"There are still golf courses in the United States that I cannot
play because of the color of my skin. I'm told that I'm not
ready for you. Are you ready for me? Hello world."
--Nike advertisement, August 1996
This is an article from the April 14, 2003 issue
It was an experience more foreign than failing to make the cut:
Tiger Woods had been blindsided. He had just finished a practice
round at Muirfield for last summer's British Open and was in the
middle of tackling the usual weighty questions about weather
conditions and pin placements when the ambush was sprung. What,
an intrepid questioner asked, did Tiger make of the budding
controversy over Augusta National's men-only membership policy?
¬∂ Described by the Associated Press as "unprepared and
uncomfortable," Woods responded, "You know, it's one of those
things where everyone has ... they're entitled to set up their
own rules the way they want them. It would be nice to see
everyone have an equal chance to participate if they wanted to,
but there is nothing you can do about it."
The backlash was swift. "If more people in the past had taken a
position of not speaking out, Tiger Woods might be a caddie at
Augusta and not a player," said Martha Burk, the leader of the
campaign to strike down the gender barrier at Augusta. His
meticulously manicured image suddenly smudged, Woods refined his
position in the ensuing weeks. "Do I want to see a female member?
Yes," he said. "But it's our right to have any club set up the
way we want to."
Woods's reluctance to take a strong position became a dominant
subplot in the Augusta National controversy. In an editorial The
New York Times called on Woods to boycott the Masters, which led
the Times's Pulitzer Prize-winning sports columnist, Dave
Anderson, to write a piece that began, "Please, just let Tiger
Woods play golf." (The column was spiked, then printed two weeks
later, an intranewsroom fracas that also made headlines.) Amid
this wrangling, an old debate was reignited: Do celebrities have
an obligation to crusade for social change, and, if they do speak
out, why should their views carry any extra weight?
Questions about whether Woods should campaign against
discrimination, though, had an added element, one that went
beyond his multiracial background and his being the No. 1-ranked
golfer. He had volunteered for the job.
In the summer of 1996, Nike's newly formed golf division wasn't
gaining much traction in the marketplace. Everything changed on
Aug. 27, when Woods turned pro two days after winning an
unprecedented third straight U.S. Amateur. The next day, while
preparing for his pro debut at the Greater Milwaukee Open, he
signed a five-year, $40 million endorsement deal with Nike.
The alliance had been months in the making. According to multiple
sources, Nike representatives had met with Tiger's father, Earl,
and Hughes Norton of International Management Group, who would
become Tiger's agent, a handful of times earlier in the year.
Convinced that Woods would formally sign with Nike after he gave
up his amateur status, Nike executives busied themselves in the
spring and summer preparing an ad campaign for him. The company's
golf-marketing group issued an internal brief and came up with a
creative concept before summoning Wieden & Kennedy, Nike's
Portland-based ad agency.
In keeping with Nike's reputation for producing hip, edgy and
often controversial ads, Wieden created the Hello World campaign
to highlight Woods's unique status as a minority in a
monochromatic sport. The campaign traced the arc of Woods's rise
to stardom. On grainy home video, Woods was shown swinging a club
at age three. A list followed detailing the many amateur
championships Woods had won. Originally Woods was to do the
voice-over, but because he hadn't officially signed with Nike,
the scripts of the original 30- and 60-second spots were in
caption form, accompanied by light music. "Nike has always tended
to go out on a limb to take advantage of the moment," Rod
Tallman, then director of marketing for Nike Golf, said at the
By the week of the Greater Milwaukee Open the ads were ready to
roll, needing only the approval of the Woods camp. "We
immediately flew to Milwaukee with the ads," says Tallman. "We
showed it to [Woods and Norton] at that point and they signed off
on it. It all came together pretty quickly." Says another former
Nike employee who was present, "Tiger approved it, but he had a
thousand things going on that week. I don't want to say Tiger was
naive, because he wasn't. But he wasn't as savvy then as he is
Asked recently by SI how big a role he played in crafting the
ads, Woods offered only generalities. "I okayed the ads because
at the time they were true," Woods said. "What it boiled down to
was, That was the truth and that was based on my own experiences."
