Rory McIlroy, Acushnet break up; marriage to Tiger Woods’ sponsor, Nike, imminent?

Hong Wu

Rory McIlroy and Tiger Woods are now free to pursue joint marketing opportunities with Nike

Rory McIlroy and Acushnet announced Tuesday that each greatly admired the other but that their working relationship was kaput.

The divorce between the world No. 1 and the only golf gear vendor he’s known for his entire five-year professional career will take effect when his contract with the Titleist/FootJoy provider expires at the end of December. The breakup paves the way for McIlroy to join Tiger Woods at Nike in what the Irish Times has reported could be a 10-year, $250 million deal.

Inking a pact with McIlroy would give Nike, which recently cut ties with disgraced cyclist Lance Armstrong but stuck with Woods through his own scandal, golf’s best and most magnetic players. Acushnet was also the runner-up in the Woods sweepstakes when the current second-ranked player jilted the Massachusetts brand for the Nike golf ball in 2000 and clubs in 2002.

On Tuesday, each party praised the other in an official statement declaring the upcoming change.

''Our goal has been to provide Rory with the best equipment and service that would help him be the best player he could possibly be,'' Acushnet chief executive Wally Uihlein said. ''He has been a great ambassador for the Titleist and FootJoy brands, and in turn, we are proud of how our equipment has contributed to his success. We wish Rory all the best, both personally and professionally, going forward.''

McIlroy, fresh off a one-stroke defeat of Woods in China in the first of what will likely become many more one-on-one duels between the two friendly rivals, returned the compliment, thanking Acushnet “for everything they have done for me since I turned professional in 2007.

"I have enjoyed five very exciting and successful years with the company and I will always appreciate the contribution Titleist has made in helping me become the player I am today,” said McIlroy, who captured August’s PGA Championship using Titleist’s new 913 driver.

Speculation has been swirling about McIlroy signing with Nike, and his demeanor during Monday’s “Duel at Jinsha Lake” gave credence to the rumors. In addition to discussing the properties of different golf balls with his playing partner, McIlroy took a couple of practice swings with one of Woods’ Nike clubs.

Now it appears the 23-year-old two-time major champ will be demo’ing a full bag of Nike sticks, which he’ll likely put into play when he kicks off his 2013 season -- with Woods in the field -- at the Abu Dhabi Championship. Let the joint-marketing promos commence.

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