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Will leaving Titleist hurt Rory McIlroy’s game?

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Golf fans learned two things about Rory McIlroy’s future today: he will no longer endorse Titleist or FootJoy products as of Dec. 31, 2012, and another OEM is going to pay him an outrageous amount of money to play its equipment.

It has been widely speculated that McIlroy has already entered into a deal with Nike Golf to the tune of 10 years, $250 million. Nike is neither confirming nor denying the rumor, meaning McIlroy’s deal with Nike is either the worst-kept secret in golf history or one of the biggest rumor-mill hoaxes of all time. But here’s what golf fans do know — McIlroy will be forced to shelve at least a few pieces of Titleist equipment he used to win the 2012 PGA Championship at Kiawah Island by a record margin of eight shots.

Whatever company signs Rory McIlroy will do its best to accommodate his equipment preferences, but equipment changes, especially for a player of McIlroy’s caliber, can be as much about sound, feel and confidence as they are performance. That’s why six-time major champion Nick Faldo said on Tuesday’s “Morning Drive” on the Golf Channel that McIlroy’s decision to change equipment was “dangerous.”

 “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,’” Faldo said. “But there’s feel and sound as well, and there’s confidence. You can’t put a real value on that. It’s priceless.”

Based on the equipment McIlroy is playing now (Click here to see what was in his bag at the 2012 PGA Championship), we’ve made a list of the five biggest hurdles McIlroy will face as he migrates from Titleist equipment.

Click here for more discussion in the “Tour/Pre-release equipment” forum.

No. 5 – A new driver head/shaft combination

Like snowflakes, no two golf shafts are exactly the same. Even shafts of the same model from the same manufacturer with the same listed specifications can have minuscule differences than top ball strikers like McIlroy can notice.

McIlroy switched to a new shaft, a Mitsubishi Diamana Prototype 70X, to go along with Titleist’s latest 913 D3 driver that he used to win the 2012 PGA Championship. But the move from his old driver with his old shaft were subtle tweaks to the look, feel and ball flight he was used to with his Titleist driver setup.

Going to a different driver will mean McIlroy will be playing something that looks and feels different. It will also likely perform different, which could mean a different shaft. If that new shaft doesn’t feel the same while McIlroy is unloading it at 120 mph, it will be problematic.

No. 4 – Working the ball with new fairway woods

McIlroy’s last tournament victory came at the BMW Championship, where he used Titleist’s new 913Fd fairway woods (a 13.5-degree and 18-degree model) to fend off some of golf’s best players: Lee Westwood, Phil Mickelson, Tiger Woods, Robert Garrigus, Dustin Johnson, Adam Scott, Vijay Singh and Ryan Moore, who all finished in the top 10 at Crooked Stick that week.

While McIlroy migrated to the 913Fd fairway woods quickly after their launch on tour, he didn’t have much success with Titleist’s previous model, the 910Fd fairway woods. He opted to stay with an older model, Titleist’s 906F2, saying he felt more confident and comfortable hitting a fade or draw on command with the older ones.

Because of McIlroy’s prodigious length, he frequently opts to hit 3 wood or 5 wood off the tee for more control or better position. This makes them vital clubs for him, especially in major championships where hitting fairways is at a premium. Changing fairway woods means changing that confidence level, at least for a little while. And at McIlroy’s level, a lack of confidence over even a single tee shot can be the difference between winning and losing.

No. 3 – Changing wedges

After the driver, the first clubs that Tiger Woods put in his bag during his gradual transition from Titleist to Nike were a set of Nike forged muscleback irons. Rickie Fowler made a similar transition in 2012, changing over from a set of Titleist musclebacks to Cobras, which he used to win his first PGA Tour event.

Woods and Fowler had success switching models of muscleback irons because they are easiest clubs for OEMs to replicate for tour players. It would seem to make sense that OEMs could do the same thing with wedges for its new staff players, but that’s not the case.

