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McIlroy won't renew with Titleist

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McIlroy won't renew with Titleist

Rory McIlroy is officially a free agent when it comes to golf equipment.

McIlroy and Acushnet Co., which has supplied the 23-year-old star from Northern Ireland with Titleist and FootJoy gear since he turned pro five years ago, said Tuesday they will not extend their relationship after this year.

The announcement allows McIlroy to pursue a lucrative endorsement contract, with strong indications that he will sign with Nike in a deal that one industry observer estimated at $20 million a year. That would give Nike golf's two biggest stars in McIlroy and Tiger Woods, who has been with the swoosh since he turned pro in 1996.

McIlroy has established himself as the No. 1 player in the world this year, when he won four times and captured the PGA Championship at Kiawah, giving him eight-shot wins in two major championships. He won the PGA Tour money title, and is closing in on winning the European Tour money title.

This is the second time in the last 10 years that Acushnet, which has a history of fiscal prudence, has not stood in the way of a No. 1 player going after big money. Woods, who had an equipment deal with Titleist when he turned pro, left for the Nike golf ball in 2000 and then the Nike golf clubs in 2002.

Phil Mickelson won his first Masters with Titleist in 2004, and the Fairhaven, Mass., company let him out of his contract later that summer to sign a lucrative deal with Callaway.

``Our goal has been to provide Rory with the best equipment and service that would help him be the best player he could possibly be,'' Acushnet chief executive Wally Uihlein said in a statement. ``He has been a great ambassador for the Titleist and FootJoy brands, and in turn, we are proud of how our equipment has contributed to his success. We wish Rory all the best, both personally and professionally, going forward.''

McIlroy, who defeated Woods in an 18-hole exhibition in China on Monday, thanked the Acushnet staff for ``five very exciting and successful years.''

``I will always appreciate the contribution Titleist has made in helping me become the player I am today,'' McIlroy said.

Not since Woods has a player had this much potential at such a young age. McIlroy was 19 when he won the Dubai Desert Classic for his first win as a pro, and he followed that with a 62 in the final round to win at Quail Hollow for his first PGA Tour win.

McIlroy shattered U.S. Open scoring records last summer at Congressional to win by eight shots, and when he won his second major at Kiawah Island in August, he became the youngest player since Seve Ballesteros in 1980 with two majors. Only five players have won majors by at least eight shots since 1976 - three by Woods, two by McIlroy.

They have become friends in recent months. They were in the same group five times during the FedEx Cup playoffs, and the conversation came easily. That led to the 18-hole exhibition on Monday, the first time Woods has agreed to a head-to-head match since the old ``Battle at Bighorn'' days against Sergio Garcia.

McIlroy won by one. Walking off the fourth hole, McIlroy even took one of Woods' Nike clubs and took a few practice swings.

Now, it appears likely both will be using the same equipment next year.

``We are declining comment on rumors and speculation,'' Nike spokeswoman Beth Gast said.

McIlroy is not playing the HSBC Champions this week in China. He will close out his European Tour season starting the following week with the Singapore Open, the Hong Kong Open and the DP World Tour Championship in Dubai. He would have two months until his next tournament in Abu Dhabi, giving him time to test new equipment.

McIlroy has gone through a series of changes since winning his first major last summer at Congressional. He left agent Chubby Chandler a year ago and signed with Conor Ridge of Irish-based Horizon Sports Management. He took up membership on the PGA Tour, where he is a lock to be voted player of the year. Changing the very tools he uses will be the biggest change of all.

Still to be determined is how any deal with Nike would affect the rest of McIlroy's deals. He has endorsements with Jumeirah Estates, Oakley, Audemares Piguet and Santander bank. Nike typically prefers a clean look for its athletes, with rare exception. Woods and Anthony Kim had separate endorsements for their golf bags.

Even as McIlroy was getting courted by other companies, Titleist did not put up a big fight. The company has a history of putting the brand before the player, as it did with Woods, Mickelson, David Duval after he reached No. 1 in the world and Sergio Garcia.

It prides itself on having the most tour players use its golf ball, though it also has some 80 players around the world under contract to use its golf balls and golf clubs. This year might have been particularly costly, however, especially with incentive clauses in the contracts. It had six players from the top 16 in the world as full staff players - McIlroy, Adam Scott, U.S. Open champion Webb Simpson, Jason Dufner, Steve Stricker and Nick Watney.

