Speaking of Mickelson, he once said that a certain World No. 1 was playing “inferior equipment,” one of a few “dumb” (his word, not ours) observations he has made during his career. That particular top player wielded a sack full of inferiors and beat everybody’s brains out with them. And despite falling on his money clip in Abu Dhabi, there’s no reason Rory McIlroy won’t eventually do the same, the key word being “eventually” (our word, not his). In no other sport except auto racing does the equipment mean as much as it does in elite professional golf. The players are practically intimate with their clubs, even going so far as taking them back to their hotel rooms at night. Players can tell the most infinitesimal difference between grip size, shaft flex, face hardness, lie angle and club length in every club in the bag from the driver on down. The reason they can do this is that they spend hundreds of hours and thousands of balls becoming so familiar with their clubs that they swear they could tell the difference with their eyes closed. That’s why outfitting elite players with new equipment is such a time-consuming proposition and is often hit-and-miss. That’s also why at every PGA Tour event, from Monday through Wednesday, there are huge trucks from all the major equipment manufacturers whose reps are there to bend, tweak, re-shaft and otherwise fine-tune their players’ clubs. Once on the Champions Tour, Bruce Lietzke’s equipment rep brought out a brand new set of irons for Lietzke to try. The rep beamed with pride as Lietzke striped one iron after another so straight you could hang laundry. After hitting a couple dozen balls, Lietzke handed the irons back to the rep. “I can’t play these,” Lietzke said. “I can’t fade them.” Which begs the question: Why would world-class players, once they have their equipment exactly where they want it, make a radical change? The primary reason is money – stacks of it. Some players, including the current World No. 1, can make more from an equipment deal than they could in career Tour prize money. Players don’t make big changes because they think the other guys’ stuff is worlds better. They change because someone offers to make them wealthy, some more fabulously than others. The other reason Tour players make changes is that their current equipment company fails to renew their contract and they are forced to change. They have the same problems becoming accustomed to new gear but their struggles are much less publicized. Wouldn’t it be curious to find out that if equipment contracts became extinct and players played what they wanted and thought was best, what equipment would they choose? Which brings us back around to McIlroy. It was clear that he had his gear humming. He was one of the longest players in the game off the tee, his iron shots were stunning, his short game was as good as there is and he made way more than his share of putts on his way to his second major championship at the age of 23. Yet, he traded all that success for 14 clubs from a completely new manufacturer for a reputed $250 million, give or take a few mil. A certain prominent television announcer, with six majors on his resume, strongly suggested that McIlroy made a big mistake. McIlroy turned up at Abu Dhabi with a sack full of new clubs and it didn’t take long for him to look like a lost child. He was paired with Tiger Woods for the first two rounds and when both players hit driver on the button, Tiger was hitting it past McIlroy off the tee, something that never happened last year. McIlroy wasn’t at all certain which direction the ball was going and he shucked his new putter after the first round in favor of the old favorite, with no better luck. Late in the Friday round, on his way to missing the cut with a pair of 75s, he had the look of a young man with $250 million worth of regret. He has taken the next four weeks off and it’s certain he will spend most of that time attempting to become more familiar with his new clubs. There will be changes, lots of them, before McIlroy plays his next event. But in order to see if the changes make a real difference, he needs tournament rounds. Not knowing exactly what your clubs and ball are going to do creates doubt, and doubt is the great killer of golf swings. Padraig Harrington suggested that it might take three months of competition before McIlroy can cast out all the gremlins, which means he’ll need some patience. So will we. Most everyone who is at least semi-serious about golf has tried to buy a game with the latest sensations on the market. Equipment companies, on the other hand, try to buy a Tour player’s game in order to sell more of the same latest sensations. Problem is, players don’t always benefit. At least not right away.