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US Tour: The year of the young guns stateside

Rory McIlroy struggled in his first outing with the Nike putter

"Phil Mickelson has already alluded to making “drastic changes” in order to keep his Gulfstream in gas"

Romilly Evans takes a look at changing times on the US Tour and their possible impact on the Money List...

There are a lot of changes going on in stateside golf at the moment. This week this PGA Tour players meet to discuss the dreaded anchoring debate - an issue which sounds like it affects safe mooring on Hilton Head Island, but is actually more concerned with the illegal fastening of a putter to a player's protruding belly. The USGA are proposing a ban from January 1st 2016, but the Tour itself can enforce the change sooner - apparently as early as this October - in a bid to quash the controversy as soon as possible.

With three of the past five major champions all wielding the belly putter (Ernie Els, Webb Simpson, Keegan Bradley) and a "growing advocacy" on Tour, it's a move which is going to be unpopular with many and could have some long-lasting effects on tournament results. Consider the old maxim: driving for show, putting for dough.

Speaking of cash, California's new tax legislation, Proposition 30, which takes a chunk out of the incomes of high-net-worths, is also going to prompt some upheaval. Not least from the Golden State's poster boy, Phil Mickelson, who has already alluded to making "drastic changes" in order to keep his Gulfstream in gas.

Lefty has long been one of the highest earners in world sport (and reportedly raked in another $90m of the greenest foliage last year) but the law changes could see him swap state, even consider partial retirement. Mickelson has never had a problem prioritising the personal over the professional and he will do "what's right for my family."

Steve Stricker is also all about the kids, too, even though he resides in Wisconsin. Strick plans to enter "semi-retirement" this season, spending more time at home, calming his sciatic nerve and focusing on his foundation. The American old guard are certainly making it easier for the young guns with their reduced schedules.

In spite of all this, the hot potato being passed around the conversation table has been that of golfing equipment and the dangers of changing it. Of course, any argument is more closely scrutinised when it concerns the best player in the field, and Rory McIlroy's immediate struggles since switching from Titleist to Nike this term have shone a light on the potential pitfalls.

Britain's greatest golfer to date, Sir Nick Faldo, was the first to publicly question McIlroy's decision. "I've changed clubs and every manufacturer will say, 'We can copy your clubs, we can tweak the golf ball to fit you', explained the six-time major champ. "But there's a confidence to be found in that feel and sound you trust. You can't put a real value on that." In fairness to McIlroy and Nike, with a £78m contract, they have tried to.

However, the transitional process can take time and few instant rewards were on show in Abu Dhabi where Rors heedlessly missed the cut on his seasonal reappearance. His opening 75 featured some abysmal driving (35% in fairway-finding) and mediocre putting (31 putts - anything over 30 is generally considered to be poor) and prompted Faldo to retweet his I-told-you-so concerns. McIlroy could do little to allay them, though, firing another 75, despite shelving his new Nike putter in favour of his old Scotty Cameron. 

Regardless, McIlroy will find a way to make it work. Firstly, he is that good. And secondly, modern monitoring equipment for analysing clubs and balls is on the level of a Boeing 747. Nike staff will soon be able to crystalise the problems and make the required tweaks, particularly with the driver. Else they'll have to inform the World No.1 that he's simply swinging poorly. 

McIlroy won't be seen again until the Accenture World Matchplay on 20th February. In the meantime, he'll be working with coach, Michael Bannon, to seamlessly incorporate these wholesale equipment changes. Which gives his Nike stablemate, Tiger Woods, the chance to steal a march on him in the US Money List, starting this week at the Farmers Insurance Open.

Torrey Pines has long been a happy hunting ground for Woods, a six-time winner and even successful here in junior golf. The warm and fuzzy memories of returning to his "home track" should not be underestimated and Woods is 8.07/1 to start his US campaign with a bang.

Tiger's return also offers us a perfect opportunity to look at the US Money List betting, where the World No.2 ranks as a 5.04/1 second favourite behind McIlroy. The cream invariably rises to the top of the list over the course of a season, but there's also a chance to take a flyer on some live-wire outsiders fulfilling their potential, especially those who have prospered over the early events.

I've picked out three such golfers to follow on the Winner and Top 3 markets throughout the campaign - players with no question marks about them. They're fit, focused and ready to bustle up the Big Two, beginning this Thursday.

Dustin Johnson (back at 87/1 or better) - the fancy prices may have gone on DJ, following his victory at the Hyundai but 8.27/1 is still very fair for a player who presently tops the Money List, having already established a million-dollar buffer on most of his genuine rivals. Johnson is possibly the best athlete on Tour, harnessing a rare combo of precision power and bullseye putting when he's on. It already looks like he is this year and will be desperate to atone for an injury-ravaged 2012.

Charles Howell (back at 8079/1 or better) - another year, another chance for CH3 to prove that he's more than just a human cash machine. Once spoken of as the next big thing in American golf, this underachiever is more than his wiry frame would suggest. Howell is a powerhouse with a workaholic attitude and an iron temperament - at least when it comes to a busy schedule. "Chucky Threesticks" has yet to shoot worse than 67 this year and despite two near-misses he has, like Johnson, eeked out fiscal advantage close to a million. Nearly back inside the world's top 50 (guaranteed passage for majors and WGC paydays), Howell will keep on quietly plugging away and has a great record at Torrey Pines to boot.

Rickie Fowler (back at 66n/a or better) - another to have snaffled some Benjamins ($212,000) and although that's largely immaterial at this early stage, every little helps. Fowler finally broke through last year on Tour and could raise the bar now that he's shaken off a persistent niggling back injury. While that's hardly encouraging for a long career, Fowler's repeating swing and accurate iron-play can make hay in the short-term.

Key players on Tour who've changed club manufacturers this season. Will they succeed or struggle like Rory?

Moved to TaylorMade:

Lucas Glover (from Nike)

yan Moore (Adams)
John Huh (Ping)
JJ Henry (Callaway)
Brian Davis (Titleist)
Stewart Cink (Nike)

Moved to Nike:

Nick Watney (Titleist)
Kyle Stanley (Titleist)
Seung-yul Noh (Titleist)
Thorbjørn Olesen (Titleist)
Rory McIlroy (Titleist)

Moved to Callaway:

Gary Woodland (Titleist)
Andres Gonzales (Adams)
Chris Kirk (Titleist)
Nicolas Colsaerts (Titleist)
Ryo Ishikawa (Yonex)
Jamie Sadlowski (Adams Golf)

Moved to Adams:

Jeff Overton (Mizuno)

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22 January 2013

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