Rory McIlroy eyes blockbuster deal with Tiger Woods’ sponsor, Nike

Warren Little

Maybe there’s more to that blossoming friendship between Tiger Woods and Rory McIlroy than the obvious friendliness.

Rumors are roiling that Rory McIlroy will sign a whopping $250 million deal with Tiger Woods’ deep-pocketed endorser, Nike, when the reigning PGA champ’s Titleist contract expires at the end of 2012. So, perhaps the 14-time major winner was wooing the young Ulsterman into the swoosh structure during those many head-to-head match-ups toward the end of the regular PGA Tour season.

The Irish Times reported Saturday that McIlroy was likely to ink a 10-year pact with a value close to what Nike pays its current cash cow, Woods. The story added specifics to speculation that has swirled for some time, heated up in the past few months, and which McIlroy’s agent Conor Ridge has done little to squelch.

"As you are aware," the Times quoted Horizon Sports Management’s Ridge as saying in a statement, "Rory is under contract with Titleist. It is our policy not to pass comment regarding any industry speculation related to any of our players."

Hitching its future fortunes to the world’s second-most marketable athlete, according to SportPro Media, would make sense from a brand perspective for Nike. Earlier this week, the sports gear giant dumped Lance Armstrong in the face of "seemingly insurmountable evidence" that the disgraced cycling champ doped and misled his sponsor "for more than a decade."

Woods, who single-handedly put Nike Golf on the map, and who has gone out of his way to tout McIlroy as the leader of golf’s next generation (on the field and as a pitchman?), will start next season as a 37-year-old without a major win since 2008. Meanwhile, the player some of his colleagues term the "next Tiger Woods" has secured his spot atop the world of golf with two majors in the last two seasons.

No doubt, the deep-pocketed Nike (the "most valuable sports brand in the world’ is worth $15.9 billion, according to Forbes), can afford to pay McIlroy whatever Woods’ successor might demand. The deal would be a no-brainer for the manufacturer, which would become the only equipment vendor that could boast of having the world’s No. 1 and No. 2 in the fold.

On the other side of the ledger, the move would be a stinger for Acushnet Co., Titleist’s parent firm, which dispatched club fitters to McIlroy’s home in Ireland to convince the company’s cover boy to switch to its new 913 driver. Indeed, some observers -- perhaps even the golfer in question -- wonder whether it makes sense for the reigning PGA champ to ditch gear that has helped him achieve such success.

"I have been testing the new 913 and I was hitting the ball longer," McIlroy, who used his two-year-old 91D2 driver as a measuring stick, said at the Irish Open. "I’m getting less spin, which is great in the wind, and it carries 15 yards further in calm conditions....I feel like I am hitting the ball a lot better with this new driver and I feel that’s going to make a huge difference."

McIlroy, who drubbed the PGA Championship field by the same eight strokes with which he cruised to the 2011 U.S. Open title, hopped on his Titleist 913D3 prototype driver for an event-leading average of 311.5 yards off the tee over the four-day tourney at Kiawah Island in August. He then switched his Titleist 906 clubs, which he had used for most of his professional career, for prototype Titleist 913 fairway metal woods and hybrids and proceeded to win back-to-back FedEx Cup events, the Deutsche Bank and the BMW Championships.

To those doubters, other watchers note that Woods seemed to do just fine (winning eight of his 14 majors, for example) after he began trading in his Titleists for sticks from the Beaverton, Ore., company in 2002.

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