Big-money contracts inevitably come with a backlash—ask Alex Rodriguez—and Nike has not exactly let McIlroy ease into things. The deal was announced in Abu Dhabi with a ceremony that Liberace would have considered ostentatious. McIlroy was introduced with thumping music, blinding lights and a Tupac-style hologram of himself. (McIlroy made it slightly more palatable by seeming a little bashful about the spectacle.) Looming behind him was Abu Dhabi's famous Grand Mosque, which took 11 years to build and serves as a tidy metaphor for an ancient society that now worships money. Whenever McIlroy was asked about the size of the contract—and he was asked about it incessantly—he practically winced. Changing equipment just as he emerged as golf's dominant player is the biggest gamble of his young career, and McIlroy is at pains to explain that he made the choice with his heart, not his wallet. "I don't play for money; I feel I'm well past that," he said at a press conference in Abu Dhabi, during which one scribe addressed him as Moneybags. "I play for titles, not money." In a quieter moment he added, "People may not want to believe this, but money was not my motivation. I wanted to be part of something special. I wanted to be associated with a company that has nurtured so many of the world's greatest sportsmen."
The life-changing lucre from Nike should actually help McIlroy in his pursuit of trophies. He can now say "no" more frequently and has already begun to; he recently announced that he will reduce his schedule by two events this year, avoiding the burnout that comes with late-season cash grabs in Asia. In his mind the Nike deal is not the beginning of a new era but the end of an old one.
In a little over a year and a half McIlroy embarked on a very public romance with Wozniacki, changed agents, relocated to the U.S. and remade his image with the biggest golf-equipment deal of this century. "It's been a little crazy, it's true," he says. "Instead of feeling pressure [with the new deal], I feel relief. I'm excited. Now everything is in place, and I can focus on playing golf."
Of course, in the short term his every twitch will be scrutinized, which was made plain during his rocky season opener in the Middle East. McIlroy's uncluttered new look suits him, as does the more daring Nike style palette—Ian Poulter approved of his tartan trousers on Twitter—but during a missed cut he never looked comfortable with a club in his hands. McIlroy's contract likely allows for a transition period during which he is not compelled to play 14 Nike clubs, but for the first round of the Abu Dhabi HSBC Golf Championship he went whole hog, right down to his prototype Method 006 putter. After struggling to get the ball to the hole on the slow greens at Abu Dhabi Golf Club, he benched his new wand and went back to a trusty Scotty Cameron. It didn't help. Even worse was McIlroy's driving, which is typically the strength of his game. He sounded the alarm after the second round, saying, "I just need to find a driver that I'm comfortable with."
It may not be that simple. Says veteran Greg Chalmers, "When you change everything, you lose your baseline for what's wrong if something is wrong. Is it the shaft? The ball? The head? How do you know what's wrong? Like if I change my driver right now, I know it's not the ball because it's the same ball. I can put my finger on what's wrong. But if you change everything—and even if it tests great—it's different in competition. You're excited, so the shaft flicks differently. There are a lot of parameters going into how the ball flies, and when you lose that baseline with at least one thing being constant, how do you know what's wrong when it's wrong?"
McIlroy was clearly rusty from having taken the preceding eight weeks off, and he sounded more concerned with his swing than with his equipment. After his tournament ended prematurely, he was eager to head Down Under to watch Wozniacki compete in the Australian Open but instead hunkered down for two days in Dubai, logging long hours on the range with Michael Bannon, his lifelong coach. Bannon saw that his pupil had been rerouting the club on his downswing. The pair made a slight tweak to McIlroy's takeaway, and suddenly he was busting the ball as well as ever. Bannon expects McIlroy to carry that form into his next start, the Accenture Match Play Championship, which begins on Feb. 20, but he didn't want to say much more. Unlike almost every other swing guru, Bannon eschews the spotlight. This is typical of the small, fiercely loyal tribe around McIlroy.
These friends, family and select business associates have helped McIlroy weather his many life changes, mostly by constantly taking the mickey out of him. Abu Dhabi was a case in point. The day after the Nike announcement McIlroy used the bully pulpit of his pretournament press conference to stump for Paul McGinley as European Ryder Cup captain. McGinley got the job, and at his press conference, McIlroy popped in to show his support. Later on, near midnight, he was enjoying his political victory at the hotel bar. If ever a kid could have been drunk on his own self-importance, this was the moment, but that's not McIlroy's style. Wearing designer jeans with regrettable, buttoned back pockets, an untucked Oxford shirt and a sweet pair of white-black-and-red vintage Nike trainers, McIlroy recounted in excruciating detail a match against his father that had taken place around Christmas. Gerry is a serious golfer who has spent most of his life playing off scratch and is now a three handicap. For their medal-match play tussles, McIlroy gives his dad eight or 10 strokes, depending on how generous he's feeling. In their holiday game at the Bear's Club, Gerry was three strokes ahead going to the 18th hole, a watery par-5. He proceeded to take an 11, and as Rory recounted every ghastly stroke, he was laughing so hard he had tears in his eyes.
Gerry is a man of immense pride, and he barked a shorthand reference at his son, alluding to a long-ago blowup that had cost Rory dearly in one of their matches. Rory instantly turned into a petulant teen: "Shut up, Dad!"
With a twinkle Gerry looked around at the small gathering that was hanging on his every word. "I've still got him in me pocket," the old man said.
Golf as a vehicle for trash talk happens to be the theme of the much-ballyhooed new Nike television commercial that features McIlroy and Woods playing a game of driving range H-O-R-S-E. It is Woods, arguably the greatest golfer of all time, who has suddenly been cast as the supporting actor. Of the 20 questions he fielded in his pretournament press conference in Abu Dhabi, 14 were about McIlroy. Later Tiger said, "It's great—he's doing all the media. I love it. He can have it all. I can do my own thing with a lot fewer distractions."