The risks/rewards of changing equipment

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His purported contract with Nike may be unprecedented, but Rory McIlroy is far from the first player to chase endorsement dollars and change equipment – and he certainly won’t be the last. (The Associated Press reported earlier this week, for instance, that five-time Tour winner Nick Watney is also bolting Titleist for Nike. What, no uproar?)

But with the anticipated news Tuesday that McIlroy and Acushnet Co. will not extend their relationship beyond 2012, a familiar question arose: Is the Northern Irishman – already the No. 1 player in the world and a two-time major winner at age 23 – taking an unnecessary risk in his career?

Nick Faldo apparently thinks so. On Tuesday, he described Rory’s decision as “dangerous,” and opined that he should “stick with the clubs that you know best, that you believe the best.”

It is to be expected that McIlroy will endure some kind of growing pains with his new sticks, but will that period be perceived as a slump? Will his confidence waver? Will he enjoy as much success in 2013 as he did this past season?

Thanks to Golf Channel’s research department, we now have a bit of perspective. Other factors must be accounted for, of course – age, injuries, an unraveling of a player’s personal life, etc. – but here are some notable players who changed equipment and how they fared the year after the switch:

• Lee Janzen endured a bevy of equipment changes in the mid-1990s. He used Founders Club when he won the ’93 U.S. Open, but switched to Ben Hogan irons in ’94, with mixed results: one win, two top 10s and seven missed cuts in 26 events. A year later, he switched again, to Nicklaus irons, and recorded one of his best seasons: three wins and 14 top 25s in 28 events, earning $1.37 million. And then, after hiring a new agent in ’96, his move to TaylorMade clubs produced average results: seven top 10s in 27 events, but only $540K in earnings.

• The late Payne Stewart won the 1989 PGA Championship and ’91 U.S. Open by using Wilson forged irons. In ’94, however, he switched to Top Flite’s cavity-back irons, with little success: two top 10s in 23 starts, with only $145K in earnings.

• A Wilson staffer when he won his three U.S. Open titles, Hale Irwin began using Cobra clubs in ’94. It didn’t halt his winning ways, as he posted a win and six other top 10s in 22 starts ($814K in earnings).

• Corey Pavin used Cleveland clubs when he won the ’95 U.S. Open, but his switch to PRGR clubs two years later proved costly: In ’97, he posted only one top 10 and missed the cut in half his 22 starts, en route to amassing only $99K in earnings that season.

• Nick Price used Spalding clubs entering the 1992 season, and he was no less productive once he switched to Ram that year: two wins, 13 top 10s and 19 top 25s in 26 starts, earning a whopping $1.13 million. His switch to Atrigon clubs, in ’95, was less fruitful, however: five top 10s in 18 events ($611K).

• A MacGregor staffer when he won back-to-back U.S. Opens, in 1988 and ’89, Curtis Strange swapped out those sticks for Maruman clubs after that Open victory. In his first full season with his new set, he had six top 10s in 20 starts, but his season earnings of $277K was nearly $500,000 less than the year prior.

• The 1990 season was one of Wayne Levi’s most successful on Tour, with four victories. His switch to Yonex in ’91, however, didn’t go according to plan: only three top 10s, with 11 missed cuts in 25 starts.

• Graeme McDowell is one of the most recent examples of a player cashing on a successful season. Alas, he failed to back up his breakthrough 2010 campaign – during which he won the U.S. Open and clinched the winning point for the European Ryder Cup team with Callaway – when a year later, he had only three top 10s and six missed cuts in 16 Tour starts with Cleveland clubs. His on-course earnings also took a hit, from $1.58 million in 2010 to $1.08M in ’11.

• David Duval is one of the most extreme examples, though his precipitous decline was caused more by injury than equipment. A Titleist staffer when he won 12 times on Tour, he became embroiled in an ugly legal dispute with the company and switched to Nike clubs in 2001. True, he won the British Open that season, but two years later, he had made just four cuts – no top 25s – in 20 events, earning $85K.

• A player of Phil Mickelson’s immense talent could seemingly enjoy success with any set of clubs, and his career has supported that: Yonex clubs from 1992-2000 (16 Tour wins), Titleist from 2001-04 (six wins, including first major) and Callaway from 2004-present (17 wins, including three majors).

Tiger Woods has been successful across the board, too, though the equipment changes throughout his pro career have been gradual: Titleist driver, irons, putter and ball until 2000, then a switch to Nike ball in 2000; to the Nike driver and irons in ’02; and to the Nike putter in ’10.