Rory McIlroy to take the stand in high-stakes game

World number one’s High Court case against former agents set to begin on Tuesday

Golf, by its very nature, is a numbers game. But the art of routinely getting a white Nike ball into a tin cup would seem an infinitely simpler task than what lies ahead of Rory McIlroy in the coming days and weeks as the world's top ranked player prepares for a High Court case due to begin on Tuesday in Dublin against his former agents, Horizon Sports Management.

McIlroy, a four-time Major champion who claimed the 16th professional title of his career when winning the Dubai Desert Classic on Sunday, is suing his former management company and being countersued by them in turn for unpaid fees.

It is no small change: there is upwards of €40 million potentially in the melting pot, along with professional reputations.

As the plaintiff, McIlroy is set to take the stand early on in proceedings – possibly as early as Thursday – and it is estimated the case will take between six and eight weeks in the High Court with the player expected to be in the stand for up to 10 days. As such, McIlroy has put golf on the back-burner and is not due to reappear on the circuit until the Honda Classic on the PGA Tour in the United States at the end of February.


McIlroy joined the stable of golfers – which also included fellow-Major champion Graeme McDowell – at Horizon Sports Management in December 2011. In March 2013, the golfer signed an extended contract that would take him up to 2017.

In May 2013, McIlroy split from Horizon and, in September 2013, initiated legal proceedings against the company and two associated entities, Gurteen Ltd and Canovan Management Services, seeking a rescission of what his legal team has termed an "unconscionable contract." Horizon has countersued for loss of commissions paid as well as for future commissions.

Even with the court case playing on his mind, McIlroy has managed to become the most dominant player in the game. He won two Majors last season – the British Open and the US PGA – and has occupied the number one position on the official world rankings since winning the WGC-Bridgestone Invitational last August.

How did it all start? McIlroy turned professional as a teenager, following the 2007 Walker Cup. He joined Chubby Chandler's ISM agency – who also included Darren Clarke and Lee Westwood on their books – but generated surprise in late-2011 when moving to Horizon Sports, the boutique Dublin-based agency who looked after his friend Graeme McDowell.

McIlroy signed on the dotted line in the Horizon offices in December 2011, later that evening attending the company’s Christmas party. He won his second Major, the US PGA at Kiawah Island, in 2012, became world number one and signed a five-year $100 million deal with Nike. All seemed rosy in the garden. He also signed other sponsorship deals, including one with Bose and another with Omega.

McIlroy signed a contract extension in March 2013 with Horizon getting between 15 and 20 per cent commission on his off course deals, with commission on his on-course winnings being reduced to zero. But, two months later, in May of that year the player split with the company and in September launched his own company to look after his affairs, Rory McIlroy Inc.

How did it end up in court? McIlroy's grounds for suing are based on his contention the agreement – the original contract in December 2011 and the extended contract in March 2013 – is invalid based on unconscionability and also says that the original terms were less favourable than those which McDowell enjoyed.

Horizon have vigorously defended their position and argue they should get their fees on contracts up to 2017. It is estimated McIlroy will earn at least €125 million in endorsements over the period.

Why didn't mediation work? In a preliminary hearing, Judge Brian McGovern urged the two sides to engage in the mediation process to settle their differences. The talks took place over two days in Dublin last October but failed to reach any form of compromise.

So, it's a case of both sides getting their day in court? Unless there is a dramatic, last-minute deal on the steps into the court, it looks likely that McIlroy and Horizon will be kept away from the golf course for some time.

Philip Reid

Philip Reid

Philip Reid is Golf Correspondent of The Irish Times