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Rubenstein: McIlroy tabbed to sell more than golf

Nike Golf's announcement today in Abu Dhabi that it's signed Rory McIlroy to a contract to play its equipment and wear its apparel was hardly surprising. Sure, it was being referred to as "The Big Reveal," but the fact that McIlroy left Titleist late last year was a clear sign that he was on his way to the same company that signed Tiger Woods to a five-year contract in August 1996 when he turned professional. Woods is still with Nike, having signed further contracts. Cindy Davis, Nike Golf's president, referred to the contract with McIlroy as "multi-year," but would go no further.

McIlroy and Woods are playing in this week's Abu Dhabi HSBC Golf Championship. The news conference had high-production values and it even featured a dazzling television advertisement with McIlroy and Nike player Tiger Woods that will be shown worldwide starting Wednesday. It was a high-tech world removed from the announcement in August 1996 that Woods had signed with Nike.

"Hello World," Woods said then during the televised press conference. The contract was said then to be worth $40-million over the five-year term. Woods was 20 when he signed the contract. The so-called Big Reveal was also televised, of course. While no financial details were revealed, McIlroy's contract has been reported to be over a 10-year term and worth as much as $250-million.

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McIlroy is 23 and has won two majors already. He took the 2011 U.S. Open by eight shots and the PGA Championship last August by the same wide margin. The Northern Irishman who recently spent a reported $11-million to purchase a home in Palm Beach Gardens, Fla., not far from where Woods lives on Jupiter Island, is the world number-one ranked player. He was the top player on both the PGA and European Tours last year. He's also become good, even close, friends with Woods.

When Nike signed Woods, it did so on the basis of his accomplishments as an amateur and his promise as a tour pro. Woods had won three straight U.S. Juniors before winning three straight U.S. Amateurs. He then won two of the seven PGA Tour events that he entered in the remainder of the 2006 season to win his all-exempt status for the next year. Woods won the 1997 Masters by 12 shots in his first appearance there as a professional. He's won 13 more majors in his majestic record of 74 PGA Tour wins.

As for McIlroy, Nike has signed him on the basis of his overpowering performances in his two major wins, his other on-course accomplishments (four PGA Tour wins last year including his PGA Championship, and his big win in Dubai last November to wrap up the European Tour top spot, for example), as well as his appealing personality. McIlroy is naturally friendly and open. Nike Golf's president Cindy Davis, who was of course in Abu Dhabi for the announcement, spoke of McIlroy's character.

There's a question, of course, as to how well McIlroy will adjust to playing Nike clubs. He said in Dubai, "I think all the manufacturers make great equipment nowadays and it's all very similar." He added, "I don't think it will make any difference."

That remains to be seen, notwithstanding the fact that McIlroy has tested Nike equipment thoroughly and said during the news conference that the transition has been "seamless." McIlroy will be using his Nike clubs – every club in his bag a Nike club, including the new VR_S Covert cavity back driver and putter, and a Nike ball in Abu Dhabi. He could walk away with the tournament or maybe he won't play well. However he performs, it will be too early to make any pronouncements as to whether Nike's new poster boy will prove to be a wise investment. He'll be not only using Nike clubs and balls, he'll be wearing Nike head to foot.

Nike, it has to be said, isn't very popular with club or even top amateur golfers. You rarely see Nike equipment in a player's bag at clubs. There's nothing wrong with the equipment – it's very good, in fact – but the impact hasn't been there beyond the pro tours.

There, Nike does have two of the most respected equipment designers in the business. Tom Stites, the head of product creation, has made clubs for Ben Hogan, Jack Nicklaus, and, of course, Woods. Rock Ishii, Nike's golf ball research and development director, is a technical genius.

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It's not surprising, then, that Nike does have an impressive group of players, long led by Woods and now including McIlroy. Charl Schwartzel, the 2011 Masters winner, plays Nike. Canada's Stephen Ames, a four-time PGA Tour winner, has been a Nike player for years. PGA Tour winners Nick Watney and Kyle Stanley are new Nike recruits.

Most recently, former University of Georgia standout Russell Henley won the Sony Open on Sunday in Honolulu while using a full set of Nike clubs, including a Nike Method 006 prototype putter with which he made just about every putt he looked at while shooting 24-under-par 256. Henley was more than impressive as he finished with five straight birdies to win in his debut as a PGA Tour rookie by three shots over Tim Clark. He had 33 one-putt greens during the 72 holes.

Henley also used the new 20XI X ball for the first time. The 23-year-old is the sort of freewheeling player who could introduce a younger generation of golfers, pro and amateur, to Nike golf equipment. Of course, Nike is counting on another 23-year-old, McIlroy that is, to encourage club golfers to use its equipment.

Nike has signed the most popular golfer in the world to a gigantic contract, and obviously has big hopes for what McIlroy can do for its golf division. The focus on McIlroy will be intense. He has been under the spotlight for some time now, but he has ensured the glare will only get more intense from the first swing he makes this week in Abu Dhabi with Nike clubs.

"Hello World," Tiger Woods said in August 1996, when he turned pro and his Nike deal was announced. For McIlroy in Abu Dhabi, it might as well have been "Hello New World." He's so gifted that his new world with Nike equipment should include many more wins, including majors.

It should, but that doesn't mean it will. In golf, you never know. Here comes McIlroy's New World. Expect quite a ride.

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RELATED LINK: More blogs from Lorne Rubenstein


Lorne Rubenstein has written a golf column for The Globe and Mail since 1980. He has played golf since the early 1960s and was the Royal Canadian Golf Association's first curator of its museum and library at the Glen Abbey Golf Club in Oakville, Ontario and the first editor of Score, Canada's Golf Magazine, where he continues to write a column and features. He has won four first-place awards from the Golf Writers Association of America, one National Magazine Award in Canada, and he won the award for the best feature in 2009 from the Golf Journalists Association of Canada. Lorne has written 12 books, including Mike Weir: The Road to the Masters (2003); A Disorderly Compendium of Golf, with Jeff Neuman (2006); This Round's on Me (2009); and the latest Moe & Me: Encounters with Moe Norman, Golf's Mysterious Genius (2012). He is a member of the Ontario Golf Hall of Fame and the Canadian Golf Hall of Fame. Lorne can be reached at . You can now follow him on Twitter @lornerubenstein

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