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For the first six years of his pro career, Rory McIlroy was great with Titleist golf equipment. Now he thinks he can be greater with Nike.
To play Nike clubs, like any golfer who changes from one company to another, McIlroy needs to believe his new tools will help him play better and win more tournaments.
No amount of money or the allure of a brand marketing behemoth like Nike could seduce a player into trading down to inferior equipment.
That's the popularly held belief shared by both the equipment gurus from the manufacturers that troll tour ranges and the habitually tinkering players who obsess over every detail of their clubs.
McIlroy is making his first foray into this winter spectacle that has long been a part of PGA Tour offseasons. On Monday in Abu Dhabi, the 23-year-old, two-time major champion said the switch to Nike had been "seamless" but those are the words of a man who's never put his new wares into competition.
On any given week on the PGA Tour, McIlroy could look on either side of him on the range for testimonies about the perils and possibilities of trading up.
Bo Van Pelt knows the club-change game probably as well as any of the top players on tour. Since turning pro in 1998, the 37-year-old former Oklahoma State star has been with four companies. In that time, he's played the Nike and Titleist balls as well as drivers from Ping, Nike, Titleist and now TaylorMade.
Van Pelt played with McIlroy in the final round of the 2012 PGA Championship, which the Northern Irishman won by 8 shots. Van Pelt believes that the present No. 1 in the world is good enough to easily make a smooth transition into the new clubs, yet he also believes there could be some rocky spots along the way.
"It takes a little bit of time to hit enough shots in a pressure situation to trust your equipment," Van Pelt said. "I think all the big companies have a good equipment.
"For me, it was just getting the repetitions in during competition to tell your mind that this equipment is going to do what it's supposed to do."
Van Pelt also said that while no player ever wants to admit that they traded down for the money, it does happen on tour.
"I didn't feel like I was going to an inferior product for the money," Van Pelt said. "But I think there are guys who have done this often through history.
"But hindsight is 20/20. You go in thinking this equipment is just as good. But then you look two years down the road and you say that it really wasn't as good as the driver you previously used."
Yet Van Pelt says it's a common error among players to lay blame for a bad shot on the new equipment.
"Guys that switch hit one bad shot or have a bad day, they think the driver is no good," he said. "Well, the driver is fine. It might be the golf swing or something mental."
At TaylorMade, where Van Pelt has been a staff player for the past two years, the emphasis is on getting its players into one of their drivers. Last year, Van Pelt played Mizuno irons, a Titleist ball and TaylorMade woods.
Many companies have what they call a soft transition that allows players several months to move into a complete line of their products.
McIlroy announced on Monday that he will be playing all 14 Nike clubs and its ball when he tees off on Thursday for the Abu Dhabi HSBC Golf Championship.
This concerns some industry insiders.
"That's the scariest thing I think once you start changing driver and ball," said Keith Sbarbaro, TaylorMade's vice president of tour operations. "That's generally when guys struggle when they change everything.
"You don't have one constant. At least if you've been playing with the same ball, then you know it's probably the driver and not the ball and vice versa."
Van Pelt believes that design innovations have made the kind of drastic changes that McIlroy's making much easier than they were 20 years ago.
"I would think he would have all 14 clubs a little quicker because it's come a long way as far as how close companies can make to what [you're] already playing," Van Pelt said. "There will be times on little shots around the green with the ball that he will have to make slight adjustments. But that comes with repetition. The kid has so much talent that it's just repetition for him."
Mike Sposa, a former PGA Tour player who is now a Callaway tour rep, believes the ball is the hardest thing for players to change because each brand's ball has a different cover, which gives them a different sound and feel.
|Although some companies allow "soft transitions" to using their clubs, that won't be the case with Rory McIlroy and Nike. All 14 clubs and his golf ball will be Nike products starting this week.|
"Sound is critical," said Sposa, who won the 1998 Boise Open on the Web.com Tour. "If the sound of the ball is dull, then they are going to think it's soft. If it's loud and clicky, they are going to think it's hard."
Yet Sposa believes that switching brands is mainly psychological and optical.
"It's difficult to transition a guy from a different company after having a great year," Sposa said. "You're almost in a no-win situation.
"If he continues to play great, people think that he can just play great with anything. If he doesn't have a good year then whomever he went to messed him up. Or they will say he should have stuck with what we had."
Time will tell how important the switch from Titleist to Nike will be for McIlroy. We might look back at this as a minor event on his climb up golf's record list. Or it could be a very costly check on his strivings if he struggles to find with the new clubs the excellent form that characterized his 2012 season, which included five worldwide wins, including the PGA Championship.
McIlroy will have five events to iron out any kinks with the Nike equipment before heading to Augusta in April. That will be the first real pressure test for the new clubs. For now, he's mostly bonding with his new weapons in the field of play, getting to know how they feel and react under the bright lights of the golf world.