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Opinion & Analysis

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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Gear Dive: Mizuno’s Chris Voshall speaks on Brooks Koepka’s U.S. Open-winning irons

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Mizuno’s Chief Engineer Chris Voshall speaks on how Brooks Koepka was the one that almost got away, and why Mizuno irons are still secretly the most popular on Tour. Also, a couple of Tiger/Rory nuggets that may surprise a few people. It’s an hour geek-out with one of the true gems in the club biz. Enjoy!

Related: Brooks Koepka’s Winning WITB from the 2018 U.S. Open

Listen to the full podcast below, or click here to listen on iTunes!

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Opinion & Analysis

Hear It, Feel It, Believe It: A Better Bunker Method

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The following is an excerpt from Mike Dowd‘s upcoming novel, “Coming Home.” 

After picking the last of the balls on the driving range, Tyler cornered Mack as he hit a few shots from the old practice bunker to wind down at the end of the day. Mack was hitting one after another, alternating between the three flags on the practice green and tossing them up about as softly as if he was actually lobbing them each up there underhanded.

Tyler just stood there, mesmerized at first by the mindless ease with which Mack executed the shot. Bunker shots, Tyler silently lamented, were likely the biggest hole in his game, and so after Mack had holed his third ball in a couple of dozen, Tyler finally decided he had to ask him a question.

“What are you thinking about on that shot, Mack?” Tyler interrupted him suddenly.

Mack hit one more that just lipped out of the closest hole, paused a few seconds, and then looked up at his protégé in what Tyler could only interpret as a look of confusion.

“What am I thinking about?” he finally replied. “I don’t know, Tyler… I’d hate to think how I’d be hittin’ ‘em if I actually started thinking.”

Tyler gave Mack a slightly exasperated look and put his hands on his hips as he shook his head. “You know what I mean. Your technique. I guess I should have said what exactly are you doing there from a mechanics standpoint? How do you get it to just land so softly and roll out without checking?”

Mack seemed to be genuinely considering Tyler’s more elaborately articulated question, and after a moment began, more slowly this time, as if he was simplifying his response for the benefit of a slightly thick-headed young student who wasn’t getting his point.

“You can’t think about technique, Tyler… at least not while you’re playing,” Mack replied. “There’s no quicker path back to your father’s garage than to start thinking while you’re swinging, especially thinking about technique. That’s my job.”

“Mack,” Tyler insisted, “How am I supposed to learn to hit that shot without understanding the technique? I’ve got to do something different than what I’m doing now. I’m putting too much spin on my shots, and I can’t always tell when it’s going to check and when it’s going to release a little. How do I fix that?”

“Well, not by thinking, certainly,” Mack fired right back as if it was the most ridiculous line of inquiry he’d ever heard. “A good bunker shot can be heard, Tyler, and felt, but you can’t do either of those if you’re focused on your technique. You feel it inside of you before you even think about actually hitting it. Watch, and listen.”

With that Mack swung down at the sand and made a thump sound as his club went through the soft upper layer of sand and bounced on the firmer sand below.

“You hear that?” Mack asked. “That’s what a good bunker shot sounds like. If you can hear it, then you can feel it. If you can feel it, then you can make it, but you can’t make that sound until you hear it first. Your body takes care o’ the rest. You don’t have to actually tell it what to do.”

Tyler still looked puzzled, but, knowing Mack as he did, this was the kind of explanation he knew he should have expected. Coach Pohl would have gone into an eight-part dissertation on grip, stance, club path, release points, weight transfer, and so forth, and Tyler suddenly realized how much he’d come to adopt his college coach’s way of thinking in the past four years. Mack though? He just said you’ve got to hear it.

“Get in here,” Mack said suddenly, gesturing to the bunker and offering the wedge to Tyler. “Now close your eyes.”

“What?!” Tyler almost protested.

“Just do it, will ya’?” Mack insisted.

“Okay, okay,” Tyler replied, humoring his coach.

“Can you hear it?” Mack asked.

“Hear what?” Tyler answered. “All I hear is you.”

“Hear that sound, that thump.” It was Mack’s turn to be exasperated now. “It was only moments ago when I made it for you. Can’t you still hear it?”

“Oh, remember it you mean,” Tyler said. “Okay, I know what you mean now. I remember it.”

“No, you obviously don’t know what I mean,” Mack replied. “I wanted to know if you can hear it, in your mind, hear the actual sound. Not remember that I’d made it. There’s a big difference.”

Tyler suddenly did feel kind of dumb. He wasn’t picking up what Mack was getting at, at least not exactly how he wanted him to get it, and so he sat there with his eyes closed and gripped the club like he was going to hit a shot, waggled it a bit as if he was getting ready, and then opened his eyes again.