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3 reasons why the Caps beat the Sabres

3 reasons why the Caps beat the Sabres

You may think this was an ugly four-game road trip for the Caps, but with a 3-2 win in Buffalo on Monday, Washington managed to earn five out of a possible eight points.

Here is why the Caps beat the Sabres and managed to save the road swing.

A missed high-stick (maybe) from Ovechkin

Ovechkin scored the first goal of the game in the second period as he deflected a high-shot from Christian Djoos down past goalie Chad Johnson. But did the deflection come on a high stick? The play was reviewed and the goal was ultimately upheld. According to the NHL, it was determined that "video review supported the Referee's call on the ice that Alex Ovechkin's stick was at or below the height of the crossbar when he tipped the puck into the Buffalo net."

NBC Sports Washington analyst Alan May broke the play down during the second intermission and made his case for why the NHL actually got the call wrong.

Was that a high stick? I don't know. As compelling an argument as May made, it still looks inconclusive which means the review made the right call. What surprises me is that the referee did not disallow the goal on the initial call.

Whether the review is truly inconclusive or flat out wrong, Washington was fortunate to walk away from this sequence with the goal.

MORE CAPITALS: BIZARRE SEQUENCE LEADS TO CAPS SCORING AND GETTING PENALIZED AT THE SAME TIME

A centimeter of ice

Hockey is a game of inches and it took less than an inch to put Washington up 2-0. When an Evgeny Kuznetsov shot hit off the boards and bounced back to the front of the net, it sparked a scrum next to goalie Chad Johnson. Eventually, John Carlson was able to get a swipe on the puck sending it trickling to the goal line, but Kyle Okposo was there waiting and appeared to kick it out to safety just before it crossed. A review triggered by the Situation Room, however, revealed that the puck had just barely managed to cross the goal line before Okposo got to it.

Here's the view the NHL released after the review:

Philipp Grubauer's third period

After dominating the first 40 minutes of the game and taking a 2-0 lead, Buffalo predictably made a late push in the third period with two goals to pull within one. Washington outshot the Sabres in the first and second periods, but Buffalo reversed that trend in a big way in the third as they outshot the Caps 17-6. Grubauer turned aside 15 of those shots and was impressive after barely being tested in the first two periods.

RELATED: CHECK OUT THE 3 STARS OF THE GAME FROM CAPS-SABRE

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3 stars of the game: Caps knock out the punchless Sabres

3 stars of the game: Caps knock out the punchless Sabres

Coming off an ugly 7-1 loss to the Chicago Blackhawks, a Buffalo Sabres team missing star Jack Eichel was just what the doctor ordered for the Caps to get back on track. Washington dominated the first two periods and then survived a late surge from Buffalo for the 3-2 win.

After battling to a scoreless first, Alex Ovechkin and John Carlson spotted Washington a 2-0 lead in the second. They then held on in the third period as Buffalo began to tilt the ice in their favor, with Evgeny Kuznetsov scoring the empty-netter to put this game out of reach. Evander Kane would pull Buffalo within one, but with only three seconds left it was too little, too late.

Here are the three stars of the game:

1. Alex Ovechkin: Ovechkin opened up the scoring in the second period as he deflected down an innocent shot from Christian Djoos past Chad Johnson.

Ovechkin also set a physical tone as he battled with defenseman Rasmus Ristolainen all game long. After taking a high elbow from Ristolainen early in the game Ovechkin skated up to Ristolainen prior to the faceoff on his next shift and let him know that it was on. 

2. John Carlson: Carlson had a hand in both of Washington's first two goals. He recorded a secondary assist on Ovechkin's goal as he made a blue line pass to Djoos which Djoos fired on net and Ovechkin deflected. Carlson then managed to hit the puck past the goal line in a scrum next to Johnson. It looked initially like Kyle Okposo had managed to kick out the puck just before it crossed, but Carlson was awarded the goal as a review showed the puck had completely crossed the line.

3. Philipp Grubauer: A Sabres team that ranks last in the NHL in scoring and that was also without its leading scorer did not test Grubauer much in the first two periods. Facing a 2-0 deficit, however, Buffalo made a third period push to try to tie the game, but Grubauer was up to the task as he turned aside 15 of the 17 shots he faced in the final 20 minutes. He finished with 32 total saves on the night.