ABU DHABI // If the Hollywood-style theatrics are any indication, this is going to be one big-budget, memorable, box-office deal for the world No 1 Rory McIlroy, the kid from Holywood, Northern Ireland.
With massive video screens, holograms, water fountains, smoke bombs and a rock-show stage set along the sandy shores between the bridges in Abu Dhabi yesterday, McIlroy was at last introduced as Nike’s newest pitchman, with the Grand Mosque in the picturesque backdrop.
If he had walked out for his formal unveiling with a guitar slung around his neck, it would have fit the vibe. It was so choreographed, McIlroy participated in a rehearsal in the morning, during which he seemingly emerged from a water fountain, and asked his manager how it looked.
Citing a Biblical reference, McIlroy was told he looked a bit like Moses at the parting of the Red Sea, to which the Ulsterman turned to a Nike representative and smirked.
“Do you make sandals?” he cracked.
After months of assumptions and rumours, Nike made it official with the two-time major winner at the Fairmont Hotel, and while the financial figures were not disclosed, it’s pretty certain that McIlroy won’t be forced to go barefoot anytime soon.
The nearly over-the-top introduction included the playing of a new TV commercial set to air this week with McIlroy and Tiger Woods, who are both in town to play in the Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship, taped last year in California. They will be paired together in the first two rounds.
Cindy Davis, the president of Nike’s golf division, called the McIlroy signing “one of the most important events in the history of Nike golf.”
Given McIlroy’s star power, it has to rank among the costliest deals, too. Davis declined to reveal the term or particulars of the new contract, and in the most awkward portion of the festivities, declined to say whether there was a morals clause included, given the travails of Nike endorsers Lance Armstrong and Woods in the past.
For their investment, McIlroy is the closest player to a sure thing the sport has seen in a couple of decades. Last year, he won five times globally to cement the money title and top-player awards on two major tours.
McIlroy, 23, was asked, half-jokingly, whether he is now rich beyond his wildest dreams.
“I don’t play golf for the money, I am well past that,” he said. “I feel this is a company that can help me sustain that [success].”
Changing equipment can be a little more complicated than, say, switching guitar strings. More than a few players over the years have chased the dollars, changed their hardware and gone into a tailspin, including established players like the late Payne Stewart and Corey Pavin. The latter used a set of Cleveland irons that looked like spatulas on a metal stick. But one of the biggest detours relates directly to a former No 1 who signed with none other than Nike.
Twelve years ago, David Duval, who only recently had been ranked No 1 in the world, showed up at Doral Golf Resort and Spa outside Miami awash in swooshes, having been signed to a long-term, mega-million deal with the Beaverton, Ore., company.
Duval was locked in a very public lawsuit with his former club manufacturer.
“It’s one piece of the puzzle that’s been put in place, but obviously I still have a few outstanding pieces that will resolve themselves in their own time,” Duval said at the time.
Or perhaps not. The mercurial Duval, who had other issues to face as well, won exactly one tournament with Nike over the remainder of his career -- four months later at the British Open.
McIlroy insisted that he has had no second thought about leaving Titleist, his former company, for the new equipment manufactured by the swoosh.
“I have heard all the horror stories,” McIlroy said.
Given that McIlroy in 2012 became the first player ever to win four PGA Tour events with Woods in the field, nobody is suggesting he is about to fall into the Arabian Gulf. But tinkering in the toy box is not always an easy transition. As a six-timer major winner said on the Golf Channel recently, there are no guarantees that the nuances can be replicated when changing gear.
“I call it dangerous,” Nick Faldo, briefly a Nike man himself, told Golf Channel. “I’ve changed clubs and changed equipment, and every manufacturer will say, ‘We can copy your clubs. We can tweak the golf ball so it fits you.’ But there’s feel and sound as well, and there’s confidence. You can’t put a real value on that. It’s priceless.”
Not quite true.
However it plays out, only a handful know what McIlroy was paid, but you can assume it is a healthy chunk of change, indeed.