Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Rory trying hard to match Tiger

Don't expect lucrative Nike deal to change down-to-earth 23-year-old

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HONOLULU -- This much could always be said about Tiger Woods. The richest man in golf played like he didn't have two nickels to rub together.

Rory McIlroy appears to be cut from the same cloth.

Even a cloth that now has a swoosh.

McIlroy's big year got under way Monday in Abu Dhabi with the kind of glitzy production that would make even Ryder Cup organizers envious, with music blaring and lasers lighting up the room. There were video messages from Phil Knight, Wayne Rooney and Woods, for so long the most prominent face of Nike Golf.

Adding to the buildup was a commercial that debuts Wednesday and shows McIlroy and Woods trying to one-up each other on the range with shots that find the "cup" in faraway places. It's reminiscent of that McDonald's commercial from a generation ago, Michael Jordan and Larry Bird matching shots (nothing but net) that go through windows and bounce off scoreboards.

There was a time when Woods never shared the stage with any Nike athlete in a commercial.

What must follow now for McIlroy is the most important part of any marketing campaign -- performance.

Nike endorsement contracts are among the best-guarded secrets in golf. Two industry leaders independently estimated the value at $20 million a year, including one who was aware of a bidding war for McIlroy that didn't last very long.

At some point, this becomes like Monopoly money, anyway.

Will it change McIlroy? Don't bet on it.

"I don't play golf for the money. I'm well past that," McIlroy said. "I'm a major champion, which I've always dreamed of being. I'm world No. 1, which I've always dreamed of being. I think this is a company that can help me sustain that and win ever more majors."

McIlroy's talent is such that he probably could win with anything, much like Woods and Phil Mickelson winning majors with two brands of clubs, and Ernie Els winning majors under three equipment contracts.

From Nike's standpoint, the upside might not be easy to measure.

McIlroy already has shown to be less predictable than Woods. Even during such a remarkable season when he won five times, a major and money titles on both sides of the Atlantic, the 23-year-old from Northern Ireland missed five cuts. It took Woods 13 years before he missed his fifth cut.

If the kid goes through another bad patch this year, the cynics will be quick to blame the equipment. If he wins early and often, and maybe even slips on a green jacket the second weekend in April, then all credit to the immense talent that is Rory McIlroy.

Nike is all about the athlete, however, and it has Nos. 1 and 2 in the world at the moment, the two biggest names in golf regardless of their ranking.

Predictions are a dangerous business in any sport, particularly when the cup -- on the golf course, not the new Nike commercial -- is only 4 1/4 inches around, the game is played outdoors and the talent pool is getting so deep that it looks like it's about to drop off a shelf in the ocean.

For years, the standard was Woods, and that hasn't changed.

-- The Associated Press

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition January 16, 2013 C6

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