To be more precise, it’s about Rory McIlroy’s decision to change the clubs which he used to become the No. 1 golfer in the world.
Before we come to Rory, I need to tell you a yarn about the cyclist Sean Kelly. You may have heard it before, but like all good stories, it suffers no harm in the retelling.
It is 1984 and the Amstel Gold Classic race has finished in the Dutch town of Meerssen. Kelly, his wife Linda, their friends Herman and Elise Nyse, and the journalist David Walsh are waiting for Stephen Roche to emerge from doping
control. As they chat, Linda Kelly leans against her husband’s pristine Citroen. When she moves away, Kelly notices that his wife’s resting hand has left a mark on the bonnet. Without any fuss, Kelly casually wipes the stain away. But Linda
notices and is slightly annoyed. Miffed, she complains aloud, stating that her husband’s priorities in life are first his car, then his bike and lastly his wife.
Kelly is unmoved. He turns to his wife and informs her that she has got the order wrong. “The bike comes first,” he says.
Top sportsmen can be somewhat anally retentive when it comes to the tools of their trade. Eddy Merckx, the greatest cyclist of all time, was fixated with every detail of his equipment. The film A Sunday in Hell, which covered the 1976
Parix-Roubaix, revealed Merckx’s obsession with his position on the bike.
On the night before the race in the team’s hotel, Merckx spent several minutes checking and double-checking the height and angle of his saddle. He studied the distance between the saddle and his handlebars.
To conduct those measurements, he used a spirit level, a long metal ruler and a tape measure, which he carried to every race.
World rankings didn’t exist during Merckx’s career. Yet, if the system was in place, he would have been No. 1 for nine seasons. Between 1967 and 1975, Merckx was untouchable.
When the seeding format was introduced in 1984, Sean Kelly held the top spot for a record six years.
Not all sportsmen enjoy such longevity at the top of their game. On August 12 last year, Rory
McIlroy usurped Tiger Woods as the No. 1 golfer in the world.
Five months later, the 24-year-old joined Woods at Nike’s stable. The deal will earn McIlroy 145m $200m () over 10 years. In the time it takes you read this column, McIlroy will have earned about 88.
In return for the cash, McIlroy must wear his paymasters’s clothes. He must also play with his paymaster’s clubs.
But since binning his Titleist clubs, McIlroy has dropped to sixth in the world. His tenure as world No. 1 proved to be relatively short-lived, a mere 32 weeks.
At the US PGA Open in June, McIlroy bent one of his Nike irons over his knee. He later finished in 41st place. Two years earlier he won the same tournament by eight strokes.
Of course, it’s easy to understand McIlroy’s decision. How can you turn down 145,000? Is it even possible? Nick Faldo thinks it is. The six-time Major winner, who was No. 1 for two years, believes no amount of money should have persuaded McIlroy to change his clubs. “I’m surprised he’s going to Nike,” said Faldo. “Rory could easily start ‘The Rory Brand’ and build his own identity. He’s that popular, he doesn’t need to be a Nike guy, or Adidas guy or whatever… He could have put the clubs in the bag he likes, had his own clothing line, some huge backers and then just gone and played golf. He’d still earn fortunes from prize money and appearance fees, regardless.”
And sometimes the piper doesn’t always call the tune. For the seven years when Pete Sampras reigned supreme at Wimbledon, the swoosh symbol adorned the American’s t-shirts, shorts, wristbands, socks and trainers.
But there was one place where the Nike logo was conspicuously absent. For his entire professional career, which included 14 Majors, Sampras played with a Wilson tennis racket.
Moving away from professional sport, the topic of this column only entered my head when I learned about a decision which faced a member of our U16 team that recently reached the county final.
On the night of the last training session, the manager issued a set of routine housekeeping instructions. It was going to be a wet day, so the boys were reminded to bring gloves.
They should check their studs. And finally, under no circumstances should anyone turn up with a new pair of boots. New boots need to road-tested first and you don’t do that in a county final.
After the game, which the team was fortunate enough to win, the manager and I were talking to a father of one of the players. We all went to school together. The father lightheartedly cursed the manager.
A few days before the game he had bought his son a new pair of boots. They were expensive. Although the son didn’t want to disappoint his father, he still refused to wear them.
“The bottom line is he’s doing this for money,” said Nick Faldo when commenting on McIlroy’s decision to change clubs.
McIlroy responded to Faldo’s criticism by stressing that his primary motivation was silverware, not silver.
“Winning, trying to be the best player that I can be, trying to win Majors — that’s the real goal for me,” said McIlroy.
Really? Would Rory have changed his clubs if Nike hadn’t waved all those dollars in his face? No chance. In sport, there is the performance and there is the prize. Even a 16-year-old schoolboy knows that if a change in equipment might impede performance, then it’s not worth the risk. Somewhere along the line McIlroy has lost grip of those basic principles. But he is young and he can still recover.
Hopefully, he will come to understand where his golf clubs must rank in his list of priorities.