Nike and the Tiger Woods comeback trail

The sportswear giant is determined to revive the fortunes of its former star as it tries to manufacture the perfect redemption story.    

Nike Golf collage
Images @nikegolf on Instagram

Is the redemption of Tiger Woods possible? Nike seems to think so.

The sportswear giant is throwing its considerable weight behind the golfer, who at 42 years old has failed to win a major in a decade.

Nike Golf described The Masters 2018 in Augusta (April 5-8) as “a comeback like no other” for Woods, welcoming his return to the manicured greens after a three-year break with the release of a nostalgic 60-second advert.

Entitled ‘Welcome Back’, the ad reprises Woods’ rise to fame from child star and golfing prodigy to record-breaking winner, featuring iconic trick shots and clips from his famous Nike commercials of the 1990s. The tagline simply reads: ‘When Tiger Woods plays golf, the world watches. Welcome Back’

The ad has already clocked up over 4.5 million views on YouTube in five days. Noticeably absent from the video, however, is any real mention of the scandals, injuries and poor performances that have blighted Woods’ career since November 2009.

Woods’ fall from grace was both shocking and momentous for sport and American culture in general. Almost overnight he went from the poster boy of perfection to a serial adulterer who had engaged in alleged trysts with prostitutes and porn stars.

When news emerged that Woods’ estranged wife Elin had smashed the windows of his car with his golf clubs – allegedly to help break him out after a crash – it appeared all hell was breaking loose for golf’s golden boy.

In the aftermath of the incident Woods released a statement explaining that he was not perfect, despite cultivating a near flawless image for close to a decade:

“I have not been true to my values and the behaviour my family deserves. I am not without faults and I am far short of perfect. I am dealing with my behaviour and personal failings behind closed doors with my family. Those feelings should be shared by us alone.”

By December 2009 Woods had taken an “indefinite leave of absence” from golf to work on saving his marriage, only for it to end in divorce a year later.

Sponsors who had once traded off the golfer’s pursuit for perfection began to walk away in their droves, from sports drink brand Gatorade and telecoms giant AT&T to luxury watch maker Tag Heuer and General Motors.

However Nike stood by Tiger Woods, the golfer it had first signed as a record breaking 21-year old back in 1996. Woods single-handedly helped shape the Nike Golf brand, taking it global and mainstream, just like he did with the sport of golf itself.

When Woods signed a five year extension to his Nike Golf contract in 2000 it was the largest endorsement package ever to be given to a professional athlete. So tied up was Woods with the Nike Golf brand that he reportedly received a percentage from the sales of its apparel, footwear, golf equipment and golf balls.

Nike even named a building on its Beaverton Campus in Oregon – the Tiger Woods Convention Centre – after the golfer. And while Lance Armstrong’s name was removed from his building after the cyclist was revealed as a cynical drugs cheat, Woods’ name remains in place. 

It is easy to see why Nike Golf would love to revive the fortunes of its once most lucrative of stars, but was all this effort around The Masters really worth it? Woods finished the tournament tied for 32nd, a result hardly surprising to the casual observer given that he has failed to win The Masters since 2005.

Prior to winning that title, Woods’ record was formidable. To date he has won The Masters four times, starting with a historic victory in 1997 at the age of 21. This victory made Woods the tournament’s youngest ever winner and the first victor in any golf major of either African or Asian descent.

It is indisputable that at the height of his powers Woods broke new ground. He changed the perception of what golf is and who should be allowed to play it. His winning mentality, polished style and undeniable talent was as seductive to golf fans as it was to global brands.

Yet Woods’ fall from grace was dramatic and the nature of the scandal surrounding his behaviour questioned the very essence of his character. This is a very difficult place to come back from and it is worth asking why sponsors like Nike, and the wider golfing community in general, are so keen to find a redemption narrative for Woods. And crucially, if a professional sports woman had behaved in the same way, would the world be so ready to welcome her back with open arms? I doubt it. 

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