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Tough start for McIlroy in Nike debut

Rory McIlroy in the 2013 Abu Dhabi HSBC Golf Championship second round
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ABU DHABI, United Arab Emirates – “It was not pretty,” the square-shouldered Nike Golf convert admits with little prompting.

Some would even say the transition was painful. Rounds of 75-74 to miss the cut in a player’s debut with a new equipment company always seems to create more anxiety however unfair the need for instant analysis may be.

No, said Swoosh staffer wasn’t Rory McIlroy – whose first week with Nike gear at the Abu Dhabi HSBC Golf Championship has been dubbed a bust by many in the media, social or otherwise, following rounds of 75-75 to miss the cut.

The Nike player in question was Paul Casey, who in 2005 made the same jump from Titleist to Nike Golf with eerily similar results to McIlroy, save for the worldwide scrutiny that descended on the Northern Irishman following his short week in the Middle East.

“He’s going to get more (scrutiny), isn’t he? He’s going to get way more,” Casey said on Saturday in Abu Dhabi. “It just takes a little bit of time, that’s all. I’ll admit that I’m playing a new driver that I put in play at the end of last year, and I’m still not quite 100 percent flat out as comfortable as I used to be with my previous driver.”

For those who have endured a similar honeymoon with new equipment, the pointed discourse that followed McIlroy’s Middle East miscue is baffling, many pointing out it takes weeks, if not months, to find a comfort level regardless of the company or the player.

Tiger Woods, for example, took the better part of a decade to work his way into a full bag of Nike clubs, with the final piece (the putter) coming at the 2010 British Open.

“It takes two or three months until you’re there,” said Casey, who signed with Nike in 2005 and quickly points out he won in his first season with the new clubs (Volvo China Open). “It takes thousands of golf balls to know what that thing is going to do. I mean we are dealing with fractions. You get the clubface out by one degree, it’s whoosh ... ”

There was a lot of that on Days 1 and 2 in Abu Dhabi for McIlroy, who connected with just 13 of 28 fairways.

Although the frenzied focus was on McIlroy’s switch back to his old Titleist Scotty Cameron putter in Round 2, his post-round comments on Friday suggest he is more concerned with finding a driver that is to his liking.

“Really happy with the ball and the wedges. Putter is good on fast greens that I've practiced on, and I just need to probably find a driver that I'm comfortable with, because I didn't drive the ball at all well,” McIlroy said.

And that, any Tour type will tell you, takes time both on the practice tee and under the gun in tournament play.

“The last time I switched irons (2010), I can remember taking the irons out to AT&T (Pebble Beach National Pro-Am), and I was like, ‘These things aren’t going,’ and then three months later I was like, ‘These things go too far,’” Padraig Harrington said.

“We tend to get caught up how things are performing in an individual week. You need to have a big long stretch to test something. You want a period of time, two or three months, to understand your equipment.”

It’s also worth noting that McIlroy was hardly the only player to make a wholesale equipment change in 2013, although his status as the world’s top-ranked golfer and the rock-show like announcement on Monday in Abu Dhabi at least partially explains the hyper scrutiny.

Nick Watney and Kyle Stanley both switched to Nike Golf this year with similarly mixed results. Watney tied for 13th in his debut at the wind-shortened Hyundai Tournament of Champions, while Stanley struggled to rounds of 78-80-72 and finished 30th out of the 30-man field in Kapalua.

At the other end of the extreme makeover matrix is Thorbjorn Olesen, who was a respectable T-31 in his debut at last week’s Volvo Golf Champions and is tied for second through 45 holes in Abu Dhabi.

“I had a week last week (Volvo Golf Champions), and I think that helped me to learn about the irons and the ball. It helped a lot,” said Olesen, who began testing his new Nike gear late last year.

For McIlroy, his transition was always going to be a trial by fire, and with four weeks before his next start (WGC-Accenture Match Play Championship), the drumbeat of doubt promises not to subside any time soon.

Abu Dhabi was, Casey figured, always going to be a no-win situation without a win for the Ulsterman, the unrealistic way of an on-demand world. It’s a reality the Englishman is well aware of having missed the weekend in seven of his first eight PGA Tour starts with the Swoosh in 2005.

“If he didn’t win, I felt like he was going to get some kind of question. It didn’t matter what he did,” Casey said. “He’ll be absolutely fine.