RORY McILROY’S JOURNEY TO CHOOSING TAYLORMADE.
It was 8:00 AM on a Sunday in April. Three of TaylorMade’s leading product experts and Tour representatives had just arrived at The Bear’s Club in Jupiter, Florida for equipment testing after making a cross-country flight.
Positioned on the range of the gorgeous private club, Keith Sbarbaro (VP of Tour Operations), Brian Bazzel (Senior Director of Metalwoods Creation), and Eric Loper (Director of Golf Ball R&D) were set up for an in-depth equipment fitting with one of the world’s best and most accomplished golfers, Rory McIlroy. At the time, McIlroy was in the final stages of making a major decision regarding his commitment to new clubs and a new golf ball.
Less than a month later, news broke that McIlroy had signed a multi-year, 14-club plus golf ball contract with TaylorMade. As a result, he joined an elite Tour staff that now includes the top-3 players in the world, the 2017 Masters champion, a gold medalist, and the hottest rookie on the PGA TOUR.
To get the complete story on how McIlroy came to choose TaylorMade over the competition, we had a conversation with the three people who helped seal the deal that Sunday at The Bear’s Club.
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AN UNEXPECTED OPPORTUNITY
Sbarbaro: “I think every manufacturer sent Rory equipment pretty soon after the announcement that Nike was getting out of hard goods.
This was an unexpected opportunity. But as soon as that announcement was official, I made the call. I just wanted Rory and his team to know what we thought of him and how much we'd love to have him playing our stuff.
If you asked me a year ago, I would've never thought it was possible to have Rory McIlroy in TaylorMade equipment—he was going be in Nike clubs his whole career.
We had sent him some equipment—the first TaylorMade clubs he tested were our metalwoods. At that time, 14 of the 18 Nike players had already switched to our driver, and we definitely made him aware of where his Nike colleagues were going.
When I first saw Rory in person, he was on the range next to DJ… and Rory was joking with DJ saying that he had been “cheating” this whole time by playing an M driver. And in truth, Rory was picking up 15 extra yards of carry with his M2 and was excited to put it in play at the WGC-HSBC tournament in China.
After the tournament, he called it one of his best driving events ever. Then he played in Dubai a few weeks later and had another great driving week. In his mind, the TaylorMade woods passed the test and he knew he could play them long-term.
After that, there were conversations about all the equipment companies going to Dubai in December of 2016 to work with him. But after testing everything on his own, he had narrowed it down to TaylorMade and one other brand, but he didn't plan on making any decisions because he had a year as a free agent."
THE BEAR’S CLUB STRATEGY
Loper: “With every player, especially at this level, you need to have a strategy for evaluating new equipment. What does the player like and dislike about their current equipment? How do we want to talk about the key technologies that make the product perform? Keith and I sat down about two weeks prior to determine how TP5 and TP5x would benefit Rory.
Keith was the lead. He was facilitating the test—Brian and I were there for technical support when he needed it.”
Bazzel: “I give Keith a lot of credit. This is what he does for a living and he's the best in the business. We didn't have the Tour Truck there, and he essentially brought a mobile Tour truck through an airplane. We had everything we needed to do a complete fitting. He did an incredible job preparing for the most elaborate one-person fitting that I've ever been a part of.
First and foremost, we wanted to address the golf ball. The golf ball is one of the most important pieces of equipment, if not the most important piece of equipment to get right before you start dialing in everything else. Golf ball was priority one.”
Sbarbaro: “It ended up being an advantage that Rory had already played the Titleist ball and another brand’s driver because it gave him time to see the weaknesses in what he was using. I knew exactly what we were going to do and how the day was going to go. I knew that our golf ball was going to be the star of the day.”
THE DEFINING TP5x MOMENT
Bazzel: “Honestly, our plan was to start with the golf ball... and I think we had him at golf ball. I don't know how a player of that caliber could walk away from the performance that he witnessed with TP5x. If your career going forward is about winning major championships and putting yourself in history books, you want the best equipment. It was clear as day how incredibly well the TP5x was working for him. It was a defining moment.”
