Golf : Rory McIlroy and Nike confirm sport’s worst-kept secret

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IT was a fitting production for a boy from Hollywood. His first image sporting the Nike Swoosh appeared as a spectacular water show, for which the Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque in the UAE capital provided a stunning backdrop.

This was confirmation of golf’s worst-kept secret. No, make that sport across the board. We’d known for weeks that Rory McIlroy, having ended his association with Achusnet, parent company of Titleist, at the end of last year, was set to sign join Tiger Woods (and Scott Jamieson and Marc Warren) on the Nike staff.

All sorts of crazy figures had been banded about. No information was offered about the fine details of what they eventually agreed on, though it is being claimed McIlroy has signed a ten-year contract worth as much as £150 million. “I don’t play golf for the money – I think I’m well past that,” declared McIlroy, who is now one of the biggest earners in sporting history. “I’m a major champion, which I always dreamt of. I’m the world No 1, which I always dreamt of. I play for titles and this year I feel I can go to a new level.

“Hopefully I can do even better than last year, which was a big season for me winning my second major and also getting to world No 1. Hopefully there are more majors in store and I can consolidate myself as the world’s best golfer.”

He was welcomed in pre-recorded clips to the “Nike Family” by Wayne Rooney, Roger Federer and Tiger Woods. An audience that included McIlroy’s dad, Gerry, also saw an amusing advert featuring McIlroy and Woods, the world No 1 and No 2 respectively, that will be rolled out around the world as from tomorrow.

Entitled “No Cup is Safe”, it involves the pair indulging in a spot of friendly competition as well as poking a bit of fun at each other. “I’m just trying to keep up with the old guy,” says McIlroy at one point, with Woods retorting with: “Dude, is that your real hair?”

Whether the pair will still be as friendly when they play together in the first two rounds of this week’s HSBC Abu Dhabi Championship remains to be seen. McIlroy, though, is confident changing equipment when he was flying won’t stop him adding to his major haul. “I think it has been seamless,” he insisted. “I’ve been testing the clubs through Christmas and everything feels great. I’ve been hitting the ball really well.”

He denied signing a mega-deal with a new sponsor will bring added pressure. “Not at all,” he added. “The pressure I feel is put on myself and when I go out there I want to win as badly as anyone. That definitely won’t change and, if anything, being with this company will make me a better player and win even more.”

McIlroy is particularly excited about playing with Nike’s new cavity-backed driver, which is allowing one of the game’s biggest hitters to boom it even further down the fairway. “My ball speed is up to 180 from the mid 170s and it is carrying almost 300 yards,” he reported with glee.

The one awkward moment in McIlroy’s Q&A session involved his new putter, having been asked if he was able to go back to his trusty Scotty Cameron model if it didn’t work nearly as well. “I’m not here to go into specifics of the contract,” he replied to that being posed to him twice by the same man.

Even this early in the year, McIlroy has one eye on the season’s first major and is planning to play five tournaments in his build up to The Masters. “I’m confident that I’m ready to go,” he said. “Abu Dhabi has been a great place for me, having come close to winning a couple of times, and hopefully I can get off to another good start this year.”

Introducing the company’s new star, Nike Golf president Cindy Davis described McIlroy as an “extraordinary young athlete”. The world will now be watching to see if McIroy connects with his new clubs.