Dressed head-to-toe in immaculately pristine ‘Swoosh’ apparel, Rory McIlroy was unveiled as the latest high-profile addition to Nike’s ranks. His decision to swap equipment manufacturer rekindled the debate of whether a player should change clubs while at the top of their game.
Nick Faldo’s assessment was unambiguous – “I call it dangerous. You have to be very, very careful. You easily could go off and do this and it messes you up because it just doesn’t quite feel the same.” – and encapsulated the general feeling among the golfing community towards a timeworn myth.
After all, the old adage says if it ain’t broke don’t fix it. The golfing superstition of how swapping clubs can provoke a change in fortunes was only heightened further when McIlroy, who started the year as world number one, endured a nightmare season.
Although the reasons for the 23-year-old’s slump in form cannot be conclusively pinpointed to anything in particular, the role of McIlroy’s new Nike VR_S Covert Tour Driver or 20XI X golf ball to his turbulent year have been hugely inflated.
Ultimately, the ability and proficiency of the player standing over the ball far supersedes the club and equipment in their possession.
Some will argue that the advancements in equipment has meant that each player’s individual needs must be catered for and one cannot simply chop and change clubs.
However, Henrik Stenson’s victory at the World Tour Championships makes that notion somewhat obsolete. The current world number three was forced to use a different driver than his usual TaylorMade after he had smashed his original model a week earlier.
Moreover, the ease at which Tiger Woods made the transition from Titleist to Nike a decade ago had little or no negative effect. Similarly, Phil Mickleson has changed equipment companies twice in the past ten years.
The emergence of an abundance of manufacturers has resulted in a hugely competitive market and fuelled a war between rivals to become the sector’s main protagonists.
Traditional companies such as Titleist and Mizuno no longer dictate with multi-national sporting brands such as Nike and TaylorMade-Adidas changing the dynamic of the sector with monumental sponsorship deals thrown at the world’s most-recognisable players.
Although McIlroy was their main piece of recruitment in 2013, Nike also added Nick Watney, Kyle Stanley and Seung-yul Noh to their already profitable books.
It brings their representation on the PGA and European Tours to 26 including Britons Ross Fisher, Simon Dyson, Paul Casey, Scott Jamieson, Richard Finch, Tommy Fleetwood and Oliver Fisher in addition to McIlroy. It’s a sizable and impressive roster but further underlines the ability for money to talk.
This week, the 2013 FedExCup and Race to Dubai champion Henrik Stenson officially enlisted with another powerhouse, Callaway Golf.
On first glance, it’s a bizarre move for a player who has only just re-established his form, albeit exceptionally, after a fall from grace and a period in the doldrums. At one point, the Swede slumped to 230th in the world.
But, the 37-year-old has insisted his Callaway irons contributed to his revival. Regardless of the statement’s validity, the cynics will see it as nothing more than a marketing ploy from Stenson.
— Callaway Golf (@CallawayGolf) January 3, 2014
It epitomises the modern age. Stenson wasn’t an attractive option when he was missing cut after cut and sliding down the world rankings. His bag contained a variety of clubs including Callaway, TaylorMade, Cleveland and Piretti as he attempted to find a formula to restore his confidence and form with a ‘mixed-bag’ approach.
It was an admirable strategy by Stenson as he experimented between clubs for the benefit of his long-term game.
Yet, it’s a far cry from the situation he finds himself in now as he prepares to return to the fairways at the Abu Dhabi HSBC Golf Championship later this month. The details of the endorsement deal haven’t been disclosed but the worth, for a player who claimed more than $12m in prize money during 2013 alone, is presumably colossal.
Furthermore, Callaway are yet to reveal what clubs will be in Stenson’s bag but that’s hardly surprising. Akin to football fans eagerly anticipating the new season to see their club’s new kit, the turn of the New Year sees a host of golfers sporting new equipment and logos on their shirts.
Harris English, coming off the back of a breakthrough year, has been rewarded for his successes with an endorsement deal by Callaway while reigning US Open winner, Justin Rose, has penned an enhanced contract with TaylorMade for the next five years.
It’s a clear indication that triumph brings substantial prosperity off the course.
In an unexpected and surprising move, four-time major winner Ernie Els has made a big change by signing with Adams Golf, who continue to expand.
If there was any more evidence required to highlight how the lure of big-money deals overrides brand loyalty and the risk of failure than the South African’s switch is just that.
In an age of commercialisation, triumph not only brings fame, recognition and esteem but economic prosperity.
Consequently, financial incentives and the opportunities that the aforementioned endorsement deals bring far outweigh everything else. The ever-increasing ‘pick and choose’ mentality of a player when it comes to tournaments either side of the Atlantic and further afield is driven by money and commercial events.
Exhibit A being the continued apathy of the top golfer’s towards the season-opening Tournament of Champions in Hawaii because the prize fund is minimal in comparison to the events in the coming weeks.
Unfortunately, it’s the reality of the age we live in.
Nobody can blame Stenson or his colleagues for switching equipment allegiances – especially with the financial benefits associated – but the way things are going, sponsors are dictating the schedule of golfers and their decisions with financial impetus overruling the fundamental traditions of the game.