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No line on the Horizon: How Ireland's biggest sports star has ended up in the High Court

Rory McIlroy could face two weeks on the stand in the case which begins today.

RORY MCILROY IS used to winning. Only at the weekend he did so at a canter. In two months time, another win at The Masters and he will have completed golf’s Grand Slam at age of 25.

The Co. Down man has an ability that is rare even among the most elite of sportspeople: the art of making winning look easy.

But these next two months before Augusta could be anything but easy for McIlroy, and winning is something that will be out of his billion-dollar hands.

But how has the situation arisen that perhaps Ireland’s first global sporting superstar has ended up in court, facing off against the Irish company that managed him?

The Timeline of Rory McIlroy v Horizon Sports Management 

July 2007

Britain Golf British Open Source: AP/Press Association Images

Almost eight years ago, standing on the same green as Padraig Harrington who had just won the first of his two Open Championship titles, McIlroy collected the Silver Medal prize for top amateur at the tournament. He was 18 years old.

Two months later, he turned professional and signed with International Sports Management, the agency that is home to stars such as Lee Westwood and Northern Ireland’s Darren Clarke.

2007-2011

ISM was McIlroy’s management home for the first four years of his professional career.

During this time, McIlroy established himself as the dominant young golfer in the professional game. He also began flexing his his money-making potential with brands like Footjoy, Titleist and Santander penning lucrative deals to get on board the McIlroy train.

But his relationship with ISM ended just as he became the biggest name in his sport. Having capitulated in the last day of the Masters, McIlroy’s record-shattering win at the US Open took him to top of golf.

Four months later, it was announced that he was leaving ISM to join Dublin-based Horizon Sports Management. Westwood was one of the many who were surprised that McIlroy would the leave the established ISM.

But Horizon was an ambitious company, led by managing director Conor Ridge who had already run the affairs of major winner Graeme McDowell since 2007. Both players, however, denied that McDowell had a hand in convincing McIlroy to jump ship.

Three years later, McIlroy’s legal team would claim the player was told he would be signing on similar terms as McDowell.

McIlroy signed with Horizon in December 2011, allegedly on the day of Horizon’s Christmas party. The player claims he did not have the chance to have it reviewed by his independent legal team.

2012

The following year saw McIlroy’s career hit even greater heights. He reached world number one for the first time early in the season and later that year won his second major title, the US PGA Championship.

After more victories, Nike then targeted the Irishman to join Tiger Woods as the face of their golf business. At the end of the year, Horizon would negotiate a deal on behalf of McIlroy worth $100 million over five years.

More off-course deals would follow with McIlroy endorsing global brands, including Bose and Omega. Even some legal difficulties over previous ISM-agreed clothing contracts couldn’t halt his growing corporate clout.

Source: Bose/YouTube

2013 

But the year that followed was probably the most troubling for McIlroy both on and off the course.

Failing to make significant impact in any of the major tournaments, McIlroy went winless for almost the entire season. Much blame was placed on his new clubs but his relationship with Horizon was also set to end publicly.

Although the player signed an extended deal with the Horizon in May, a few months afterwards Rory McIlroy Inc was registered in Dublin.

McIlroy had already started legal proceedings against Horizon and its associated companies in an attempt to extricate himself from the contract.

One of Horizon’s top executives, Sean O’Flaherty, also left the agency in May 2013 only to soon take on a top position at Rory McIlroy Inc. O’Flaherty is now seen as McIlroy’s primary manager.

Horizon would later go on to claim that the initial lawsuit was timed to coincide with Graeme McDowell’s wedding.

Obama US Britain Rory McIlroy and Horizon MD Conor Ridge arrive at the White House in March 2012. Source: AP/Press Association Images

Essentially, McIlroy is claiming that Horizon is overcharging him for their services, that the contract contains “excessive commissions”.

McIlroy contends that when he signed with Horizon he was told that it was on similar terms to McDowell but that he has since discovered that he was on “significantly inferior terms”.

The company denies that he was given such assurances and indeed that his terms are inferior. They say the McIlroy camp’s inclusion of McDowell is a “baseless allegation of misrepresentation”, intending to damage the company.

Horizon says that McIlroy has already earned $70 million over the past two years on the basis of contracts its team negotiated but that he has refused to pay commission since the start of 2013.

The High Court proceedings will also hear a counter-claim against McIlroy from Horizon seeking additional damages for an alleged breach of contract.

2014 

In an affidavit submitted by Horizon to the High Court last September, McIlroy was accused of ‘destroying data’ that is ‘crucial’ to the case. They claimed McIlroy only communicated by mobile phone and had deleted mobile phone data for the period between January and May 2013.

Last month (Jan ’15), Horizon lost an application seeking orders to examine McIlroy’s phone along with those of Seán O’Flaherty and Donal Casey of K3 consulting.

In December, last-ditch efforts were being made to settle the dispute through a process of mediation but these efforts were unsuccessful.

Despite these distractions, last year was not only McIlroy’s most successful year as a golfer but the most successful year of any golfer since Tiger Woods. Winning two major titles, the European Tour’s flagship tournament as well as the Ryder Cup, professional golf entered the Rory McIlroy-era in 2014.

PGA Championship Golf McIlroy holds the Wanamaker Trophy in darkness at Valhalla Golf Club. Source: John Locher

2015 

On the course, McIlroy has continued to dominate this year but the spectre of the High Court has loomed large in every interview he has given. He says he has had to consciously try and not think about it.

“After this tournament’s over, I’ll have to do my homework a little bit but at the same time, I’m fully focused on this event and golf and try and do the best I can this week,” he said.

Of course I will be relieved when this is over. It’s not something that I would want anyone to go through. It’s a very sort of tedious and nasty process at times. I’m going to be heading to the States regardless with it off my mind and not having to deal with it or think about it anymore. 

The case, which begins today, could last up to eight weeks with McIlroy expected to give evidence for anything up to two weeks during the early stages.

The result, whatever it is, will not be a walk in the park.

Read: Rory McIlroy’s jilted ex-managers are not giving up their claim to his $100m Nike contract (and more) >

Read: McIlroy announces change to management team >

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About the author:

Rónán Duffy

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