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Woods, McIlroy start slowly in long race

Tiger Woods
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MEMPHIS, TN - JUNE 12: Rory Mcllroy of Northern Irelan chips onto the 11th green during the third round of the St. Jude Classic at TPC Southwind held on June 12, 2010 in Memphis, Tennessee. (Photo by John Sommers II/Getty Images)  - 

This probably wasn’t what Phil Knight had in mind.

A week that began in Abu Dhabi with plentiful pomp and circumstance to introduce Rory McIlroy as Nike Golf’s newest foil to Tiger Woods, including a commercial featuring the world’s top two-ranked golfers playing a little game of one-upmanship called “No Cup is Safe,” ended with both of them heading home for the weekend after a pair of underwhelming rounds.

Well, at least it sets up a sequel to the original ad. Just call it “No Cut Is Safe.”

For his sake, let’s hope Knight has a pair of those trademark shades in rose-colored, too.

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Cynics will point to McIlroy’s recent equipment change and consequent missed cut as more than coincidence. They will allege that Woods’ willingness to pal around with his newest rival feels like a downshift in his competitive desire. They will contend that pessimism should reign in Camp Nike following an unsuccessful opening week for its two biggest stars.

There’s no doubt that the company wanted to make a major splash after its major announcement. You don’t wheel out the oversized screens and smoke machines without having high hopes of an immediate payoff. The idyllic scenario would have involved Rory and Tiger matching each other shot for shot down the stretch on Sunday afternoon, brothers in arms as they jabbed and giggled their way to a playoff showdown, replete in various swoosh logos.

This isn’t exactly inside information, but as much as company executives would have enjoyed that scenario, it isn’t paying big bucks to these players for total domination in a place like Abu Dhabi.

No, this was a long-term move, built to enhance Nike’s already high profile at the high-profile events. It will trade a few missed cuts in the Middle East for a title contention in Augusta; it would give up a prescient pairing in Palm Beach for match play at Merion.

The company didn’t hold Michael Jordan in such high regard because he owned an impressive record on Opening Night. The rings were the things.

It may have been an ominous start to their tenure on the same roster, but McIlroy and Woods are the unique elite players who judge their seasons and careers – and have their seasons and careers judged by others – based on major championship success. Missed cuts in Abu Dhabi may serve as a dual stumble out of the gate, but it doesn’t mean they still can’t win the race.

It also doesn’t mean Nike is at a total loss to start the season, either. Its inability to forge a friendly rivalry into Abu Dhabi contention aside, PGA Tour rookie Russell Henley won in his first start at last week’s Sony Open and newly signed Thorbjorn Olesen is taking the spot of McIlroy and Woods on the current leaderboard in Abu Dhabi.

They may come at varying degrees, but those ubiquitous swoosh logos will be pervasive at majors throughout this year and beyond, likely from its two most marketable performers. Even the world’s best players can struggle through equipment changes and swing changes, but talent will always overcome temporary obstacles.

So while the cynics will maintain that Week 1 of the Tiger-Rory Era – or Rory-Tiger Era, if you prefer – in the Nike regime was an abject failure, the optimists should land plenty of counterpunches, too. 

They will say that this tournament was a mere blip on the radar, an anomaly for the world’s two most talented players. They will contend that we’re still 83 days from the beginning of The Masters, one of those four annual tourneys which means so much more than all others. And they will point out that from here, there’s nowhere to go but up.

If Nike’s chairman is assessing the situation, if he takes stock of two men who are receiving hundreds of millions of dollars from his company, he’s surely looking at it that way, through rose-colored glasses or otherwise.