Rory McIlroy had his chance in China. The back page headline in his hometown paper, the Belfast Telegraph, said it all in big, red lettering — £156m.
That’s what sportswear giants Nike are supposedly getting ready to pay the 23-year-old Ulsterman over the next ten years — an exclusive deal, and easily the biggest sponsorship package in the history of sport.
And when asked about it, McIlroy, not surprisingly, refused to confirm that Nike were about to take over from Titleist as his big backers.
Significantly, however, he refused to deny it either.
The Co Down superstar, whose deal with Titleist runs out at the end of the year, said: “These rumours have been going around for years and it seems to always come up at this time of the year.
“I leave it up to Conor [Ridge, his manager] to sort out so I can concentrate on my golf. That’s all I can do and besides I have enough to think about trying to get the ball in the hole.”
It is understood that McIlroy is now close to agreeing the deal with Nike which would see him change equipment for the first time since turning professional.
Nike routinely insists on exclusive branding on its elite sportsmen, which would result in settlement fees being required to those sponsors of McIlroy whose contracts are not about to expire.
In the meantime, the Holywood man returns to competition in Shanghai as the defending BMW Masters champion determined to end his best season as the European Tour No. 1.
McIlroy has joined 10 of his victorious European Ryder Cup teammates, captain Jose Maria Olazabal, and 28 of the top 30 players on the European money list for the event which starts tomorrow on the Jack Nicklaus course at Lake Malaren Golf Club.
McIlroy captured the inaugural tournament in a playoff with Anthony Kim last year, but this time it's sanctioned and the sixth-to-last on the 2012 schedule.
He's scheduled to play in four of the events, hoping to do well enough to emulate Luke Donald's feat last year of winning the money titles on the European Tour and the PGA Tour.
He leads both of them for now, but it's the Race to Dubai money list he dearly seeks after being runner-up in 2009 and 2011.
“It would be good to knock that off and try and do what Luke did last year and win the money on both tours,” he said.
“I've got Justin (Rose) and Branden (Grace) right behind me, so if I do play well in my four events hopefully I can achieve that goal.”
McIlroy leads Rose on the European Tour money list by $353,000, and is $634,200 ahead of Grace.
Rose and Grace could pass McIlroy by winning the $1.16 million first-prize check in the Chinese financial capital.
McIlroy competed last week in the exhibition World Golf Final in Turkey and was bundled out of the eight-man event in the round robin. The first matchplay showdown between McIlroy and Tiger Woods ended with Woods shooting a 64 to McIlroy's 70.
“If I had of known the summer I was going to have, I really would not have signed up for the Turkish event,” said McIlroy.
“But then I went and it was a pretty relaxing week, and I got to spend the week with (girlfriend) Caroline, which was nice. However, I did not pick up a club since the Ryder Cup until the day before the Turkish match, so I wasn't taking it that seriously.”
Next Monday, McIlroy will play Woods in another exhibition, the ‘Duel at Lake Jinsha’, in the north-central Chinese city of Zhenghou.
“We are both really excited as it will be the first time we will ever do something like this together.
“We both enjoy each other's company, and besides there is not many guys I would do something like this. So it should work well.”