On the day before the tournament, Woods held his much-anticipated
introductory press conference. As flashbulbs popped, Woods smiled
and opened the session by saying, deadpan, "I guess, hello
world." The assembled media laughed, believing the line to be the
off-the-cuff reaction of a slightly awed 20-year-old. They knew
better two days later when the Hello World campaign debuted with
a three-page spread in The Wall Street Journal. By the weekend
the campaign had metastasized to the CBS telecast of the
tournament and to ESPN. Hello World was soon imbedded in the
The campaign immediately roiled the tradition-bound golf culture.
There were so many outraged responses and calls from reporters
that Jim Riswold, the Wieden hotshot who created the ad,
considered changing his phone number. The other players whispered
that the ad was sensationalistic. A number of club pros refused
to carry Nike products in their shops. Nevertheless, the ad
generated tremendous buzz. According to Ad Track, 48% of
consumers between ages 18 and 29 (a core Nike demographic) deemed
the ad "very effective," and later that year it was nominated for
The ad was controversial for many reasons. First, it was unclear
whether the premise was factually accurate. Were there really
courses that a three-time U.S. Amateur champ and fledgling Tour
pro could not play because of the color of his skin? Washington
Post columnist James K. Glassman put the question to Nike, and a
company spokesman conceded that no such places actually existed,
asserting that the statement was not to be taken literally but to
point out that discrimination existed at golf clubs. Also
troubling: In the commercial Woods wore a shirt bearing the logo
of Lochinvar Golf Club, a men-only club in Houston where his
coach, Butch Harmon, had been director of golf.
Most problematic, though, was that the ad gave the distinct
impression that Woods was an outspoken crusader for social
change, a message that was reinforced in December 1996 when Earl
was quoted in SI saying, "Tiger will do more than any other man
in history to change the course of humanity."
"Basically Hello World is a celebration of everything Tiger Woods
has done and accomplished," Nike spokesman Merle Marting said at
the time. "It reflects him." Or did it? With the exception of
this ad, Woods has been reluctant to voice his opinions on
hot-button topics. "Tiger doesn't hunger for publicity and
controversy, not at all," says Mike Shapiro, a former Nike exec
who worked closely with Woods and is now an independent sports
consultant. "He's not into social issues. The one thing his mind
is on is golf."
Says Bob Williams, the head of Burns Sports, a Chicago-based
company that matches athletes with endorsement opportunities,
"Look at the nongolf products he endorses: American Express,
Buick and Rolex, not Gatorade or video games. Tiger is not edgy.
That's not to suggest that Woods is socially apathetic. He has
contributed millions to causes, mostly through the Tiger Woods
Foundation. "There are certain things I truly believe in," he
recently told SI. "Trying to grow junior golf as well as provide
children with a better learning base for life, that's what I'm
trying to do socially, [not] some of these other issues people
are trying to drag me into.... Am I a politician? No. I'm a
In hindsight, many of those involved in the Hello World campaign
admit that while the ads heralded Woods's arrival in grand
fashion, they didn't serve him well in the long run. In his
biography of Woods, Tiger, John Strege quotes Earl Woods as
saying that Nike "missed Tiger's personality to a degree" in the
commercial. Several current and former Nike employees interviewed
for this story blame Woods's handlers at IMG, saying they
attempted to make their client appear far more subversive than he
really is. "I thought he was given some questionable advice in
the early stages," says Shapiro. "When he separated from Hughes
Norton, he lost his hard edges and became kinder and gentler."
(Norton, who in 1998 was replaced by Woods's current IMG agent,
Mark Steinberg, declined to comment.) By all accounts, this
first, explosive ad campaign spurred Earl and Tiger to become
much more involved in matters affecting Tiger's image.
Hello World is almost seven years old, but its echoes are still
audible. One Tour veteran recently said, "Tiger wants it both
ways. He plays the race card and talks about social
responsibility when he wants to move products for Nike, but then
begs off other issues when it's not convenient for him. Either
you have a social conscience or you don't, but don't let the
marketplace dictate that." Asked to speak for attribution, the
pro demurred. "Nothing good comes of that for me," he said.
This week at the Masters, Woods will no doubt be asked to
restate his views on Augusta National's membership policy. Try
as he might to sidestep the controversy, is it not fair to ask,
What does Tiger really believe--what he said last summer at the
British Open or what he said seven years ago in a commercial?