PGA Tour Confidential: Rory McIlroy’s Nike deal, Dustin Johnson’s outlook, more

January 14, 2013

Every Sunday night, the editorial staff of the SI Golf Group conducts an e-mail roundtable. Check in every week for the unfiltered opinions of our writers and editors and join the conversation in the comments section below.

Ryan Reiterman, senior producer, While the PGA Tour season has started with leisurely rounds in Hawaii, the serious business starts this week in Abu Dhabi, including Nike's little announcement on Monday. With Rory McIlroy expected to join team swoosh, the world is eager to see how he plays with his new equipment. Do you expect any growing pains for Rory and his new gear?

David Dusek, deputy editor, Not with the clubs as much as the golf ball. Rory's swing is pure, and Nike will make him customized irons, wedges and a driver to match his game, but it will take a few events to get totally used to a new ball. I also know that he LOVED his Titleist fairway woods, and pros tell me all the time that fairway woods are the hardest clubs to be fit for, so that may take a little time too.

Gary Van Sickle, senior writer, Sports Illustrated: Distance control is the key to scoring. Even a small variation in spin on the ball, loft on the iron and a little feel can spell a difference of 10 or 15 feet. Today's players figure they can play any clubs as long as they have their usual shaft, but it's almost never that simple. You think Graeme McDowell expected to play worse after he switched clubs after his Open win? Rory will likely have some growing pains with the new gear. Nobody is immune to that.

Mark Godich, senior editor, Sports Illustrated: That's a good point, but how often do these guys hit it the yardage they're given? I see a lot of 20- to 30-foot birdie putts. As we all know, it comes down to putting. Last I checked, Rory seemed pretty dialed in there.

Jim Herre, managing editor, SI Golf Group: No growing pains. He's probably been practicing with the new clubs and ball for months.

Michael Bamberger, senior writer, Sports Illustrated: I agree. Rory is not a technocrat. He could play with anything.

Charlie Hanger, executive editor, It will be an adjustment, but I don't think it'll be significant. Nike will get him a setup that feels familiar, looks good to his eye and is dialed in to nth degree.

Dusek: The driver won't be a problem; you simply hit it as far as you can. Issues will arise when Rory has to hit specific numbers. If he needed 133 with a fade, he knew what club and swing would produce that shot. Under tournament conditions, he may not have that with the Nike gear yet, but he will.

Jeff Ritter, senior producer, An adjustment period for new gear isn't unheard of (McDowell and Furyk spring to mind). And once the new Rory swoosh ads hit the air — Monday afternoon? — Rorymania is going to reach a new level. So besides his new sticks, he'll also have some new distractions. He'll eventually be fine, but I expect a little rough patch early this season.

Dusek: In a funny way, Nike can't win in 2013. If Rory fails to win a major (or wins fewer than two or three events), people will blame the equipment. If he wins two or three majors, people (like Graeme McDowell) will say that Rory could've won swinging a shovel.

Hanger: That's true to an extent, but if Rory wins a major or two with that Red Covert driver, they'll be popping the champagne in Beaverton.

Mike Walker, senior editor, Golf Magazine: Nike ends up with Tiger and Rory, so I think they can't lose. Whatever adjustments he has to make, he'll make them.

Tell us what you think in the comments section below: Will Rory have any growing pains with his new Nike gear?

Reiterman: Another question on my mind: How will McIlroy be branded? If Phil Knight asked for your input, how would you suggest marketing Rors to a global audience?

Godich: I'm eager to see how they package Rory and Tiger together. We know that's coming. Could be fun.

Stephanie Wei, contributor, SI Golf+: Can't wait for their first joint commercial!

Walker: The marketing strategy should be: Let Rory be Rory. He understands this stuff more than a roomful of marketing MBAs.

Hanger: I would market him as a jet-setting, hard-working, preternaturally talented golfer from Northern Ireland who just happens to also be sincere and likable. And as the heir apparent/friendly young rival to that other guy who plays Nike clubs.

