Rory McIlroy’s story is well documented.
Much like Ronan Rafferty and Darren Clarke before him his prodigious talent as a young amateur golfer earmarked him as someone destined for greatness. But destiny is never a given, especially in a sport as technically and mentally difficult as the game of golf.
How exciting it is then to have witnessed his seamless transition from the amateur to the professional ranks over the past five years. During that time he has undoubtedly learned a lot about himself, but never once, it seems, has he doubted his own competitive instincts. He remains refreshingly honest and opinionated but, more importantly, the world’s No 1 ranked player has shown no signs of letting up.
When he won the US Open last year he was viewed by most as the rising talent in the professional game, the guy with the most potential to become the game’s next superstar. This year, with four wins in the US and more especially a second Major championship, the US PGA, he has realised much of that potential against the strongest fields of the year. The fact that he is already more or less guaranteed to win the PGA Tour Player of the Year as well as Vardon Trophy (lowest scoring average), all the awards Woods used to win, has only added to his stock value.
Last year McIlroy, somewhat acrimoniously, left the famous golfing stable of ISM (Chubby Chandler) to join his close friend Graeme McDowell at Horizon Sports.
Conor Ridge, the principal at Horizon, is the man McIlroy believed could best represent his commercial brand image worldwide. Given that he is no longer going to be representing the Titleist brand as of the end of December, Ridge, it seems, has started to deliver.
It would appear McIlroy will join Woods at Nike and just as McIlroy has replaced Woods as the world’sNo 1 golfer, so too will he replacethe American as the future of Nike’s no-money-spared marketing machine.
McIlroy is an ideal fit for Nike at this time as they are desperately in need of the positive clean-cut associations that the Irishman brings with him, especially after the negative publicity Lance Armstrong has brought the company in recent weeks — and Woods before that.
That said, McIlroy’s endorsement does not come cheap for a company that has always attempted to be associated with the stars of the world game. If the 10-year contract starts at $200m before bonus clauses, and could earn him as much as $250m if fully realised, it will be the most commercially lucrative contract the sport has ever seen.
Another bonus for McIlroy is that he is now associating himself with a market leader in terms of the way they understand and treat their superstars. From Michael Jordan to Woods, Nike understands how to brand their icons. McIlroy’s image will not just be used to sell more clubs or balls than the next company, it will also identify and brand another global superstar with the Nike Swoosh logo.
As for the equipment itself, the tools of his trade? Industry views and sales alone would suggest the Nike equipment is somewhat inferior to the more established equipment brands such as Titleist, Taylor Made and Callaway, so the question must be asked whether this is or not a good deal for McIlroy at this time in his blossoming career?
Opinions will vary on this subject and only time will tell. What we do know is that McIlroy is very much at home with his existing equipment which, quite apart from anything else, has delivered him two Majors and elevated him to the lofty position of the world’s highest ranked player.
It will be interesting to see how much of a grace period McIlroy is given when it comes to changing over to his new equipment. This is where Ridge will earn his money. For example, will his contract state that his equipment will need to meet certain performance criteria or has money simply dictated the terms?
No one should doubt McIlroy’s ability to quickly come to terms with any equipment changes but, at the highest level, it’s the small things that make a difference, and that’s what his new equipment deal will do — change some small things.
For example, McIlroy is considered to be one of the best drivers of the ball in the game… with his Titleist 913D3 prototype driver and his Titleist Pro v1x golf ball. Is McIlroy confident enough that Nike can reproduce that consistency, that feel and that performance with their own equipment in the heat of a last round battle in a Major championship? Right now he is using equipment that he knows has delivered under pressure. You can’t put a real value on that. It’s priceless.
Although concerned, we must remember that time and again McIlroy has proven himself as a fast learner. Woods has already successfully made the transition and with today’s information on launch angles and spin rates, it means that McIlroy should quickly be able to have clubs and a ball that match the same performance numbers he achieved at Titleist. It remains to be seen if the equipment can achieve the same consistency.
I would be concerned the change of equipment will initially give away some of the competitive advantage he currently has, but McIlroy’s talent should prevail in the end.
And can you really fault a 23-year-old for looking to set himself up financially for the rest of his life with one massive equipment contract? You’d be completely naive to think that pro golf isn’t just as much about the money as it is about the wins, glory and success.
At the end of the day, pro golfers earn their living playing golf, and a large part of that living comes from their sponsorship and equipment contracts.
His new equipment may not make him a better golfer, but the contract will make him a lot richer.
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