Unlike irons, wedges are used in a variety of different playing positions and players use different parts of the sole to play different shots. This places a premium on the shaping, size and width of the sole of a tour player’s wedge. For this reason, Tiger held out for years before trading in his Vokey wedges and Fowler is still using his Vokeys while under contract with Cobra-Puma.

McIlroy has been playing Vokey wedges his entire professional career. While new wedges from a different manufacturer might look the same and even feel the same, perfecting things such bounce angle, sole width, camber and leading edge shape can take a long time.

No. 2 – Using an insert putter

Putters are one of the most often changed pieces of equipment on tour. McIlroy has been no exception – he was a long-time user of a Scotty Cameron Newport Fastback Select prototype before changing to a Scotty Cameron Studio Select Newport GSS prototype that he used to win the 2011 U.S. Open.

If McIlroy goes to Nike, he will be expected to play a Method putter, which employs grooves in the face that Nike engineers say get the ball rolling faster after contact. More roll is good, but it can be another thing that takes getting used to.

Woods, who has been using a Nike Method putter consistently since his return to competitive golf at the 2010 Masters, has never found the success on the greens with a grooved putter that he enjoyed while using a Scotty Cameron. Woods said his Method putter took some adjustment because it had a different feel off the face and “rolled farther.”

Any company that signs McIlroy would be doing him a huge favor by giving him a grace period on putter use, as the putter will likely be the most difficult club in the bag for him to switch out.

No. 1 – Switching from the Titleist Pro V1X

The golf ball is the only piece of equipment (other than shoes or gloves) that a player uses on every shot on the course. That makes the golf ball the most important part of an equipment switch for tour players, since it has to work with every one of their clubs.

Titleist leads on tour in golf ball usage. While its competitors have become very good at making golf balls, McIlroy can be assured that his next ball will not perform exactly like his old one. There are construction and material differences, all related to patents, which make it impossible.

McIlroy’s next ball will likely spin a little more or a little less, and perform differently in the wind than his Pro V1X. Even if the ball performs better, better is not always foolproof, because better means different.

———————————————————————————

Some players are better suited to changing equipment than others. It is possible that McIlroy has already tested all of his future company’s new gear, and has worked with the company to create a set of equipment and a golf ball that is to his liking. If this is the case, the opportunity to make more money and the potential for more exposure are no-brainers for McIlroy. But the level of play that golf fans saw from McIlroy at the 2012 PGA Championship made it clear that it will be hard for Rory to find equipment that will make him a noticeably better golfer. He will, however, become noticeable richer and noticeable more famous.

It will be interesting to see how much of a grace period McIlroy is given when it comes to changing over to his new equipment. Will he be treated like Tiger Woods was before the scandal, whose contract stated that he could play any other manufacturer’s equipment if he thought it was better, or will big money from a company like Nike mean an immediate 14-club deal including a change to one of their golf balls?

Golf fans should remember that golfers of Rory’s caliber would have success with just about any set of equipment that was given to them. But at the highest level, it’s the small things that make a difference, and that’s exactly what McIlroy’s new equipment deal will do — change some small things.

Click here for more discussion in the “Tour/Pre-release equipment” forum.

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Zak is the Editor-in-Chief of GolfWRX.com. He's been a part of the company since 2011, when he was hired to lead GolfWRX's Editorial Department. Zak developed GolfWRX's Featured Writer Program, which supports aspiring writers and golf industry professionals. He played college golf at the University of Richmond (Go Spiders!) and still likes to compete in tournaments. You can follow Zak on Twitter @ZakKoz, where he's happy to discuss his game and all the cool stuff that's part of his job.

