Eubanks: Rory's First-World Problem

By Steve Eubanks
Published on

It's a risky proposition, but the payoff makes it hard to resist.

On Tuesday it was announced that Rory McIlroy would join a long list of players who have changed equipment at the height of their playing careers. In a joint statement, McIlroy and Titleist announced that they would part ways at the end of the year.

"I would like to thank Wally Uihlein and all of the tour staff and employees at Titleist and FootJoy for everything they have done for me since I turned professional in 2007," McIlroy said. "I have enjoyed five very exciting and successful years with the company and I will always appreciate the contribution Titleist has made in helping me become the player I am today." 

Rumors swirl about McIlroy's future, most of them involving staggering sums of money. But this golden trail is fraught with danger, as evidenced by the list of players who have stumbled along the same path.

Remember Billy Andrade? The television analyst was once one of the hottest young guns in the game, and a marketer’s dream, especially after winning in back-to-back weeks back in 1991. Handsome, charming, articulate, and a birdie-making machine: Andrade had it all. Then he changed equipment, going to the high-end line of Maruman irons. They were excellent clubs, but they didn’t do much for Billy. His next win didn’t come until 1998.

And he’s not alone. Corey Pavin won twice in 1995, including the U.S. Open, and he picked up another victory in 1996. Then he changed to the trendy PRGR irons. He didn’t win again for 10 years.

Payne Stewart won eight times including two majors with Wilson clubs. Then he moved to Spalding after finishing sixth on the money list in 1993. The next year he finished 123rd and only won one time between 1994 and 1998.

Paul Azinger struggled when he switched from Wilson to Callaway, so much so that he flew to California with every intention of walking away from his deal. "When a man tells me he's willing to walk away from seven figures, I know I need to pay attention," Ely Callaway told Zinger at the time.

There are others: Graeme McDowell went from major champion and Ryder Cup hero to winless after making an equipment change. Jim Furyk went from three-time winner and FedExCup champion to 50th in the world at the end of 2011 after "tinkering" with his equipment.

The list goes on and on, with stories as predictable as "Behind the Music" episodes where rock stars blow their riches on floozies and booze.

Even Arnold Palmer has a story about an equipment change.

"Things started going sour when Wilson informed me that my contract wasn't up in 1960 as I thought, but was automatically renewed through 1963," Arnold said. "They had retained the right to automatically renew the contract; I hadn’t retained the right to get out of it." 

Arnold had operated under a handshake agreement with company president Fred Bowman, who’d told him that if he ever wanted to get out of their deal, the company would release him. "If you're not happy with us, we don’t want you with us, and it's better that we part friends," Bowman had said.

That turned out not to be true. At a meeting in the company’s Chicago offices some time later, Arnold's agent Mark McCormack asked the new president, Bill Holmes, if the handshake deal still stood. "Would you grant Arnold that release?" McCormack asked.

After a couple of uncomfortable seconds, Holmes said, "No, we would not." 

"That was it," Arnold said. "I might have been content to stick with Wilson for the rest of my career, or even the rest of my life, but as far as I was concerned the company had broken its word. Mark and I worked together for half-a-century on nothing more than a handshake, and I still believe men should honor their word. Wilson Sporting Goods didn’t do that, and our good working relationship ended that day." 

Arnold did pretty well with and without Wilson, just as Gary Player won with all sorts of clubs.

Rory might be just as fortunate. Or he might flounder for months or even years until he finds his sweet spot again.

Speaking to the Morning Drive crew on the Golf Channel, Nick Faldo said, "I'd be very cautious. I'd love someone like (Rory), in his position, to sell the bag. That bag is worth a fortune; it’d be on TV all the time. Stick with the clubs that you know best, that you believe in the best.

"It's really important. It's the feel and confidence of knowing that your equipment will perform how you want it to perform on Sunday afternoon. You can’t mess with that at such a young age." 

These are, of course, first-world problems. Rory's decision might be a tough call until you consider one important point: No matter what equipment he chooses, he is going to wake up on January 1 richer than the King of El Dorado.

And, regardless of what sticks he's playing, who can begrudge him that?


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