Rory McIlroy's blockbuster deal with Nike was set in motion in September 2011. At 21, McIlroy had already established himself as a talent for the ages with a blowout victory at the U.S. Open three months earlier. While at home in Northern Ireland he summoned agent Conor Ridge for a surreptitious meeting that would change McIlroy's future and eventually the sports landscape too.
Ridge's Horizon Sports Management had done an excellent job guiding the career of McIlroy's good friend Graeme McDowell, but Horizon was decidedly boutique. Yet Ridge was a big strategic thinker, and he came to McIlroy at a pivotal moment: McIlroy had grown disenchanted with the stewardship of his agent, Chubby Chandler, whose public profile had grown as oversized as his waistline. The Chandler model was to scoop up as many endorsement deals as possible, not worrying how they fit together; thus young McIlroy had come to be plastered with logos, golf's version of a NASCAR ride. The largest and most egregious of these belonged to Jumeirah, a Dubai-based hotel chain that had little name recognition in most of the places where McIlroy teed it up.
So on that afternoon, Ridge sat on McIlroy's living room couch for four hours, both of them sipping coffee and laying out a vision for the future. McIlroy wanted a younger, cooler image. He wanted to transcend golf. A point he made more than once was that he wanted a cleaner, uncluttered look. When it was Ridge's turn to talk, he offered a detailed 20-year plan for McIlroy's career. They quickly realized that they saw the world, and McIlroy's future, in remarkably similar ways. It was like falling in love on a first date.
McIlroy officially decamped to Ridge on Oct. 21, 2011, a thunderbolt in golf business circles. Taking control of his career seemed to energize McIlroy, and five months later he summited the World Ranking. By August he had won a second major championship, putting him ahead of Tiger Woods's pace. It was a particularly felicitous time to blossom into the fresh-scrubbed face of an international sport. McIlroy's biggest endorsement deal — with apparel and sunglass maker Oakley — was expiring at the end of 2012. His contract with Titleist ran through 2013, and history was on his side should he want to extricate himself: Titleist has never ponied up the big money it takes to keep the game's biggest names, having parted with Tiger Woods, Phil Mickelson and David Duval at the apex of their popularity. At Titleist, the product is the star, not any one player. It's hard to fault the strategy — those golf balls sell by the bushel no matter who is appearing in the company's ads.
Throughout the summer Ridge labored to map out McIlroy's future in the marketplace, quietly initiating discussions with all the golfer's current endorsement partners and those who might wish to be in the future. Nike was a serious player all along. "Our team is always developing relationships, at all levels of golf," says Cindy Davis, president of Nike Golf, choosing her words carefully. "Put it this way: We've been a fan of Rory's for a long time."
McIlroy was similarly smitten. "I've always been a fan of the company, going back to when I was a kid," he says. "I liked the image they projected. They've been associated with so many great sportsmen, and even now I can remember a lot of the adverts from 10 or 15 years ago.
"It always seemed like a good fit to me. Golf needs a younger and more athletic image, and Nike has always had that. I'm young enough. I'm not sure I'm athletic enough. But I'll try!"
Titleist did make a big push to keep McIlroy, offering what sources at the company say was a five-year, $50 million deal. TaylorMade came in with a similar offer. "Turns out we weren't even in the right ballpark," says a TaylorMade executive.
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.
On a crisp morning in Abu Dhabi, McIlroy was minutes from beginning his first competitive round with his new clubs, and Ridge loitered conspicuously near the tee box. He was approached by Wayne (Radar) Riley, a salty Euro tour radio commentator. "Where's your wheel- barrow?" Radar asked. "I thought you'd be out here carting around a pile of gold."
Big-money contracts inevitably come with a backlash — ask Alex Rodriguez — and Nike has not exactly let McIlroy ease into things. The deal was announced in Abu Dhabi with a ceremony that Liberace would have considered ostentatious. McIlroy was introduced with thumping music, blinding lights and a Tupac-style hologram of himself. (McIlroy made it slightly more palatable by seeming a little bashful about the spectacle.) Looming behind him was Abu Dhabi's famous Grand Mosque, which took 11 years to build and serves as a tidy metaphor for an ancient society that now worships money. Whenever McIlroy was asked about the size of the contract — and he was asked about it incessantly — he practically winced. Changing equipment just as he emerged as golf's dominant player is the biggest gamble of his young career, and McIlroy is at pains to explain that he made the choice with his heart, not his wallet. "I don't play for money; I feel I'm well past that," he said at a press conference in Abu Dhabi, during which one scribe addressed him as Moneybags. "I play for titles, not money." In a quieter moment he added, "People may not want to believe this, but money was not my motivation. I wanted to be part of something special. I wanted to be associated with a company that has nurtured so many of the world's greatest sportsmen."
The life-changing lucre from Nike should actually help McIlroy in his pursuit of trophies. He can now say "no" more frequently and has already begun to; he recently announced that he will reduce his schedule by two events this year, avoiding the burnout that comes with late-season cash grabs in Asia. In his mind the Nike deal is not the beginning of a new era but the end of an old one.
In a little over a year and a half McIlroy embarked on a very public romance with Wozniacki, changed agents, relocated to the U.S. and remade his image with the biggest golf-equipment deal of this century. "It's been a little crazy, it's true," he says. "Instead of feeling pressure [with the new deal], I feel relief. I'm excited. Now everything is in place, and I can focus on playing golf."