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10 Comments

10 Comments

  1. Bill Murray

    Sep 11, 2014 at 1:19 pm

    I think it all worked out

  2. Pingback: Why New Clubs and Balls Make 2013 a Big Question Mark for Rory McIlroy | Centre for Golfing - The Clubhouse

  3. Blopar

    Dec 2, 2012 at 11:44 pm

    Greedy, greedy, greedy. Bad move Rors. Titleist made you somebody when you were nobody. Now you stick it to them. Money can’t buy you love or happiness and all the Nike money in the world can’t buy you the quality of Titleist, Vokey, and Cameron. Hope your new clubs suck and you chop with them!

    • GolfNut

      Jan 3, 2013 at 4:43 pm

      @Blopar, I disagree. Titlist did not make him, Oakley did not make him. I have neither seen swinging a club for him in any tournament, He made what he is. I would for sure take the money an run as it is business and nothing but business.

  4. Albert T

    Nov 30, 2012 at 2:19 pm

    Makes you think what Titleist counter was? There’s no way it would be $250MM… but they didn’t exactly spend the last 3-4 years designing clubs for RM for him to just walk out and leave.

  5. Sean D

    Nov 3, 2012 at 1:19 pm

    I agree with Dave 100%. It would be a terrible busines decision not to take that kind of dough and run. It’s a business after all, and someone with his talent is still going to contend and win even with my clubs.

  6. Dave

    Oct 31, 2012 at 1:28 pm

    @Mark Bennett I’m not sure why it’s a shame he “needs’ to chase the money. If you were offered $250MM over 10 yrs and had an OEM as huge as Nike say (and probably demonstrate) that they can and will make clubs that fit you, why would you NOT switch? It’s financial freedom for the rest of you life, your family’s lives, your grandkids lives, etc. Obviously, Rors is already rich and would be anyway, but this is deal is in another realm of rich… it’s what i like to call “F U Money”.

    In fact, I’d go so far as to say that it would be fiscally irresponsible of him NOT to take that deal.

  7. JP

    Oct 31, 2012 at 10:22 am

    Interesting article. I think it’s common for for player endorsement contracts to exclude drivers and putters as pros change these all the time on tour, so it’s easy to envisage Rory sticking with his tried & tested 913 & Scotty for a while. However, most Nike staffers seem happy to play their full line so it could be swooshes all the way for RM.

  8. Mark Bennett

    Oct 31, 2012 at 6:06 am

    Good article Zak. It’s a shame he needs to chase the money. It will be interesting to see if he can keep improving with the new equipment.

  9. phase3golf

    Oct 31, 2012 at 2:30 am

    He is too good and it wont matter what he switches to. They will paint his Titleist balls with a swoosh and away he goes!

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Jason Day’s performance coach, Jason Goldsmith, joins the 19th hole

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In this episode of the 19th Hole, Jason Goldsmith of FocusBand talks about how the breakthrough technology has helped PGA Tour stars Jason Day and Justin Rose to major wins. Also, host Michael Williams gives his take on Tiger Woods’ return to golf.

Click here to listen on iTunes!

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Ari’s Course Reviews: Oakmont Country Club

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Editor’s Note: Ari Techner is a well-traveled, golf-course connoisseur who’s setting out to review the best golf courses in the world. The views and opinions expressed in these reviews are his own. 

Oakmont Country Club. The name alone strikes fear into the heart of any mortal golfer. Oakmont has a reputation for difficulty unmatched in the golf world; it’s fear forged in the public’s eye while watching best players in the world struggle during the U.S. Open every 10-plus years or so. There is a notion that Oakmont could hold a U.S. Open just about any day of the year. This is not a course that needs to be tweaked from its daily setup to test the best in the world.

All that said, a close look at the course reveals that there is so much more to Oakmont than just difficulty. Since around 1950, MANY courses have been built with the dilebrate intention of holding a U.S. Open. Most, if not all, of these courses are filled with water hazards, extremely long holes and very little variety. Oakmont is the exact opposite of that, and this is what is at the core of its greatness.

