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How Tiger Woods' latest Masters title could have a bigger impact on golf than his first

April 15, 2019
2019 Masters

J.D. Cuban

In the aftermath of Tiger Woods’ triumphant return to Masters glory, there is no precise way to calculate how much golf and the champion himself might be transformed and energized from a marketing perspective. But there is a sense in all corners of the business that Woods’ most recent Masters win echoes his first, and just might come to overshadow it.

It’s a Hollywood script written by Madison Avenue, and everybody loves a comeback story, said marketing and media expert Joe Favorito, an instructor in strategic communications at Columbia University’s sports management program.

“There are very few athletes who’ve been knocked down the way Tiger Woods has, and he still keeps coming back,” he said. “I’m pretty sure Michael B. Jordan is already signing up for the movie.”

Favorito was joking, of course. For the moment. Still, cast against the backdrop of the 22 years that followed his world-altering first green jacket, Woods’ win Sunday has the potential for an even broader impact.

“You think of all the things Tiger helped germinate that can now really take hold,” he said, referencing the establishment of The First Tee, the momentous rise in golf participation, the huge boost in golf television contracts and PGA Tour purses that all grew from Woods’ debut as a professional golfer. Favorito sees it happening again with Sunday’s performance. “If you wanted a perfect comeback story, you got one that’s now playing on every device possible. You have everybody walking around getting those three-minute highlights from IBM of everything that Tiger did today. I think that’s going to be great for everybody involved with the game inside and out and especially for Tiger, too.”

Woods began his career more than two decades ago as an immediate marketing behemoth and earned more than $1.5 billion as a front man for everything from credit cards to sports drinks. He was the most popular athlete on the planet, and while his fall from favor was perhaps greater than any public figure, his complete comeback from personal and physical turmoil is game-changing for him, his brand, all those associated with him and by extension the game of golf. Call it the Tiger Effect, 2.0.

“Tiger’s 22 years in the game have been remarkable, but now I’m thinking more about what he’s doing for golf and how important he is in the next 22 years,” said TaylorMade president and CEO David Abeles, who signed Woods to TaylorMade’s staff more than two years ago after Nike dropped out of golf’s club and ball business. “Watching this play out with my three young boys who are 13, 11 and 8, they have the opportunity to see how extraordinary people do extraordinary things. They’re not only inspired by his game, they’re inspired by his life story. One of the lessons I’ve shared with them is that you have to be relentless not only in the pursuit of improvement, but you can’t ever give up. Ever.

“This extraordinary guy who happens to have extraordinary skill playing golf doesn’t ever give up. He is relentless in his pursuit of success, and he’s doing it in such an open, connected and, to some extent, vulnerable way right now, that the Tiger Woods brand and who he is has a greater impact on golf today than it has in the history of his time as a professional. There has been no stronger influence on golf than Tiger Woods right now.”

That kind of sentiment might have seemed almost laughable three years ago when there was real doubt whether Woods was ever going to play again. But companies like TaylorMade and Bridgestone pursued and signed Woods to endorsement deals because they acted upon what many in golf held to be true: The young guns are nice, but Tiger Woods moves the needle like nobody else. The power of the internet and social media—powers that Woods was one of the first to employ when he started his own website—are more mature. It is telling that had a record traffic day on Sunday.

“Tiger winning Augusta is huge for our brand,” said Dan Murphy, president and CEO of Bridgestone Golf. “Seeing our Bridgestone ‘B’ rolling toward the hole on international TV is a big boost. The victory pays off a big bet we made in not only contracting with Tiger but in featuring him in all our ads this year. In a word: Wow!”

That immediate excitement also was echoed by Buddy Christensen, president of Golfdom, the large independent golf retail store outside Washington, D.C.

“Tiger moves the needle like no other, and a win like this over big names, all while he looked as much like the Tiger of old as ever, will get golfers excited,” he said. “The Masters weekend always provides a ‘pop’ and starts our season, but this takes it to a whole other level. I can't wait to open our doors.”

Some believe that needle is poised to move with a velocity it never has before—precisely because he had been written off multiple times for multiple reasons. Christensen called it “a more ‘real’ Tiger, more accessible and fun-loving.” David Pillsbury, CEO of private club company ClubCorp and a former top executive at the PGA Tour and Nike, sees the transformation of Woods as more appealing than the original phenomenon.

“Tiger became human again, like all of us, frail and flawed and went through the rollercoaster of life and surgeries and massive personal adversity and then he showed how, through drive, commitment, dedication, perseverance, hard work and focus you can claw your way back,” he said. “That just ignites everybody because everybody at some point in their lives has been in that same kind of place.”

