And with good reason. Only Tiger Woods -- at age 21 in 1997 -- had a quicker rise to No. 1 spot in the Official World Golf Ranking than the 23-year-old from Northern Ireland. So a global gabfest erupted when the best young player and hottest property in the game chose to switch out of his old equipment and follow the footsteps of his childhood hero right into the Beaverton, Ore., headquarters of Nike Golf.
McIlroy’s decision to join Nike has set off some predictable alarms around the golf world. When a golfer who just finished his best season as a pro shows up at his first event the following year rocking a swoosh on his cap and sleeve and carrying 14 new clubs and a new golf ball, heads turn, tongues wag and tweeters tweet.
Never mind that this sort of thing happens routinely on the PGA TOUR and other tours around the world. When it involves high-profile players, it becomes huge news. And when it involves the curly-haired kid from Holywood whose worldwide record in 2012 was five wins, including the PGA Championship for his second major, and who was voted PGA TOUR Player of the Year by his peers?
Is "huger" a word?
A rise this swift to a level this high inevitably gives rise to increased scrutiny. With the spotlight comes the microscope and the pointed questions follow. And when McIlroy hit some uncharacteristically stray shots and missed the cut at Abu Dhabi, it took about a micro-second for some equipment mavens to wonder aloud whether he had gone after the fast bucks and abandoned the tools that got him to the top, thus imperiling this season and impeding his progress.
Here’s the quick answer to that: you’re joking, right? We’ll deal with McIlroy’s track record on career decision-making in a moment. But first, without delving too deeply into the state of technology amongst the major golf manufacturers, suffice to say that -- although a relative newcomer to club and ball manufacturing (Est. 1998) -- Nike Golf is quite capable of competing on a level playing field with TaylorMade, Titleist, Callaway Golf, Ping, Cleveland, Mizuno and all the other OEMs assembled this week in Orlando, Fla., at the PGA Merchandise Show.
Like other companies mentioned above, Nike can produce rapid prototypes for its staff professionals -- or "branded golf athletes," as it prefers to call players who wear the swoosh. Its R&D center in Fort Worth, Texas, is as impressive a facility as any in the golf business, and has the capacity to modify the club specs for its players in a hurry.
Consider now the career decisions McIlroy already has made. Looking for a new direction and more individual attention, he changed management companies last year. He decided, after having left the PGA TOUR after one year, to reinstate his membership last season and hold dual membership with the European Tour. How’s all that turned out?
Is the same man who decisively made those moves likely to jump into a deal only for the dollars? Even for the published annual compensation of $20 million? Not likely.
Reluctance to insert yours truly into the story is a self-imposed guideline. But when the anecdote fits, use it, especially when it provides a comparable perspective. The last time an equipment change drew this kind of attention, the player was Phil Mickelson, the company was Callaway Golf and the year was 2004. At the time, my title at Callaway was Senior Vice President, Global Press and Public Relations, meaning I handled all relations with my friends in the media.
Phil had a stellar college career and won 23 PGA TOUR events, including the 2004 Masters, during his successful affiliations with Ping, Yonex and Titleist. He was ranked No. 4 in the world on the Official World Golf Ranking, his Titleist contract was expiring, and he was considering his options with other manufacturers. The month before the Ryder Cup was to be played at Oakland Hills, he signed with Callaway, swayed by the company’s new golf ball and driver combination. The surprise signing and the proximity of the Ryder Cup combined to cause quite an uproar in the media.
Baseless rumors arose in some quarters, questioning Mickelson’s motivation for signing. When I say baseless, I mean totally unfounded, manufactured rumors alleging gambling debts that had no basis in fact. Mickelson did like to gamble at the time, but he had zero outstanding debts and his betting patterns -- a stat that Vegas casinos keep -- had him even, to slightly up. All the information was checked out by Callaway’s head of investigations, a former head of counterintelligence for the U.S. Army, and no evidence was found to support the claims, either of gambling debt or any other charge.
By the time the Ryder Cup rolled around, the focus had shifted from rumors to the fact that Mickelson had chosen to put his new clubs and ball into play during the competition. As luck would have it, he was paired with Woods. Mickelson had been very comfortable with his transition to the new irons and woods. But there is a difference between comfort level on the practice tee and in practice rounds, and comfort level in the cauldron of competition.
To say Phil had a tough first day at the 2004 Ryder Cup is like saying Rory had a few problems on the second nine on Sunday at the 2011 Masters. You can look it up. I had to live it. And, surrounded by golf writers looking for a company comment at the end of the day, all I could manage was a smile and a single comment.
"So," I said, "That went well."
As it turned out, it did. After the Ryder Cup, every golf fan knew what clubs and ball Mickelson was playing. And he has used the tools well in the nine years since, winning 17 times for his current total of 40 victories, including three more majors -- two of them Masters -- for a total of four.
If I were a betting man, I’d wager that Rory McIlroy will do at least that well in the next nine years, with whatever clubs he chooses to use. I don’t gamble. So I’ll just say it.
Larry Dorman is a freelance columnist for PGATOUR.COM. His views do not necessarily represent the views of the PGA TOUR.