Nike, which outside of Tiger Woods has made a string of bad bets in golf sponsorship — from David Duval to Anthony Kim — hopes to turn its fortunes around by pegging its future in the sport to Rory McIlroy.
The ubiquitous Swoosh, which has relied almost entirely on Woods to drive its golf product, announced on Monday a deal with his emerging young rival that has been reported to be worth as much as $200 million.
Several insiders have told me that number’s inflated, but even if it’s half of that sum, the affable 23-year-old Northern Irishman has financially secured his future.
So in that sense, it was, as they say, a no-brainer for McIlroy, who joins a stable that includes such top-of-the-mountain stars as Derek Jeter, Roger Federer, Adrian Peterson, LeBron James, Kobe Bryant and Cristiano Ronaldo.
"I’ve always associated Nike with the best," McIlroy said at a no-expense-spared unveiling in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates, where he will open his 2013 playing schedule this week.
"Growing up, whether it was golf, tennis, football, the best athletes were with Nike. I’ve watched Tiger Woods make history with Nike, and Roger Federer, and Rafael Nadal. Now I want to create my own history with Nike.
“Nike is a company and a brand that really resonates with me. It’s young. It’s athletic. It’s innovative. They are committed to being the best."
If the deal wasn’t a tough sell for McIlroy, it makes even more sense for Nike, which has seen its golf business — with revenues at about three-quarters of a billion dollars — slump since Woods’ infamous crash into a fire hydrant in November 2009.
Woods, for many years second only to Michael Jordan on the Rushmore of product endorsers, still moves the needle, but he also has become a very polarizing figure.
McIlroy might not be as well known — yet — but he already has won two majors and comes with no baggage.
"Rory is an extraordinary athlete who creates enormous excitement with his on-course performance while, at the same time, connecting with fans everywhere," said Nike Golf president Cindy Davis. “He is the epitome of a Nike athlete.”
Although it seems a perfect marriage at first glance, it’s still a relationship that contains significant risk for both parties.
In truth, Nike — a late-comer to the golf business — has struggled to overcome the perception that its clubs and balls aren’t of the same quality as those of its more established competitors.
Phil Mickelson, whose deal with Callaway Golf is the only one in the same orbit as those of McIlroy and Woods, once infamously said that the testament to Woods’ greatness was that he achieved it with “inferior equipment.”
If McIlroy doesn’t play as well as he did last year, when he won five times including the PGA Championship, the blame will be put on the new equipment.
Golf’s a sport littered with instances of players taking the money and switching equipment, only to never reach the same heights again.
McIlroy’s game is based on driving the ball long and straight, so the driver — the company has unveiled a new red driver it’s hailing as its best ever — and ball will be crucial.
"The driver is awesome," McIlroy said on Monday. "I’m really excited about the Nike equipment. I was blown away with the technology. As soon as I hit (the driver), I knew it was in my bag straight away.”
Many, including Nick Faldo, have worried that McIlroy is playing with fire by making such big changes all at once in what will be a seminal year for him.
(Woods, for example, slowly integrated Nike equipment, meticulously testing sometimes for as long as a year before putting a club into his bag.)
McIlroy, though, doesn’t see a problem.
"I’ve been testing all the way through Christmas. I’ve been practicing hard in the offseason. This equipment change has been seamless," he said. "I think I can take my game to another level."
With so much at stake, he will need to, beginning on Thursday, when he and Woods tee it up for the first time in the 2013 season, at the Abu Dhabi Championship.