“Okay,” he said suddenly. “I think I can hear it now.”

“Don’t open your eyes,” Mack almost hissed. “Now make it, make that sound. Make that thump.”

Tyler swung down sharply and buried the head of the wedge into the sand where it almost stopped before exiting.

“That’s not a thump,” Mack said shaking his head. “That’s a thud. You can’t even get the ball out with that pitiful effort. Give me that!”

He took the wedge back from Tyler and said, “Now watch and listen.”

Mack made a handful of swings at the sand, each one resulting in a soft thump as the club bottomed out and then deposited a handful of sand out of the bunker. Tyler watched each time as the head of the club came up sharply, went down again, hit the sand, and came back up abruptly in a slightly abbreviated elliptical arc. Each time Tyler listened to the sound, embedding it as he studied how the club entered and exited the sand. Mack stopped suddenly and handed the club back to Tyler.

“Now you make that sound,” he said, “and as you do remember how it feels in your hands, your forearms, your chest, and most importantly in your head.”

“What?” Tyler asked, looking back up at Mack, confused at his last comment.

“Just do it,” Mack said. “Hear it, feel it, then do it, but don’t do it before you can hear it and feel it. Now close your eyes.”

Tyler did as he was told, closing his eyes and then settling his feet in as he tried to picture in his mind what Mack had been doing. At first, he just stood there waggling the club until he could see the image in his mind of Mack hitting the sand repeatedly, and then he could hear the soft thump as the club hit the sand. He started to swing but was interrupted by Mack’s voice.

“Can you feel it?” Mack said. “Don’t go until you can feel it.”

“Well, at first I could see the image in my mind of you hitting that shot over and over again,” Tyler said, opening his eyes and looking at Mack, “and then I could hear it. It sort of followed right in behind it.”

“Ah, the image is a good starting point, but you can’t just see it and hear it, you need to feel it,” Mack replied, pointing to his head. “Feel it in here, and then you can feel it here,” he continued, putting his hands together like he was gripping a club. “Now close your eyes again.”

“Okay,” Tyler said, not sure he was getting it, but finally bought in. He settled in again and began waggling the club until he could see Mack swinging and hear the subtle thump of the sand. He let it just loop in his mind, over and over again, until suddenly he could feel it like he was the one doing it, and then he swung.

Thump came the sound as the flange of his wedge hit the sand. It was his swing, but it was different, maybe not to the naked eye, but in the speed, the level of tension, and the release. He opened his eyes again, almost tentatively, and looked at Mack with a combination of curiosity and amazement.

“I felt it that time,” Tyler said in a voice that seemed to resonate within from somewhere in the past. It almost sounded like Jackie’s in its exuberance.

“Yes… good,” Mack replied patiently. “Now close your eyes and do it again, but make sure you can feel it before you pull the trigger.”

Tyler settled in again, waited until, like the last time, he could see it, hear it, and then finally feel it… Thump… Something was slightly different this time, though, and Tyler opened his eyes to notice Mack kneeling down next to him. He had quietly deposited a ball into the place where Tyler had swung. Tyler looked up in the direction of the green and the target flag he had been aiming toward just in time to see a ball slow to a gentle stop about four inches from the flag.

“How’d you do that?” Tyler said, almost in wonder now.

“I didn’t,” Mack replied. “You did. You just had to stop thinking. See it, hear it, and feel it. Once you feel it, you can believe it. Anything more is more than we need. Any questions?”

As Mack turned to walk up out of the bunker, Tyler just stood there shaking his head a moment, looking at the spot in the sand, and then back up at the green as if to confirm the ball he’d seen roll to stop was still there. “I guess I’ve still got a lot to learn.”

“Well… yes and no,” Mack said cryptically as he turned back to look at him. “You pretty much know how to hit all the shots, Tyler. You’ve hit every one of them at one time or another. You’ve just got to learn how to empty your head of all those instructions so you can focus on finding the shot you need when you need it. It’s in there somewhere.”

“It’s hard to explain,” Tyler said, “but a lot of times I walk up and think I somehow just instinctively know what shot to hit without even thinking about it. I just kind of see it and feel it. It’s when I start to analyze things a bit more closely, factoring in all the things I know are important to consider like the wind, keeping away from the short side, where I want to putt from, and the best trajectory or shot shape for the situation, that I often start to second guess that feeling.”

“Ever heard the saying paralysis from analysis?” Mack asked. “It pretty much describes those moments.”

“Yeah, I get it,” Tyler replied, “but all that information is important. You have to consider everything and not just make a rash decision.”

