Bunker Mentality

McIlroy’s move to Nike raises concerns

Rory McIlroy failed to make the cut at the Abu Dhabi Golf Championship. (AP)

The news came on Friday that the top two ranked players in the world, the two new Nike bromance boys, the rivalry we all think will be the Nicklaus-Watson of the Instagram Era started off as a big, old, stinky flop in 2013.

Both players missed the cut, marking the first time since last summer's US Open at Olympic Club in San Francisco that the world's top two players did that, when Luke Donald and Rory McIlroy both missed the cut. But that's a US Open, and it's meant to destroy souls and turn leaderboards upside down.

This is Abu Dhabi, at a place where McIlroy finished second, second and third the last three years; and a place where Tiger finished third just last year in his first go-round there.

I'm actually less concerned about Tiger after this weekend. His issues have been the same since the 2009 Thanksgiving night Escalade-into-the-tree: bruised image, bruised confidence, a putter that has never been the same, and a changing golf landscape around him. His missed cut at Abu Dhabi, while disappointing and reflective of how Tiger at age 37 is not Tiger at age 25, isn't part of a larger statement of decline – yet. He's at Torrey Pines this week, and we'll see how he plays.

I'm more concerned about Rory.

Now, now. This is not a Rory's-switch-to-Nike-is-a-death-knell-to-his-career column. It is, however, a I-have-a-weird-vibe-about-Rory's-switch-to-Nike column.

Several things trouble me. There's the simple aesthetic. The Nike "swoosh" on his hat makes it look like he's been captured and brainwashed by a cult. The impish, curly-haired wunderkind from Northern Ireland wearing the "swoosh" gives off the feel of a cool indie band signing a major label deal, and having their songs rewritten for a pop audience.

But that's a trifling concern compared to the club switch. Of course, this is a story often told in golf history, whether it's Johnny Miller in the 1970s or Nick Price in the 1990s, players have switched equipment and foundered. And, of course, many players have switched equipment and succeeded.

Rory moving to Nike from Titleist bothers me, primarily because it violates one of life's primary rules: If it ain't broke, don't fix it. Rory, with two Majors at age 23, was not broken. He didn't need fixing. Money is great, and money is fun, and exposure is great and exposure is fun, and the idea of cocktailing with LeBron James at a South Beach club is surely enticing. But I've got news for Rors: If he stayed with his original equipment, and kept winning Majors, he'd still get lots of money and exposure, and I'd bet that LeBron would still text him and invite him to da club.

McIlroy shot 75-75 at Abu Dhabi, hooked drives and putted so poorly with his Nike putter on Thursday that he switched back to his Titleist putter on Friday. He volunteered that his game with his new Nike irons is way off from where he wants it. He tried to spin positive, saying that he has four weeks until his next event, the Match Play, and is only concerned about being sharp for Augusta.

If he wins the green jacket, all is not only forgiven, but the last laugh is all McIlroy's. But he's a more sensitive kid than Tiger was at his age, and I get the odd feeling that pressure weighs on him more than it did Tiger, who was bred to belly-laugh at pressure by his late father, Earl. Media scrutiny will increase with each poor performance, and McIlroy will probably get out of his comfort zone trying to prove everyone wrong.

Even the much-ballyhooed Nike spot with Tiger, while light and fun, feels unnatural. Rivals don't need to hate each other, but a little intensity and dislike makes sports a little more vibrant. It feels like both guys are compromising a little bit too much for the Almighty Dollar.

Already, I long for the old Rory in the "Jumeirah Hotels" cap, and the dialed-in Titleist irons, like looking back on your high school yearbook and remembering more innocent days. Maybe I'm just getting old and fear new things. Maybe Rory rips off five wins this year, adds another Major and soars with his new Nike clubs and balls. But one tournament in, he's 0-for-1.

SCORECARD OF THE WEEK

67-66-67-63 – 25-under 263, Brian Gay, winner (play-off), Humana Challenge, PGA West (Palmer Course), La Quinta, California.

