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Rory McIlroy facing his biggest change

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Rory McIlroy facing his biggest change

Rory McIlroy's decision to pursue a lucrative equipment deal was in place long before he grabbed a Nike golf club from Tiger Woods during their exhibition match in China and took a few practice swings.

Changing equipment was inevitable. Boy Wonder is simply too big now.

The 23-year-old from Northern Ireland is no longer a U.S. Open champion with a massive upside. He fulfilled a big chunk of that potential this year with four wins, including an eight-shot win at the PGA Championship and back-to-back wins in the FedEx Cup playoffs against two of the strongest fields of the year. He is a lock for PGA Tour player of the year and the Vardon Trophy, all the awards Woods used to win.

McIlroy is a marketing dream, which made him worth too much to stay with Titleist.

Acushnet, the parent company, has a history of promoting its brand through numbers instead of a name. That's why it didn't stand in the way when Woods switched to the Swoosh, why it didn't put up a fight to keep Sergio Garcia a decade ago, and why it let Phil Mickelson out of his contract just four months after Lefty's popularity soared with his first major win at the 2004 Masters. And why it announced Tuesday that its relationship with McIlroy will end this year.

Golfers go through change all the time - agents, caddies, coaches. Switching equipment can be a tricky transition, and there is a long list of players who have struggled with it over the years. What makes McIlroy's next move so interesting is that no other player who was No. 1 in the world made such a wholesale change so early in his career.

``I call it dangerous,'' six-time major champion Nick Faldo said Tuesday morning on Golf Channel. ``I've changed clubs and changed equipment, and every manufacturer will say, `We can copy your clubs, we can tweak the golf ball so it fits you.' But there's feel and sound as well, and there's confidence. You can't put a real value on that.''

All signs point to McIlroy signing with Nike, with one industry observer saying the deal could be worth upward of $20 million a year.

Adding to the speculation is whether Woods helped to recruit the kid. They have been extraordinarily chummy since August, and Woods raves about McIlroy. That's not unusual. McIlroy is well-mannered, respectful and doesn't take himself too seriously. He's fun to be around.

Woods and David Duval also became close toward the end of 2000, when they played together in the World Cup in Argentina and then flew together on Woods' private jet to start the year at Kapalua. It wasn't long before Duval, in a legal dispute with Titleist, signed on with Nike.

A Nike official said it would not comment on ``rumors and speculation,'' not even when it would announce its roster for the 2013 season. Nike has money to spend, and McIlroy won't be the only player added to the Swoosh stable next year. Two people with knowledge of his plans say Nick Watney is headed from Titleist to Nike.

It might look as if McIlroy is headed down the same path as Woods, but the difference is in how they change equipment.

Woods spent five years switching out his equipment from Titleist to Nike, with an additional five years to leave his old Scotty Cameron putter.

McIlroy would have only two months.

When he turned pro in 1996, Woods had a five-year deal with Nike that was mainly about brand and apparel. He also had a five-year deal with Titleist for equipment. The long-term deal with Nike (renewals of five years and seven years, with the stakes going up each time), allowed Woods to change equipment at his own pace.

He went to the Nike golf ball at a European Tour event in Germany in 2000, and then went on to win the next four majors. He didn't go to the Nike driver until February 2002 at Pebble Beach, and then he won the first two majors that year (though he briefly went back to the Titleist driver in the summer).

Woods went to the Nike irons at a World Golf Championship in Ireland in 2002, one week before the Ryder Cup, which led to a memorable exchange. Asked why he would switch irons a week before such a big event like the Ryder Cup, Woods said to a reporter, ``Off the record? Because the majors are over.'' When asked for a comment on the record, Woods paused and said, ``Because the majors are over.''

He won that WGC event and contributed 2 1/2 points in a losing cause at The Ryder Cup.

Woods went another year before adding Nike's 56-degree wedge, and three weeks later he went to the lob wedge. The 3-wood was added at Doral in 2005 and the 5-wood came into play at the Tour Championship seven months later. The last change was the putter, first used at St. Andrews in 2010.

