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.
McIlroy, however, might have a tough time living up to his own standard. More than just five wins around the world was the quality of competition McIlroy beat last year – a major, two FedEx Cup playoff events, Europe’s version of the Tour Championship. The weakest field McIlroy beat all year was the Honda Classic, where the top five included Woods, Lee Westwood, Justin Rose and Charl Schwartzel.
“I want to win golf tournaments. I made that clear from the get go,” McIlroy said. “I am very focused on trying to win as many majors as I can. Obviously, winning two majors the last two seasons, I want to try and keep that going and play them well again this year.
“I guess if I go this year and I don’t, then it will be a bad year,” he added. “If I’m sitting end of 2013 and haven’t won a major, I would be disappointed.”
Not since Woods won the last three majors and 10 times around the world in 2000 has there been so much curiosity about an encore. Just as intriguing is how his relationship with Woods will unfold. McIlroy was taught by his father, Gerry, at an early age that it costs nothing to be nice to people. His Ulster roots keep from getting too full of himself. He is hard not to like. Woods rarely spoke about McIlroy last year without mentioning at some point that “he’s a great kid.”
A dozen years ago, Woods became friends with another player that Nike eventually signed – David Duval, who in 2001 became the first major champion with the swoosh stamped on his golf clubs at the British Open. They flew home together from St. Andrews, the claret jug in Woods’ possession. They were partners in two World Cups. They flew to Maui together on Woods’ jet for the season opener.
About a year later, they no longer were that close. Duval is a more complicated personality than McIlroy, and it was about that time when Duval went into a deep slump through a combination of injuries, confidence and life changes.
Woods moved on to levels not seen in his generation. The longer he was around, the more approachable he was to the other players. And while he has had his share of rivals over the years, McIlroy is the first real threat from the next generation. He is the first player that makes you wonder if Woods getting back to No. 1 depends solely on him.
Are they rivals?
McIlroy doesn’t think so because they haven’t gone head-to-head in the final hour of a major, or any tournament for that matter.
“Hopefully, at some point, that can happen this year and it would be great to be part of that,” McIlroy said.
What makes them rivals, however the term is defined, is that they’re the two players everyone talks about. They have the same expectations. They wear the same logo. And now they’re in the same commercial.
Still to be determined this year is who plays the supporting role.