RORY McILROY crossed a major career threshold last night with the announcement that he has succeeded Tiger Woods as the new face of golf's most popular electronic game.
The licensing agreement that McIlroy has signed with EA Sports to front their new computer game offers irrefutable evidence of his graduation into golf's most marketable brand.
Having already leapfrogged the fading Tiger on the golf course, this deal propels World No 1 McIlroy to a new level commercially.
To date, McIlroy's contracts, like the $20m-per-annum deal which placed him alongside Woods, Cristiano Ronaldo, LeBron James and Roger Federer in the Nike firmament, have followed traditional lines.
Under the vast majority of sports endorsement deals, the recipient lends his name to the product and also is contracted to give precious time, measured in days per annum, to his sponsor.
With EA Sports, however, McIlroy has acquired his first licensing deal. He'll be paid for the use of his name and image through product sales and royalties without having to commit to corporate days and other time-consuming promotional work.
This privilege is only ever enjoyed by an exclusive band of sports icons. Prime examples in golf are Arnold Palmer, Jack Nicklaus, Gary Player and, of course, Tiger, though the latter's brand was damaged by the 'crash' of November 2009 and subsequent revelations about his private life.
Palmer actually rated fourth behind No 1 Woods, No 2 Phil Mickelson and No 3 McIlroy in Golf Digest's 2015 list of the sport's 'Top 50' earners.
Yet industry insiders suggest Palmer should top that list, especially given income from such sources as the launch last year of a lifestyle designer label in the Asian market through more than 400 retail outlets. Or the $200 million sales generated by a line of soft drinks bearing his brand.
Arnie merely lends his name, not his time, to those brands, which at the grand age of 85 is priceless.
How fitting for McIlroy to ease his way into sport's business elite this week as he plays for the first time in Palmer's own tournament, the Bay Hill Invitational.
McIlroy will enjoy a share of 'the action' in the new 'EA Rory McIlroy PGA Tour' game, which at the height of Tiger's 15-year involvement with Electronic Arts reputedly was worth up to $7 million each year to the American.
EA's relationship with Woods ended on October 29, 2013. At that time, their 'Tiger Woods PGA Tour' franchise had sold a reported $771 million worth of games since 1998.
McIlroy has been pictured with other well-known figures, Seve, Arnie and Rickie Fowler, on the cover of 'Tiger Woods PGA Tour' since 2011.
However, the game will officially return to the market from June 2 in a new and more sophisticated format as 'EA Sports Rory McIlroy PGA Tour Golf'.
It may be customary for pictures of star performers like Ronaldo, Lionel Messi, Wayne Rooney or Andrew Flintoff to feature on the front cover of video games. Yet Woods and former NFL coach and Super Bowl winner John Madden were just two individuals whose names were directly written into the title of any game in the EA Sports range … until now.
A release issued by EA in Redwood City California states: "McIlroy, a four-time Major champion and top-ranked golfer in the world, represents a new generation of players for a new generation of consoles."
"I'm very proud and humbled to see my face and name on EA Sports Rory McIlroy PGA Tour," said the Ulsterman, who posed for face and body scans and had his current swing and physique electronically mapped and recorded for the game.
This is the first EA Sports title to be built using the 'Frostbite' engine, allowing the development team create new environments, featuring the most detailed courses in franchise history, down to tiny bugs on the green.
It also is "the first major licensing deal whereby Rory is being paid for his name & image via product sales royalties rather than for corporate days under the standard endorsement contract," explained Sean O'Flaherty, chief of staff at the player's own management company, Rory McIlroy Inc.
"It demonstrates his global appeal across the age spectrum, marrying the younger gaming audience with the more traditional, older, richer golf demographic. The return to Rory depends on sales of the game (and any sequels).
"The great thing is, it doesn't take time away from his golf," O'Flaherty added. "This is where the future is for Rory. Over the next 10 or 15 years, it's hoped to have many opportunities like this which will give him the chance to put everything into his game."
McIlroy bids to join Woods, Nicklaus, Ben Hogan, Gene Sarazen and Gary Player in history as only the sixth winner of a Career Grand Slam at next month's Masters.
Padraig Harrington, who plays alongside Graeme McDowell and McIlroy at Bay Hill, has opted out of next week's Valero Texas Open. After a week at home, he'll return to the US for the Shell Houston Open then Augusta.