Why Nike and Tiger Woods' Breakup Feels Like a Cliffhanger

Even after their 27-year brand partnership, marketers are left yearning for more

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Peanut butter and jelly. Mac and cheese. Taylor and Travis. Some things just go well together.

Like Tiger Woods and Nike.

One of the most iconic partnerships in sports has come to an end after 27 years. Nike was one of the few brands that stood beside Woods during his career’s highest highs and lowest lows. And while Michael Jordan, Kobe Bryant and LeBron James have also represented the Nike brand over the years, it feels like no one did it better from an advertising perspective than Woods.

The iconic commercials. The Nike golf ball slowly dropping into the cup at Augusta after a beautiful chip from the GOAT. The Sunday Red with a swoosh over Woods’ heart. As marketers, we can learn so much from this partnership.

In sickness, and in health

No relationship, or person, is perfect. It would have been easy—and even expected—for Nike to walk away from Woods years ago.

But Nike (and former CEO Phil Knight) stood alongside Woods during his challenges. They continued to produce his signature TW hats, golf polos and pants, even after he left the game in 2016 and stopped wearing Nike shoes (post-car accident in 2021).

Nike didn’t let any of his missteps cloud the fact that Tiger Woods is a once in a lifetime player. Early on, Nike understood that Woods would change the game of golf, and they wanted to be on that ride, even through the injuries and the comebacks.

And maybe that’s why the end of this partnership is so heartbreaking for fans of both brands. We were all waiting for one more ride, one more win, one more opportunity to see this dynamic duo in action.

How a face can encapsulate brand values

Woods and Nike felt so interconnected because of how they were both celebrated and occasionally criticized for their decisions.

In the age of influencers, Woods was one of the first. The Nike brand saw the value of his gift to the game of golf and rewarded that. His ability to come back from what often seemed like insurmountable challenges is what won him so many fans.

It’s a story that every brand loves to tell given the chance. The climb back to the top feels like part of the Nike brand story in so many ways.

A partnership turning into history

It’s hard to imagine the Nike Gold brand without Tiger Woods. (I anticipate seeing his son, Charlie Woods, in the Nike Sunday Red at Augusta in the near future.)

Yes, there will be other Nike athletes. And yes, Tiger Woods’ next chapter will be impactful, no matter where he goes.

But none will be as memorable as the relationship these two had over the past two-plus decades. I can’t imagine this was an easy decision for either side, especially due to the length of the relationship. Phil Knight even wrote about the relationship with Woods in his memoir, Shoe Dog. The two are intertwined forever because of the relationship.

After seeing Woods play at both the Hero World Challenge and the PNC Championship, watching him walk without a limp and seeing his passion for the game still there, there was nothing I looked forward to more than seeing the Nike ad about his comeback. How he came back from another low—a nearly career-ending car accident—and continued to fight, strive and be the greatest of all time.

Golf fans everywhere want to see if Tiger Woods can still be, well, Tiger Woods. Can he continue to break records? Can he still compete the way he did in 2019 during his epic Masters win?

While both brands will continue to thrive, we have to wonder what’s been lost. The history, the iconic symbols, the indelible moments and some of the best advertising in sports marketing. Like Woods said, we will see the new chapter in Los Angeles when he (hopefully) competes at the Genesis Invitational. I know I’ll be watching.