By MICHAEL CASEY, Associated Press
ABU DHABI, United Arab Emirates (AP) — Rory McIlroy and Tiger Woods are on the same team now — at least when it comes to sponsorship.
McIlroy officially made the switch to the swoosh on Monday as Nike confirmed one of the worst-kept secrets in golf, announcing it had signed a multi-year deal with the top-ranked Northern Irishman.
The deal means Nike now has golf's two biggest names representing its brand, as Woods has been with the sportswear company since turning pro in 1996. Nike did not disclose any financial details of the deal, but industry observers have estimated that McIlroy will be paid up to $20 million a year to use the company's equipment and apparel.
The partnership with McIlroy was announced in a lavish ceremony in the United Arab Emirates ahead of this week's Abu Dhabi Golf Championship, where he will use the company's equipment for the first time. The event opened with a hologram of McIlroy swinging a club and included a video showing Woods, Roger Federer and Wayne Rooney welcoming him to Nike.
"Rory is an extraordinary athlete who creates enormous excitement with his on-course performance while, at the same time connecting with fans everywhere," said Cindy Davis, president of Nike Golf. "He is the epitome of a Nike Athlete, and he is joining our team during the most exciting time in Nike Golf's history. We are looking forward to partnering with him to take his remarkable career to the next level."
McIlroy said he was "really excited" to start the season and insisted he has made a "seamless" adjustment to his new equipment, especially his driver.
"As soon as I hit it, I knew it was going in the bag straight away," McIlroy said. "It blew me away. My ball speed was up. My numbers were good. I'm hitting it further. I thought I hit it far before but this is taking to new level. That's great."
McIlroy's switch to Nike had been widely expected. In October, McIlroy cut ties with Acushnet Co., which had supplied him with Titleist and FootJoy gear since he turned pro five years ago. And this month, Jumeirah Group announced it was not renewing its five-year sponsorship deal with the Northern Irishman.
McIlroy insisted he's not making the switch because of the money.
"I don't play golf for the money, I am well past that," McIlroy said. "I'm a major champion and world No. 1, which I have always dreamed of being, and feel this is a company that can help me sustain that and win even more major titles. At the end of 2013, if I have not won another major I will be disappointed."
The deal comes in the wake of a career year for McIlroy, in which he became No. 1 and won his second major. He insisted in an interview with The Associated Press that all the attention hasn't rattled him and that he has struck the "right balance," although he acknowledged it took some time getting used to the top ranking.
"I guess when I first got to No. 1 after Honda, I might have struggled with it for a few weeks," said McIlroy, who temporarily relinquished the title to Luke Donald before finishing the year at the top.
"It was a big goal of mine going into last year trying to get that. I probably achieved it a bit faster than I thought I would," he said. "(Then) I sort of didn't have a goal. I was like, 'what's next?' I had to reassess. It was a good lesson for me. Now that I've got back to No. 1, I felt I handled it a lot better."
McIlroy and Woods have already developed a friendly rivalry lately, and they will likely be seen together even more often from now on.
Nike already unveiled a new commercial entitled "No Cup is Safe" that begins running Wednesday featuring McIlroy and Woods on the driving range — with each trying to outdo the other. The players first take turn aiming at the driving range hole and then start hitting more spectacular targets, with balls going into wine glasses at a wedding and a soup bowl in a restaurant. It ends with McIlroy picking up his water glass to find Woods' golf ball.
"How did you do that?" McIlroy asks. Woods retorts: "You'll learn."
McIlroy said the two have a mutual respect for each other, but that it's too soon to say they have a real rivalry on the course.
"I don't know if you can call it a rivalry yet because we haven't battled each other down the stretch of a major," McIlroy told the AP. "It's not like we have been playing in the final group of a tournament and we are battling each other. Hopefully at some point that can happen this year and it would be great to be part of that."
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