LOS ANGELES — With a mighty swing, Rory McIlroy gave golf a new hero and an Orange County, Calif., company a chance at outfitting a new generation of athletes.
Known mostly for high-end sunglasses, Oakley provided clothing for the 22-year-old McIlroy during his star turn at the U.S. Open last weekend. McIlroy, who on Sunday became the youngest golfer to win the tournament since 1923, wore a blue polo shirt, white pants and a belt — all Oakley-branded.
Comparisons to Tiger Woods — and the sales he generated for Nike — have marketing experts predicting good fortunes for Oakley.
"The way he is being seen by the golf community, we haven't seen since Tiger Woods," said Nancy Lough, editor of Sport Marketing Quarterly. "If Tiger wore a shirt on Sunday, everybody wanted the shirt on Monday."
McIlroy's win is a golden opportunity for Oakley, marketing experts say, providing the company with a chance to show off and talk about its budding apparel lines, designed for athletes in such activities as mountain biking, surfing and motor sports.
It is aggressively expanding its golf line.
Oakley "may not be well-known in that space, but neither was McIlroy," said David Carter, executive director of the University of Southern California's Sports Business Institute. "It gives both of them a chance to build something together."
The company has been quick to capitalize on the opportunity.
On Monday, the front page of Oakley's website displayed an exuberant McIlroy, coupled with a note of congratulations.
The company also issued "a proud salute" in a news release, tying the young phenom's accomplishment to the golf apparel he donned during the tournament.
"You will see more of that. 'Hey! We're the company that has McIlroy,' " Carter said.
For its part, Oakley is hoping the connection with McIlroy will shine a spotlight on its clothing lines, which are not as well-known as its sunglasses.
"For a number of years now, we have been busy trying to expand our story beyond sunglasses," said Colin Baden, Oakley's chief executive.
Apparel is growing twice as fast as the company's optics business, Baden said. And Oakley expects its golf segment sales to triple in 2012, compared with this year's. The line includes polo shirts, pants, golf bags, gloves and other items.
McIlroy, a golf sensation since he was a teenager, grew up in Northern Ireland. He signed his sponsorship deal with Oakley in December. He is also endorsed by the Dubai hotel chain Jumeirah Group, whose name also appears on his clothing.
McIlroy shot 16 under par at the U.S. Open, the lowest 72-hole score ever for the event.