A view from the ninth fairway

Oakmont Country Club first opened in 1903 and was designed by Henry Fownes, who built it because he felt the other courses around Pittsburgh were not difficult enough. The course was constantly tweaked in the early years by Fownes and his son William. Both Fownes were accomplished players with William winning the U.S. Amateur in 1910 and serving as the playing captain of the first U.S. Walker Cup team in 1922.

Trees, or no trees?

The 18th tee

The course was extremely influential in the development of early golf courses in America. It was equally influential in future years by setting trends that have changed the way many other courses have evolved. When Oakmont opened, it was built in an open field and had no trees on the course, adding to the links-like flavor that Fownes wanted from his visits overseas. In the 1950s (after all the Fownes had left the club) Oakmont added thousands of non-native trees to line the corridors of the holes, a look that was a heavy trend of the time. This work was mostly done by Robert Trent Jones, who also modified the bunkers to fit more of his style of the time.

The course continued to evolve over the years with the bunkers being restored by Tom Fazio… but the trees remained. In preparation for the 2008 U.S. Open, Oakmont cut down thousands of trees, returning the course to its open, windswept origins. This was very controversial among the members, and much of the work was done in the middle of the night in the off-season so as not to cause a big stir. After 2008, thousands more trees have been cut down, opening all of the amazing long views across the property. You can see almost every hole on the property from just about every spot on the course. Oakmont was the first course to embrace this massive tree removal and it has turned into a trend with hundreds of classic courses removing their non-native trees and going back to their more open original layouts.

Oakmont is the only course that Fownes designed and I believe that contributes greatly to its uniqueness. Fownes’ version of difficulty did not include artificial water hazards, out of bounds or excessive bunkering fronting greens, and it did not rely simply on longer-than-average holes to challenge the golfer. Instead, it has an amazingly varied mix of holes that challenge the golfer in a variety of ways both mentally and physically. Overall, the course requires you to be a straight driver of the ball, a good iron player and to have a deft short game and putting touch. You also need to be able to think your way around the course while you execute the shots you choose at a high level.

A good variety

Oakmont has its share of length with long par 4s, such as hole Nos. 1, 10, 15 and 18, the monster par-5 12th and long par 3s such as Nos. 8 and 16.  What sets the course apart to me, however, are the short holes and the holes that require strategic decision-making off the tee. These include short par 4s such Nos. 2, 11 and 17 and mid-length par 4s including Nos. 5 and 14.  These holes can be just as difficult as the long ones, and they require a completely different skill set.  The short par-3 13th and short par-5 9th (plays as a par 4 for the U.S. Open) round out what is an amazing set of shorter holes.

A view of the ninth fairway from across the Pennsylvania Turnpike

The course uses the natural movement of the site very well and has a tight, extremely walkable routing despite being bisected by the Pennsylvania Turnpike at the bottom of the hill in the middle of the property. I particularly love the fallaway greens at 1, 10, 12, and to a lesser degree 3 and 15 where the front of the green is higher than the back. This is a unique look that you do not see in the USA very often. Without the little backboard that a back-to-front sloping green provides, you must hit the ball solid or execute a well played run-up shot to hold the green. The short par 4s temp the long hitter just enough to make them think about hitting driver, but wayward shots are punished enough to make most think twice. The 17th, at a little under 300 yards, could be the hardest hole on the course, and yet it is definitely drivable for the right player who hits a great drive. The small and extremely narrow green requires a short shot be hit the perfect distance if you decide to lay up to the right down the fairway. Hit it even a little short and you end up in the aptly named “Big Mouth” bunker which is extremely deep. Hit it a hair long or with not enough spin to hold the green and you end up rolling over the green into one of a few smaller bunkers. Carry the bunkers on the left side off the tee into the sliver of fairway up by the green and you have a short, open shot from a much better angle into the fatter part of the green. Such risk/reward and great use of angles is paramount to Oakmont’s genius.

