POSTED: Thursday, November 1, 2012 - 6:00am
UPDATED: Thursday, November 1, 2012 - 6:04am
CNN — Tiger Woods fired Nike to the forefront of the golfing world -- now he could be clubbed away to make room for the new kid on the block.
Rory McIlroy's announcement that he will not renew his contract with Titleist and FootJoy parent company Acushnet has accelerated speculation that the Northern Irishman will join Woods at Nike.
While Nike has not yet confirmed a move for the 23-year-old, it is expected that the world No. 1 will make the switch in a deal which will net him up to an estimated $20 million a year.
In a statement, McIlroy said: "I would like to thank Wally Uihlein and all of the tour staff and employees at Titleist and FootJoy for everything they have done for me since I turned professional in 2007.
"I have enjoyed five very exciting and successful years with the company and I will always appreciate the contribution Titleist has made in helping me become the player I am today."
McIlroy moved to the top of the rankings earlier this year, finishing top of the PGA Tour money list after winning his second major title, and he leads the European Tour's Race To Dubai standings -- all of which has enhanced his reputation as one of the most desirable brands in the sport.
"We wish Rory all the best," said Acushnet CEO Wally Uihlein. "He has been a great ambassador."
McIlroy's success and lifestyle have made him a firm favorite with golf fans, while his burgeoning romance with tennis ace Caroline Wozniacki has also boosted his profile.
But Woods, who joined Nike after turning professional in 1996, propelled the company onto the world stage by taking the sport to a new level.
The 14-time major champion now faces a struggle to hang on to his status as Nike's No. 1 client, as McIlroy's success shows no signs of abating.
McIlroy and Woods have built up a friendship in recent months, playing a much-hyped 18-hole exhibition match in China on Monday.
McIlroy even managed to snatch one of Woods' Nike clubs and take a few practice swings, which did nothing to dampen the speculation.
Meanwhile, both men were criticized for their decision not to play this week's HSBC Champions event in China.
Seven of the world's top 10 players will be competing for the $1.2 million top prize but the absence of the leading duo has left the sponsors irate.
"I'm very realistic," Giles Morgan, the Global Head of Sponsorship and Events for HSBC told the UK Press Association.
"These type of promotional TV events happen and have a benefit for the sport -- the more publicity the better. But what used to happen was that the players would make their schedules around big events and fit in what they could outside them.
"That type of thing is fine, but these are the real test of golf. Outside of America and the UK this is the biggest event of them all.
"What makes this compelling is the strength of the field and it almost feels like they are missing out. This is the flagship event in Asia.
"These guys make their own decisions, but this feels bigger than it ever has before and there will be a great winner."