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Sunday, January 13, 2013
Pressure surrounds McIlroy, Nike deal

By Bob Harig

ABU DHABI, United Arab Emirates -- That waterfront home Rory McIlroy recently bought in South Florida for just less than $10 million? No problem. The Nike deal announced Monday should take care of that -- in less than a year.

Such are the spoils of success that a young golfer from Northern Ireland who already has captured two major championships should be set for life. 

McIlroy was trotted out to amazing fanfare on Monday in this capital city, a presentation that featured lasers, loud music, video tributes and even the unveiling of a new Nike commercial featuring McIlroy and Tiger Woods that will debut Wednesday -- a day before Nos. 1 and 2 in the world are scheduled to play together in the first round of the Abu Dhabi HSBC Golf Championship.

It was a day that has been coming for months, ever since reports began to circulate that McIlroy would be leaving Titleist at the end of his contract and joining Woods at Nike, which didn't even make golf clubs when Woods signed on in 1996.

Initially, stories trickled out that McIlroy would be paid a whopping $250 million over 10 years, numbers that appear inflated. A source said McIlroy's deal is for five years, which seems more realistic (Woods never got 10 years), with the annual haul still quite lucrative.

Incentives (i.e., major championships) are clearly in play, and McIlroy will undoubtedly surpass the career earnings of all but a few players with the Nike deal alone. He is still free to put a sponsor on his golf bag, and there will be numerous opportunities to collect appearance fees, as is the case at this European Tour event, while earning a nice sum on the course, too.

So what about the golf?

Now comes the part when a good deal of scrutiny will be in play. McIlroy seemed to do just fine with the Titleist clubs and balls he was using, winning two majors at an earlier age than even Tiger. Although golf clubs today are highly refined with mountains of technology that allows players to fine-tune launch angle, spin rate and all manner of measurements to determine how to hit the ball far and straight, such a switch does not come without risk.

Certainly, Nike doesn't want to pay this kind of money without the rewards of seeing McIlroy perform well with the clubs. And that, you would think, brings a certain level of uneasiness to the player, although McIlroy had no trouble tackling that issue.

"The most pressure I feel is the pressure I put on myself," he said. "I know if I live up to my own expectations, I know I'll more than live up to everyone else's. I'll play as well as I can, and hopefully that turns into tournament wins and more major victories."

McIlroy raved about the new cavity-backed driver he will put in play Thursday and seems comfortable with the firm Nike golf ball he has tested, one that helps limit the enormous spin he puts on the ball. He will also use the Nike Method putter, but would not answer a question posed as to whether he is allowed to go back to his Scotty Cameron model.

For years, the putter was the lone club Woods did not switch out in his bag, sticking with the Cameron, a Titleist brand, until 2010.

For Woods, the situation was far different, as he put Nike clubs in his bag over a period of years, and he made the switch despite no hard evidence of success by the company in golf.

"I wouldn't say trepidation, but any time you make a change in equipment, it can have a huge impact on your game," Woods said in an email. "I haven't put anything in my bag unless I felt it was better than what I was using. What you're looking for is success on the golf course. Is the equipment going to help me win golf tournaments? If the answer is yes, then it's in the bag. If the answer is no, then it's not.

"I still spend significant time with Nike on equipment. There's testing and tweaking involved, and it's very time consuming. It's hours and days at a time. We're coming up with some cool, innovative products, but it's a lot of work and a lot of hitting balls."

Although Woods and McIlroy got to be friendly over the past year, McIlroy said in a brief interview after the festivities that Woods never tried to recruit him to the company, nor did McIlroy reach out for any advice.

"I didn't speak about it to Tiger," McIlroy said. "I didn't say anything, and I don't think he wanted to influence me, either. We didn't talk about it at all -- not until after it was all done.

"I was comfortable with what I was doing. I talked to the people who were closest to me about it. I trust their judgment 100 percent. I was really excited, and it's something I really wanted to do."

The fear will come if McIlroy struggles -- even though his clubs could have no bearing. What happens the first time McIlroy has a fall-off in form? He did have a stretch last summer when he missed four of five cuts. It probably had nothing to do with his equipment, but inevitably a rough patch will elicit questions about equipment.

"It would be very short-sighted of us as players to accept financial reward for equipment that's not going to take us places long-term," said McIlroy's friend, Graeme McDowell. "Rory is 23, 24 years old. He's never going to struggle for cash. He's perhaps one of the most marketable sportsmen in the world right now.

"I'm thinking he's probably looking beyond the money; he's looking about what they can do for him, brand building and making him a household name and a global superstar. I really don't think -- of course, a dollar amount comes into it, but he's not going to be taking a dollar amount for a company who has inferior golf equipment, also. He wants to win majors, and he wants to win golf tournaments."

McIlroy maintained that was the case. He feels better about his ability to hit the Nike driver he will use, saying he has gained distance off the tee in the testing he has done.

Then again, McIlroy is so talented that McDowell said he could probably succeed "using a shovel."

Over time, plenty of players have switched equipment. It is part of the game, and it doesn't always work out for the best. In McIlroy's case, he'll get paid handsomely for us to find out.