Reiterman: I thought one of the best Nike commercials was when they showed Anthony Kim, Stewart Cink and other Nike players winning all those tournaments, and then Tiger walked into the locker room and everyone went silent. I hope Nike strikes a similar tone with Rory.

Herre: I wouldn't presume to offer marketing advice to the masters of marketing, but it will be interesting to see if Nike tries to capitalize on Rory's humaneness. Nike usually likes edge in its marketing.

Cameron Morfit, senior writer, Golf Magazine: I agree that however Nike positions Rory it'll have that familiar edge.

Bamberger: Market him as a young man who actually has an interest in the world around him, which is how he came across when I first met him.

Tell us what you think in the comments section below: How would you market McIlroy if you worked at Nike?

Reiterman: Last week Dustin Johnson captured the first PGA Tour title of the season and said afterward, "If I keep playing golf like I'm playing right now, then obviously there is no limit." Well, unfortunately for him, that didn't last 48 hours, as D.J. was forced to withdraw from the Sony with the flu. But looking at the big picture, will D.J. win the most titles of any American this season? If not D.J. or Tiger, then which American will rule 2013?

Herre: Could be D.J. – he may have the most talent – but of the young guns I'd put my money on Keegan Bradley, or a player with Bradley's type of desire and drive. Also, I think the Duf might have a huge year.

Bamberger: Of the young ones, Watney has the best overall game, but Bradley is the hungriest.

Godich: I'm going with Keegan Bradley. I think the Ryder Cup will give him a load of confidence. He'll get pushed by Rickie Fowler.

Dusek: Johnson has buckets of game, but I think 2013 doesn't set up well for him at the majors. His weakness is putting, so until he proves otherwise I have trouble saying he should win a Masters. Merion is going to be tight, which may take the driver out of his hands. Oak Hill has a lot of trees, which could give him trouble. I see D.J. winning two more PGA Tour events, but Tiger could definitely win more than that. I'm not sure anyone else will.

Wei: D.J. is unbeatable when he's cruising, but he still seems to make some major course-management mistakes that can bite him in the butt when he's not playing in a 54-hole event.

Ritter: D.J.'s got as much talent as anyone, but I think the American to watch this year is Keegan Bradley. Shipnuck's profile shed new light on just how intensely Bradley approaches Tour life, and the anchored putter ruling should add even more fuel. I think he'll win multiple times this year.

Reiterman: Hard to bet against a guy who has a chip on his shoulder and doesn't back down from a challenge. Loved the story of how he quieted Tiger's chirping about his belly putter.

Walker: For the 2013 season, I rank the Americans: 1. Tiger, 2. Mickelson, 3.Bradley, 4. D.J., 5. Dufner.

Hanger: My prediction for the big American winners this year: Dufner and Woods. I also think Phil will have a mini-resurgence, and Bradley and D.J. will be solid but not all-world.

Van Sickle: I think Tiger is your guy. If not, then Keegan. After him, somebody may jump out of the crowd – Russell Henley was a heck of a college player. I like his chances to succeed in a big way this year.

Dusek: Do you have a feeling that Mickelson needs a hot start on the West Coast Swing? I think we'll know how Phil's season is going to go based on what we see at Torrey Pines, Pebble Beach, Riviera and the WGC-Accenture Match Play.

Walker: Yes, it's important, but based on the way Mickelson finished the 2012 season, I expect he'll play well in the West Coast Swing.

Van Sickle: As we've seen in the past, Phil can play lights out at any given time, and he can also go the other way. He's won early and then fizzled and vice versa. He's mercurial, which is part of his appeal. You can never count him out, and you can also never count him in.

Tell us what you think in the comments section below: Which American will win the most events 2013?

Reiterman: Brandel Chamblee wrote this week that Tiger and Rory will block out all the parity talk this year. With all the talented young players out there, I just don't see it happening. What do you think?

Godich: Agreed. Tiger and Rory don't play enough to make this a two-man show. Plus, we've seen time and again how guys get hot from week to week. Just look at the Sony leader board.

