The price of sponsorship

Johnny Miller drooled over those old clubs. The way he described them, you just knew he tended to them with greater loving care than any old set gathering dust in the garage. They were not so much an exercise in branding or marketing but an extension of his arm, helping him through the hottest of streaks in 1974, such as the ten flags he reportedly struck from the fairway during a storming final round victory in the Tucson Open of that year.

Miller’s Tommy Armour 915T stainless steel irons, made just after World War II, might have been the oldest set of clubs anyone had ever won a major championship with when, a year before Tucson, he took the US Open. He had tinkered with them so that they gave him perfect feel: he shortened the hosels, re-ground them and layered on lead tape to give a better balance. ‘I had moulded that set to me in a very personal way,’ he said, and you can picture him hunched over them, mending, altering and reshaping, as a proud cobbler would a leather shoe.

For a couple years in the mid-1970s, Miller, as much as Jack Nicklaus or Tom Watson, was the man. Being the man he had choices to make: specifically whether he should stay with his Macgregor clubs, or whether he should follow his agent’s advice and move to Wilson for a whacking fee. He chose the latter, changing drivers, irons and balls, and lived to regret it: ‘they were so different, I never had the same precision or feel again. It was one of the biggest mistakes of my career.’

Miller was a star that burned brightly for a short while and there were many other reasons why his career fizzled out. Comparing himself to Nicklaus once, he said that when the Golden Bear reached the top of the mountain his immediate reaction was to look for next summit to scale, whereas Miller was all for admiring the view.  In other words, he did not have the inner drive that marks out the true champions. Still, the change of clubs did not help.

Rory McIlroy, the brightest star of the moment, has had some choices to make recently and he has made them with the kind of breezy nonchalance that marked out his arrival at the first tea at Medinah this year when he missed his alarm call ensuring he had to play without having spent time on the practice range. Commenting upon the technicalities, rather than the finances, of his move from Titleist, his choice of club since a teenager, to Nike, McIlroy thought it a non-issue, since there is little difference, he said, between the manufacture of top clubs these days. His coach agreed.

Mind you, things did not go altogether smoothly in his first outing with the new sticks. A pair of 75s saw him miss the cut in Abu Dhabi, at a course he has always played well, and after the first round his trusty old Scotty Cameron putter had found its way back into his bag in place of the Nike. He now has a month to find the same rhythm and feel with his new clubs that he had with his old. Judging by the way he coped with his alarm call fiasco in the Ryder Cup, he looks the type not to worry.

But a player’s relationship with his equipment is not a straightforward one, certainly not as straightforward as cashing the cheque from a new sponsor. Confidence, feel and judgement are hard to acquire, and easily lost. You cannot judge the character of a player by his choice of equipment- how many of us, after all, would have turned down the Nike money?- but perhaps you can judge him by his relationship with it. Is a driver, cricket bat or tennis racket a logo and status symbol first and foremost, a tool of the trade second, or the other way round?

The most fastidious sportsman I have ever seen was Jack Russell, the former England wicket-keeper, whose meticulous attention to two pieces of kit, his hat and his wicket-keeping gloves, went beyond parody. The hat was an upside-down flower pot and had a cut away peak, the better to see the ball. It had been stitched, re-stitched, layered and re-layered and on two occasions was the cause of a stand-up row; the first when Russell refused to wear a coloured hat in the 1995-96 South African one-day series, the second when he refused to bow down to the corporate demands of the ECB chairman, Ian MacLaurin, who insisted upon standardised headgear.

On each occasion the argument was put forward that this was not just any old hat, but a piece of equipment central to his strategy and identity as a wicket-keeper. The argument was on firmer ground with his gloves, which only he and his wife were allowed to touch. He carried with him a repair kit- sewing equipment and pimped rubber for every hole and scratch that needed to be repaired- emulating with uncanny resemblance the care taken by his hero Allan Knott, who used to take his gloves home during every match, lest the leather stiffen in the dressing room overnight. These were the tools of their trade and they defined who they were as cricketers- tools that, in Russell’s case, stayed with him throughout his career.

Knott and Russell were the ultimate eccentrics for sure, but those of a far more normal disposition have also lost their equanimity over their kit. Graham Thorpe would take his bats to his hotel room and fiddle for hours with the handles just to get the right feel. Towards the end of his career, Mark Ramprakash cared for an old favourite lovingly, patching it up until it broke after scoring his 99th first-class hundred. After trying out five others to no avail, his scored his 100th hundred with a bat borrowed from a Surrey colleague.

Being neurotic about kit is not really about the kit itself, rather that sportsmen feel the need to surround themselves with routine and familiarity in what is after all the most uncertain of worlds. Convincing yourself that an old-favourite can bring an advantage is one of many psychological tricks a sportsman will use to help haul himself over the line.

McIlroy seems engagingly oblivious to all this in his publicised move from Titleist to Nike. Not so Nick Faldo, who is cut from a different cloth, and is old enough to have seen the uncertainties that being blasé about your kit can bring, not just to Miller but to other notables such as Lee Janzen, Nick Price and the late Payne Stewart, who all moved suppliers with unhappy results. ‘If it begins to hold him back for a split second in his mind, you will have to question it,’ said Faldo.

Me? The opposition wicket-keeper had a view of the same distinctive red logo on the back of my bat throughout my entire professional career. I stayed partly out of loyalty, partly because I was nervous of change (if it ain’t broke………) – and mainly because I didn’t have another manufacturer brandishing a cheque worth millions of dollars in my face