“Sure, information is important, but you can’t get lost in it,” Mack countered. “Whether it’s golf, or just about anything else in life, Tyler, you need to learn to trust your gut. You’ve hit hundreds of thousands of shots in your life, Tyler. All those shots leave a mark. They leave an indelible little mark that gets filed away in your brain subconsciously, getting stacked one on top of the other. And after years of playing the game, those stacks and stacks of shots create an instinctive reaction to each situation. It’s like gravity. It pulls you in a certain direction so much that most of the time you almost know what club you should hit before you even know the yardage. Trust that, Tyler. Go with it, and know that first instinct comes from experience. There’s more wisdom in those gut reactions than just about anything else.”

“Thank you,” Tyler said after considering it a moment. “I think that’ll really help.”

“You’re welcome,” Mack replied. “Now rake that bunker for me and clean the balls off the green. I want to get things closed up before dark.”

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5 things we learned on Saturday at the 2018 U.S. Open

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Whoops, we did it again. While not as dramatic as the 7th hole concern of 2004, the Saturday of 2018 seemed eerily familiar. The commentators were divided on the question of whether the USGA was pleased with the playing conditions. The suggestion was, the grass in the rough was higher than necessary, and the cuts of the fairway and greens were just a bit too close of a shave. No matter, everyone finished and the band played on. The hashtag #KeepShinnyWeird didn’t trend, but Saturday the 16th was certainly not ordinary. Five weird things we learned, on the way.

5) Phil’s breaking point

It wasn’t violent. No outburst or hysteria. We’d seen Phil leap in triumph at Augusta. Now we’ve seen the Mickelson jog, albeit under most different circumstances. Near as we can determine, for a moment Phil forgot that he was playing a U.S. Open. After belting a downhill, sliding bogey putt well past the mark, the left-handed one discerned that the orb would not come to rest for quite some time: a lower tier beckoned. As if dancing a Tarantella, Phil sprang toward the ball and gave it a spank while still it moved. Just like that, his quadruple-bogey 8 become a 10, thanks to the 2 strokes for striking a moving ball penalty. In true warrior fashion, Mickelson accepted the penalty without questions, intimating that it saved him another stroke or two in the end. Yeesh. Phil, we feel you.

4) DJ’s front-nine free fall

Just as unlikely as Phil’s whack-and-walk was Dustin Johnson’s front nine of 41. The cool gunslinger of Thursday-Friday faced the same turmoil as the other 66 golfers remaining, and the outward nine did not go according to his plan. DJ got past the opening hole with par, after making bogey there on Friday. Number two was another story. Double bogey on the long par three was followed by 4 bogeys in 5 holes, beginning with the 4th. The irony once again was, Johnson struggled on holes that the field did not necessarily find difficult. Hole No. 2 was the 10th-ranked hole for difficulty on day 3, while 4 and 7 were 13th and 11th-ranked, respectively. Hole No. 6 and 8 did fall in the more difficult half, but not by much. At day’s end, however, the tall drink of water remained in contention for his second U.S. Open title.

3) The firm of Berger and Finau

Each likely anticipated no more than a top-15 placing after 3 days, despite posting the two low rounds of the day, 4-under 66. Those efforts brought them from +7 to +3 for the tournament, but Johnson and the other leaders had yet to tee off. Every indication was lower and deeper; then the winds picked up, blustery like the 100 acre wood of Winnie The Pooh. Both golfers posted 6 birdies against 2 bogeys, to play themselves into the cauldron of contention. Berger has one top-10 finish in major events, while Finau has 2. None of those three came in a U.S. Open, so a win tomorrow by either golfer would qualify as an absolute shock.

2) Recent winners fared well

In addition to Johnson, the 2016 champion, Justin Rose (2013) and Brooks Koepka (2017) found themselves near or in the lead for most of the afternoon. Since Shinnecock Hills offers much of what characterizes links golf, it should come as no surprise that 2016 British Open champion Henrik Stenson is also within a handful of strokes of the top spot. Rose played the best tee-to-green golf of the leaders on Saturday, but was unable to coax legitimate birdie efforts from his putter. Koepka was the most impressive putter of the day, making up to 60-feet bombs and consistently holing the clutch par saves. On another note, given his victories at Chambers Bay (2015 U.S. Open) and Royal Birkdale (2017 British Open), the missed cut by Jordan Spieth was the week’s biggest surprise.

1) The wind

The most unpredictable of nature’s weapons, the winds of Shinnecock Hills exposed flaws in the course preparation. Areas that would have held off-line putts, were dried out enough to escort those efforts off the shortest grass, into the runoff compartments. The zephyrs pushed tee balls and approach shots just far enough astray to bring all the danger zones into the recipe. Prediction for tomorrow is, any golfer within 5 shots of the lead has a chance at the title. A Miller-esque round of 63 would bring anyone into contention, if the wind continues to blow. No event appreciates drama more than the U.S. Open, and Sunday at Shinnecock promises plenty of it.

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