Huge endorsement contract with Nike validates Rory McIlroy's place in the game

Rory McIlroy, Abu Dhabi
Kamran Jebreili/AP
ROCK STAR: In Abu Dhabi, McIlroy showed off the clean, one-logo look that helped draw him to Nike.

At the Ryder Cup, in late September, Ridge paid a visit to McIlroy in his hotel room to deliver one message: A blockbuster deal with Nike was there to be had. A few weeks after his 2-and-1 singles win over Keegan Bradley at Medinah, McIlroy slipped into Fort Worth to visit the Oven, Nike Golf's research and development lab. It was a fraught occasion. As excited as Nike staffers were at the prospect of adding McIlroy, the deal could've blown up if he hated the equipment. There was an undercurrent of awkwardness at the outset of the visit. "When you put a new golf club in an athlete's hand for the first time, you want them to be impressed," says Rick Nichols, Nike Golf's longtime field manager. With a small chuckle, he adds, "Especially this time."

For two days McIlroy tested everything in the Nike line. The clubs had already been built to his specifications. "We had done our homework," Nichols says. "But one thing we don't try to do is simply copy the specs. Our goal is to improve what the athlete has."

McIlroy was immediately impressed with the VR_S Covert driver, which pushed his ball speed from the mid-170s to more than 180. He liked the look and feel of the VR Pro Blades, though he asked for a satin finish rather than the standard mirror-chrome. At Titleist, there existed the belief that McIlroy would have the most trouble switching balls, because he hits his shots high with a lot of spin. But McIlroy quickly felt comfortable with the 20XI-X ball, which has a light resin core and more weight around the perimeter. "I found it was much more stable in the wind," McIlroy says. "It didn't climb on me as much."

Beyond the gear, McIlroy liked the people he encountered at the Oven. Nike has an upstart, cutting-edge image, so McIlroy was relieved to discover that among the club tweakers there were no spiky-haired hipsters or mad scientists who knew nothing about the game. "I was blown away by the craftsmanship and attention to detail," McIlroy says. He felt a particular kinship with Mike Taylor, Nike's designated wedge grinder, who learned his trade three decades ago at Ben Hogan's club company under the watchful eye of Gene Sheeley. Taylor is a big guy with a soft voice and softer hands. "A proper craftsman," McIlroy says. They spent considerable time perfecting his 60° wedge, from the VR Pro line. It has 13.5° of bounce, significantly more than what McIlroy used to play, made possible by a dual-sole design. For pitches around the green, with the face squared-up, the club sits closer to the turf, helping McIlroy make more precise contact. When he opens the face to throw the ball up in the air, the higher bounce allows the club to more effectively dig through rough or sand. "His skill set is pretty amazing," says Taylor. "And he's such a nice young fellow. It is an absolute pleasure to make wedges for him."

McIlroy rendered his verdict on the flight out of Fort Worth. Turning to Ridge, he said, "This is it. This is the place for me." A feel player extraordinaire, McIlroy brings a certain Zen simplicity to his job, including his tools. "You know me; I don't overthink things," he says. "I'm not going to get overwhelmed by changing my equipment." His father, Gerry, has been known to say, "Rory could win a major playing with a hockey stick and an orange."

The wheeling and dealing kicked into high gear. In October 2012, Titleist announced that it would not continue its relationship with McIlroy after Dec. 31. Says Ridge, "Our pleasant and open discussions with [Titleist CEO] Wally Uihlein regarding Rory's future restored my faith in corporate America." Nike insists on owning every inch of its players -- from hat to shoes -- so Ridge reworked McIlroy's deal with Santander UK, a financial services company; the logo moved from his sleeve to his bag. The relationship with watchmaker Audemars Peguet was also redefined and extended -- McIlroy no longer wears its logo on his sleeve but will appear in ads as a global brand ambassador. The folks at Jumeirah had enjoyed a ton of publicity during the five years their logo overwhelmed McIlroy's hat, and they chose to terminate their contract early, hosting a convivial farewell dinner in Dubai shortly after New Year's. The only complication came from Oakley, which on Dec. 14 filed a lawsuit claiming McIlroy breached his contract by not honoring Oakley's right of first refusal to match the Nike offer. Says Ridge, "There is no foundation to Oakley's claim, and we will contest it vigorously."

Just before Christmas, McIlroy worked with Nike's team to fine-tune his equipment. They met at the Bear's Club, near McIlroy's new home in Palm Beach Gardens, Fla., setting up a portable launch monitor on a far corner of the driving range. McIlroy used the session to affirm his decision to use the same shafts with his Nike driver and irons as he had on his Titleists -- a Mitsubishi Diamana prototype 70x for the driver, Project X for the irons and wedges. The notable change was the fairway metals; McIlroy used to have different Fujikura models in his three- and five-metal. Now, with Nike's VR Pro Limited Editions, his 15° three-metal and 19° five-metal will have the same Fujikura Rombax X shaft.

During the Bear's Club sessions McIlroy spent a lot of time with Rock Ishii, Nike's ball guru. As McIlroy became more familiar with 20XI-X, he felt he would like it even better if it had a little more feel. Ishii cooked up a special ball that no other player is using: McIlroy's 20XI-X has this year's specs but last year's cover, which is about 3% softer.

Ishii has worked with Tiger Woods going back to the late 1990s, and he was dazzled by his first exposure to the new No. 1. "He is unbelievably sensitive to the slightest differences," Ishii says. He was also impressed by McIlroy's stress-free approach. "Sometime with a new athlete, you can see there is nervousness, there is apprehension," says Ishii. "They are worried the change will hurt them. Not Rory. He had a powerful confidence.

"Tiger is very cautious and conservative with new products. Test, test, test. Talk, test, talk more, test more. Rory is a different personality. He is more like, Let's try it and see what happens."

McIlroy didn't actually sign his Nike contract on New Year's Day -- he was goofing off in Australia with his girlfriend, Caroline Wozniacki. Ridge presented the contract to McIlroy in Dubai a few days later, and he autographed it in a quiet moment in a hotel room, an anticlimactic end to a 16-month journey. Ridge then hand-delivered the documents to Cindy Davis when she arrived in Abu Dhabi in advance of the official announcement on Jan. 14. The terms? More than the five years that is standard for a big-time deal and less than the 10 that has been widely reported; significantly more than the would-be competition's $10 million annual offer but less than the $25 million the Irish press dreamed up. Davis called McIlroy's signing "one of the most important moments in the history" of the company. But no pressure, kid.

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