It’s that personal timeline that makes Woods’ appeal broader. He isn’t just the tremendous athlete, the untouchable God-man figure of his youth. His smile was a trademark, and there was a defiance to it as he decimated any competitor in his path for the first 12 years of professional golf. Now, there’s the same intensity but a different smile. It’s engaging and joyful, and more of the world wants to celebrate with him.

“It’s been a heck of a journey for TaylorMade just to be a part of it and to live through some of the things with Tiger to help him get better and play a small part in this victory, it’s one of the greatest accomplishments that our company will look back on, as well,” Abeles said. “The thing I am most proud of is how our people supported Tiger unconditionally and Tiger supported TaylorMade unconditionally. How he’s developed as a human being over the course of the last several years certainly since we have known him is something that’s so incredibly inspiring for us.

“I know how connective he is, I know how genuine he is. I also know how relatable he is. I think this moment in time right now is just another incredible moment on this human being’s journey.”

That journey is important because Woods is being seen two ways: Millennials are now seeing the greatness they’ve heard about for the first time, while those who’ve seen him from the beginning now view him as more like them, a parent with proud kids. That’s a rare marketing grand slam of sorts.

“So you have Tiger the father, you have Tiger appealing to anyone looking to come back from the depths of whatever misfortune they’ve had to deal with, and you have Tiger this new kind of engaged, excited athlete who some people may not know a lot about,” Favorito said. “He’s appealing to that over-40 audience that is quickly becoming the forgotten audience, even though they have the most disposable income and they’re becoming more tech savvy. He can speak to a whole audience of brands that really wasn’t possible when he was 23 years old.

Jay Karen, CEO of the National Golf Course Owners Association, remembers how much the 1997 Tiger inspired him. This latest Tiger could mean more.

“The difference this time is that the people he’s probably inspiring most now have money,” he said. “The youth he inspired 22 years ago were not the economic engine of the industry. Now we are. So, in that regard, one could make the argument it could have a more lasting effect this time.”

It is not clear that Woods will sign more deals as a result of his latest victory. While it seems likely, even if those megadeals of his youth don’t come like they did, Favorito thinks one immediate beneficiary is Woods’ charitable arm. The TGR Foundation is dedicated to supporting educational programs for underprivileged kids. “This just opens up a big door for them to raise more funds,” he said. “His foundation has become a pretty big legacy, and this will help amplify it.”

What is clear about his future deals is that he is more marketable, not just than he was leading into Sunday’s round but than he’s ever been, including that Sunday in 1997. Back then, Woods helped raise the profile of older professional golfers who were trying to beat this young mega-star. Now, Woods at age 43 is again raising the profile of professional golfers by directly showing the young guns just what the possibilities of excellence look like.

“Tiger is going to be the story everywhere this week, and every one of the young guys is going to see that,” Favorito said. “It helps build more rivalries for the sport, and that’s great for the game. These young guys now get to stand shoulder to shoulder with him and build a platform for golf for a wider audience going forward.”

Woods fundamentally changed the game and the industry in 1997. The number of golfers in the decade after Woods turned pro increased 22 percent, while the number of 18-hole golf courses increased 16 percent. The number of college golf programs at some levels tripled. But in the last decade, almost precisely as Woods’ game seemed to be fading, golf courses, golfers and the golf business seemed to fade, too.

Last year, rounds played were down compared to 2017 in every month but one, and through the first two months of 2019, rounds are down 5.3 percent compared to 2018. While the long-range forecasts are for above average temperatures in the U.S., it’s accompanied by above average rain, a trend that put an extreme damper on play in 2018. Still, there now is the presence of an above average Tiger.

“The two forces of nature that impact the golf economy the greatest are the weather, and a Tiger win at a major,” the NGCOA’s Karen said. “Today’s victory may be the only thing that could make up for poor weather in 2019.”

While weather is the overriding factor in whether golf is being played, there are signs the golf economy is ticking up. Golf-retail sales on a global scale were $13.4 billion in 2018, with the U.S. market up 5.4 percent from 2017. Sales for metalwoods in February were up more than 7 percent compared to last February. Masters ratings were the highest in four years, including the highest-rated morning golf broadcast in 34 years. It’s clear golf in all its precincts is eager to see the return of its long-lost, best and most influential friend.

“I think he is inspiring millions of kids that didn’t have an opportunity to see him play back then and now they get to experience the heroic nature of this extraordinary man,” Abeles said on his way to the practice range at his club to hang out with his sons and “forty other kids who are all going to be out there trying to hit the shots that Tiger hit.”

“And those who haven’t been inspired to take up the game are going to be inspired to take up the game because of him. Those who were considering something else are now saying, ‘I’m going to consider golf.’ He’s made the game not only fun at the highest level, he’s energized the industry in a way that only one golfer in the history of this game has, and that’s Tiger Woods.”