• Out of Bounds

Nike switch a risk worth taking for Rory

ESPN staff
October 31, 2012
Rory McIlroy will be paid a lot to turn to Nike in 2013 © PA Photos

Titleist announced earlier this week that it would not be continuing its association with Rory McIlroy - freeing up the world No. 1 to make his blockbuster move to join Tiger Woods as a Nike-sponsored athlete.

Nike, as the sporting behemoth knows only too well, is desperately in need of the positive associations that McIlroy, generally clean-cut, brings with him - especially after the negative publicity Lance Armstrong has brought the company in recent weeks (and Woods a few years before that).

But that is only part of the story. Regardless of the perception of their other marquee athletes, Nike are always keen to be associated with the stars of the world game and, with McIlroy already a double major winner and tennis (golf's main individual sport rival) something of a four-way hegemony, the Northern Irishman looks primed to become the most dominant individual athlete in mainstream sport.

Being linked, intrinsically linked in fact, with such success is what Nike always craves. But it comes at a price - reported to be around $150 million over the next ten years.

On Tuesday Nike denied that a link-up with McIlroy was imminent (it is expected to be announced at the start of 2013), but that seems to be nothing more than PR obfuscation. McIlroy's own comment was similarly un-revealing: "I will always appreciate the contribution Titleist has made in helping me become the player I am today."

Titleist, for their part, announced the split with minimal fuss - choosing only to tastefully allude to the role their equipment may have played in his rise to the heady heights he now finds himself.

"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, whose own son is a pro on the European Tour, 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."

The move, perversely, may work out quite for Titleist. For much of 2013, especially if McIlroy does not win the Masters or the US Open, you can expect to see columns devoted to questioning whether a change in equipment has affected his ability to perform at the highest level. The implication, for however long his win-less streak lasts (it won't be all that long, in all likelihood), will be that Titleist equipment remains better.

That does appear to be the case, as Nike passes ten years as an equipment manufacturer. Just as was the cases when they first unveiled their first in-house clubs for Tiger, hardly any professionals out there play Nike equipment whilst not paid to do so.

For Titleist, however, many players use their clubs and drivers (and especially balls) without any financial compensation.

Titleist, indeed, continue to prosper from their approach to player endorsements - which seems almost the polar opposite to Nike's. While Nike pay big money to kit out top stars head to toe in their distinctive Swoosh (a whole operation that comes with a whiff of 'look at me!' desperation), Titleist refuse to overpay to keep burgeoning stars on their books.

Graeme McDowell is one player who struggled after switching club suppliers © PA Photos

That might see them lose the likes of Rory and Tiger over the years, but it also creates an element of prestige with the brand. As a result, Titleist retains a strong following among the serious amateur player.

Some professionals have had difficulty changing manufacturers - most recently Graeme McDowell, who is only just starting to rediscover his former level of play after moving to Srixon (in a lucrative deal) in the aftermath of his US Open triumph.

Woods, meanwhile, took almost ten years to convert his bag entirely to Nike - although admittedly when he signed on the company had not yet begun production of golf clubs. While he has gone on to win a number of major titles, it is no exaggeration to say he has not driven the ball as well since he traded in his trusty Titleist 975D for Nike's various super-sized offerings.

"You know, I did it in 2000, I switched from the Titleist ball to a Nike ball," Woods said last week. "For me it was a huge switch … but at that time that was a big change, to go from that technology. Guys make switches over their careers. Some of the top players like Ernie [Els] - he's played some serious great golf over the years, but it's been with four or five different big companies."

Past history would suggest that McIlroy will suffer some initial drop-off in performances as a result of a change in equipment, as he adjusts to the differing feel and distances they go (while all items will be custom-fit to his precise specifications, 'feel' is something almost impossible to replicate). But, with the sums involved, the prize money he might miss out on will be more than covered by Nike's sponsorship.

Given time to adjust - possibly six months, unlikely to be much more than a year - McIlroy will no doubt get back to his former level.

The switch, then, is a risk - but one more than worth taking. Everyone comes out of this deal well - except maybe Tiger Woods, who can now see his time as the game's dominant presence coming to an end.

© ESPN Sports Media Ltd.