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Nike deal puts McIlroy under microscope

Rory McIlroy 2013 Nike news conference
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ABU DHABI, United Arab Emirates – It seems about right Nike Golf and Rory McIlroy would have chosen this corner of the Middle East to tell the world what we have known for months – the Swoosh wants to be in the Rory business.

Unlike Dubai to the east, which became the center of Arab opulence in recent years and seems to have embraced sprawl and style or substance and sustainable growth, Abu Dhabi has deftly found a way to embrace old and new.

Let’s hope Rory and Nike have the same touch, because these mega-marriages rarely go to script.

Although estimates have been dramatically toned down since initial reports suggested the Beaverton, Ore.-based company was poised to sign the world No. 1 to a 10-year, $250 million endorsement deal – with various reports following Monday’s announcement suggesting the deal is closer to five years. Nike didn’t announce the terms of the signing.

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Either way it is clear the Swoosh is all in for the Northern Irishman.

With a commercial featuring McIlroy and world No. 2 Tiger Woods set to debut on Wednesday on Golf Channel and ESPN it’s clear Nike, as it does in other sports, plans to capitalize on having the game’s alpha and omega under a single roof.

Seamlessly weaving two divergent personalities, and not roughing up any egos in the process, will be Nike’s biggest challenge, but there is an army of marketing types to climb that mountain.

The real challenge, the real concern if any exists, rests with the 23-year-old wunderkind and his ability to transition to a new set of Nike clubs. Beginning with this week’s Abu Dhabi HSBC Golf Championship all 14 of the Ulsterman’s clubs will bear the company logo and, perhaps more importantly, he will play the Nike 20XI X golf ball.

By comparison it took Woods the better part of a decade to work his way into a full bag of Nike toys, with the last step coming at the 2010 British Open when he finally converted to a Method putter.

For McIlroy there will be no 10-year grace period, no safety net and, as far as the worldwide media is concerned, very little latitude.

As unrealistic as it may seem, if McIlroy doesn’t match his success of the last two seasons – including major victories in both – he will be questioned for making such a dramatic jump so early in his career.

“He has to be cautious. This is a very dangerous time,” cautioned Nick Faldo late last year as news built of the impending blockbuster. “Equipment is part of your DNA. The feel of them, how they sound, everything is about feel. I’d be really careful about that.”

On Monday in Abu Dhabi McIlroy said all the right things and given his performance over the past few years he deserves the benefit of the doubt and then some.

“To be honest, I’ve been blown away by the attention to detail when it comes to product (at Nike),” said McIlroy, who reportedly won’t carry a Nike golf bag. “Nike Golf is clearly committed to being the best and that gives me a lot of confidence in what we can achieve together on the golf course.”

Those who suggest the Ulsterman is in the midst of a money grab may also want to take a breath. You don’t get to No. 1 in the World Golf Ranking trying to cash a check and if his jump from International Sports Management to Horizon Sports in late 2011 was any indication he seems to be more big picture than we often give him credit for.

Still, the game’s trash bin is filled with well intentioned decisions. Graeme McDowell, who has become something of a mentor for McIlroy on Tour, readily admitted that he struggled in 2011 after making a wholesale equipment change following his U.S. Open victory at Pebble Beach.

Late last year after he’d earned his Tour card at Q-School Ross Fisher revealed he’d suffered a similar fate when he switched, like McIlroy, from Titleist to Nike Golf last January.

“It took me some time to become comfortable with the new clubs,” the Englishman said. “I feel comfortable with everything in the bag now, but it does take some time.”

Although Fisher’s comments weren’t directed at McIlroy, truth is the Ulsterman’s name never came up in the conversation, but his is a cautionary tale that seemed to loom over Monday’s proceedings at the posh Fairmont hotel.

Whether it’s fair or not, McIlroy, and Nike Golf, are officially on the clock. Officially on the hook to do what they’ve done so well in Abu Dhabi, mesh old and new together without making a mess.