Loper: “We knew going into the test that he wasn't happy with the Pro V1x—and he mentioned that during our test. His feedback on golf balls he's played in the past was that his Nike ball was pretty good in the wind, but it lacked control around the greens... the Pro V1x was better around the green, but it would spin too much and get held up in the wind.
Every player has this challenge of using a ball that either has better iron performance at the expense of losing spin around the green or a ball with more spin around the green at the expense of iron performance—it's that choice. The benefit of TP5x is that it provides the greenside control AND the iron performance that players are looking for. You don’t have to make any sacrifice."
Sbarbaro: “I think the initial ball test was the winning moment. The advantage our ball has is that it's so much better in the wind—what happened with his old ball at Augusta won't happen with TP5x. And we were able to show him that during testing. In his words, he was "shocked” at how good this golf ball is. It was by far the star of the day."
Loper: “I've had quite a bit of experience working with our Tour players, and each of our Tour players has come from a competitor at some point. What I enjoy most is working with players when they are in transition from their old brand to TaylorMade because I know for a fact that our product can offer something more.
Having Rory come from playing the Pro V1x after saying it's not working for him and transition into our ball just further reinforces that we have an excellent product.”
Bazzel: “As it relates to metalwoods and Rory, there are few golfers that seem to be a step above when it comes to driving the golf ball. DJ is one of them, no doubt about it. McIlroy as well—when you look at the numbers and his ability to overpower golf courses with his driver, his performance with the driver in his hands is insane.
When you take arguably the best metalwoods on the planet and pair them with arguably one of the best players on the planet, it's a pretty powerful combination.
He left the fitting with a little bit more ball speed and the right launch conditions to ensure that his great shots were going to be great and his mis-hits were going to be as good as possible.
At the end of the day, we had 10 driver setups that were within 1-2 yards of each other, but it's not just about maximizing distance—it's about how it reacts when you're trying a certain shot, what happens when you try to go after one... we did all of that.
And he plays at a D8 swingweight, which is pretty heavy relative to the average Tour player. But we tried everything to see if we could pick up any performance and we concluded that D8 was the best fit for him.
The fitting was extremely thorough and he left with three drivers that he could legitimately go start a major championship with.”
RORS PROTO IRONS & BRITISH OPEN PREP
Sbarbaro: “When we sent him the new Rors Proto irons, he called them the most beautiful irons he's ever seen. They're like jewelry. And he didn't want to hit them because he knew if he hit them, he would want to play them and he didn't want to be changing things up that close to the Masters.
We took a similar design to what he was playing and made the topline a little thinner and took out some of the offset. There were hundreds of little things that we did to improve on what he already had.”
Bazzel: “I think another place where we started to shine as a potential partner for Rory was when we started testing utility irons in preparation for The Open Championship.
We gave him an M2 driving iron and a UDI. As he hit both of those clubs, he was shooting looks back at us like, are you kidding me?
It was like icing on the cake to give him multiple world-class driving irons in preparation to win another major championship.”
AN UNBELIEVABLE DISPLAY OF BALL STRIKING
Bazzel: “His capacity to be hitting drives at 180+ MPH ball speed without wavering was incredible. Showcasing differences between shafts, heads, weight, CG... it was like using a robot.”
Loper: “It was amazing to watch. When he missed, it wasn't a huge miss. His slowest ball speed was about 177 MPH. He was like a machine.”
Sbarbaro: “Watching Rory is just an unbelievable display of ball striking.”
THE FUTURE WITH RORY
Bazzel: “He is who he is. He is who people think he is. He is as genuine as they come.
I was also really impressed with his ability to work the golf ball. He could sweep a draw with a driver with some significant curvature. At that speed, to be able to control it and curve it on queue was incredibly impressive.
There's no better validation for our equipment than having a player of that caliber choose TaylorMade. He's making a decision that's going to help him win golf tournaments—and that's how it felt he approached the fitting.”
Sbarbaro: “Rory said it best, "I made the same mistake everyone makes. I defaulted to Titleist, assuming it was the best ball—it’s simply not."
I think his bag is in the best shape it has ever been in and his excitement level is unbelievable.
Good things are coming.”