When Nike invested in a golf phenom that became bigger than the sport itself, the brand and the player didn’t just win. They altered the aesthetic of the sport.
Tiger Woods is back at The Masters.
After a brush with death in February 2021, Tiger returns to the place where the world learned his name in 1997.
Arriving at Agusta as an outlier to the game of golf, a then-21-year-old Tiger was considered overpaid and underaccomplished by his peers. Not for long. When the weekend wrapped up, Woods became the youngest player to ever wear the green jacket. Now at 46, Woods has five of those overcoats to his name.
What he also has is a legacy as the game’s greatest cash cow.
On and off the course, Woods built a brand that analytics couldn’t anticipate and companies couldn’t wait to attach themselves to. The ultimate winner, the iconic endorser, Tiger turned pro months after he turned 20, turning an entire sport and entire industry upside down.
It all started with Nike.
Born to Just Do It
Back in 1984, the same year Nike signed Michael Jordan, the brand began producing golf cleats. For the better part of a decade, the Swoosh made next to no noise at the country club, aside from taking over the Hogan Tour in 1993.
While Nike had long-lived as a disruptor in sports — see Michael Jordan in basketball and Andre Agassi in tennis — the Beaverton brand was risk-averse when going into golf. Their cleats were on par stylistically with the status quo of FootJoy, leaving no divots on the fairway full of green.
In 1996, that all changed.
After Woods won a tournament at Pumpkin Ridge right outside of Portland, Phil Knight and company came ready with an offer they’d been working out for months: a five-year contract worth $40 million.
Though that might seem light now for the man who has earned $2.1 billion over the course of his PGA Tour career, it was absolutely nuts for a 20-year-old kid who’d never played a pro match. Moreover, his contract came in above that of Nike’s top golfer at the time, Nick Price, and also more than another athlete known around Nike Campus: Michael Jordan.
Yes, before he was old enough to buy a beer, Tiger was making more at Nike than the man that would soon have his own brand.
Changing the Game
With cash comes criticism.
Upon Woods turning pro and signing with the Swoosh, the entire golf world had something to say about him and his big contract. The majority of it was not nice.
Panned by players, publications, and even pro shops, the audacity of an adolescent prospect pulling in more than the sport’s most storied players was grounds for ruining the game.
Not only was Tiger young and unproven, his ethnic background far differed from that of the standard seen around country clubs and PGA Tours. Brazenly, Nike and the kid from California leaned into every bit of controversy with their introductory, “Hello World” advertisement.
Suddenly, Nike was actually being Nike on the golf course.
Even better? Tiger was being Tiger, too.
In October 1996, just months after making history with Nike and turning pro, Woods won the Las Vegas Invitational. Weeks later, he beat Payne Stewart by a stroke to take home the Walt Disney World Golf Classic. Nike wished upon a star and its telescope found exactly the right one.
All the while, Woods walked the course in a Nike hat, Nike polo, and saddle-style Nike spikes.
Though the golf world was beginning to know Tiger in the latter months of 1996, the entire world would know his name by April of 1997. Famously, Woods won The Masters in Augusta by 12 strokes — a tournament record at the time. On top of that, he became the youngest player ever and the first golfer of color to put on a green jacket.
44 million viewers — also a record at that time — tuned in to see it. With the whole world watching golf thanks to the paid prodigy, Woods was ready to change the game.
And so was Nike.
In 1984, the concept of an athlete spokesman was reserved for sports like tennis where the pitchman was white because the perceived paying public was, too. By 1985, Nike shattered that notion as Michael Jordan’s first signature shoe flew off the shelves, selling $55 million worth of sneakers.
Nike’s narrative around Mike’s new shoes being “Banned” built not only a palatable pitchman that could sell to kids of all colors, but a business model the entire industry adopted in some shape or form. The brand began to think that if a basketball player who performs in next-to-no layers with limited equipment can sell shoes, shirts, and shorts, what could a golfer push when considering clubs, clothes, and spikes?
And better yet, what would an affluent audience pay for it?
What started as outrage from golf’s gatekeepers soon became a core category for the billion-dollar-brand from Beaverton.
From 1994 to 1998, Rod Tallman served as Director of Marketing for Nike Golf. Late in his tenure, the Swoosh decided to rebrand its apparel made for playing 18, leaning less into the gentleman look and more into the idea of the athlete.
At the core was Tiger Woods, the new face of their progressive Sport Golf line.
