Golf Asia


The Tiger Woods we witnessed dominating golf was not the real Tiger Woods, but a Nike construct built to transcend the game


Ihope we sign him,” said Phil Knight, Nike’s co-founder, as he walked the fairway following 19-year-old Stanford University student Tiger Woods. “If not, I hope he goes to medical school.” Of course Knight did sign him, in an unpreceden­ted deal worth $40m over five years in 1996. Three days later, a news conference was called to announce that Woods was giving up his studies and taking to the PGA Tour as a pro. “Hello world,” said Woods as he made his introducti­on. “I’ve heard I’m not ready for you. Are you ready for me?”

From tha t day forward, the story of Tiger Woods has been written as much by Nike’s marketing department as by the man himself. The size of that initial cheque has always played a central role in the story. It was just so big, such a huge statement of confidence that it grabbed our attention from the start.

It was clear that the relationsh­ip between Nike and Tiger was far more ambitious and more complex than just another golf endorsemen­t deal: Brand Tiger would help define the relationsh­ip between business and sport celebrity. Brand Tiger was a construct and Phil Knight was its primary architect.

Knight started Nike in 1964, a year in which the company’s turnover was £3,240. By the time they signed Tiger in 1996, Nike’s turnover was $6.5 billion, of which just one percent came from golf. How had Knight gone from selling running shoes out of the back of his car to become one of America’s 10 richest people and arguably the most influentia­l man in sport over the past five decades? Partly, by selling the world Tiger Woods.

No golfer had captured the imaginatio­n since Arnold

Palmer in the early days of television. Golf could be cool and it was clear that Brand

Tiger would sell many, many Swoosh-stamped shoes and T-shirts. But it was always meant to be about more than that. “If [sports stars] can sell these wares with the power of their personas, they also can sell civic responsibi­lity with the power of their personas,” said the civil rights campaigner Jesse Jackson in 1996. Tiger and Nike had raised expectatio­ns, fuelled by the player’s father Earl Woods, that Tiger could transcend sport.

‘I Am Tiger Woods’, the second Nike campaign, took its lead from Spike Lee, a long-time creative influence on the advertisin­g. The ad mirrors the final scene of Lee’s 1992 film, Malcolm X, which sees school kids rise to proclaim: “I am Malcolm X”. Nike was positionin­g Tiger not among great golfers like Greg Norman and Nick Faldo, but among cultural and historical figures. The subtext was that here was someone who would single-handedly take golf in a different direction, a cultural force that would help American golf come to terms with its racist history, raise the status of golf as a global television sport and along the way enthuse millions of people to take up the game around the world. Perhaps the most remarkable


aspect of Tiger Woods’ career has been his ability to live with such unrealisti­c expectatio­ns for so long. It would have been easy to take Nike’s money and the easy route, to live a life of casual luxury while winning the occasional tournament. But in those early years Tiger exceeded the hopes Nike, and the rest of golf, had for him – the victory at Augusta in 1997 couldn’t have been much more ‘on brand’, the black kid winning at The Masters, where his skin colour would have prevented him playing until 1975.

The 1996 contract was renewed in 2001 for a reputed $100m, but Tiger hasn’t proven to be the Martin Luther King Nike were looking for. He hasn’t been able to help Nike Golf develop into a major player in the equipment business, the brand scaling down its operation in 2016. He hasn’t proved to be the flawless poster boy Nike portrayed him as, the fire hydrant incident laying waste to his carefully constructe­d PR persona. What he has done though is change the way the sport is perceived, positionin­g it as a more athletic activity and inspiring countless kids worldwide to take up the game. Participat­ion levels in the US jumped from 24.4 million in 1996 to 29.8 million within a decade, just one of many examples of the ‘Tiger Effect’ in action.

In 2019, 23 years after signing that first Nike deal, Tiger added his 15th Major by winning at Augusta for a fifth time. In doing so that April afternoon, he beat out a leaderboar­d packed full of players who are only in the game because they were inspired to take up the game by watching Tiger in his pomp. A leaderboar­d full of players inspired by Tiger to, if we can borrow a phrase, Just Do It.

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