectory. They're thinking, and I'm like, 'I'm lost.' I'm like, 'God if I do that thought process, I could not hit a golf shot.'"


CareerBuilder Challenge: Articles, photos and videos


The tactics may be more simplified, but Rahm can't argue with the results. While Mickelson is in the midst of a winless drought that is approaching five years, Rahm won three times around the world last year and will defend a PGA Tour title for the first time next week at Torrey Pines.

Both men are in the field this week in Palm Springs, where Mickelson will make his 2018 debut with what Rahm fully expects to be another dose of high-level analytics for the five-time major winner with his brother on the bag.

"It's funny, he gets to the green and then it's the same thing. He's very detail-oriented," Rahm said of Mickelson. "I'm there listening and I'm like, 'Man, I hope we're never paired together for anything because I can't think like this. I would not be able to play golf like that. But for me to listen to all that is really fun."

Getty Images

DJ changes tune on golf ball distance debate

By Will GrayJanuary 17, 2018, 9:16 pm

World No. 1 Dustin Johnson is already one of the longest hitters in golf, so he's not looking for any changes to be made to golf ball technology - despite comments from him that hinted at just such a notion two months ago.

Johnson is in the Middle East this week for the Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship, and he told BBC Sport Wednesday that he wouldn't be in favor of making changes to the golf ball in order to remedy some of the eye-popping distances players are hitting the ball with ever-increasing frequency.

"It's not like we are dominating golf courses," Johnson said. "When was the last time you saw someone make the game too easy? I don't really understand what all the debate is about because it doesn't matter how far it goes; it is about getting it in the hole."

Johnson's rhetorical question might be answered simply by looking back at his performance at the Sentry Tournament of Champions earlier this month, an eight-shot romp that featured a tee shot on the 433-yard 12th hole that bounded down a slope to within inches of the hole.

Johnson appeared much more willing to consider a reduced-distance ball option at the Hero World Challenge in November, when he sat next to tournament host Tiger Woods and supported Woods' notion that the ball should be addressed.

"I don't mind seeing every other professional sport, they play with one ball. All the pros play with the same ball," Johnson said. "In baseball, the guys that are bigger and stronger, they can hit a baseball a lot further than the smaller guys. ... I think there should be some kind of an advantage for guys who work on hitting it far and getting that speed that's needed, so having a ball, like the same ball that everyone plays, there's going to be, you're going to have more of an advantage."

Speaking Wednesday in Abu Dhabi, Johnson stood by the notion that regardless of whether the rules change or stay the same, he plans to have a leg up on the competition.

"If the ball is limited then it is going to limit everyone," he said. "I'm still going to hit it that much further than I guess the average Tour player."

Getty Images

LPGA lists April date for new LA event

By Golf Channel DigitalJanuary 17, 2018, 8:18 pm

The LPGA’s return to Los Angeles will come with the new Hugel-JTBC Open being played at Wilshire Country Club April 19-22, the tour announced Wednesday.

When the LPGA originally released its schedule, it listed the Los Angeles event with the site to be announced at a later date.

The Hugel-JTBC Open will feature a 144-player field and a $1.5 million purse. It expands the tour’s West Coast swing, which will now be made up of four events in California in March and April.

The LPGA last played in Los Angeles in 2005. Wilshire Country Club hosted The Office Depot in 2001, with Annika Sorenstam winning there.