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.
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.
Crowds in excess of 100,000 often jam the TPC of Scottsdale. That's not for the entire week, but for single days on the weekend. Imagine that many people on a golf course, and how much noise they must make. A good number of tournaments around the country would be thrilled to see half that many people visit over four rounds.
Not all of the players like it, and some of them stay away because of the hysteria. But this tournament, this atmosphere, is good for the game and good for the PGA Tour.
It wouldn't work every week. In fact, a small dose is enough. But the stadium-type course is conducive to fitting in all the spectators, and they are looking, hoping, for anything to let them roar.
|Got a question about the PGA Tour? Ask ESPN.com golf writer Bob Harig, who will answer your inquiries in each installment of This Week in Golf.
Q. Watching the Masters last year, they made a big deal about it being Arnold Palmer's last appearance in the tournament. (If I recall correctly, there were even tears involved.) I just looked at the list of players who are currently in the field, and Palmer's name is on it. What's the deal?
A. You probably saw a list of the invited players or those who are eligible. As a past champion, Palmer is eligible but said last year's tournament, his 50th straight, would be his last as a competitor.
Q. I've always been a fan of Esteban Toledo, given his humble beginnings. I know he lost his PGA Tour card in 2004. Is he on the Nationwide Tour this season?
A. Toledo, 42, made just eight of 36 cuts in 2004 on the PGA Tour and lost his card. He returned to the PGA Tour Qualifying Tournament, where he did not finish among the top 30 and ties. He is a member of the Nationwide Tour this season.
Q. At the South African Open a few weeks ago, there were highlights of monkeys picking up players' golfballs and redepositing them elsewhere. What's the ruling on something like that? Does the golfer have to play the ball where the monkey (in my case it may be an alligator) drops the ball? What if the animal doesn't place the ball in a playable spot?
Q. What does it mean when a player receives a sponsor's exemption?
Q. With regards to the Buick Invitational being moved up in the PGA schedule: Do tournaments have any say as to where they are scheduled or are they at the mercy of the PGA Tour?
Q. With the Players Championship coming up in less than two months, I want to know how come TPC-Sawgrass has never hosted a U.S. Open or PGA Championship?
Bob Harig covers golf for the St. Petersburg Times and is a frequent contributor to ESPN.com. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.