McIlroy won’t renew with Titleist

Rory McIlroy is officially a free agent when it comes to golf

equipment.

McIlroy and Acushnet Co., which has supplied the 23-year-old

star from Northern Ireland with Titleist and FootJoy gear since he

turned pro five years ago, said Tuesday they will not extend their

relationship after this year.

The announcement allows McIlroy to pursue a lucrative

endorsement contract, with strong indications that he will sign

with Nike in a deal that one industry observer estimated at $20

million a year. That would give Nike golf’s two biggest stars in

McIlroy and Tiger Woods, who has been with the swoosh since he

turned pro in 1996.

McIlroy has established himself as the No. 1 player in the world

this year, when he won four times and captured the PGA Championship

at Kiawah, giving him eight-shot wins in two major championships.

He won the PGA Tour money title, and is closing in on winning the

European Tour money title.

This is the second time in the last 10 years that Acushnet,

which has a history of fiscal prudence, has not stood in the way of

a No. 1 player going after big money. Woods, who had an equipment

deal with Titleist when he turned pro, left for the Nike golf ball

in 2000 and then the Nike golf clubs in 2002.

Phil Mickelson won his first Masters with Titleist in 2004, and

the Fairhaven, Mass., company let him out of his contract later

that summer to sign a lucrative deal with Callaway.

”Our goal has been to provide Rory with the best equipment and

service that would help him be the best player he could possibly

be,” Acushnet chief executive Wally Uihlein said in a statement.

”He has been a great ambassador for the Titleist and FootJoy

brands, and in turn, we are proud of how our equipment has

contributed to his success. We wish Rory all the best, both

personally and professionally, going forward.”

McIlroy, who defeated Woods in an 18-hole exhibition in China on

Monday, thanked the Acushnet staff for ”five very exciting and

successful years.”

”I will always appreciate the contribution Titleist has made in

helping me become the player I am today,” McIlroy said.

Not since Woods has a player had this much potential at such a

young age. McIlroy was 19 when he won the Dubai Desert Classic for

his first win as a pro, and he followed that with a 62 in the final

round to win at Quail Hollow for his first PGA Tour win.

McIlroy shattered U.S. Open scoring records last summer at

Congressional to win by eight shots, and when he won his second

major at Kiawah Island in August, he became the youngest player

since Seve Ballesteros in 1980 with two majors. Only five players

have won majors by at least eight shots since 1976 – three by

Woods, two by McIlroy.

They have become friends in recent months. They were in the same

group five times during the FedEx Cup playoffs, and the

conversation came easily. That led to the 18-hole exhibition on

Monday, the first time Woods has agreed to a head-to-head match

since the old ”Battle at Bighorn” days against Sergio Garcia.

McIlroy won by one. Walking off the fourth hole, McIlroy even

took one of Woods’ Nike clubs and took a few practice swings.

Now, it appears likely both will be using the same equipment

next year.

”We are declining comment on rumors and speculation,” Nike

spokeswoman Beth Gast said.

McIlroy is not playing the HSBC Champions this week in China. He

will close out his European Tour season starting the following week

with the Singapore Open, the Hong Kong Open and the DP World Tour

Championship in Dubai. He would have two months until his next

tournament in Abu Dhabi, giving him time to test new equipment.

McIlroy has gone through a series of changes since winning his

first major last summer at Congressional. He left agent Chubby

Chandler a year ago and signed with Conor Ridge of Irish-based

Horizon Sports Management. He took up membership on the PGA Tour,

where he is a lock to be voted player of the year. Changing the

very tools he uses will be the biggest change of all.

Still to be determined is how any deal with Nike would affect

the rest of McIlroy’s deals. He has endorsements with Jumeirah

Estates, Oakley, Audemares Piguet and Santander bank. Nike

typically prefers a clean look for its athletes, with rare

exception. Woods and Anthony Kim had separate endorsements for

their golf bags.

Even as McIlroy was getting courted by other companies, Titleist

did not put up a big fight. The company has a history of putting

the brand before the player, as it did with Woods, Mickelson, David

Duval after he reached No. 1 in the world and Sergio Garcia.

It prides itself on having the most tour players use its golf

ball, though it also has some 80 players around the world under

contract to use its golf balls and golf clubs. This year might have

been particularly costly, however, especially with incentive

clauses in the contracts. It had six players from the top 16 in the

world as full staff players – McIlroy, Adam Scott, U.S. Open

champion Webb Simpson, Jason Dufner, Steve Stricker and Nick

Watney.