Van Sickle: I've gotta go with Brandel on this one. Tiger and Rory exist in a higher stratosphere. Lots of good young players out there, lots of talent, but they're not on a level with Tiger and Rory. How many other guys are winning multiple times a year? Darned few.

Bamberger: Tiger and Rory could also go winless.

Hanger: Want to make a bet on that one?

Bamberger: Sure, if the odds are good enough. Like 100 to 1.

Wei: Rory and Tiger will dominate the headlines this year even if they stink, which they won't.

Walker: I agree with Chamblee. The Tour has a 1 percent again. You won't see 15 different major winners again for a long time.

Herre: Tiger and Rory will be the two headliners, especially leading up to the Masters. But if I've learned anything after all these years, it's that the season starts in Augusta and everything that happened before then is quickly forgotten.

Dusek: I think it's unrealistic to expect these two to hoard all the W's. Luke Donald, Keegan Bradley, Dustin Johnson, Justin Rose, Louis Oosthuzien (who just won again), Brandt Snedeker … these guys can play, and they're going to win too.

Hanger: I think Rory will be a cut above the rest, and Tiger will be among the handful of just-below-Rory elite players.

Van Sickle: No matter how much they play or win, Tiger and Rory will block out the parity talk. Even if they don't dominate the competition, they'll dominate the talk. That's a slam dunk.

Tell us what you think in the comments section below: Will Tiger and Rory rule golf in 2013, or will parity prevail?

Reiterman: Louis Oosthuizen captured the Volvo Champions in South Africa for his first title since coming oh-so-close to winning a green jacket. While it had been a while since he won, King Louis has quietly been playing some great golf in big events. Now No. 4 in the world, do you expect a big year for Oosthuizen?

Herre: I do. He's probably tired of being called an underachiever.

Van Sickle: If there's another player in the world right now who could make a run at the No. 1 spot other than Tiger, it's Louis. He's got it all. He could win a bunch, at least until he has all the tractors he needs.

Morfit: I agree. Louis has flown under the radar but he's a roll of the ball from having two majors, just like Rory.

Jim Gorant, senior editor, Sports Illustrated: Louis = paper Tiger. If we're betting money, mine's not going on him.

Ritter: Louis is my sneaky Masters pick, but he keeps getting less sneaky by the week. That swing is as rock solid as it gets, and the guy can putt. I think he'll be one of the few multiple winners on Tour this year.

Hanger: I think he stopped being a sneaky pick when he jarred that double eagle.

Godich: The big issue with King Louis is: How hungry is he? I think he finds another gear and has a big year.

Bamberger: I don't think he really wants to be king.

Wei: Louis is amazing, but sometimes he seems more concerned with excavators than golf. Not that there's anything wrong with that.

Dusek: With a swing like that, I always think Oosthuizen should have a big year. His motivation has always been the problem, sort of. He's got a nice, happy life on his farm in South Africa, so I wonder if he's got enough fire. The talent is unquestionably there.

Reiterman: It's even happier now that he has that excavator!

Hanger: But a Volvo excavator? Come on Louis, pick up a Deere in Illinois this summer!

Tell us what you think in the comments section below: Do you expect a big year from Ooshthuizen in 2013?

Reiterman: The European Ryder Cup captain will be selected Tuesday, and McIlroy tweeted Sunday that he supports Paul McGinley. Jose Maria Olazabal said he's never going to captain again, and Darren Clarke removed his name from consideration because he wants to focus on his own game. With the Ryder Cup being played in Scotland, should Monty get another crack at it, or should they pick McGinley, who clearly has the support of the biggest star on the team?

Walker: Anyone but Faldo.

Herre: Select McGinley. He'll be terrific. The Europeans look silly with all this drama. Hard to argue with success, but the understated U.S. selection process is more seemly.

Bamberger: McGinley would make for a great captain. My vote would be for Jimenez.

Godich: Jimenez could be the first captain to require team stretching exercises on the range. Wouldn't that be great?

