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Nike continues to grow, thanks to more tour wins

The victory did not elicit any great sense of relief, and no burden was lifted. When Tiger Woods won the Buick Invitational, it was to him, simply, a win -- even if it had bigger ramifications to the golf-following public.

Woods cited his November victory at the Dunlop Phoenix Tournament in Japan as a more monumental achievement. The eight-shot victory was deemed to be the place where his on-going swing changes finally took hold.

It was also where, for just the second time, Woods had a Nike Ignite 460cc driver in his bag. He used it for the first time at the Tour Championship, where he finished second. Since then, he has gone 2-1-1-3-1 in the five tournaments he has played using the driver.

Coincidence?

Justin Leonard won the Bob Hope Chrysler Classic on Sunday, his first victory in nearly two years; Leonard made the switch to Nike equipment at the start of the year. Paul Azinger, another Nike player, contended at the Sony Open, and Stewart Cink, who also has Nike clubs in his bag, has been the best American player not named Woods or Phil Mickelson in recent months.

OK, before we get carried away, there is also David Duval, who has been with a Nike contract for several years and just finished 30 over par at the Hope. The brand name on equipment does not solve all problems. And there are countless examples through the recent history of endorsement-driven golf contracts in which players wish, perhaps, they had stuck with what they had.

But the Nike story is interesting one in that less than a decade ago, it was barely a player in golf, if at all. An established, respected company such as Titleist still leads the way in golf ball sales and makes it difficult for anyone to put a dent in its huge market share.

Other industry heavyweights such as TaylorMade and Callaway continue to produce new and improved equipment that is popular with tour players and the public as well. But they have a lot more history. TaylorMade was the pioneer in medal wood clubs some 25 years ago and set sales records with the r7 driver last year. Callaway made a name for itself with the Big Bertha driver, of which another version, the Titanium 454cc, recently debuted.

Nike didn't really get serious about golf until it signed Woods to an endorsement deal in 1996. But at the time, it made no clubs or balls, only apparel.

"We always treated golf as a category," said Nike Golf president Bob Wood. "We never really focused on it, we never had the commitment to it. ... When we signed Tiger Woods, it's like, we're committed to this business."

It took until 2000 before Nike could put any equipment in Woods' hands. It did so with the Nike Tour Accuracy ball. Woods finished tied for second at the Buick Invitational that year and went on to have one of the greatest years in golf history, winning three major championships and nine PGA Tour titles overall. Woods' use of the golf ball helped legitimize the company.

In 2002, Woods used a Nike driver for the first time at the Pebble Beach Pro-Am and later that year, at the American Express Championship, he put the company's forged irons in his bag for the first time -- and won the tournament.

Since then, Woods has slowly put more Nike equipment in his bag, including 56- and 60-degree wedges. The 460cc driver was considered huge because Woods had resisted using the better technology available.

"When I was going through all my swing changes, I had a hard enough time hitting fairways," Woods said last week at a Nike function that was held in conjunction with the PGA Merchandise Show in Orlando. "Why would I want to hit the ball 20 yards farther when I can't hit a ball on the plate as it is. ... I had to feel comfortable with my technique before I could hit the ball 20 yards further. ... My techniques are more sound, so I can capitalize on it."

As Wood said: "He makes his living with our stuff, so the standard has to be high."

Actually, Woods makes a pretty fine living just from Nike alone. According to Golf Digest, he is paid some $25 million a year by the company, which includes profit sharing and bonuses.

That's a hefty sum for one person in a business that is struggling. Wood, the company president, is the first to admit that the economic climate for the industry is not good. Not enough new players, or too many who quit. The costs. The time constraints.

All of it makes for a competitive market that continues to evolve.

Five Things To Bank On
1. Jonathan Kaye won't repeat as champion at the FBR Open. This is really no stretch. No player has repeated since the tournament moved to the TPC of Scottsdale in 1987, and only two players, Mark Calcavecchia and Vijay Singh, have won more than once during that span. Kaye's finish last year was his only top 10 in seven appearances.

2. After a rare week off, look for Singh to bounce back with a strong performance. He's been top five in Scottsdale the past two years, including a 2003 victory.

3. Phil Mickelson used to make his home in Scottsdale (and he went to Arizona State) so he is a huge crowd favorite and should make a run at the title this week. Mickelson won the tournament in 1996.

4. You have to like Ernie Els in Australia at the Heineken Classic, where he has seven top-10s in his last seven starts, including three straight victories. Els loves the course, Royal Melbourne, and makes his first start of the 2005 season on the European Tour.

5. The Champions Skins Game could be one of the few chances this year to see Arnold Palmer in competition. Palmer, who played his 50th and final Masters last year, said he will not play in his Bay Hill Invitational in March. He will compete against Jack Nicklaus, Tom Watson and Craig Stadler.


Bob Harig covers golf for the St. Petersburg Times and is a frequent contributor to ESPN.com. He can be reached at harig@sptimes.com.