Before leaving Malaysia, Woods reflected on his process of change, noting the ball was the ``huge switch'' because he went from a wound ball to solid construction, which is the model everyone now uses. Yes, there are players whose game suffers after an equipment change. Woods was quick to point out guys like Ernie Els, who has won majors with three brands of equipment (Lynx, TaylorMade and Callaway).

Is it better to change slowly or all at once?

``Whatever is best for them,'' he said. ``It's all dependent on what they want to accomplish and what do they feel like they can play their best in. Granted, I know sometimes the (financial) numbers may persuade it, but also some of the guys that I've known over the years have turned it down because they know that they can play better in certain equipment.''

Change for McIlroy comes at a crucial time in his burgeoning career. Along with new clubs, there will be more scrutiny.

And if success doesn't come right away, Faldo said there could be doubt.

``It's the feel and confidence of knowing that your equipment will perform how you want it to perform on Sunday afternoon,'' Faldo said. ``You can't mess with that at such a young age.''

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5 keys for the Caps to win Game 7 and advance to the Stanley Cup Final

5 keys for the Caps to win Game 7 and advance to the Stanley Cup Final

It all comes down to this.

The Eastern Conference Championship is on the line Wednesday as the Capitals take on the Tampa Bay Lightning in Tampa. Here are five keys for how the Caps can win and advance to face the Vegas Golden Knights for the Stanley Cup.

Score first

Game 7 is in Tampa Bay, the Lightning are deeper offensively and defensively and have a goalie capable of shutting down an offense.

Oh, and the Lightning are 8-1 when scoring first this postseason.

The Capitals are at their best when they are dictating the play. They want to play physical, trap the blue line and counter against the Lightning. None of those are particularly great strategies for chasing a game.

That makes the first goal critical.

The Lightning fans have seen their team lose twice at home already this series and fail to close out the Caps in Game 6. They have watched their team reach the conference finals two straight years in 2015 and 2016, fail to win the Stanley Cup in either year and fail to even make the playoffs in 2017.

Not only does playing with a lead better suit their game plan, but if Washington scores first that crowd is going to get very uncomfortable very quickly.

Gauge the referees

The Caps were very physical in Game 6 and they found success with that game plan. You would expect them to have a similar approach to Game 7, but they need to be careful.

In Game 6, it was clear the referees had put away the whistles. There were a few questionable plays on both sides that the referees let go. In a Game 7, you would hope the referees take the same approach, but they may not.

Tampa Bay’s power play is very good and the Caps cannot afford to give them many opportunities, but Washington will still want to play a physical style. It’s a fine line to walk so the Caps will need to quickly figure out how strictly the referees are calling the game and adjust accordingly.

Win the goalie matchup

In this series, Andrei Vasilevskiy has had two bad games and four good ones. He lost both of his bad games and won three of his good ones. He did not win the fourth, however, because he was outplayed by Braden Holtby.

Vasilevskiy was great in Game 6, but Holtby matched him save for save as both teams battled to get on the board. When the Caps finally did, Holtby shut the door to make sure the Lightning could not climb back. Vasilevskiy allowed just two goals on 32 shots, but Holtby turned away all 24 of the shots he faced for the shutout.

This is Game 7. There is no Game 8 just because you run into a hot goalie. If Vasilevskiy is on his game again on Wednesday, Holtby will have to be just as good if not better to make sure the Caps win.

Beat the fourth line

Playing at home in Game 6 allowed the Caps to get away somewhat from the Alex Ovechkin vs. fourth line matchup the Lightning have found success with. At 5-on-5, Chris Kunitz played 6:55 against Ovechkin, Ryan Callahan played 6:22 and Cedric Paquette played 6:12, considerably less than the 13:04, 13:46 and 13:42 each respectively logged in Game 5.

With Game 7 in Tampa, Barry Trotz will not be able to get away from that matchup. That means Ovechkin will just have to beat it.

That does necessarily mean he has to score a hat-trick. Ovechkin was one of the team’s top performers in Game 6 despite not logging a point as he helped establish a physical tone that ignited the team. But he has to make sure at the very least that his line is not outscored by the fourth like it was in Game 5 when Paquette and Callahan each scored.