Green complexes are…complex

The green on the 18th hole

Oakmont also sports one of the best sets of greens anywhere in the world.  They are all heavily contoured and very challenging, yet playable. You can certainly make putts out there if you are putting well, but get on the wrong side of the hole and you are left with an extremely difficult, but rarely impossible 2 putt. They are also very unique due to Fownes only designing one course, as they do not look like any other classic course; they have a feel all their own. They are mostly open in front, coming from the correct angle, and they have many squarish edges. They also cut the tight fringe far back into the fairway, which aids in run-up shots; it also gives a great look where the green and the fairway blend together seamlessly.

The bunkering is also very unique and very special… and they are true hazards. Find yourself in a fairway bunker off the tee, and you are likely wedging out without much of any chance of reaching the greens. The green-side bunkers are fearsome, very deep and difficult. The construction of the bunkers is unique too — most of them have very steep and tall faces that were built up in the line of play. Oakmont is also home to one of the most famous bunkers in golf; the “Church Pews” bunkers — a large, long rectangular bunker between the fairways of holes 3 and 4 with strips of grass in the middle like the pews in a church. There is also a smaller “Church Pews” bunker left of the fairway off the tee on hole 15. Hit it into one of these two bunkers and good luck finding a descent lie.

Ari’s last word

All-in-all, along with being one of the hardest courses in the world, Oakmont is also one of the best courses in the world. It is hard enough to challenge even the best players in the world day-in and day-out, but it can easily be played by a 15-handicap without losing a ball. It is extremely unique and varied and requires you to use every club in your bag along with your brain to be successful. Add that to a club that has as much history as any other in the county, and Oakmont is one of golf’s incredibly special places.

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Coming Up: A Big Golf Adventure

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My name is Jacob Sjöman, and I’m a 35-year-old golf photographer who also enjoys the game we all love. I will be sharing some experiences here on a big golf trip that we are doing. With me I’ve got my friend Johan. I will introduce him properly later, but he is quite a funny character. According to Johan, he is the best golf photo assistant in the world, and we will see about that since this is probably his biggest test yet doing this trip. Previously on our trips, Johan almost got us killed in Dubai with a lack of driving skills. He also missed a recent evening photo shoot in Bulgaria while having a few beers too many… and that’s not all.

Anyway, the last couple of days I’ve been packing my bags over and over. I came home from the Canary Islands this Sunday and I’ve been constantly checking and rechecking that we’ve got all the required equipment, batteries, and that the cameras are 100 percent functional and good to go for this golf trip. I’m still not sure, but in a couple of minutes I will be sitting in a taxi to the airport and there will be no turning back.

Where are we going then? We are going to visit some of the very best golf courses in New Zealand and Australia. There will be breathtaking golf on cliffsides, jaw-dropping scenic courses, and some hidden gems. And probably a big amount of lost balls with a lot of material produced in the end.

I couldn’t be more excited for a golf journey like this one. Flying around the globe to these special golf courses I’ve only dreamed about visiting before gives me a big kick and I feel almost feel like a Indiana Jones. The only thing we’ve got in common, though, is that we don’t like snakes. Australia seems to be one of the worst destinations to visit in that purpose, but all the upsides are massive in this.

First, we will take off from a cold Stockholm (it’s raining heavily outside at the moment) and then we will do our first stop at Doha in Quatar. Then after two more hours, we are finally heading off to Auckland on the north island of New Zealand, a mega-flight of 16 hours. I believe that could very well be one of the longest flights available for a ordinary airplane. I need to check that.

Flights for me usually mean work, editing photos from different golf courses I’ve visited, writing some texts, editing some films, and planning for the future. Last time, though, I finally managed to sleep a little, which is a welcome progress for a guy that was deadly scared of flying until 2008.

Now, I am perfectly fine with flying. A few rocky flights over the Atlantic Sea to Detroit helped me a lot, and my motto is now, “If those flights got me down on the ground safely, it takes a lot of failures to bring down a plane.”

Anyway, I hope you will join me on this golf trip. Stay tuned!

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