Column: Tiger Woods And Nike Was A Partnership For A Lifetime Until It Wasn’t

KAPALUA, Hawaii (AP) — The red shirt on Sunday came to identify Tiger Woods.

So did the swoosh.

Woods and Nike were partners from the time he stepped to a podium at the Greater Milwaukee Open in August 1996, a 20-year-old fresh off his unprecedented third straight U.S. Amateur title. With a swoosh on his striped shirt, he gazed at the room and said, “I guess, hello world, huh?”

It all sounded so innocent until Nike launched its “Hello, World” campaign a few days later. That wasn’t put together overnight, but so what? It worked.

Just about everything did when it came to Woods and Nike.

“Amazing run. Great partnership,” said Mark Steinberg, his agent at Excel Sports.

There was some downtime during a commercial shoot in Florida in 1999 when Woods began bouncing a golf ball off his wedge and a producer decided to catch it on camera. The result was a 30-second spot of Woods bouncing the ball while switching hands, going through the legs, behind the back and then popping it up in the air and making solid contact with a baseball swing. Pure magic.

One of the most famous shots in Masters history was his pitch up the slope on the 16th green, back down the slope toward the hole and then the ball comes to a stop — with the swoosh in full view — before dropping for birdie. That wasn’t scripted, of course. It just seemed that way.

Woods had switched to the Nike golf ball in May 2000 and then won the next four majors, the only player in history to hold them all at the same time.

He switched to Nike irons a week before the Ryder Cup in 2002. Asked about the timing of the change, Woods said: “Off the record? Because the majors are over.” Asked for a comment on the record, he thought for a minute, laughed and said, “Because the majors are over.”

And now the partnership is over after 27 years.

Woods has had three regular caddies and two agents during that time. He has had six corporate sponsors on his bag and four swing coaches. He has used three golf balls and and four brands of irons.

What never changed was his relationship with Nike.

“I would have thought without a doubt he would have been a lifer,” Curtis Strange said.

Strange has his own history with Nike Golf. He and Peter Jacobsen wore the swoosh when it was best known for sneakers, particularly the Air Jordan created for Michael Jordan, who remains the one athlete forever linked with Nike.

Strange had a swoosh with “Nike Golf” in block letters when he won back-to-back in the U.S. Open, the first to do that since Ben Hogan. He even wore a red shirt on Sunday for the second title at Oak Hill in 1989. Not many remember that. Even fewer probably cared.

“They were still so young,” Strange said. “Even when they pushed us a little bit in ads and posters, it was a small piece of the market.”

And then it became much bigger when Nike co-founder Phil Knight signed Woods.

“What Michael Jordan did for basketball, Tiger Woods absolutely can do for golf,” Knight told Golf World magazine about the original deal (5 years, $40 million) that seemed so enormous at the time and now looks to be what his father, Earl Woods, once called it — chump change.

“The world has not seen anything like what he’s going to do for the sport,” Knight said. “It’s almost art. I wasn’t alive to see Claude Monet paint, but I am alive to see Tiger play, and that’s pretty great.”

He was right about what Woods did for his sport. He created a popularity boom not seen since Arnold Palmer, and Woods was the catalyst behind network TV deals that made everyone richer than they imagined, at least in the non-Saudi division.

But it never really translated into success for Nike Golf. It outsourced the golf ball. It once made a square-shaped driver (Woods never used it). And then it abandoned the equipment in 2016 and stuck with apparel.

Brooks Koepka remains a Nike athletic and equipment holdout — he still uses a Nike 3-iron.

Knight told Bloomberg in a 2017 interview about Nike’s decision to get out of the golf equipment business that it was a “fairly simple equation.”

“We lost money for 20 years on equipment and balls and realized next year wasn’t going to be any different,” he said.

Woods wasn’t giving Nike much visibility lately, either, mainly a product of knee surgeries, five back surgeries and most recently the February 2021 car crash outside Los Angeles that shattered bones in his right leg and led to ankle fusion surgery in April.

And then he switched to FootJoy shoes when he did return following the car crash, saying he needed “something that allowed me to be more stable.” Nike responded by saying it would work with Woods to “meet his needs.” Woods was still wearing FootJoy a month ago.

Woods, who turned 48 a few weeks ago, wants to play a tournament a month if his body allows. He gets more eyeballs than any golfer in history. But it’s still only six tournaments.

Woods spoke of “another chapter” in his social media post announcing the end with Nike. Steinberg, the agent, hinted at “an exciting announcement” at Riviera in February. But it will be a different look. It’s hard to imagine Woods can create the moments he had with Nike over the years, mainly because Woods is more about medical science than painting like Claude Monet.

Nike still has Scottie Scheffler and Rory McIlroy, and Nelly Korda from the LPGA Tour, in its stable. Cutting ties with Woods will lead to speculation its day in golf are numbered, though there has been no indication of that.

As for Woods? He will show up in Los Angeles for the first time without a swoosh to be found. At least the Sunday shirt will be red.