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Rory McIlroy of Northern Ireland (AHMED JADALLAH/REUTERS)
Rory McIlroy of Northern Ireland (AHMED JADALLAH/REUTERS)

Rubenstein: McIlroy’s Nike debut fizzles Add to ...

Rory McIlroy hit the ball all over the place while shooting 75-75 to miss the cut in the Abu Dhabi HSBC Golf Championship by four shots. And while he was using Nike clubs for the first time in a tournament, having introduced his relationship with the company in a fancy, dazzling news conference on Monday, does his poor play mean that he shouldn’t have signed a contract estimated at anywhere from $100-million to $250-million and from five to ten years? McIlroy didn’t reveal the contract’s details, nor did Nike.

It’s way too early to answer the question with any confidence. Still, six-time major champion Nick Faldo tried. The Golf Channel analyst discussed the matter during the telecast of the first round of the PGA Tour’s Humana Challenge in La Quinta, Calif. on Thursday.

Faldo said that he’s known the 23-year-old McIlroy since he was 12, and that to “throw his winning clubs out the window” at this stage of his career, when he’s gone from a youngster to the number-one ranked player in the world, well, he didn’t need to do that. Faldo said he understands the lure of a monster contract, but then there’s what he called the “feel factor” of a player’s clubs. He said that a manufacturer could make half a dozen drivers for a player with exactly the same shafts, heads, weights, etc., and that a player would still likely pick one out and know that’s the one he wants.

“You can see it, you can feel the difference,” Faldo said. Every tour player would agree.

McIlroy said during the news conference on Monday in Abu Dhabi that he felt great about his new clubs. He’d been to Nike’s facility in Ft. Worth, Tex., called The Oven, to test and work on the clubs. He’d field-tested them. He was ready to take them into battle. He said that he was happy with the Nike Method putter that he had in the bag, but wouldn’t say whether the contract allowed him to use another manufacturer’s putter if he chose to. He looked uncomfortable at the question and there’s really no reason he shouldn’t have answered it.

Anyway, the answer came quickly in the second round at Abu Dhabi. McIlroy hadn’t putted well on the relatively slow greens in the opening round, and showed up with his old Scotty Cameron putter in the second round. He did put a Nike head cover on the putter, but that didn’t exactly provide camouflage if that’s what he was aiming for. He wanted a slightly heavier putter on the slow greens, so he brought out his Scotty. Scotty didn’t perform for Rory.

McIlroy will now take four weeks off. He’ll work on his game. He’ll tweak his clubs. He’ll return to competition in the World Golf Championships-Accenture Match Play in Marana, Ariz., outside Tucson, which starts Feb. 20th. He’ll again be in a rather different oven than The Oven. He’ll be in the heat of the golfing world’s glare. The spotlight will be on him but good, and but hot.

That’s been the case since McIlroy showed what kind of game he has when he won the 2011 U.S. Open by eight shots. The spotlight only intensified, and ramped up further when he won the PGA Championship last August by eight shots.

It heated up further once McIlroy, the number-one ranked player in the world, became embroiled through no fault of his own in the controversy over whether he would represent the U.K. or Ireland in the 2016 Olympics. McIlroy grew up in Northern Ireland, which of course is part of the U.K. Here’s what he told the BBC earlier this month on the unfortunate situation.

“I feel Northern Irish and obviously being from Northern Ireland you have a connection to Ireland and a connection to the UK. If I could and there was a Northern Irish team I’d play for Northern Ireland. Play for one side or the other – or not play at all because I may upset too many people. Those are my three options I’m considering very carefully.”

Whatever McIlroy chooses, he’s in a no-win situation with respect to the 2016 Olympics. The situation has arisen because of where he was born. The Nike situation is different. McIlroy chose to leave Titleist and to sign with Nike. The spotlight will only get hotter and more focused because of his decision. McIlroy is a global golfer and what we are seeing is global heating, with the heat on him.

McIlroy is a personable young man who has always seemed to me most at ease far from the spotlight, most comfortable on a range or course hitting shots, locked into the playing of the game, and competing. But he is in the spotlight by virtue of his ability, his accomplishments, and his choices.

This also applies to his private life. He got up in the middle of the night after his Monday news conference to watch Carole Wozniacki, the tennis star and his glamorous girl friend, play her first-round match at the Australian Open, which she won. McIlroy was tired on Tuesday.

The tournament didn’t start until Thursday, of course, but he was swinging poorly and looked beaten up. You have to wonder about whether the life he’s leading isn’t exhausting him–never mind the fact that he’s still young. He and Wozniacki are an item in a media environment that hones in on celebrity and sharpens its teeth when a glam couple is there for the picking. This will only send more attention his way. Ditto for a glam contract, especially if it’s seen as the culprit that neutralized a formerly glam game.

It’s going to be interesting to see how McIlroy handles the glare and the questions about his equipment change, especially if he doesn’t play to his standard. Maybe it will all turn out well. Again, it’s far too early to conclude that his equipment change will prove to be a problem.

“Rory will get the equipment ironed out,” PGA Tour player Steve Flesch tweeted Friday after he missed the Abu Dhabi cut. “His swing looked out of sorts from the start. A lot of pressure on him this week. He’ll be fine.”

His swing is one thing, and it was out of sorts. But what if McIlroy’s nature itself means that he will be out of sorts? That’s a different matter, and, perhaps, harder to sort out. The season has only just begun. Let’s see where all this goes.

RELATED LINK: More blogs from Lorne Rubenstein

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Lorne Rubenstein has written a golf column for The Globe and Mail since 1980. He has played golf since the early 1960s and was the Royal Canadian Golf Association’s first curator of its museum and library at the Glen Abbey Golf Club in Oakville, Ontario and the first editor of Score, Canada’s Golf Magazine, where he continues to write a column and features. He has won four first-place awards from the Golf Writers Association of America, one National Magazine Award in Canada, and he won the award for the best feature in 2009 from the Golf Journalists Association of Canada. Lorne has written 12 books, including Mike Weir: The Road to the Masters (2003); A Disorderly Compendium of Golf, with Jeff Neuman (2006); This Round’s on Me (2009); and the latest Moe & Me: Encounters with Moe Norman, Golf’s Mysterious Genius (2012). He is a member of the Ontario Golf Hall of Fame and the Canadian Golf Hall of Fame. Lorne can be reached at rube@sympatico.ca . You can now follow him on Twitter @lornerubenstein

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