The Tiger Woods-Nike divorce is a downer. It’s OK to mourn it

Tiger woods wearing a hat with a crossed out nike logo

Tiger Woods and Nike are no longer, he announced Monday.

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There had been whispers for weeks, if not months, that the end was nigh, that there would be no renewal of vows. Yet when the unsurprising news finally broke at 11:01 a.m. ET Monday that Tiger Woods and Nike, after a fruitful and seemingly loving 27-year marriage, were severing ties, my overriding emotion still was one of … glumness.

It might sound ridiculous to have such feelings about a marketing partnership split, and perhaps it is. But, gosh, they were just so good together. The greatest golfer on the planet, and the greatest sports-marketing machine. Just a couple of GOATs ideating, innovating, pushing each other to new heights. Lennon and McCartney, Stockton and Malone, Tiger and the swoosh.

You might have expected such a glamorous union to begin in earnest in a place like L.A. or New York or Monte Carlo. It didn’t. It started in Wisconsin, at the Greater Milwaukee Open, when a fresh-faced Woods, on Aug. 28, 1996, sat at a podium at Brown Deer Park Golf Course, flashed a toothy grin and uttered five words and a grunt that would go down in marketing history: “Well, I guess, hello world, huh?”

That’s the line (staged, we would soon learn) that garnered all the attention, but what came immediately after it was more revealing: two nervous chuckles that suggested the 20-year-old college kid had no idea what was coming next. How could he? In the wake of three consecutive U.S. Junior Amateur wins followed by three straight U.S. Amateur triumphs — which still ranks high among his most remarkable feats — some degree of greatness from Woods seemed preordained. Just how much, though, was still a mystery. As was the toll that Woods’ unthinkable fame would ultimately take on him. The scandal, the heartache and shame, the police reports. To the victor go the spoils — including, in this case, hundreds of millions in sponsorship dollars from a Beaverton, Ore., footwear and apparel company — but it’s rare that those spoils also don’t come with a price of their own.

But what a ride it was, both for Woods and Nike. Phil Knight, the company’s chief shoe dog and a proven tea-leaf reader, sensed what was afoot. Look no further than Knight’s words in the press release announcing that maiden five-year deal: “Tiger Woods will have a tremendous impact on the world of sports and will change the way people view the game of golf. He is one of a handful of special athletes who transcend their sports, the way Jordan has done in basketball and McEnroe did in tennis.” Later that year, Woods’ initials appeared on two Nike releases, the Air Zoom TW and Air Zoom Sport TW.

No pressure, kid, right?

Thing was, if Woods did feel the weight of expectations, he had a funny way of showing it. All of 226 days after that release was issued, Woods bashed his way around Augusta National and won the Masters by four field-goals. Transcendent performance? Check. Fourteen more majors would come. Eighty-two PGA Tour titles. The swoosh was there for just about all of Tiger’s greatest hits. Perhaps the most indelible of those: the miraculous chip-in on the 16th hole at the 2005 Masters. In a moment that Knight himself couldn’t have scripted any better, Woods’ Nike One TW ball seemed to cling to the edge of the cup for an eternity — swoosh side out — before finally dropping, both into the hole and golf fans’ collective memory bank.

In good times and in bad, in sickness and in health? For Woods and Nike, that certainly proved to be true. When many of Woods’ other sponsors — Gatorade, AT&T, Accenture, Gillette — dumped the golfer in the midst of his 2009-10 sex scandal, Nike stood by Woods, though it didn’t let him off scot-free. When Woods made his much-anticipated return to competition at the 2010 Masters, Nike debuted an ad on Wednesday of that week that featured black-and-white footage of Woods staring into the camera: swoosh on his cap, swoosh on his vest. Accompanying the imagery was a voiceover from Tiger’s father and mentor, Earl, who had died four years earlier: “Tiger, I am more prone to be inquisitive, to promote discussion,” the recording of Earl began. “I want to find out what your thinking was. I want to find out what your feelings are. And did you learn anything?”

Here’s how much money Nike contributed to Tiger Woods’ massive fortune
By: Josh Berhow

The underlying message from Nike: You screwed up, Tiger, but we got you.  

There would be other lows for Woods but also more soaring highs. How much did Nike invest in him? It’s hard to say with authority, but the number is comfortably in the billions. And Woods’ value to Nike? That’s even harder to quantify, but ask yourself this: What is the first brand you think of when you think of the greatest golfer of the past 30 years?

And now, after nearly three decades of Just Doing It together, Woods and Nike have undone it. The FootJoys were our first clue. When Woods appeared at the 2022 Masters in chunky FJ Packards, it was as jarring as seeing Tom Brady for the first time in a Bucs jersey. “I needed something different, something that allowed me to be more stable,” Woods said of his new fling. Endorser and endorsee both insisted this was a one-off, but a detached Nike statement that week wasn’t exactly a ringing endorsement of its commitment to Woods. It read, in part, “As he continues his return, we will work with him to meet his new needs.”

A Tiger-ready golf shoe never did come from Nike. Woods continued to wear the FJs after returning from ankle surgery and rehab in 2023. When he played two events in December in swooshless footwear, surely Woods already was aware that no amount of counseling (or negotiating) could keep him and his long-time stablemate together. Then came Monday’s note from Woods, posted to his social-media channels, in which he referenced the “amazing moments and memories” he has produced with that iconic logo on his person.

“People have asked will there be another chapter,” Woods wrote. “Yes, there will certainly be another chapter.”

Perhaps, but you know what they say about sequels.     

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