Morfit: I'd love Monty to get it again because he just makes everything spicier, as G-Mac might say.

Hanger: McGinley would be great and deserving, so I'm hoping Monty gets it.

Godich: McGinley doesn't exactly inspire me. Why not follow the U.S. lead and bring Bernard Gallacher back.

Dusek: Monty got his chance and won. McGinley deserves his opportunity.

Van Sickle: Clarke probably took his name out of consideration after learning they were going to go with McGinley. Paul is an outgoing guy who is very popular. Funny how the Europeans don't have any trouble selecting captains who haven't won majors, while the Americans never consider anyone who hasn't. How's that working out, by the way?

Godich: Not only has McGinley never won a major, more often than not he missed the cut (15 missed in 27 events). And his only major top 10s are a sixth and a 10th at the PGA. Hey, maybe he should be captaining the U.S. side.

Tell us what you think in the comments section below: Who should be the next European Ryder Cup captain?


Reiterman: Well, that was impressive. Rookie Russell Henley birdied the last five holes to win the Sony Open by three shots. Was it me, or was there something a little different about this kid? I think we'll be hearing a lot more from him this year. Your thoughts?

Godich: That was impressive, but I'm not ready to crown him as a multiple winner in 2013. The early season always features a young gun who makes a big splash. Jhonny Vegas and Gary Woodland come to mind. What do you say we let Henley enjoy this victory for now?

Herre: Wow! Henley reminds me of Brandt Snedeker on the greens. Love how he gets over the ball and immediately pulls the trigger. Impressive.

Godich: He even looks a little like Snedeker.

Gorant: It does seem like one of these guys pops on the West Coast every year. Too early to say too much, but nice win.

Dusek: Exactly. A win's a win, but how many people remember that Johnson Wagner was the defending champion at the Sony? Maybe this is the start of something bigger, and maybe it's not.

Herre: Henley got a little quick a couple of times, but wouldn't any 23-year-old making his first start as a Tour member? Of course only time will tell, but I think he's for real. Has been playing well for several months now.

Wei: Super impressive. He rattled off five birdies to close like it was no big deal. Tim Clark must be scratching his head, thinking, I just shot 63 on Sunday. How did I not win?

Tell us what you think in the comments section below: Do you expect more big things from Henley in 2013?

Reiterman: Rory and Tiger are making their 2013 debuts this week and are expected to be paired again. Would you take Tiger and Rory to win or the field? (And remember, Robert Rock is the defending champion!)

Godich: You answered your own question. Robert Rock is the defending champ.

Bamberger: Gotta go with The Rock! You can have everybody else.

Morfit: I'll take Rory and Tiger over the field.

Wei: You're always supposed to pick the field, right? Even if it's against Rory and Tiger.

Ritter: In golf, and in craps, the field is never a bad bet.

Dusek: The field.

Van Sickle: I'd take the field. Of the two, I'd go with Tiger to finish higher.

Walker: The field. But based on the appearance fees, Tiger and Rory won when they showed up.

Tell us what you think in the comments section below: Who are you taking: Tiger and Rory, or the field?

Reiterman: After Abu Dhabi, Woods will jet over to San Diego and return to Torrey Pines after skipping the event last year. Since Woods has already added an event to his schedule, do you think he'll skip an event he played in last year (Pebble? Greenbrier?), or will a healthy Tiger be playing more in 2013?

Dusek: Sounds like Tiger is skipping Pebble Beach, which wouldn't be too surprising after last season's experience.

Godich: I can only hope that Tiger takes my advice and plays more. The more often Tiger tees it up, the better.

Walker: I hope so. These days, he plays better when he plays more.

Herre: I don't expect big changes in Woods's schedule or his number of starts. (I was surprised he played Pebble last year.) He will focus on the majors, the WGCs and protecting/expanding/building his brand. He's very predictable.

Bamberger: To echo Jim, he is pathologically predictable. Except when he's not.

Tell us what you think in the comments section below: Which event is Tiger most likely to drop this season? What new events is he most likely to add?