“When we first started working with him, there was a sense of ‘screw the country club type of thing’,” Tallman told Stitcher & Jordan Bell’s All-American: Tiger Woods Podcast in 2020. “The footwear we developed for Tiger was out there a bit. We developed a logo for Tiger that was kind of a yin-yang that played off his Asian background. We were trying to create an entirely new look.”
Panned by peers and media mainstays, 1998’s Nike Air Zoom TW sported cushioning seen in performance running with a carbon fiber Swoosh to match. Like Mike, magazines took shots at Tiger’s new shoes while old-timers took offense to the look.
If golf was mad at Tiger and Nike in 1998, things weren’t going to get any better for the pretentious or the purists. As a matter of fact, the partnership was just getting started.
That same year, the Swoosh introduced its first line of Nike Precision Golf Balls. Soon after, Nike’s news golf balls got serious airtime in the infamous “Juggling” campaign — an on-set outtake turned into an ad that ran during the 1999 NBA Finals.
All the while, Woods was winning — and so was Nike.
Back in 1995 when Tiger was still playing in Ping and Reebok, Nike Golf brought in $30 million. In 1998 with Tiger sporting the Swoosh? That number went up to $300 million, according to Tallman.
Entering a new millennium, Nike gave Tiger a raise and a makeover. In 2001, he inked a new five-year extension, reportedly worth $100 million.
Aesthetically, the Swoosh played to the masses while still pushing the envelope when dressing Tiger. Famously, the brand redesigned his logo to the classic “TW” emblem still seen on sneakers, shirts, and caps today. Additionally, Tiger’s apparel was athletic in fabric — leveraging the brand’s loaded depth of performance materials and innovative tech — while still approachable in cut and class.
The next year, Nike upped the ante on its investment with its first foray in hardware: a line of clubs. In masterful marketing timing, Tiger debuted his new set of Nike irons in Ireland, winning the WGC-AMEX with Swoosh logos all over his body and throughout his bag.
For the early aughts, Tiger owned the sport, taking home PGA Player of the Year honors eight out of 10 times from 2000 to 2009. But even with Tiger already at his peak and just cracking 30, Nike was hungry for more.
Built for the Future
While the late 2000s and 2010s were tough on Tiger both personally and professionally, the impact he made on golf changed the course for the next wave of stars.
In 2005, after arriving in Adidas, Nike signed Michelle Wie when she was only 16 years old. In 2013, the brand brought on 24 year-old Rory McIlroy for $200 million. All the while, the Swoosh continued to tout Tiger products in stores and online, making the most of his iconic logo on hats, polos, and performance cleats that pushed the boundaries of the sport.
As Agusta welcomes back Tiger Woods, approaching the 25-year anniversary of when the 21-year old phenom first put on a green jacket, emotions will undoubtedly be high. Early practice rounds see Woods walking the course with the signature TW logo on his hat and a Nike Swoosh on his chest.
Age aside, not all is the same. This time around his bag is emboldened with a Monster Energy endorsement, full of Taylor Made clubs.
More surprisingly, he’s wearing FootJoy, a historic shoe company in the golf space and also a competitor to Nike. On the surface, this is surprising for numerous reasons.
First and foremost, Tiger is still under contract with Nike. Moreover, the brand is currently carrying the Nike Air Zoom TW ’20 on its website. The shoes sport Zoom Air cushioning — much like his controversial model from ’98 — and reside as a Best Seller on the site despite debuting at retail well over a year ago.
Still, Woods is wearing FootJoy for his epic return as he continues to recover from the 2021 car crash that nearly took his life.
“I have very limited mobility now,” Woods shared in a news conference ahead of the 2022 Masters. “With the rods and plates and screws that are in my leg, I need something different. Something allowed me to be more stable and that’s what I’ve gone to.”
Though Woods won’t have Nike on his feet at this year’s Masters, barring a surprise bait and switch, Nike and the icon that built its golf business remain close, continuing to build.
“Nike’s been fantastic over the year for providing me with equipment and work,” Woods said. “We’ve been working on trying to find something to allow me to do this and swing again. We’re still going to continue doing it and hopefully we’ll have something soon.”
While Woods and Nike have flipped golf upside down since joining forces in 1996, it’s undoubtedly been for the best. The country club game continues to evolve in matters of inclusivity and innovation, spearheaded by the partnership that took on time and tradition.
All these years later, Augusta owns the identity of the green jacket, an honor bestowed to Woods five times and an article of clothing coveted by the best golfers to ever play the game.
However, Woods and Nike own the influence of Sunday Red, a tradition tied to not just an abundance of apparel but an athlete truly unlike any other.