Rory McIlroy and the Never-Ending Quest to Expand His Brand
This story first appeared in the Nov. 5, 2012, issue of Sports Illustrated.
The bright lights of Shanghai are particularly impressive from a few thousand feet in the air, even for a weary world traveler like Rory McIlroy. On Sunday night he peered out an airplane window and said softly, "Well, there it is." Wearing black jeans, a V-neck T-shirt and a hoodie, McIlroy was slouched in the oversized leather seat of a private jet ferrying him to his next appointment.
A couple of hours earlier he had finished second at the BMW Masters, banking more than $750,000 (to go along with a hefty appearance fee) and earning a fistful of World Ranking points to further consolidate his position as what the Chinese call di yi: No. 1. McIlroy's 11th top-five finish of the season—four of which are victories—capped what was just another busy week for a 23-year-old kid who has suddenly gone from merely a standout golfer to a global brand. When he wasn't busy shooting 20 under at Lake Malaren Golf Club, McIlroy was dodging questions about a rumored $250 million endorsement deal with Nike. He was glued to his phone, working out the details to spend some quality time with his girlfriend, Caroline Wozniacki, the world's 11th-ranked tennis player; together they will visit a half-dozen countries on three continents over the next 2½ months. He attended four press conferences and one gala dinner, worked out in the gym twice daily and put in long sessions on the practice tee concentrating on the fundamentals of his setup, with metal alignment sticks stuck in the ground as if he were the target in a game of lawn darts.
Of course, McIlroy considered the highlight of the week to be winning a $50 bet from his buddy Graeme McDowell, the 2010 U.S. Open champ. All Rory had to do was eat a mound of broccoli covered in blueberry yogurt for breakfast.
I didn't realize he's that hard up for cash," says McDowell. He marvels at McIlroy's ability to juggle the demands of his growing superstardom. "Amazingly, he seems to take everything in stride," adds McDowell. "One of the great things about Rory is that he remains very approachable, very happy-go-lucky, just a normal kid from Northern Ireland with a great talent."
Even before his near miss at the BMW Masters, McIlroy was the consensus player of the year, having already won the PGA Tour money title ($8.05 million in 17 events) and reaffirmed himself as a player for the ages with a blowout victory at the PGA Championship. That second major-championship victory made a sage out of Padraig Harrington, who said in April 2011 that McIlroy, not Tiger Woods, 36, might be the man to break Jack Nicklaus's record of 18 majors. It is a sign of McIlroy's maturity and professionalism that, even with nothing left to play for, he competed with such intensity at a Masters that's a long way from Augusta. "I owe it to the fans and to the tournament to give it my best," he said.
But something else added a little urgency to McIlroy's preparations in Shanghai. The Bombardier jet he was sequestered in on Sunday night was charting a course toward Zhengzhou, where the next day McIlroy would play an 18-hole match against Woods, the player he has supplanted as the game's best and will forever be measured against. "Tiger has been a huge hero of mine growing up," McIlroy said. "To have the opportunity to compete against him, and to beat him sometimes, is quite nice."
Woods has already had an outsized role in the narrative of McIlroy's season. In March, when he won the Honda Classic to ascend to No. 1 for the first time, McIlroy was pushed to the limit by Woods's closing 62. "It had to be Tiger," McIlroy said afterward. At the PGA Championship, Woods had a share of the lead through two rounds, but McIlroy blew him away by 13 strokes on the weekend. During fall's FedEx Cup playoffs, a ton of buzz was created by their early-round pairings at the Barclays and the BMW Championship, which McIlroy won.
Throughout his career Woods has ranged from standoffish to hostile with his would-be rivals, so it has been startling to see his affection toward McIlroy. (A cynic might suggest Woods is aiding Nike's recruitment.) But two weeks before Shanghai, the two golfers had a revealing dustup at a big-money event in Turkey. McIlroy had treated the whole week like a working vacation and was looking forward to a fun game with his new friend. For Woods their match was a jihad, and he beat McIlroy 64--70. On reflection McIlroy says, "That's where we differ as characters. The day we played he was on the range at 6:30 in the morning—we're not supposed to play until noon. I'm getting up at 10, having a leisurely breakfast, rolling onto the course with half an hour to go...."
McIlroy wouldn't be fooled again by Woods's rope-a-dope. "I'm ready to play this time," he said, with a little heat. For both of them, this Monday exhibition meant nothing. And everything.