Have a short memory

If you have a bad game in Game 1, you know you can bounce back in the series. A Game 7, however, is winner take all. If there’s a bad bounce, a bad call by the referees, a bad play, a missed save, whatever it may be, the Caps have to be able to put it out of their minds quickly.

There is no room for the “here we go again” mentality on Wednesday. The fate of this season will be determined within 60 minutes. If Holtby is not on his game, the Caps will have to battle through it. If Ovechkin has a bad night, the Caps will have to battle through it. If the referees decide they are going to call everything down to the letter of the law, the Caps will have to battle through it.

If something goes against them, they cannot allow it to bog them down mentally as we have seen at times in Game 7s of the past.

Likewise, if things go well they need to put that out of their heads as well. Desperation will grow among the Lightning as the game goes on. This is not the time to sit on a lead or circle the wagons.

Washington can’t let mistakes or success go to their head until the clock hits 00:00.

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Need to Know: What to look for at Redskins OTAs

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Need to Know: What to look for at Redskins OTAs

Here is what you need to know on this Wednesday, May 23, 65 days before the Washington Redskins start training camp.  

What to look for at OTAs

Redskins OTAs started yesterday. The no-contact drills are the first time during the offseason program that the offense and defense are permitted to line up against each other. The-no pads aspect of it does take off a lot of the edge but the reality is that this will be the closest thing to football we will see until training camp starts in late July. 

Here are some things that I will be looking for during today’s practice.

Who’s in? Jay Gruden told us earlier that we should expect to see some injured key players not participating as they continue to recover from 2017 injuries. Specifically, OT Trent Williams (knee), OT Morgan Moses (ankles), and TE Jordan Reed (hamstring/toe) will only be spectators if they are at Redskins Park at all. Other players who may sit out or participate only in light drills are RB Chris Thompson (leg), and ILB Mason Foster (shoulder). The Redskins have been relatively healthy the past few offseasons so we will see how they deal with the aftermath of the injury scourge that hit the team last year. 

Seven-on-seven—Sure, it’s fun to watch the full team drills with 11 on each side but since blocking and tackling is limited by the rules about contact, there isn’t much to be gleaned from watching an off-tackle run. But when they eliminate the guards, tackles, and interior defensive linemen it’s all passing and then we can watch how well Alex Smith and his receivers are connecting. One thing I’ll keep in mind is that Smith decided not to get the receivers together for a “passing camp” before the offseason activities started. He said that he wanted to get to know the playbook first. Because of that they can be forgiven if they are not quite as sharp as they might be. Also, how natural does Derrius Guice look coming out of the backfield to catch passes? His primary job will be to carry the ball, but if he is a legitimate pass-catching threat, the whole offense will be harder to defend.

Rookies vs. pros—In rookie camp two weeks ago we saw Trey Quinn putting defensive backs on the ground with some moves and Troy Apke showing great makeup speed on some long passes. But those tryout defensive backs and quarterbacks are no longer around. How will Quinn look against veteran Orlando Scandrick or second-year corner Josh Holsey? Will Smith’s ball placement negate Apke’s speed? In the one-on-one pass blocking drills, which emphasize technique over power, can Daron Payne get past Brandon Scherff?

The big guys—With Williams and Moses out, who will line up along the offensive line? Does Payne line up at nose tackle or is he used more as an end with Tim Settle in the middle? Is Ziggy Hood in the middle or will he work outside? How is Phil Taylor looking after a quad injury ended his season in training camp? As noted, the rules make it hard to tell much about linemen before Richmond but we try to glean what we can. 

Stay up to date on the Redskins. Rich Tandler covers the team 365 days a year. Like his Facebook page, Facebook.com/TandlerNBCSand follow him on Twitter  @TandlerNBCSand on Instagram @RichTandler

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My reaction to this tweet from the NFL illustrating the changes to the kickoff rules:

Timeline  

Today’s schedule:Redskins OTA practice 11:30; Jay Gruden and Alex Smith press conferences, players available coming off the field, after practice, approx. 1:30

Days until:

—Minicamp (6/12) 20
—Training camp starts (7/26) 65
—Preseason opener @ Patriots (8/9) 79

The Redskins last played a game 143 days ago. They will open the 2018 NFL season at the Cardinals in 109 days. 

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