IN a sensational mid-season move, Rory McIlroy is planning to leave Horizon Sports and set up his own management company, made up of some friends, family and close confidants.
McIlroy's father Gerry is expected to play a prominent role in the new operation. Just over 18 months ago, McIlroy, one of world sport's hottest properties, stunned golf by quitting the giant International Sports Management, run by Chubby Chandler, and joining Horizon, a Dublin firm with global ambitions.
McIlroy's management team at Horizon have been taken aback by this latest development in the ever-eventful career of Irish golf's charismatic world No 2. However, they are remaining tight-lipped pending further discussions with McIlroy (above), whose management contract at Horizon has a number of years to run.
Professional golf circles have been rife with speculation about McIlroy's plans to set up his own management structure, but Horizon boss Conor Ridge declined to comment on the matter or answer any questions.
"We simply do not comment on industry rumours or speculation," he insisted. "Horizon Sports Management always has and always will give first priority to the confidentiality of its clients."
When approached by reporters at The Players Championship in Florida last week, McIlroy said he was still with Horizon and firmly dismissed any further questions on the matter. He could not be contacted yesterday.
Suggestions that McIlroy might team up with Tiger Woods and his long-standing business manager Mark Steinberg have been firmly dismissed by insiders.
So, too, is talk of the Holywood native joining one of the major sports agencies like Legardere, who have his girlfriend Caroline Wozniacki on their books, or IMG.
Instead, authoritative sources reveal the 24-year-old Irishman is keen to follow Tiger's example and that set by other sports megastars like Roger Federer in tennis and football's Lionel Messi by choosing to be managed by their closest lieutenants – family and friends.
If Tiger was McIlroy's idol growing up, he aspires to be like Federer, another Nike icon, who has become an international symbol of grace and good taste.
In a fascinating recent article in the 'New York Times' about the young Ulsterman's determination to play a proactive role in building his brand image, Karen Crouse wrote: "McIlroy said he discussed the business side of sports management with Federer over dinner in December, while in Brazil to watch Wozniacki."
"He's a role model, someone I can pattern myself after," McIlroy told her. Interestingly, Federer and his long-standing agent Tony Godsick both left IMG last summer and set up on their own.
In Crouse's article, she aptly described Horizon as a "boutique" company with just 12 employees, which gave McIlroy the final call in his endorsement deals and every other element of his career.
"He's the boss," Ridge was quoted as saying.
McIlroy's stock soared as he rose to world No 1 on the back of a second Major title and four other victories last year, leading to three major new global endorsement contracts already in 2013, with Bose, Omega and, of course, Nike, which is reportedly worth $20m-plus a year.
Ridge and the high-powered lawyers and business advisers that consult for Horizon did the spadework on these lucrative deals, but McIlroy did far more than merely sign on the dotted line. He carefully vets each of the many commercial suitors that come to his door.
Meanwhile, McIlroy's decision to switch all 14 of his golf clubs to Nike in one swoosh at the start of the season (Tiger took 10 years to put a full set of Nikes in his bag) gives further indication of the decisive, forceful nature which has helped make McIlroy the man and golfer he is today.
Perhaps the greatest example thus far of McIlroy's determination to control his own destiny came in October 2011, when the young Ulsterman told Chandler, his agent, manager, mentor and friend during his first four years as a professional, that he'd decided to quit ISM.
At that time, he publicly expressed his thanks to Chandler and his company for "the very important role they played in my success to date".
"I made great progress under their management and for that I will always be grateful," said McIlroy, who had won the US Open, his first Major title, the previous June.
Yet in an interview with Golf.com before the 2012 US Masters, McIlroy intimated that he "felt like the path I was going down (at ISM) wasn't the path I wanted to go down." He cited the decision not to take out his US Tour card in 2010 as an example.
By joining his close friend Graeme McDowell on the books at Horizon, McIlroy entered a totally different environment. Chandler is revered by long-standing clients like Darren Clarke and Lee Westwood for doing business the old-fashioned way ... at Chubby's firm, a friendly handshake was the only contract they wanted.
Horizon are the polar opposite. Every 'i' is dotted and 't' crossed in the contracts drawn up for their clients, with financial and legal matters placed in the hands of internationally respected experts. The company is known for its personal touch and the endless lengths its goes to for the welfare of its clients.
Two formidable examples are Philip Barker, of Arena Wealth, and Oliver Hunt of Onside Law – both installed by Ridge to oversee McIlroy's global financial and legal affairs.
Arena are a London firm which evolved from IMG's fund services team. In an anonymous testimony on their website, one of Barker's golf clients, described as a 'multiple Major-winner', writes: "Arena manage all my global financial affairs, from paying my caddie to managing my investments."
For legal matters, McIlroy has the support of Hunt, the golf specialist at Onside Law, an international agency which caters for the sport, fashion and entertainment industries and has advised each of the previous four European Ryder Cup captains. Hunt, who left IMG to form his niche company, worked closely with Ridge on the details of the deal with Nike and was invited by Horizon and McIlroy to join them as a guest at last month's US Masters.
In-house, Horizon have a team of six people set aside to handle McIlroy's day-to-day affairs, but ironically, by encouraging him to forge a close personal relationship with such distinguished extramural experts, Horizon has actually built a structure for McIlroy which makes it easier for him to move on.
The comprehensive service offered by Horizon belies the blase suggestions by critics across the Irish Sea, who forecast in the wake of McIlroy's departure from ISM that the Dublin firm would be out of its depth in handling one of the greatest golfing talents of all time.
McIlroy's arrival inevitably affected the dynamic of the company. Michael Hoey, who along with Gareth Maybin left Horizon last year, said: "with Rory now on board and playing more in the States their management has changed and altered."
Yet the search for reasons for McIlroy's stunning decision to head over the Horizon at the busiest part of his season unearths no major disasters or obvious causes for him to walk.
For sure, the much-publicised debacle at the Honda – where McIlroy walked off on the ninth hole of a nightmarish second round – caught them on the hop. Issuing a statement blaming wisdom-tooth pain 45 minutes after the player had told reporters he was not in the right place mentally to compete made a drama out of a crisis.
The Horizon representative on duty at the Honda Classic is expected to be one of McIlroy's personal assistants in the new management structure, suggesting the incident didn't play a big part in the decision process.
That the world No 2 had such a sketchy tournament schedule at the start of this season might sometimes be ascribed to his management.
Yet, as with much else in McIlroy's case, he is unquestionably the master in his own domain.