By Tony Jimenez
(Reuters) - Double U.S. Open champion Curtis Strange has hit out at Nick Faldo and Johnny Miller for criticizing world number two Rory McIlroy's recent switch of club manufacturers.
McIlroy ditched his Titleist equipment at the start of the year but Strange believes the 23-year-old Northern Irishman's slump in form is nothing to do with the change he has made.
"I don't think clubs have anything to do with it at all," the American told Reuters in an interview. "I'll qualify that by saying I'm also a paid endorser of Nike like Rory but beyond that... switching clubs is no big thing.
"I switched three or four times in my career and it took me a day to get used to them, it's all overblown. I think all the top clubs are virtually identical.
"They might look a little different but the golf club is basically a stick with a handle on the end.
"Faldo and Miller have been somewhat critical of it - they are so out of line, so out of touch with club manufacturers now," said the 58-year-old Strange.
"All the clubs these days are top line, top shelf, perfectly fitted for each player. Faldo and Miller caused a stir when there was no reason to."
Miller, 25 times a winner on the PGA Tour, said McIlroy's switch could cost him dearly in the 2013 majors while former world number one Faldo described it as "a dangerous move".
Strange said it was simply a matter of time before McIlroy returned to the winner's circle, adding he could be a contender at next week's U.S. Masters.
"Rory's problems are not with his clubs," said the 2002 U.S. Ryder Cup captain. "His troubles of late have been more with the swing than anything else.
"When you are swinging poorly your game is off and your attitude goes off a bit. That's why the game is so tough because you need all three things to play well.
"I love watching Rory play, I love his swing and I don't think it's time to panic or worry too much about him. He's not playing well right now but he can be explosive overnight and he's proved that," added Strange.
"Last year he had a stretch when he didn't play great golf and then all of a sudden he won the U.S. PGA Championship by eight strokes, wins three more tournaments at the end of the season and ends up as Player of the Year."
HOT AND COLD
Strange, who won 17 PGA Tour titles in his career, said McIlroy reminded him of American left-hander Phil Mickelson who will be looking to win the coveted Green Jacket for the fourth time next week.
"Rory is the sort of player who is always going to blow hot and cold, a bit like Phil," he added. "I like all-out aggressive players and you never know what you are going to get with Phil.
"But when he comes to Augusta it always does something to him. It's a second-shot golf course, he likes that, and of course his short game is second to none so you can never forget about Phil."
Strange, who will be commentating at the Masters (see www.espn.co.uk for coverage details), also tipped 2010 British Open champion and last year's Augusta runner-up Louis Oosthuizen to excel next week.
"Outside of Tiger Woods, who I think is really going to do well, I'd love to see Louis do well," added the 1988 and 1989 U.S. Open winner.
"He came close last year, he's a previous Open champion... and he has a great game for Augusta National.
"Louis has one of the best swings in golf. There are five or six swings that to me are almost picture perfect and his is one of them," added Strange.
"Rory, Adam Scott, Justin Rose, Charl Schwartzel have good swings and Oosthuizen is right up there with the best of them."
Bubba Watson beat South African Oosthuizen in a playoff at Augusta 12 months ago but Strange said it would be tricky for the crowd-pleasing American to make it back-to-back victories in the first major championship of the season.
"It's always difficult for a defending champion because there is no much going on around him," he explained.
"There will be so many demands on him next week. His number one priority is himself and to budget his time and schedule his time accordingly means it will be a tough week for him."
(Editing by Ken Ferris)