There were more than a few raised eyebrows early in 2013 when Rory McIlroy was announced as the new front-man for Nike. The deal seemed symbolic of McIlroy's replacing Tiger Woods at the top of Golf, but early in the 2013 season, questions are already being raised about that after a bizarre withdrawal from the PGA National last week.
The 23-year old from Northern Ireland signed a deal to become Nike's new ambassador in a move that makes him one of the highest paid sports stars in the world. There have been no official figures released on the worth of the deal, but reports place it between £62m and £77m over the course of five years. Those estimates man that McIlroy could be making more than £30,000 per day.
Besides the tremendous amount of cash that this deal nets McIlroy. Perhaps even more interesting was the fact that McIlroy's sponsorship deal with the brand effectively saw him replace Woods as Nike's new front man. A fact that went hand in hand with McIlroy replaces the 37-year old at the top of the Golf World Rankings.
Tiger may have been much maligned over the past few years both for his performances off and on, but he is established as one of the great golfers of all time. He has also dominated and brought the sport of Golf into limelight like no other player in the sport's history. McIlroy's effective acceptance of taking over his mantle was major statement for a 23-year old with two Majors to his name, whether it was intention or not.
It's pretty easy to understand the infatuation with McIlroy. He has won two Major championships in the past two seasons, each by a landslide. He set a record 16-under par when he won his first career Major, the 2011 US Open. The victory margin of eight strokes encapsulated the absolute dominance that he enjoyed in that competition.
One year and two months later he proved that dominance was definitely no fluke. He was simply unstoppable running away with the 2012 PGA championship, setting a record with an eight-stroke victory margin once again.
The concern and question surrounding McIlroy's game is his performance when he isn't dominating the competition. In past two seasons he has failed to post even a decent score missing six halfway cuts. This is a player whose mental toughness is questionable when his game isn't on.
The early withdrawal the PGA National will have done nothing to ease concerns that mental toughness and might ultimately be the factor that prevents McIlroy from reaching the giddy golfing heights that Woods managed.
He pulled out less than halfway through the second round of the PGA National under the strangest of circumstances. There was no discussion of a specific injury. The only suggestion was that he wasn't in a good place mentally. There were genuine concerns voiced by many over what McIlroy might be going through.
In the end it was revealed that McIlroy had withdrawn due to a toothache. That's no joke. A wisdom tooth hurting is a painful experience and would certainly stop most amateur golfers in their tracks on a Sunday.
Still, it's concerning that it seems to have effected McIlroy so badly and it is also concerning that he wasn't open and honest about his reasons for leaving the tournament early.
McIlroy ultimately apologised and stated that there was no excuse for his pulling out of the competition. The problem is that his apology doesn't address the concerns that many hold about his game. Ultimately, the 23-year old can probably win one major per year for the next decade simply by winning the competitions where everything is going right.
If he does that then his talent will be rewarded in terms of being regarded as one of the better golfers in history. Still, his endorsement deal and recent comparisons with Tiger, not to mention his fantastic talent, suggest that just maybe McIlroy has the potential to achieve more. Only time will tell whether McIlroy can develop the mental toughness to enjoy the sort of success that his Nike deal suggests he is destined for.