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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.

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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Let’s Retire Old Man Par: A Modest Proposal

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In 1729, Jonathan Swift wrote a satirical essay entitled “A modest proposal,” in which he suggested that the Irish eat their own children. As might be expected, the piece drew a great deal of discussion and controversy. He was of course not serious, but simply attempting to make a point. As you will read this piece contains “A Modest Proposal” as well, but it is not intended to be satirical. I am for the record dead serious.

The golf industry is wringing its hands, trying to find a way to bring new players into the game, while at the same time keeping those that are in the game from leaving. They have initiated any number of programs designed for this purpose. How successful have they been? I would venture that they have barely moved the needle.

Barriers to the game

What we do know is that today there are three major barriers that confront the industry. They are first, the time required to play the game; second the costs associated with playing the game; and third the difficulty of the game.

There are among those adults that start the game, three distinct different groups:

  1. Those who would like to start playing golf but for any number of reasons decided not to take up the game.
  2. Those who once played more frequently but have reduced the number of rounds that they play.
  3. Those who started to play the game but then after a short period decided to leave it.

Those who leave the game

Those in the golf industry, the hand-wringers, have developed any number of programs to bring new players to the game. I would ask the question, “What is the point, when almost an equal number of players that start playing the game each year, decide to give it up within a span of a few months.

Does it make any sense to continue to put water into a bucket when there is a hole in the bottom? Of course not, but that is effectively what is being done. The first question to be ask, why do these new players quit the playing after a short time? In my opinion, the number No. 1 reason is the method of scoring being used.

Were an exit poll to be conducted asking these people why they quit playing, I seriously doubt they would answer truthfully. Who would want to admit that they were discouraged by their inability to succeed at any endeavor? The two answers that would be given the most often would be 1) that golf is too expensive to play; or 2) that they simply didn’t have time.  In this case both answers serve to preserve the individual’s dignity. And who could blame them?

The concept of par

Why did these individuals find the game difficult? The short answer is that while golf is a hard game to learn, there  is a more compelling reason.  I would venture, that the underlying reason they quit the game is that it ceased to be fun because of how they viewed their performance. And for one central reason… the concept of par. The idea that an amateur golfer, especially a beginner, should measure their level of success against an imaginary set of numbers that represents what an expert player would score on each hole is on the surface ridiculous.

You might imagine a beginning player scoring an eight on a par-four hole after hitting six good shots and then two putting for an eight. In the context of their ability, they should be ecstatic — but of course they are not (because as their playing partner reminds them) they were four-over par on that hole. The time has come for Old Man Par to retire. And retire permanently. He is killing the game.

Perceived failure

In another scenario, the beginning player scores sixty for nine holes, which is an excellent score given the short amount of time they might have spent playing the game. And yet their nine-hole score was 24-over par. How would that make you feel? Would you be encouraged or discouraged? You might imagine yourself back in school and regardless of the amount of work that you put into a given class you always receive an “F.” At some point, would you give up?

Why should every golfer be judged by the same standard when there is such inequality in their ability? The equivalent would be placing a high school freshman in a graduate-level college course, expecting that they could perform at the same level as the other graduate students. The disparity in knowledge, based on age and experience, is precisely the reason why there are different grades in school. The same disparity exists among golfers. In this case, the difference being the ability to perform on the golf course as opposed to the classroom.

What about the second group of players that now plays less than they did in the past? Could it be that they are no longer having fun playing the game?And then there is the third group, those that consider playing the game but abandon it for another sport. Could it be that they are intimidated by the scoring system, knowing that as a beginner par is an absolute impossibility?

Old man par 

The legendary Bobby Jones was the first to coin, perhaps with the help of his friend O.B. Keillor, the phrase “Old Man Par.” Jones was, of course, the greatest amateur to have ever played the game. He won the Grand Slam in 1930, retiring then at the age of 28.

The time has come to retire “Old Man Par” and devise a new system for measuring a golfer’s progress in the game. I know that those in the USGA. would reject the concept immediately for fear of, and here is a $10 word used primarily by attorneys, “bifurcate” the game. What that word essentially means in this context in having more than one standard. The USGA is responsible for preserving the nature of the game, but at the same time it should be equally concerned with preserving the future of the game.

Personal par

What I would suggest is a system based on the principle of what might be termed “personal par.” This was essentially the system that was used to groom a young Tiger Woods. As a young child, he was not capable of reaching the longer holes in regulation, making par a virtual impossibility. Consequently, his coach wisely devised a system in which par was adjusted upward based on his ability at a given point in time. This served to keep the young child feeling good about his performance and subsequent progress.

This is the type of system that needs to be devised for the health of the game. The system would begin at a nine-hole level using a par of thirty-six as a basis. The actual numbers are not as important as the basic concept. There would be within the nine-hole and the eighteen-hole groups five different levels as follows with assigned par for each hole and eighteen holes roughly equal with the player’s ability.

As players improved, they would graduate from one level to another based on their total score. The handicap system would work in similar fashion as it does now with a single modification. The strokes give from one player to another would depend on the level in which they fall and the par assigned to that level.

The personal par handicap system would not be as exacting as it is presently used, but it would be sufficient to allow players to be reasonable competitive without any significant sacrifice. There would then be two scoring systems then, allowing players to choose which one they wanted to use. Or a recommendation might be given that until they reach a given scoring threshold that they use the personal par scoring system.

There would, of course, be the usual concern with something new being injected into the system, but the proposed change would be no greater than when the system of equitable scoring was introduced or when courses were first assigned a course rating number.

A few years ago, when life-long teacher and educator Dr. Gary Wiren was inducted into the Golf Teacher’s Hall of Fame, he wanted to pass along a single piece of advice to those teachers in the room. “Gentleman,” he started and then paused for emphasis. “We must find a way to make the game more fun for our students.”

I’m in full agreement with Dr. Wiren. The question is, “What is the best way to accomplish that goal?” I believe that that the first step in that direction is to change the scoring system so that golfers experience more satisfaction and accomplishment. That is what makes learning fun.

And so, I would have you consider “The Modest Proposal” that I have put forward. And rather than attempting to find reasons why a revised scoring system couldn’t never work, for the benefit of the game, look for the same number of reason why it could work. The time has come for Old Man Par, as we know him, to retire. He has served us well, but he has become an anarchism. He is as obsolete as the horse and buggy. Let’s hand him his gold watch and let him enjoy his golden years in peace.

And at the same time, let’s welcome the “new kid on the block” who will pave the way for the next generation of golfers pioneering a scoring system that promises to make the game more “fun.”

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