They're quickly working on the new slogan down at US Tour HQ. "The PGA Tour: These Guys Shoot 63 on Sundays To Win."

A week after rookie Russell (My Chest Hair Defies Manscaping) Henley shot 63 to win the Sony Open, the short-hitting, short-game master Gay posted a 63 to catch and tackle overnight leader Scott Stallings in the open field.

He wasn't alone going low. Charles Howell III shot 64 to force his way into a play-off, and Swede David Lingmert shot a tidy 62 to get there, too. The Humana Challenge – formerly the Bob Hope – is kind of that way, offering birdies the same way white-gloved waiters offer hors d'oeuvres at fancy parties.

It's good to see guys like Gay win. He reminds us that guys like Dustin Johnson, who hit it roughly 700 yards off the tee, and make us feel awful about our own, muscled-up, 215-yard drives, are freaks, and that some players on Tour actually do hit it normal, non-Dustin distances.

Gay was 176th on Tour in driving distance last year, hitting it "only" 292 yards a pop. But he's an assassin with the short game, sixth on Tour in strokes gained putting, and has one of the best sand games out there. He hadn't won since 2009, when he won twice, and was able to keep his head while all around him his peers lost theirs. Each of his primary foes down the stretch – Stallings, Howell, Lingmert – orchestrated a self-immolating mishap.

And Gay has worked to get better. Although he's only 5-foot-10, 160 pounds and can fit in Johnson's hip pocket, Gay got into strength training of late and actually popped a drive over 300 yards on Sunday when he needed to.

So we're three weeks in, and we've seen a variety platter of winners: Johnson, the Paulina Gretzky-dating star; Henley, the rookie who served notice; and now Gay, the grinding 41-year-old veteran.

MULLIGAN OF THE WEEK

We had a potpourri of choices for Mully o' the Week. Howell missed a 5-foot putt that would have won on the 72nd hole. Lingmert hit one of the worst shots you'll see under pressure in the play-off, rinsing his second on the 18th hole as if that was where he was aiming.

But we've got to shine a light on the guy who slept on a five-stroke lead Saturday night, and went home with Mr. Congeniality on Sunday night: poor Scott Stallings.

Stallings is a good player who can, and has, won. In fact, he was bucking to win for the third consecutive year. As if intent on making it three-for-three, Stallings birdied three of his first four holes.

But on the seventh hole, he missed an 18-inch tap-in for par. Uh-oh. He stalled from there, making pars while his competition was raining in birds. Still, he came to the par-5 18th hole with a chance to birdie for the victory. Eighteen at PGA West isn't a gimme birdie, but it's eminently doable – especially after Stallings smoked his drive and had a 6-iron from the fairway, 223 yards to the green.

In Tour-speak, that's a pretty good situation: Hit ball on big green, two-putt for bird, pose for picture holding crystal …

Except!

Pressure is a funny thing. Stallings obviously felt it, and made a tension-filled swing, tugging his ball left, and … splash.

Stallings had to take a drop, chipped it on for four, and missed his par try. Bogey, and he missed the would-be four-way play-off. The 6-iron from 223 has already ruined Stallings' 2013 year.

So, let's head back out to the 18th green, drop that golf ball into that sweet fairway lie, remind Stallings to miss right and … give that man a mulligan!

WHERE DO WE GO FROM HERE?

Torrey Pines is always a highlight of the West Coast Swing, and Tiger will be there to make his American debut, having caught the always-convenient Abu Dhabi-to-La Jolla puddle jumper.

Phil Mickelson will play, also, but I'm a little skeptical as to the impact Philly Mick will have in 2013. Bubba Watson, Keegan Bradley and the uber-talented Johnson will play also, so start your Paulina Gretzy "Gallery Cam" count.

By Brian Murphy

Brian Murphy covered golf for the San Francisco Chronicle and now talks about sports in the mornings on KNBR Radio's "Murph & Mac" show in the San Francisco Bay Area.