McIlroy's ascension has had the air of inevitability going back to when he was 16 and shot a course-record 61 at Royal Portrush, the ancient links on the edge of the North Atlantic. BBC footage documenting the round shows a swing of almost impossible purity, along with a questionable pink belt. McIlroy's record-shattering victory at the 2011 U.S. Open validated all the hype, but this is the year he grew up, as a person and a player. McIlroy's metamorphosis began four months after the Open, when he fired his headline-making agent, Chubby Chandler, and went to a largely unknown boutique firm run by a dapper Dubliner named Conor Ridge. The switch was a bold move by a young man ready to take control of his career, and five months later McIlroy won the Honda and rose to the top of the World Golf Ranking. "That was my big goal for this year, to get to Number 1, and I had achieved it by March," he says. "I had to reassess and set more goals."
What followed was the first minislump of his career. McIlroy and Wozniacki had met in July 2011, ringside at the David Haye--Wladimir Klitschko heavyweight fight in Hamburg, Germany. As her boyfriend struggled throughout this spring, Wozniacki was cast by the European golf press as Yoko Ono with a better backhand. But she helped inspire the work ethic that would carry McIlroy to dizzying heights. It was born of male pride. "I'd never really [jogged] before," says McIlroy, "but I thought I was pretty fit. So we went for a 45-minute run. After 30 I was completely dead. I did the extra 15 but was in pain. I've slowly built up my cardiovascular fitness, not because I need it for golf but because I want to keep up with her when we go running." He now pumps a lot of iron too, which has made his swing more stable and explosive.
With a golf club in his hands, McIlroy has always been such a natural that he didn't have to work very hard at the game. He rededicated himself after missing the cut in four of five starts beginning in May, including the U.S. Open. "There was criticism about his attitude and his work ethic, and he really stepped it up," says Luke Donald, whom McIlroy has twice overtaken at the top of the World Ranking. "Rory has realized he has such an amazing talent, and he doesn't want to waste it. The big difference I've seen this year is his short game. He's obviously worked very hard. He has the whole package now, which is kind of scary."
McIlroy's spectacular play this summer was game-changing for a golf world that has spent the three years since the fire hydrant fretting about the post-Tiger era. That McIlroy is so different from Woods in so many ways has only stoked the public's fascination. "The fans, the media, corporate sponsors, the tours—they all want their piece," says Ridge. "Tiger dealt with it by slamming down the shutters. That's not Rory's way. We're still struggling to find the proper balance." A week in China throws that into sharp relief.
Last year at this time, McIlroy played in a 30-man exhibition called the Shanghai Masters. His victory was not recognized by any tour. This year BMW came in and turned the tournament into a big deal, with a $7 million purse that is one of the fattest on the European tour. No one denies the cause and effect. "Rory is a very important part of growing the game in Asia," says tournament director Marco Kaussler.
Back in May, when McIlroy was mired in his slump, he committed to play a heavy slate of tournaments this fall in Asia, thinking he might need them to salvage his season. Shanghai was the first stop, and every detail of his trip was negotiated as part of the appearance fee, from a pretournament table tennis match for the cameras to hitting a golden golf ball at the glitzy, gaudy opening ceremony.
When the tournament proper began, McIlroy opened with a 67 but spent most of the back nine grimacing. "I started to get a bit of a headache," he says. "Obviously [there are] factories and stuff around here; [I'm] probably not breathing in the cleanest air." After the round, all he wanted to do was lie down in his hotel room, but he was committed to hosting a clinic for Lake Malaren members and assorted other VIPs. McIlroy stood at the back of the range rubbing his temples, but when it was time to perform, he was charming and funny. Asked to hit the range's 50-yard marker, he chose not a wedge but a three-iron and ripped a bullet that went clean through the tagboard sign, leaving a perfect little circle above the zero. When he was beseeched to smash his longest drive, McIlroy took a huge swing and purposely whiffed. The crowd gasped, and a handful of women in the front row covered their faces with their hands. It wasn't until McIlroy started giggling that they got the joke.
How did he summon the energy? "You just do," he says. "It's part of the deal." Then he collapsed onto his bed, rising only for a room-service dinner: "The driest chicken breast you will ever see, I promise you." He was asleep before 9 p.m.
The next day was another blend of art and commerce. McIlroy la-di-da'd his way to a 65 and moved into second place. "When Rory's on song, he has that flow about him," says Justin Rose. "He can make it look a little too easy, really."
In the ensuing press conference a Chinese reporter asked a question that was translated as, "You have a lot of fans in China. Do you enjoy having local juniors go crazy about the way you play golf and the way you dress and your hairstyle?" McIlroy chuckled and then paused for a couple of beats, Fleet Street headlines dancing in his head. "I don't want to say anything wrong here, but I haven't seen many Chinese people with hair as curly as mine. I think it would be pretty tough to copy my hairstyle."
Later, lounging on a couch in the clubhouse, he analyzed the exchange. "I was trying to be funny. Was that funny? I wanted so badly to make a joke, but if it goes wrong, I don't want there to be headlines like, you know, RACIST RORY."