Of course, in the short term his every twitch will be scrutinized, which was made plain during his rocky season opener in the Middle East. McIlroy's uncluttered new look suits him, as does the more daring Nike style palette — Ian Poulter approved of his tartan trousers on Twitter — but during a missed cut he never looked comfortable with a club in his hands. McIlroy's contract likely allows for a transition period during which he is not compelled to play 14 Nike clubs, but for the first round of the Abu Dhabi HSBC Golf Championship he went whole hog, right down to his prototype Method 006 putter. After struggling to get the ball to the hole on the slow greens at Abu Dhabi Golf Club, he benched his new wand and went back to a trusty Scotty Cameron. It didn't help. Even worse was McIlroy's driving, which is typically the strength of his game. He sounded the alarm after the second round, saying, "I just need to find a driver that I'm comfortable with."
It may not be that simple. Says veteran Greg Chalmers, "When you change everything, you lose your baseline for what's wrong if something is wrong. Is it the shaft? The ball? The head? How do you know what's wrong? Like if I change my driver right now, I know it's not the ball because it's the same ball. I can put my finger on what's wrong. But if you change everything — and even if it tests great — it's different in competition. You're excited, so the shaft flicks differently. There are a lot of parameters going into how the ball flies, and when you lose that baseline with at least one thing being constant, how do you know what's wrong when it's wrong?"
McIlroy was clearly rusty from having taken the preceding eight weeks off, and he sounded more concerned with his swing than with his equipment. After his tournament ended prematurely, he was eager to head Down Under to watch Wozniacki compete in the Australian Open but instead hunkered down for two days in Dubai, logging long hours on the range with Michael Bannon, his lifelong coach. Bannon saw that his pupil had been rerouting the club on his downswing. The pair made a slight tweak to McIlroy's takeaway, and suddenly he was busting the ball as well as ever. Bannon expects McIlroy to carry that form into his next start, the Accenture Match Play Championship, which begins on Feb. 20, but he didn't want to say much more. Unlike almost every other swing guru, Bannon eschews the spotlight. This is typical of the small, fiercely loyal tribe around McIlroy.
These friends, family and select business associates have helped McIlroy weather his many life changes, mostly by constantly taking the mickey out of him. Abu Dhabi was a case in point. The day after the Nike announcement McIlroy used the bully pulpit of his pretournament press conference to stump for Paul McGinley as European Ryder Cup captain. McGinley got the job, and at his press conference, McIlroy popped in to show his support. Later on, near midnight, he was enjoying his political victory at the hotel bar. If ever a kid could have been drunk on his own self-importance, this was the moment, but that's not McIlroy's style. Wearing designer jeans with regrettable, buttoned back pockets, an untucked Oxford shirt and a sweet pair of white-black-and-red vintage Nike trainers, McIlroy recounted in excruciating detail a match against his father that had taken place around Christmas. Gerry is a serious golfer who has spent most of his life playing off scratch and is now a three handicap. For their medal-match play tussles, McIlroy gives his dad eight or 10 strokes, depending on how generous he's feeling. In their holiday game at the Bear's Club, Gerry was three strokes ahead going to the 18th hole, a watery par-5. He proceeded to take an 11, and as Rory recounted every ghastly stroke, he was laughing so hard he had tears in his eyes.
Gerry is a man of immense pride, and he barked a shorthand reference at his son, alluding to a long-ago blowup that had cost Rory dearly in one of their matches. Rory instantly turned into a petulant teen: "Shut up, Dad!"
With a twinkle Gerry looked around at the small gathering that was hanging on his every word. "I've still got him in me pocket," the old man said.
Golf as a vehicle for trash talk happens to be the theme of the much-ballyhooed new Nike television commercial that features McIlroy and Woods playing a game of driving range H-O-R-S-E. It is Woods, arguably the greatest golfer of all time, who has suddenly been cast as the supporting actor. Of the 20 questions he fielded in his pretournament press conference in Abu Dhabi, 14 were about McIlroy. Later Tiger said, "It's great — he's doing all the media. I love it. He can have it all. I can do my own thing with a lot fewer distractions."
It's not surprising that Woods is playing good soldier. One of the unsung motivations for signing McIlroy is that it allows Nike to start using Tiger again. Since his sex scandal three years ago he has been treated as if he were radioactive, but McIlroy's arrival allows for Tiger's graceful transition into the elder statesman role. Clearly Nike has grand plans for the duo. Davis offered a glimpse of the company's thinking when she said, "Nicklaus and Palmer became so iconic not only because of their individual accomplishments but also because they were marketed together."
Woods likes McIlroy, but he hasn't lost all of his edginess — Tiger seems to enjoy pointing out that he has never, ever swapped out all 14 clubs at once. But overall Woods has been supportive of his new stablemate. "It's always an adjustment whenever you change equipment, but Rory will be fine," he says. "He's a smart kid."
It hasn't taken long for McIlroy to grasp what he's signed up for. In his hands he no longer holds mere pieces of golf equipment. They are now, for better or worse, a defining part of his narrative. With a tight smile McIlroy says, "I just need to keep winning tournaments, and everything will be fine."