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


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.