That night, McIlroy had a 3½-hour dinner with his management team. Holding court was a distinguished-looking older gentleman named Donal Casey, whose title is director of strategy. He had come in from Dublin just for this dinner. The rumors of the 10-year, $250 million pact with Nike began in the nether regions of the Internet—golf industry message boards—and quickly became accepted fact, but they're based on the mistaken premise that McIlroy's contract with Titleist expires at year's end. Actually, he has more than a year left on the deal. But Titleist has always resisted breaking the bank to retain superstars at the height of their earning power; Woods moved on to Nike and Phil Mickelson left before his contract had expired.
An alliance with Nike makes sense in the context that Woods's longtime benefactor wants to own the dominant athlete in every sport, and McIlroy is that guy. Such a megadeal would give McIlroy the financial freedom to say "no" more often but put him in the maw of the machine that helped create a public life for Woods that proved unsustainable. "We don't comment on speculation," says Ridge, "but I will say the media seems to know more about this deal than I do."
McIlroy has already vowed to cut back his schedule next year, perhaps influenced by Wozniacki, who recently told reporters that fatigue and off-court distractions cost her the No. 1 ranking she held for more than a year. McIlroy certainly looked low on energy during the third round in Shanghai, twice losing a ball in a water hazard but hanging on for a 69 that kept him in second place. It had already been an endless week, but that night McIlroy again had to sing for his supper, driving more than an hour into the city center for the tournament's gala dinner. In a back room before the dinner, he slumped so deeply into a leather chair that he looked as if he might nod off at any moment. The player McIlroy trailed by a shot, Peter Hanson, is a charisma-free 35-year-old, and there was no demand for his appearance at the gala, which meant that he was back at the hotel relaxing. Was all this capitalism putting McIlroy at a competitive disadvantage?
"Can't do anything about that," he said, popping a wasabi-covered peanut in an attempt to perk up. But on the drive home McIlroy wondered plaintively about when the day would come that he could show up at a tournament and simply play. "The answer is he's only gotten big enough in the last few months for that," says Ridge. "He's reached a point where the best thing he can do to publicize a tournament is play well and win. All the extra stuff will disappear, thankfully."
McIlroy made it back to his hotel 13 hours before his final-round tee time. On Sunday he got a pleasant wake-up call from Wozniacki. "She's in Europe right now, and she'll set her alarm for 4 a.m. so she can call and wish me good luck before my rounds. It's ..."—he stammered a bit, his cheeks reddening—"it's really nice of her." Unfortunately his putter overslept, and sloppy bogeys on the 4th and 5th holes dropped him four back of Hanson. McIlroy kept grinding and played the final 13 holes in seven under par, including an electric eagle on the 15th, but he couldn't quite catch his well-rested playing partner, falling a stroke short. McIlroy pronounced himself "annoyed" with the result and was sullen in the hours afterward, but he livened up during the two-hour flight to Zhengzhou, which featured thick steaks and R-rated gossip. Getting off the jet, McIlroy ran through the rain to a waiting Rolls-Royce. A police escort led the way to his hotel. It was nearly midnight when he finally arrived. McIlroy's first TV interview to publicize the match with Woods was eight hours away.
The Duel at Jinsha Lake was so named to better publicize the host development, a buggy, Florida-style golf course that will soon be dotted with more than 300 huge, charmless villas. They are being sold for as much as $20 million to Chinese robber barons. McIlroy and Woods were being paid lavishly essentially to move real estate.
The opening ceremony was over the top even by Chinese standards: a drum corps, fireworks, a confetti shower, stunt planes, a ceremonial gong. McIlroy and Woods kept stealing glances at each other, trying to hold in their laughter. On the course the scene was barely controlled chaos. Three thousand fans streamed across the fairways, with soldiers locking arms to form a human fence to keep the throngs off the greens. On the tee boxes there were so many camera clicks they sounded like machine-gun fire. McIlroy and Woods chatted and laughed throughout the early going but got a little quieter after Woods missed a short birdie putt at the 9th, making the turn two strokes behind McIlroy. Woods continued to brood, dropping a couple of f bombs that weren't translated for the audience watching live on CCTV. He chipped in for birdie on the 12th hole but could never run down McIlroy, who was flawless tee to green, shooting a 67 to win the match by a stroke. "When he gets things rolling it's impressive," said Woods. "He's really, really hard to beat."
This will not be remembered as McIlroy's third major-championship victory, but for both players the match was another reminder that Woods has been supplanted on the golf course, to say nothing of in the marketplace.
On Tuesday, McIlroy was off to meet Wozniacki in—where else?—Bulgaria. For his final night of this long business trip there would be one final gala dinner. But golf's new boy king left Jinsha Lake thinking about only one thing: a nap.