Unstoppable in Red: Tiger Woods and Nike at the Masters


When Tiger Woods locked in on the final day of the Masters in 2019, it felt like the sporting world had stepped into a time machine. The 43-year-old golfer — 11 years removed from winning his last major tournament — was fighting against a series of devastating injuries and an entirely new generation of competition but with every precision shot he was reminding the world what he once was.

Driving the point home, perhaps more than any aspect of his play, was the fact that Mr. Woods looked almost exactly as he had in his other four wins at Augusta, the last of which was in 2005.

As he walked the tree-lined course, his arms and chest were more muscular than they had been in his 20s, with pants tailored to be a bit more snug, but the uniform remained his uniform. Atop his head was a black hat with a white Nike swoosh. His pants, belt and shoes were all black. And his shirt, of course, was red.

“It goes back to my mom,” Mr. Woods is quoted as saying in “Never Settle,” a book by the ESPN reporter Marty Smith. “My mom says that my power color is red.”

When Mr. Woods held on to win what would be his last Masters title, at least so far, it inspired hope that his days as a dominant golfer were not over. But a car accident in 2021 cut that comeback short, leaving him three major titles short of matching Jack Nicklaus’s record of 18.

The reality of his now having entered a decidedly different phase of his life and career — one in which he is more of a golfing mentor to his son, Charlie, than he is an active golfer — was driven home, with emphasis, this week when Mr. Woods ended his 27-year relationship with Nike. That relationship, which stretched back to 1997, months before his first win at the Masters, had begun with a $40 million bet by Nike on a prodigy who was predicted by many, quite correctly, to be the person who would revolutionize golf.

Over his years with Nike, Mr. Woods would experiment with various looks — on and off the course — and would frequently sport his own TW logo, rather than the company’s signature swoosh. But on Sundays, especially at the Masters, the uniform was the uniform.

In his first professional appearance at Augusta — he had played the Masters twice as an amateur — Mr. Woods became the youngest champion in the tournament’s history. In his Sports of The Times column, Dave Anderson asked a series of questions about the young golfer’s future. Among them:

“Will his income, notably his $40 million Nike contract, dampen the flame of his competitive desire?”

(It did not.)

Unlike in 1997, when he ran away with the Masters title, Mr. Woods faced some competition on the final day of the 2001 tournament, needing to hold off David Duval and Phil Mickelson to win. And wearing a slightly darker shade of red, he did just that, capturing his fourth consecutive major title.

With his third Masters win in a six-year period, Mr. Woods had become so dominant that writers and opponents were struggling to say anything about the moment, because they were so focused on what his accomplishments could mean about his future. The win came so quickly after his 2001 victory that photos of him from the two tournaments are almost indistinguishable.

Mr. Woods struggled some heading into 2005, at least by his own lofty standards, and his fourth Masters win had nearly slipped away from him on the final day. His eventual win proved to be satisfying in an entirely new way. Going back to a brighter shade of red, and trading in a polo for a Dri-Fit collarless shirt, had him, and his game, looking refreshed.

In what was instantly considered one of the greatest comebacks in sports history, Mr. Woods’s improbable victory at the Masters in 2019 was set in motion with a series of events on the 12th hole of the final day that featured, among other things, a devastating glare from Mr. Woods, who was dressed like it was 2005 and playing like it was 1997.

“It was far more than a golf hole,” Bill Pennington wrote of Mr. Woods’s performance on the 12th hole. “It was psychological drama, the instant a former champion reclaimed his domain, and the kind of seminal moment that helps rewrite a sport’s history.”

Tiger was, at least briefly, Tiger once again. And his Nike uniform, as it had done on so many other great days of his career, drove that point home to perfection.