KAPALUA, Hawaii – Their eyes meet through the crowd. There’s a wink. A nod. A knowing acknowledgment of mutual interest. They slowly start moving toward each other. Dalliance becomes flirtation; flirtation becomes attraction. Soon they are standing face to face and the first words are spoken.
“So … would you be interested in playing with our equipment?”
If player recruitment by golf manufacturing companies sounds like a scene from Casablanca, that’s because the process of wooing an object of one’s desire doesn’t necessarily imply romantic undertones.
Tuesday was considered National Signing Day in professional golf, with many big-name players spurning old flames in favor of new partners for the impending season. While more announcements are expected to be made over the next few weeks, some competitors at the Hyundai Tournament of Champions have already forged relationships leaving them with new logos on their hats and new clubs in their bags.
And yes, the underlying subplot of the process sounds sneakily familiar.
“They check and see if you’re interested, first of all,” said Nick Watney, who made the switch from Titleist to Nike. “It’s just sort of like you feel each other out. What they’re all about, what you’re looking for in a club company. Then decide if it lines up and you want to do it going forward.”
“I wasn’t even really thinking that it was the end of a contract year and I was going to have some options coming out,” explained Kyle Stanley, who similarly made the move to Nike. “You hear they’re interested, so you test out the stuff and see if it’s something you get better with. That’s really about it.”
Double entendres aside, there is a laundry list of things players look for before switching companies, which includes meeting both monetary and technical needs. Ask any pro though, and he’ll contend that comfort level prevails over everything else.
“I’m not going to whore myself out to a bunch of different companies for the most money – that’s not what I’m looking for,” said J.J. Henry, who recently signed with TaylorMade after his relationship with Callaway expired in the middle of last season. “I did some legwork. Last year was like a trial period to me. I’ve been out here long enough, so I know it comes down to the fact that you want to play the equipment you play the best with.”
“My experience this year was just a little bit different because they now own the company I was with before,” Ryan Moore said of going to a TaylorMade hat and woods deal after leaving Adams. “Part way through last season, I started playing some of their clubs and really liked them. Played them really well at the end of the year. It was kind of a no-brainer for me. Keep doing exactly what I was doing? Sure, just tell me where I can sign up.”
Much like other hazy flirtations from across a crowded room, every player is aware of the horror stories out there. Tales of woe from players who sought the almighty dollar or changed for the sake of changing – only to find less success on the other side.
“I’ve definitely heard stories about so-and-so switched and he’s never been the same. Guys who chased the money,” Watney said. “I’d be lying if I said that wasn’t in the back of my mind, but after testing the equipment and playing with it at home, I haven’t had one shot that was a mystery or big surprise. I feel pretty comfortable with the stuff.”
While different players may sign with different companies for different reasons, the end goal remains the same across the board. If the move equates to better performance, then it’s the right one.
“Let’s say you sign a pretty big deal, but you don’t like the equipment that much,” Stanley hypothesized. “If somebody offered you half of that with equipment you do like, well, you’re going to more than make up for that on golf course. Bottom line, I wouldn’t have switched if I didn’t feel like I could get better.”
From dalliance to flirtation to attraction, the annual quest of players matching up with manufacturers is a delicate dance, with each side hoping that its final decision is less unfortunate fling and more match made in heaven.