Rory McIlroy will be formally unveiled today as the face of Nike Golf, which must be a relief for player and company executives, sworn to silence despite the switch to the swoosh being the talk of the sport for months.
McIlroy was photographed last week warming up for this week's HSBC Champions event in Abu Dhabi using Nike sticks etched with his name. Still no acknowledgment from Nike HQ. There was, however, an invite from the company to attend a ceremony today with a "special guest". Who might that be?The association is said to be worth $250m (£155m) over 10 years to the world No 1, an increase of some 500 per cent on existing sponsorship deals, making McIlroy the highest-earning golfer after Tiger Woods.
At just 23 and already the world No 1 by a huge margin, McIlroy is Nike's investment in the future, leading a stable that from the start of this year also embraced twentysomething Americans Nick Watney and Kyle Stanley plus Korean supernova Noh Seung-yul, talented lads all but very much the junior partners in this arrangement.
McIlroy had existing deals with Dubai golf estate Jumeirah, Spanish bank Santander and Swiss watchmaker Audemars Piguet, plus American clothing supplier Oakley. Some have gone quietly. Oakley not so, and is pursuing McIlroy through the courts in California over what it claims was first refusal to renew a deal that ran out at the end of last year. That will not get in the way of today's fanfare. More of an issue is the impact Brand McIlroy might have on the player.
Sir Nick Faldo was on to this issue early, questioning the wisdom of ditching the Titleist clubs and ball, with which he won two majors, for the prestige and booty of the association with Nike. Faldo was rather graceless in attacking McIlroy over a move he believes is rooted in pound notes, but he was on more solid ground with his concern about the change in equipment and the possible consequences.
"As professional golfers we get a millisecond of feedback from impact, and if you get that lovely feedback and the ball goes where you want it, that's a tick in the confidence box. But if you think, 'oh, that felt different' and the ball doesn't go where you want it to go, it starts to eat away at your confidence," Faldo said.
The behaviour of the ball is the more critical element. McIlroy could beat most players with a set of hickory clubs. When he has not been chained to the top of buildings on the far side of the world with girlfriend Caroline Wozniacki, McIlroy has been on the range immersing himself in Nike world to get used to his new materials. His first outing of the year coincides with the seasonal debut of Woods, who turned pro with Nike in 1996 in that "Hello World" ad campaign, part of a deal worth $40m.
According to Faldo, the indelible link between Woods and Nike ought to have been sufficient to dissuade McIlroy from joining the club. "I'm surprised he's going to Nike," he said. "Tiger has made that his brand and to join someone else's brand really surprises me, as I thought he would stick to his own thing. Rory could easily start the Rory brand and build his own identity. He's that popular he doesn't need to be a Nike guy, or Adidas guy or whatever. When you're 23 and world No 1, what a great time to build the Rory brand, a true brand, not somebody else's."
Faldo misses the point. It is not McIlroy's kit that defines him but the pots he wins and the way he does it. Unless Faldo is working for free when he designs courses and appears on TV as a pundit, he cannot blame McIlroy for taking the coin, especially as this arrangement simplifies the sponsor-player relationship for a return five times greater than he was earning as a walking billboard.
The HSBC Champions tournament in Abu Dhabi is the first of five scheduled by McIlroy before the Masters in the second week of April. In a sense the Masters is the portal through which McIlroy entered the hearts of America. The crushing loss on the final day in 2011, when he blew a four-shot lead and carved his tee-shot on the 10th behind the Eisenhower Cabin, sealed an emotional deal few manage in victory. Two months later he returned to claim the US Open at Congressional by a record margin a month into his 22nd year. The surprise is that it took Nike another 18 months to make a move.
The McIlroy-Woods dynamic is golf's dream ticket in 2013, a nascent rivalry that is essentially waiting for Woods to catch up with the Ulsterman. Three times a winner on the PGA Tour last year, Woods is once more a fixture on leaderboards. The consistency is returning if not yet the power surge. McIlroy has both. He signed off 2012 in neighbouring Dubai with five birdies on the bounce to claim his fifth win of the year, a record that took him to the top of the money lists on both sides of the Atlantic.
Just do it, says Nike. McIlroy put muscle on the slogan that day. And for $250m, Nike is betting there will be many more Sundays like it, golf's new poster boy scorching the earth just like Tiger used to.
Rory's record: Mcilroy by numbers
McIlroy's record winning score at the 2011 US Open, his first major
Weeks spent at world No 1 by the Ulsterman
Professional wins recorded by McIlroy – including two majors
Endorsed earners: big sponsorships
* Rory McIlroy's deal with Nike dwarfs other endorsements in sport:
David Beckham (football) Adidas, £100m.
Tiger Woods (golf) Nike, £61.98m
LeBron James (basketball) Nike, £55.7m
Roger Federer (tennis) Nike, Rolex, Credit Suisse, Wilson, £27.8m.
Phil Mickelson (golf) Callaway and others, £26.65m
Cristiano Ronaldo (football) Nike, £20.14m
Kobe Bryant (basketball) Nike, £17.35m.Reuse content